Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 5 Literary Genres

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Eminem is a rap artist. He has released several albums and has a reputation for writing songs with a heavy biographical emphasis. If you follow his albums, you will encounter a guy who demonstrates a clear shift from wild and bad to a struggling individual to recovering drug addict. He has made a career out of putting his marriage and family out in the public eye. If I were to pick up his albums and go through them one at a time, I could establish a progression of sorts. Does that make it a biography? Sort of, because there are autobiographical elements to the albums he has released. However, these are rap albums, not hardcover books. They are meant to be autobiographical, but their genre is poetry. If I read his lyrics, I do not have a full understanding of his life as I would with a larger book. The genre of the material we are reading is significant to our understanding of the material we are encountering. Poetry is not narrative. Prophecy is not prose. Gospel is not wisdom literature. In learning to understand scripture, it is important to take into account the genre of literature you are reading.

How is the genre helpful in discerning the message of scripture? Well, my illustrative example aside, let’s look at apocalyptic prophecy in the scriptures. If you have paid any attention to Christianity over the last 30 years, you will undoubtedly have encountered a rash of stories about the end times. There are whole movements devoted to deciphering the words of Revelation and setting them against current events. But, is this a valid way to interpret the text based on the genre? There are several characteristics of apocalyptic literature that should affect the interpretation of the genre. For example, Jewish apocalyptic literature frequently made references to the current events of the day. For example, Revelation was written during a period of heavy persecution for the church. Much of the imagery clearly references those things. The city on 7 hills is an obvious reference to the city of Rome, which was a city built on seven hills. Modern prophecy interpreters have tried to associate this reference to the Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Rome. While it may be the case that there is a double reference here, a more reasonable reading of the reference is to understand it as talking about Rome and the emperor.

Another example of genre is the narrative account to Ruth. Ruth is the narrative account of Ruth, who is a widow and is not properly treated by her husband’s family. This results in her living in destitution. Boaz, a foreigner, ultimately marries her. There is a tendency to read the book of Ruth and interpret it as an allegory of Christ. There is, at times, a tendency to want to allegorize (make it into symbols) everything in the scriptures to make them about Jesus. This is not the strongest reading of the text because this story is a narrative account. To interpret it entirely apart from the historic and narrative account isn’t right for the genre.

The following are a brief list of the various Biblical literary genres:

Prophecy: Prophecy needs to be read and understood in the context of the historical setting. Isaiah, for example, is the prophetic interaction between God and His people during the time of the Assyrian conquests. God speaks to specific nations and situations. In addition, He speaks of his larger redemptive plan through the suffering servant. These prophecies are best used in an attempt to understand the work of God through the scope of Israel’s history. It is not unusual to see folks take up this book and attempt to apply it to modern world affairs. However, this isn’t a legitimate reading of prophecy. Reading and interpreting prophecy requires a history book and a lot of time. Or, you could just use a reputable commentary.

Narrative: Narrative is best read and understood as history. There is a tendency to read narrative and try to allegorize it and apply it to our situations. We see this often with the story of God’s people crossing into the Promised Land. This is a narrative. It is not the story of your church growing or moving into a new building. It’s also not the story of moving into our best life now. It’s the story of God fulfilling the promise made to Abraham. When reading this account, we do better to look for parallels in the story of Christ, like the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, which parallels the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Narrative is best read with an eye on the larger story of Israel and God’s interaction with His people.

Poetry: Poetry is poetry. It can bring to the table elements of prophecy, as most prophecy is written in poetic form. Interpreting poetry requires that you consider the poetic form and the author’s intent. Poetic forms are well documented. I will not be delving more deeply into the poetic forms in this setting. There is plenty of documentation on this matter to be found.

Epistle: The epistle is a genre of letter. When interpreting epistles, it’ts important to understand the context (see previous articles) and to interpret the epistle based on the fact that the letter was written by an author to a specific audience. It needs to be read based on this.

Gospel: Gospel is an unusual genre of literature. It is a biography of sorts, but it is more than a simple biography. The Gospel account sets out to tell the biographical account of Jesus’ life while making a larger point about Jesus’ work and mission. Each Gospel account has a specific message in mind. The details of Jesus’ life are chosen in order to support that message. It is often asked: “Why don’t the Gospel accounts include narrative about Jesus’ childhood? The reason is that the information doesn’t support the larger message. This is part of the reason that a Gospel account is not a biography in the purest sense.

