Six Reasons Why “Jesus + Nothing” = Bad Math

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Os Guinness, in his recent book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel No Matter How Dark the Times, takes the popular phrase “Jesus plus nothing” to task:

…such piety is too pious by half. The intended compliment actually dishonors Jesus, and its advocates need to think more deeply.

Guinness provides six reasons why “Jesus plus nothing” is problematic.

  1. Too Simplistic: “A literal interpretation of the maxim is overly simplistic. John Owen, the great seventeenth century theologian of the cross, showed an equally faithful though less wooden interpretation. He quoted the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians: ‘I have determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ But he then added: ‘At least with nothing that could divert my attention from the subject.’
  2. More Than Jesus: “We could not know who Jesus was without going beyond Jesus. For a start, we would not understand Jesus and his life work without the entire Old Testament that preceded him.”
  3. Self-Serving: “The fact is that many who brandish this formula tend to teach only those parts of the teachings of Jesus that fit in with their own ideas. Like the many faulty ‘Jesuses’ of Protestant liberalism, their teaching is merely a reflection of their own prejudices.”
  4. Effect on Seekers: “Genuine seekers who are not simplistic and are searching for adequate answers will often conclude that those who have no interest in wider questions will have no answers to the meaning of life. They therefore walk away from the childishness of the Christian faith.”
  5. Beyond Jesus: “It was Jesus who was concerned with far more than just himself, so to be faithful to him is to scrap the slogan, however well meaning….’worldliness’ and its opposite, ‘otherworldliness,’ are the two extremes that Christians are called to avoid, and the challenge is to follow him in the more faithful and far more demanding position in between. Far from being faithful, as we shall see, this creative engagement with the world is a key source of the power of the gospel in the church and of Christians in the world.”
  6. Jesus Minus Something: “‘Jesus plus nothing’ usually ends in holding to a form of Christian faith that is ‘Jesus minus something.’ More often it represents a faith with an inadequate grasp of truth or too little theology and thought, or a faith that is ‘all Jesus’ and no God the Father and no proper place for the Holy Spirit. With some who espouse this maxim, it has become a significant source of syncretism and unfaithfulness in the wider church.”

      —Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel No Matter How Dark the Timespp. 53-55

Singing the Psalms: A Beginner’s Guide

If the idea of singing the Psalms for corporate worship is a daunting or outdated proposition, here’s some practical help.

Dr. John Witvliet

I asked Dr. John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and author of The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, to give the worship leader with little to no prior experience in leading the church singing the Psalms, some practical and easily accessible starting points. The following is our mostly unedited correspondence.

Dr. Witvliet, why should we care about singing the Psalms in corporate worship in the 21st century?

JW: First, because the Psalms are a divinely-inspired school of prayer. Then also realize that they offer a point of contact with nearly every human experience: from desolation to gratitude, loneliness to community, anger to joy.

Is it okay if churches don’t sing the Psalms in corporate worship? Isn’t reading them aloud, even responsively, adequate?

JW: Centuries of church history across cultures offer us dozens of fascinating models for how to use Psalms. Have them read by a leader, and echoed by the congregation. Read them back and forth by two parts of the congregation. Punctuate your reading of a Psalm with a simple musical refrain. Rework them to fit well-known tunes. We have the joy of discerning which modes will help congregations in particular culture contexts access the meaning and wisdom and sheer beauty of these texts.

What are the benefits of singing Psalms in Christian worship? Conversely, what are the detriments?

JW: Singing the Psalms helps them sink deeply into our bones. A detriment could be that we can be tempted to sing musical settings that treat them sentimentally, but that’s not really an argument for not singing them.

Is it possible that many evangelical churches in the west have used the Psalms in Christian worship, but perhaps didn’t know it? Can you think of some contemporary songs that are essentially a particular Psalm?

JW: Hundreds of contemporary songs are inspired by particular Psalm verses. Many fewer are settings of an entire Psalm—which is too bad because often the power of a given Psalm comes through the Psalm as a whole. However, it’s wonderful to see a variety of songwriters returning to the ancient tradition of grappling with larger portions of Psalm texts.

Suppose you’re sitting down with a young worship leader who grew up on a steady diet of contemporary worship songs (i.e. Hillsong, Matt Redman, etc.), but is open to explore incorporating Psalms in corporate worship. Where should he begin? 

JW: Savor the many new Psalm settings being written by contemporary artists. You can start by typing any given Psalm into YouTube. When I typed Psalm 42 this morning, I not only ran across a classical setting by Mendelssohn, an Anglican chant, and vigorous singing of a Genevan Psalm by a Dutch men’s choir, I also discovered a variety of contemporary settings by people like the Robbie Seay Band and a variety of other contemporary artists.

