“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)

Baptism and Resurrection Sunday: The Crucial Link



On Easter Sunday my oldest son will be baptized. While his parents are happy about his decision to proclaim faith in Jesus in a very public way, it’s no small affair. We’ve discussed why Christians should be baptized, when it should happen, and what baptism does and doesn’t do.

Below is a Q and A I created from theologian N.T. Wright’s illuminating book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church about the importance of baptism and its relationship to Jesus’ resurrection, the local church, and Easter Sunday, drawing from 1 Peter 1:3-4, Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:8-15.

In what way is baptism related to Jesus’ resurrection?

The resurrection of Jesus has brought about a new state of affairs in cosmic history and reality. God’s future has burst into the present, and (as happens sometimes in dreams, when the words we are saying or the music we are hearing are also happening in the events in which we are taking part) somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of new creation but actually part of it.

What does baptism have to do with the local church?

Thus the event of baptism—the action, the water, the going down and the coming up again, the new clothes—is not just a signpost to the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.

Baptism: What’s the big deal?

The important thing, then, is that in the simple but powerful action of plunging someone into the water in the name of the triune God, there is a real dying to the old creation and a real rising into the new—with all the dangerous privileges and responsibilities that then accompany the new life as it sets out in the as-yet-unredeemed world. Baptism is not magic, a conjuring trick with water. But neither is it simply a visual aid. It is one of the points, established by Jesus himself, where heaven and earth interlock, where new creation, resurrection life, appears within the midst of the old.

Why baptize on Easter?

The idea of associating baptism with Easter always was, and still is, a proper Christian instinct. Just as for many Christians the truth of Easter is something they glimpse occasionally rather than grasp and act on, so, for many, baptism remains in the background, out of sight, whereas it should be the foundational event for all serious Christian living, all dying to sin and coming alive with Christ.

Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, pp. 272-272.


Sunday Meetings Matter: Here’s Why

Call me prudish, but I’ve always been troubled why so many churches in the U.S. don’t meet on Sunday. Instead, not just newer church plants, but even well-known churches such as Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis (certainly not a church catering to worshiper tastes or trends)—meet on days other than, or in addition to, Sunday.

Now I realize the decision to meet on Saturday (the preferred day) instead of imgresSunday vary and may even be complicated. For some churches, Saturday gatherings are often out of sheer necessity. This was certainly the case with Bethlehem while Piper was still the senior pastor and the church was bursting at the seams on Sunday mornings.

But I fear that many churches meet on Saturday for reasons other than necessity, namely convenience or so as not to appear staid and traditional like other churches that meet on Sunday. And even in the case of Bethlehem, adding a Saturday service, even out of necessity, comes with a downside, becoming yet another place for many congregants to double-dip, having the best of both worlds (i.e. listening to Piper’s preaching Saturday night and then returning to their local church Sunday mornings with their ordinary pastor). The all-too-familiar result? A rootless wanderer with toes dabbling in multiple places and spaces on different days. Surely this is not good—not only for the congregant, but for both churches and their respective pastors.

But whatever the reasons for meeting on a day other than Sunday, the collective result is the same: Sunday’s biblical and historical significance is flattened and marginalized. Ironically, even tragically, Saturday becomes the new Sunday, a sort of weird evangelical Seventh Day Adventist hybrid.

I’m not alone in my concern.

N.T. Wright:

…the gospels (especially John) and the early practice of the church (as in Paul) reflect the very early understanding of the church that the first day of the week, the day of Easter, has become a sign within the present world and its temporal sequence that the life of the age to come has already broken in. Sunday, kept as a commemoration of Easter ever since that event itself (a quite remarkable phenomenon when you come to think about it), is not simply a legacy of Victorian values but a perpetual sign, joyfully renewed week by week, that all time belongs to God and stands under the renewing lordship of Jesus Christ.

Of course, worship should be ‘seven whole days, not one in seven.’ Many Christians will find, for all kinds of reasons, that Sunday is a difficult day to attend long church services. But we should remind ourselves that the earliest Christians lived in a world where Sunday was the first day of the working week, much like our Monday, and that they valued its symbolism so highly that they were prepared to get up extra early both to celebrate Easter once again and to anticipate the final Eighth Day of Creation, the start of the new week, the day when God will renew all things.

Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (pp. 261-262).