Wisdom literature: Wisdom literature as a genre includes the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature sets out to depict principles of life through specific forms. These can almost be seen as poetic forms. It’s important to understand that wisdom literature is comprised of observations, not hard and fast rules for the universe. So, when we read that the dishonest don’t prosper in a wisdom saying, we cannot say that this means that the dishonest never prosper. In fact, the dishonest sometimes do quite well. Rather, this is an indication that to be dishonest can bring downfall.

Law: Law is exactly that: law. It needs to be read as such and understood as part of the larger covenant agreements in which it takes place. The Ten Commandments are an example of this. The commandments are stipulations related to the Mosaic covenant. They are sort of like part of a treaty. In fact, they are written in an ancient treaty literary form. So, when we read the commandments they reflect God’s treaty agreement with Israel. Further, laws relate to different settings. Some laws are civil, some relate to temple worship, etc. They must be read according to these contexts.

Lists: Lists, like genealogies or lists of items, serve a specific purpose beyond boring the socks off the reader. They act as a concrete demonstration of proof as to what happened in a specific setting. They tie specific events to real people and places. In addition, they demonstrate God’s working through the covenants. We see God working with the Israelites in different settings through the genealogies. One prime example of this is the line from David to Jesus. This is vital for understanding Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant set forth in 2 Samuel.

This list of genres of scripture is by no means exhaustive. It reflects the larger areas of literature. A good commentary or Study Bible ought to offer a more detailed accounting of the genre of literature in any given section.

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On Pluralism In Western Culture

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I am currently reading a book on apologetics from my Logos library. The opening chapters of the text are littered  with quotes from D.S. Carson. CArson is an intellectual heavyweight in the area of Biblical scholarship and Christianity. I learned a great deal from his books while I was in seminary. The following are a few of the quotes I lifted from the text. These are all Carson quotes from God and Culture.

In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure other religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is immediately stirred up: pluralism … has been challenged. Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated.

Pluralism has managed to set in place certain “rules” for playing the game of religion—rules that transcend any single religion. These rules are judged to be axiomatic. They include the following: religiously based exclusive claims must be false; what is old or traditional in religion is suspect and should probably be superseded; “sin” is a concept steeped in intolerance. The list could easily be expanded.

Those who are committed to the proposition that all views are equally valid have eliminated the possibility that one or more of those opinions has a special claim to being true or valid. They have foreclosed on open-mindedness in the same breath by which they extol the virtues of open-mindedness; they are dogmatic about pluralism.…

Both the irony and the tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance. It is not “liberal education” in the best sense; it is not pluralism in the best sense. It is fundamentalistic dogmatism in the worse sense.…

Repost: 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques

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Up front I will acknowledge that this is a copy and past article I grabbed from the Fightingforthefaith.com website. Fighting for the FAith/Pirate Christian Radio is a podcast that takes the time to compare what people are saying in the name of God to the word of God. Its an excellent podcast, though I suggest that you come at with some pretty thick skin because it tends to be pretty forthright and unapologetic in its pursuit of proclaiming Biblical purity. I have been challenged significantly by this podcast.

That having been said, the text I borrowed is from a PDF linked on their home page right now called: The 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques of the Cults. Its worth knowing because it serves as a tremendous lens through which you can look at the scriptural citations used by anyone claiming to speak with Biblical authority on their side:

In light of the fact that far too many pastors are mangling and twisting God’s word in the exact same ways that the cults do, in order to protect yourself and your loved ones it is a good idea for you to acquaint yourself with James Sire’s book, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible. Here is a summary of Sire’s work.

1. INACCURATE QUOTATION: A biblical text is referred to but is either not quoted in the way the text appears in any standard translation or is wrongly attributed. Example: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi says, “Christ said, ‘Be still and know that I am God.'” Whereas this text is found ONLY in Psalms.

2. TWISTED TRANSLATION: The biblical text is retranslated, not in accordance with sound Greek scholarship, to fit a preconceived teaching of a cult. Example: the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate John 1:1 as “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the word was a god.”