Younger churches, especially church plants, no longer have physical/paper hymnals, so using a physical/paper Psalter seems unrealistic. Does the church need to spend a lot of money to begin using the Psalter? 

JW: You could start by having a leader read a Psalm line by line, have the congregation echo it back, imitating leader’s tone of voice. No extra costs there!

Can a church that isn’t musically trained still use the Psalter?

JW: Absolutely. Start simple. Another approach is to use a simple refrain that is already well-loved, and to sing it after each section of a Psalm reading.

Isn’t using a Psalter culturally regressive?

JW: The Psalms are always out ahead of us—showing us expressions that form, guide, shape our growth in faith. That’s why Bono, David Crowder, and so many other perceptive contemporary artists love them.

Can a church be contemporary, young, “missional,” etc. and use the Psalter?

JW: Yes, perceptive use of the Psalms is one of most missional acts of worship I know. The Psalms create a missional “point of contact” with culture—demonstrating how the whole range of human experience is found in the Bible. And the Psalms also offer a kind of “worldview medicine,” changing how we perceive God in the world.

Any go-to resources. i.e. books, websites, blogs, you especially commend?

JW: We are working at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to promote thoughtful, honest, missional Psalm-singing. Our publication Psalms for All Seasons features musical settings of all 150 Psalms. Our website includes a Psalm showcase, with several dozen resources. But they are only a start. I think that YouTube can be fascinating resource, if we have the patience to make discerning choices.

Any final words/parting shots?

JW: There are certainly Psalms that need to be treated with great care, the Psalms of protest—just like other challenging texts found throughout scripture. But rather than avoid these texts, I have found that throughout history, God has provided wise and thoughtful interpreters to help understand these texts. Never rush to use a vexingly difficult Psalm without studying this wisdom. Expect the Spirit to teach you a lot through the loving struggle with what God may be saying to the church through texts like these.

Thanks again to Dr. Witvliet for his time and desire to better help us think through singing the Psalms in corporate worship. Find out more about Dr. Witvliet’s work with the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship here.

The New City Catechism: A Birthday Celebration

Not every birthday is cause for raucous celebration.

But today’s an exception.

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On October 14, 2012, The Gospel Coalition, in partnership with Redeemer Presbyterian Churchannounced the New City Catechism (hereafter NCC), a church-wide teaching tool primarily covering The Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. Created by Tim Keller and Sam Shammas, the NCC met a few predictable minor quibbles (e.g., “Why are they messing with the old catechisms?” “The sacraments don’t receive enough attention!” “Only 52 questions?” “There they go with their ‘city = better’ schtick again,” etc.) But on the whole the NCC was widely welcomed as a timely tool in the catechetical arsenal.

If the idea of tackling the esteemed Heidelberg or Westminster catechisms are daunting (for my money, the best edition is this for the former and this for the latter, and for family devotions this set is indispensable), then the NCC is for you. It’s the gateway drug of catechisms. And I mean that as a compliment.

It’s difficult to measure a catechism’s immediate impact, and it will likely take a generation to ascertain lasting effects on individuals, families and churches. But two years since its release, it seems like the NCC is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

I contacted Collin Hansen, TGC’s editorial director, and asked for some internet stats for the NCC. Here’s the lowdown:

  • On an average day, around 500 people visit the New City Catechism website.
  • The iPad app has been downloaded over 30,000 times.

I’m no web metrics guru, but I’d call those decent numbers, especially for something containing the word “catechism,” a word that sounds stodgy, archaic and quasi-Roman Catholic, striking fear and triggering spontaneous nervous ticks for the uninitiated.

But fear no more.

Here’s where to begin with the NCC:

  • Tim Keller’s introduction, where he clearly and simply explains catechism, offering a convincing polemic for the NCC.
  • The iPad app (free). TGC’s web team is nearing a fix for the iOS 8 bug, so stay tuned.
  • Droid user? This app’s for you. (Also free)
  • Luddite? Download the PDF here.
  • My personal favorite? This tabletop version…

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…and it’s available here for a paltry $6.00. It’s a beauty.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church and The Gospel Coalition deserve hearty thanks for producing such a deceptively simple yet essential 21st century teaching tool covering the basics of the Christian faith. And although it’s not groundbreaking, if it helps create a catechetical revolution (as I think it is), J.I. Packer would be glad. So would Calvin, Luther, and a host of other notable committed catechists.

So happy 2nd birthday, New City Catechism! You’re looking pretty stout for a toddler. And to think you’ve only got 449 years to go till you reach big brother Heidelberg’s age.