David F. Wells, in his forthcoming book God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World, echoes Wright’s sentiment:

Every church service is, in fact, an Easter service. So am I being narrow-minded when I ask, are we doing the right thing to cater to convenience by offering worship on Saturday evenings, on the old Sabbath? Does this not depart from the important symbolism which the apostles insisted on preserving? They worshiped on Sunday, the Lord’s day. (p.204)

So to answer Wells’s (admittedly rhetorical) questions: No to the former, yes to the latter.

Jesus’ resurrection reshapes and reorients absolutely everything—even our Sundays. Our inability or unwillingness to recognize and act on it is not only regrettable, but perhaps also an indicator of how little the realities of the resurrection hold sway in our minds, hearts, and wills.

May God do a work among the Western church to recover and rediscover the blessings and joy of meeting on Sunday, the new Sabbath and weekly commemoration of Easter.

Cultural Language 101 for Christians

James Davison Hunter:

…we need a new language for how the church engages the culture. It is essential, in my view, to abandon altogether talk of—

  • redeeming the culture
  • advancing the kingdom
  • building the kingdom
  • transforming the world
  • reclaiming the culture
  • reforming the culture
  • changing the world

Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight. It implies conquest, take-over, or dominion, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue….

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, p.  280 [Reformatted for readability]

“So, How Was Your Christmas?” A Tense Subject

The bait is set.

Unwittingly, during the next week someone will inevitably ask me, “So, how was your Christmas?”

Little do they know they’ve stepped into my (quite harmless) annual Christmas trap.

Here’s how I’ll respond: “What do you mean how was my Christmas? The 25th wasn’t Christmas, 12 days treebut Christmas Day, the very beginning of the Christmas celebration known as the Twelve Days of Christmas that ends on January 5th, also known as Epiphany Eve. In other words, Christmas has only just begun! So the right question is, how is my Christmas?” In other words, it’s really just a matter of using the proper tense.

I don’t do this to be cheeky or malicious, but simply to get people talking—and thinking—about the spiritual meaning of Christmas as more than just a one-off. Generally, people of all religious stripes (even areligious), seem to find the discussion interesting. Here in the United States, few people know, and are even surprised, that there are an actual twelve days of Christmas—even though the song of the same name is heard on the radio or sung every year.

More disturbing, most evangelical churches seem eager to turn the calendar’s page to the new year, quickly moving on from Christmas. Yes, we have Advent. But would that more churches would recover a longer and richer Christmas season, more fully pondering and celebrating the staggering implications of Christ’s Incarnation.

So at the risk of sounding coy, I genuinely wish you and yours a joyous Christmas—now and well into 2014.

Oh yes, about my Christmas?

Check back with me next year.

Sinclair Ferguson on Celebrity Culture, the Local Church, Preaching and Retirement

Ligonier conducted their first Google hangout today with pastor, theologian and writer Sinclair Ferguson, where he offered advice to young pastors and church planters, discussed the role of preaching in the local church, gave commentary on celebrity pastors and the mega-church, his long relationship with R.C. Sproul, his recent retirement from full-time pastoral ministry, and his post-retirement plans (which include a number of promising writing projects).

Watching and listening to Sinclair for 45 minutes was a refreshing exercise in remembering what the pastoral ministry, indeed the Christian life, is primarily about: communion with the Triune God and the centrality of Christ crucified. (And it doesn’t hurt that he speaks with that lilting Scottish brogue accent.)

And lest you think the hangout was only for pastors, my wife also listened in, often giving a hearty “Amen!” to Sinclair’s comments.

Watch the hangout here:

“So, Are You Open and Affirming?” A Lesbian, a Pastor and Sparks of Glory

Several years ago during Lent, I went to a local coffeehouse–also a lesbian hangout–to prepare a sermon. With my books spread out on the table, deep in thought while my fingers danced on the computer keyboard, a young woman unexpectedly sat down next to me.

“What are you working on?” she asked.

In hushed voice, I hesitantly replied, “a sermon.”

Her face lit up. “So you’re a pastor? That’s great! I’m ___________, and I’m a lesbian. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Bracing myself, I knew what was next. “So, is your church open and affirming?”

Pregnant pause.

“What do you mean by ‘open and affirming?’ I asked, trying to appear calm and sincere while nonchalantly sipping my coffee. Surely she must be on to me.

“You know, is your church open and affirming of the gay and lesbian lifestyle?”

Of course I knew. After all, this is Minneapolis.

Now I could have simply told her the cold hard truth and promptly ended the discussion. “Sunday’s a comin’!” is the pastor’s mantra, and I had a long way to go before the sermon was ready for delivery. But she seemed genuinely interested in friendly conversation. And with me, a pastor. Moreover, she didn’t appear militant. So not wanting to kill the conversation, I took the bait and attempted to answer her inquiry.