3. BIBLICAL HOOK: A text of Scripture is quoted primarily as a device to grasp the attention of readers or listeners and then followed by a teaching which is so nonbiblical that it would appear far more dubious to most people had it not been preceded by a reference to Scripture. Example: Mormon missionaries quote James 1:5 which promises God’s wisdom to those who ask him and, then, follow this by explaining that when Joseph Smith did this he was given a revelation from which he concluded that God the Father has a body.

4. IGNORING THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT: A text of Scripture is quoted but removed from the surrounding verses which form the immediate framework for its meaning. Example: Alan Watts quotes the first half of John 5:39 (“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life”), claiming that Jesus was challenging His listeners’ over emphasis of the Old Testament, but the remainder of the immediate context reads, “and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (verses 39-40), which shows that Jesus was upholding the value of the Old Testament as a testimony to Himself.

5. COLLAPSING CONTEXTS: Two or more verses which have little or nothing to do with each other are put together as if one were a commentary of the other(s). Example: The

Mormons associate Jeremiah 1:5 with John 1:2,14 and thus imply that both verses talk about the premortal existence of all human beings; Jeremiah 1:5, however, speaks of God’s foreknowledge of Jeremiah (Not his premortal existence) and JOhn 1:2 refers to the pre- existence of God the Son and not to human beings in general.

6. OVERSPECIFICATION: A more detailed or specific conclusion than is legitimate is drawn from a biblical text. Example: The Mormon missionary manual quotes the parable of the virgins from Matthew 25:1-13 to document the concept that “mortality is a probationary period during which we prepare to meet God.” But the parable of the virgins could, and most probably does, mean something far less specific, for example, that human beings should be prepared at any time to meet God or to witness the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

7. WORD PLAY: A word or phrase from a biblical translation is examined and interpreted as if the revelation had been given in that language. Example: mary Bake Eddy says the

name Adam consist of two syllables, A DAM, which means an obstruction, in which case, Adam signifies “the obstacle which the serpent, sin, would impose between man and his Creator.”

8. THE FIGURATIVE FALLACY: Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2)mistaking figurative language for literal language. Example of (1): Mary Baker

Eddy interprets EVENING as “mistiness of mortal thought; weariness of mortal mind; obscured views; peace and rest.” Example of (2): The Mormon theologian james Talmage interprets the prophesy that “thou shalt be brought down and speak out of the ground” to mean that God’s Word would come to people from the Book of Mormon which was taken out of the ground at the hill of Cumorah.

9. SPECULATIVE READINGS OF PREDICTIVE PROPHESY: A predictive prophesy is too readily explained by the occurance of specific events, despite the fact that equally

committed biblical scholars consider the interpretation highly dubious. Example: The stick of Judah and the Stick of Joseph in Ezekiel 37:15- 23 are interpreted by the Mormons to mean the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

10. SAYING BUT NOT CITING: A writer says that the Bible says such and such but does not cite the specific text (which often indicates that there may be no such text at all).

Example: A common phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is not found in the Bible.

11. SELECTIVE CITING: To substantiate a given argument, only a limited number of text is quoted: the total teaching of Scripture on that subject would lead to a conclusion different

from that of the writer. Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses critique the traditional Christian notion of the Trinity without considering the full text which scholars use to substantiate the concept.

12. INADEQUATE EVIDENCE: A hasty generalization is drawn from too little evidence. Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that blood transfusion is nonbiblical, but the

biblical data that they cite fails either to speak directly to the issue or to adequately substantiate their teaching.

13. CONFUSED DEFINITION: A biblical term is misunderstood in such a way that an essential biblical doctrine is distorted or rejected. Example: one of Edgar Cayce’s followers confuses the eastern doctrine of reincarnation with the biblical doctrine of being born again.

14. IGNORING ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS: A specific interpretation given to a biblical text or set of text which could well be, and often have been, interpreted in quite a different fashion, but these alternatives are not considered. Example: Erich von Daniken asks why in Genesis 1:26 God speaks in the plural (“us”), suggesting that this is an oblique reference to God’s being one of many astronauts and failing to consider alternative explanations that either God was speaking as “Heaven’s king accompanied by His heavenly host” or that the plural prefigures the doctrine of the Trinity expressed more explicitly in the New Testament.

15. THE OBVIOUS FALLACY: Words like OBVIOUSLY, UNDOUBTEDLY, CERTAINLY, ALL REASONABLE PEOPLE HOLD THAT and so forth are substituted

for logical reasons. Example: Erich von daniken says, “Undoubtedly the Ark [of the Covenent] was electrically charged!”