May God grant you—and your older siblings—bigger and better birthdays to come.

“Flash Mobs Maul Catholic Mass”? Here’s Why (and a Prediction)

The New York Times curiously reports that “Mass mobs are spreading around the nation and taking church leaders by surprise.”

o-MASS-MOB-570Reading the article, the primary motivation behind these Mass mobs—usually occurring in severely declining churches—isn’t the spiritual content or ritual of the Catholic Mass. Rather, fueled primarily by social media, the mobs’ motivation appears to be driven by three things:

  1. Sheer nostalgia for the past;
  2. Reconnecting with familial religious roots;
  3. Appreciation and preservation of old church architecture.

Only time will tell what lasting effects, if any, these Mass mobs will have on the Roman Catholic landscape, and if it will eventually spill over into declining liberal mainline Protestant churches. I predict it will, but these mobs won’t substantially deter the churches’ steady decline. (And if they’re called “Mass mobs” for Roman Catholics, what will they be called for the mainline Protestant churches, hemorrhaging for very different reasons? Let the naming begin!)

Read about the strange Mass mob phenomenon here.

Whatever Happened to…Bill Maxwell?

I used to be a huge Keith Green fan. I rarely listen to his music today, but when I do I’m transported to a different place and time as a young Christian.

imgresA constant in Keith’s music was Bill Maxwell. Bill was his drummer and, more importantly, his producer, crafting an album’s overall sound and feel. Since Keith’s death in 1982, Bill’s been busy through the years in the music business with other artists. (Here’s a recent interview he did on Elton John’s website, where he talks about his beginnings in music, including working with T Bone Burnett.)

Recently I watched 20 Feet from Stardom, the 2014 Academy Award winner for best documentary. Intermittently sandwiched between interviews with Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, the filmmakers interviewed a certain Bill Maxwell, who I think was referred to as “Vocal Producer.” Looking at him, I said to my wife, “I wonder if that’s the Bill Maxwell who worked with Keith Green?”

A brief Google search confirmed it indeed is that Bill Maxwell.

I’ve searched online for some video of Bill from the documentary but am coming up empty. But the movie was fascinating, and well worth watching even if the Bill Maxwell reference is lost on you.

Never heard of Keith Green? His debut album For Him Who Has Ears to Hear, widely regarded as his best work, is where to begin.

And the best scene in 20 Feet from Stardom? This one:

David Brooks: How to Be Religious In the Public Square

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The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently spoke at The Gathering, a Christian philanthropic organization, about “How to Be Religious in the Public Square.”

Brooks covers a lot of compelling ground, including:

  • The difference between “Adam One” and “Adam Two”;
  • The effects of love;
  • The effects of suffering;
  • Our universal longing for transcendence;
  • Discovering that St. Augustine, in Brooks’ words, is his “ultimate hero”;
  • The walls Christians erect against secular culture;
  • How to build effective ramps to secular culture.

It’s classic Brooks, who candidly, winsomely and humbly speaks to the Christian community as a “holy friend,” willing to wound in love by saying what the Church must hear.

Read or listen to David Brooks on “How to Be Religious in the Public Square” here. [Scroll to bottom of page for link.]

Motivational Pick-Me-Up for Aspiring Church Planters (and Sundry Occupationally Hazardous Positions)

So long, Stuart Smalley. Later Matt Foley.

There’s a new kids in town.

As an aspiring church planter, I’m bound to encounter various difficulties, experience failure, and consider throwing in the towel. (Upon further reflection, it sounds a lot like life.)

But then I’ll just watch Apollos, and all will be well.

At least till tomorrow.

“The Most Heard [and] Successful Hymn of the Last Few Decades”…by U2?

Bishop Bono?

The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman perceptively writes about U2’s ongoing tension with the Christian faith and doubt:

The story of U2 might be this: having begun as a band that was uncertain about the idea of pursuing a life of faith through music, they have resolved that uncertainty. Their thin ecclesiology has become thick. Today, they are their own faith community….

For more about U2’s apparent faith/doubt paradox, and to find out what one scholar asserts is “the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades” read Rothman’s article “The Church of U2″ here.

(HT: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship)

We Need Heretics—Here’s Why

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We all need a good heretic.

Richard Mouw, writing for First Things:

…it is a good thing to have a couple of favorite heretics. Some false perspectives are illuminating, and it can be healthy for Christians who love ideas to be challenged regularly by perspectives that we can disagree with in productive ways.

Mouw concludes:

Perspectives that are both false and illuminating are in short supply these days.

Read Mouw’s article on how Nietzsche, Sartre, Bertrand Russell and other heretics are good for Christians here.