Friday, March 20, 2009

Truth and readiness

At Church Matters, Mark Dever addresses "What I CAN and CANNOT Live With as a Pastor." Actually, he is considering how a pastor should decide what he can tolerate in the church he serves. It isn't either prudent or wise to take on every issue in the same way.
Something can be true, yet we can decide as pastors that our congregations are not ready to act tomorrow in a way they might be ready to act in a year. Jesus himself declined to answer all the questions the disciples put to him, for the reason that they could not yet bear some truths.

I’m not suggesting that you be deceptive, but simply that you explain things to your congregation as they are ready to hear them.

So, given that long warning, what things can I and can’t I live with as a pastor? Let me throw out a bunch of different examples that are relevant to my particular situation: organs, female elders, universalism, altar calls, humor, multi-site campuses, drums, the KJV, stained glass, racism, infant baptism, no formal membership, sermons limited to 10 minutes, large and high pulpits, TV studio-like acoustics. My goal in what follows is not to give you a sacrosanct playbook, but to illustrate how I go about thinking through practical matters. Let’s take each one in order.
And he does then proceed to give his take on each issue - and they are issues in many churches. At the end of the post he indicates the criteria that should be applied in deciding whether and how to take something on.
.... Here are three questions we as pastors should always ask. First, is the matter biblical? I can live with practices that are commanded or exampled in the New Testament church. I’ll start asking hard questions about practices that are not. ....

Second, does the matter deny or confuse the gospel? I cannot live with things that explicitly deny the gospel, things that threaten the gospel, or things that blur it. Admittedly, it's not always clear how big of a threat something is to the gospel. Most people don't think polity is something that's relevant to the gospel. I do. ....

Third, is the congregation ready? That is, are they mature enough to follow where you lead? If not, you may only do more damage by quickly “leading” in that direction. Truly leading an immature congregation might mean moving very, very slowly. How many young pastors, feeling convicted of conscience to “lead” immediately, do in fact fail to lead because they don’t first take the time to understand and love the ones they mean to lead! ....
Often the most divisive issues in a church are those regarding worship because everyone experiences it. So I was particularly interested in how Dever approaches those topics. For instance:
  • Organs. I can live with an organ. I can live without an organ. I can even live with an organ that’s too loud. But I don’t want to! Organs are not in the Bible. Congregational singing is. Any accompaniment which smothers and thereby discourages congregational singing should be reformed or eliminated. Given the financial and emotional commitments that are represented in organs, movement for change here should be slow.
  • Altar calls. I can live with altar calls. This is a longer conversation, but you must first realize how your congregation views them. If they are lightly invested in them, you can probably remove them fairly soon and easily. If they are the emotional highpoint of the service, then you probably need to spend some time changing the language you use about them, and then, over time, educate the congregation that Jesus called people to repent of their sins and to trust in him. The physical motion to which he called them was not walking down an aisle but taking up the cross.
  • Drums. I can live with drums. Like organs, if they are overpowering and actually discourage congregational singing, then I would prefer not to live with them for long. No instrument should discourage the biblical practice of congregational singing. But here, as in so many other places, teach before you act, and certainly before you call the congregation to act.
  • Stained glass. I can live with stained glass, stone buildings, cross-shaped narthexes and wooden pews. In fact, all of the traditional European style churchy architecture has both pros and cons. You should never assume your building is necessary for the mission that God has given your congregation, but neither will an aspect of the building normally prohibit you from fulfilling that mission.
  • Sermons limited to 10 minutes. I can live with this. For a while. Though it would be an ill sign of that congregation’s health. Or telling about the previous pastor’s ministry. I would certainly like to see the church’s appreciation of and desire for God’s preached word to grow.
  • TV-studio-like acoustics. I can live with acoustics which increase the sound from the front (a.k.a. “stage”) and muffle the sound of the congregation (a.k.a. “audience”), but I don’t want to! Everything this communicates about the assembly is wrong. But this is how they build church auditoriums in these highly amplified days. Natural light is gone! Video projection is in! ARGH!! A living community of people loudly singing and hearing each other is one of the greatest means of edification on this side of eternity. Come to think of it, it’s so good that, unlike the video clip, it keeps being used over on the other side as well!
The biggest controversy over this post by Dever was about infant baptism. That next.

What I CAN and CANNOT Live With as a Pastor - 9Marks

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