16. VIRTUE BY ASSOCIATION: Either (1) a cult writer a ssociates his or her teaching with those of figures accepted as authoritative by traditional Christians; (2) cult writings are likened to the Bible; or (3) cult literature imitates the form of the Bible writing such that it sounds like the Bible. Example of (1): Rick Chapman list 21 gurus, including Jesus Christ, St. Francis and St. Theresa, that “you can’t go wrong with.” Example of (2): Juan Mascaro in his introduction to the Upanishads cites the New Testament, the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms, from which he quotes passages supposedly paralleling the Upanishads. Example of (3): The Mormon DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS interweaves phrases from the Gospel of John and maintains a superficial similarity to the Gospel such that it seems to be like the Bible.

17. ESOTERIC INTERPRETATION: Under the assumption that the Bible contains hidden, esoteric, meaning which is open only to those who are initiated into its secrets, the

interpreter declares the significance of biblical passages without giving much, if any, explanation for his or her interpretation. Example: Mary Baker Eddy gives the meaning of the first phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father which art in heaven,” as “Our Father- Mother God, all harmonious.”

18. SUPPLEMENTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: New revelation from post biblical prophets either replaces or is added to the Bible as authority. Example: The Mormons supplement the Bible with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

19. REJECTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: Either the Bible as a whole or texts from the Bible are examined and rejected because they do not square with other authorities – such as

reason or revelation = do not appear to agree with them. Example:Archie Matson holds that the Bible contains contradictions and that Jesus himself rejected the authority of the Old Testament when he contrasted His own views with it on the Sermon on the Mount.

20. WORLD-VIEW CONFUSION: Scriptural statements, stories, commands or symbols which have a particular meaning or set of meanings when taken within the intellectual and broadly cultural framework of the Bible itself are lifted out of that context, placed within the frame of reference of another system and thus given a meaning that markedly differs from their intended meaning. Example: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi interprets “Be still, and know that I am God” as meaning that each person should meditate and come to the realization that he is essentially Godhood itself.

Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 4 Using Translations

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My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

 Song of Solomon 5:4 KJV

Song of Solomon is the greatest love poem ever written. There is a story that young men were not allowed to read it until they reached the age of 30. If you read it, you will find line after line of flowing poetry. You might even choose the King James Version because it is more poetic. If you did, at some point in time you will encounter this verse. Chapter 5 verse 4. What the heck are you supposed to make of this one? I’ve been married a long time and I have never associated bowel movements with romance. A brief consideration of an alternate translation ought to clear up any weird misconceptions:

My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.

Song of Solomon 5:4 NIV

A bit of a difference there. This passage is a very silly way of demonstrating our next rule for understanding the scriptures: Use several translations.

This is necessary because the Bible has been translated from languages that are noticeably different than English and originated in a very different era and culture. Translations typically reflect the best demonstration of the meaning possible. However, some concepts are difficult to portray, so using multiple translations frees us from being subject to one version’s translational decisions. To understand this, it is necessary to understand how translation happens. Most of the modern translations we use are done by teams of scholars working in committee with the manuscripts. For each portion of the scripture, roughly 5000 individual manuscripts exist. When a translation is done the scholars evaluate the manuscripts and consider how to best translate the text. There is a spectrum of translating styles that come into play here, which we will deal with momentarily. These scholars work for years doing a version of the Bible. So, when we choose a translation, we are relying on the expertise and work hours of a team of scholars (sometimes quite a few). The advantage of working with multiple translations is that we then use the collected expertise of every scholar involved.

Greek is an inflected language. What that means is that the context in which a word appears alters it’s meaning. I read an excellent example of this recently on another blog that dealt with Judas’ betrayal of Christ. The word that the scripture uses is “handed over” and is usually associated with malicious intent. This, along with the fact that the “handing over” was in exchange for 30 pieces of silver has caused many translators to say “betrayed” instead of “handed over”. This is a judgment call by the translator and is not an unusual thing. Most words have several meanings and shades of meanings based on context and situation. This prompts translators to make interpretive decisions. In addition, certain words like the Greek word “kai” can literally mean dozens of things. Kai is a generic conjunction whose meaning is totally based on the argument in which it is presented. This is another one that requires an interpretive decision. The oddest example of interpretive decisions shows up a lot in Paul’s letters. Greek sentences are often composed of multiple clauses that modify a main point. Sometimes those clauses can be very numerous. Paul occasionally wrote sentences that will go on for pages. The translator must essentially break up the sentence because it would not make sense in English. These are just a few of the challenges involved in translating. The impact of these decisions is diminished the more translations a reader references.