“Our church seeks to be open and welcoming to all sorts of people, including those in the GLBT community.”

“That’s great! I completely agree!” she said.

“Well think about it” I replied. “What sort of people did Jesus hang out with much of the time? The super-religious people of his day accused him of being a drunk, a friend of prostitutes and ‘sinners.’ It got him in a lot of trouble, eventually leading to his awful death.”

“I guess you’re right.” She seemed genuinely intrigued, so I continued.

“I envision a church with all sorts of people learning what it means to be followers of Jesus living in a broken world. We want to be open to everyone from across the spectrum of faith, including those who are unsure of what they believe. The gospel, this amazingly good news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, is something we want all individuals, whatever their temptations may be, to know and love. So from that perspective, yes, we are an open and affirming church.”

So began a long and fruitful conversation on the gospel and same sex attraction. It probably wasn’t the answer she expected. We even discussed the necessity of repentance and faith, not just for the non-Christian but for Christians.

Mind you, this wasn’t the time or place to give a comprehensive gospel presentation–at least not yet. My initial aim was more modest: to simply talk respectfully and seek to understand someone with whom I often struggle to find common ground, sprinkling the conversation with compelling gospel truth.

Later that night, I was reminded of something John Calvin wrote: “…wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory” (Institutes I.V.1).  And while Calvin was referring to the heavenly bodies above, if I had eyes to see past this lesbian’s sexual sin-marred physical body, surely I would behold sparks, even faint ones, of Divine glory. “For although God’s glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul” (Ibid I.XV.3).

Contextualizing Calvin, I wasn’t speaking merely to a lesbian. While she and others may ultimately define her by her sexual practice, a greater truth emerged: I was beholding a woman–a person–created in the Imago Dei, who was living in a world that’s not how it’s supposed to be because of this anti-God virus that infects us all. That night, God gifted me with the grace and pleasure to talk with a sin-riddled woman shot through with God’s glory, despite her sexual orientation and practice, or the nature and gravity of her sin.

I didn’t finish my sermon that evening. Instead, I chose to wade into the complex world of a fallen Daughter of Eve who perhaps considered her need for a Savior, one who was open to some hearty discussion with a pastor during Holy Week.

And you know what? Given the chance, I’d do it all over again.

How to Love Stinky Sheep

John Stott:

This is a splendid Trinitarian truth about the church, namely that it belongs to God the Father, has been redeemed by blood of Christ his Son, and has overseers appointed by God the Holy Spirit.

This fact should humble us. Although we may be privileged to be church leaders, yet it is not our church; it is God’s. We have no proprietary rights over it. It may be appropriate for kings and queens to refer to ‘my people,’ but I doubt if it is ever appropriate for pastors to refer to ‘my church….’

This truth should not only humble but also inspire us, and especially motivate us to the urlloving care of God’s people. We need this incentive, for sheep are not at all the clean and cuddly creatures they look from a distance. On the contrary, they are dirty and subject to nasty pests. They need to be regularly dipped in strong chemicals to rid them of lice, ticks and worms. They are also unintelligent and obstinate. I hesitate to apply the metaphor too literally, or describe the people of God as ‘dirty, lousy and stupid!’ But some church members can be a great trial to their pastors, and vice versa.

So how shall we persevere in loving the unlovable? Only, I think, by remembering how precious they are. They are so valuable that the three persons of the Trinity are together involved in caring for them.

I find it very challenging, when trying to help a difficult person, to say under my breath: ‘How precious you are in God’s sight! God the Father loves you. Christ died for you. The Holy Spirit has appointed me your pastor. As the three persons of the Trinity are committed to your welfare, it is a privilege for me to serve you.’

(The Living Church, pp. 83-84, line breaks mine.)

Announcing The Christward Collective Initiative

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (a name that admittedly doesn’t sing like The Gospel Coalition, does it?) just announced fusion_tranquil_christward_logoThe Christward Collective, a sort of portal they describe as,

an attempt to help introduce the reader to various aspects of theology, together with the experiential benefits that ought to flow from them. Whether systematic, biblical, exegetical, historical or pastoral theology, we are seeking to help further equip believers for growth in their relationship with Christ and other believers. In short, we long for all believers to care deeply about theology and to see the ‘cash value’ of diligently pursuing such study. This site is a place where ‘doctrine and life meet.’

There are some solid guys contributing to it, and so I heartily commend it.