Using multiple translations is necessary when trying to understand a particularly challenging passage of scripture or when studying. This is less necessary when you are casually reading the Bible. When you choose the translation you will use, it is necessary to understand the various translating styles. There are three styles that represent a spectrum of approaches. They are:

Static equivalent: A static equivalent translation is word for word, pr as close to it as possible. The most word for word translation available is the New American Standard Version, which courteously makes note of alterations for the reader by putting additions or alterations in italics. The King James Version is also fairly word for word, though the translation can be a tad wooden at times.  The New Revised Standard Version is mostly word for word, but is controversial for making interpretive decisions that are based on how a modern audience may receive the passage, like gender neutrality (getting rid of gender specific words like brothers). The NRSV also tends to have a more liberal theological leaning.

Dynamic equivalent: Dynamic equivalent translations are the word for word balanced with translating the meaning as best possible. So, the word for word is important, but some paraphrasing or rewording is necessary to reflect the original message of the author.  The trick with this type of translation is that there are more interpretive decisions involved, which means that the translator is doing some interpretation for you. This is a bit of an advantage for the lay person, but a detriment of sorts for scholars. These translations tend to be easier to read and are the direction most non-scholars go when choosing a study Bible. The New International Version is the most common dynamic equivalent translation.  Others include: The Holman Christian Standard Bible, The New English Translation and the New American Bible.

Free/paraphrase/commentary: These Bibles tend to lean in the direction of paraphrase with the least amount of emphasis placed on the word for word aspect of translation. The goal is to get the message of the passage across. The most popular versions in this category are: The Message, The New Living Bible, God’s Word Translation and the Contemporary English Version. These translations are the most subject to the interpretation of the translator and leave the least amount of judgment up to the reader. There is clearly a spectrum within these books. The Message, for example, is a very loose translation with a great deal of influence from the translator. The Contemporary English version is much less so. These Bibles are best suited for casual reading.

It is important to note that each of these categories is a spectrum of its own and none of the translations falls strictly in the middle ground.

When interpreting a passage, it is important to select translations from across the spectrum. The reader will benefit from each of the styles of translation because each offers some benefits to the reader as far as word usage. It is important to compare the word usage and recognize that the consensus will generally indicate the stronger understanding. It is also important to recognize that the variations reflect shades of meaning in the passage.

There is one thing that folks sometimes do with comparing translations that is a technical foul. It is not a good practice to shop translations in search of the meaning you want. This is because the passage means what it means, not what you want it to mean. When you shop the versions of the Bible you try to find the message you want the passage to mean. This also works as a red flag when reading or listening to teachings. When a pastor jumps from version to version, it’s a sign of possible shopping.

Below I have included a spectrum I borrowed from the apologeticsindex.org website.

Evangelists with Dirty Hands

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“…dealing with lost people will cause us to get our hands dirty and sweaty just like tending to yard work. Part of evangelism is to clear up misconceptions and misperceptions people have about the gospel. Dealing with people and evangelism is often messy.

Will McRaney’s

 A few weeks ago I ran a Bible study group with a group of teenage drug addicts at various stages of their recovery. All of them are in residential treatment and attend Bible study as a part of their treatment program. In the session I was facilitating we did an open question and answer time. This always proves tricky with these types of kids because they are so worldly that it is almost like working as a translator to teach them basic truths.  Three main themes turned up in the conversation that week. One young man tried to comprehend how God could possibly be fair if he forgives murders and rapists. Another young man assumed God would never love him because he could not fulfill the mandate of not looking at women lustfully. Still a third young man wanted to understand why God didn’t answer his prayers promptly. This 2-hour session of explaining and ministering was the first thing that came to mind when I read McRaney’s quote.

In our increasingly secular culture we need to assume that that ministering to the lost will involve answering difficult questions and teaching then wholly alien concepts. The lost have no idea who God is. To assume we could evangelize without getting our hands dirty seems foreign to evangelism among the lost in this world. As God’s witnesses, we need to be prepared to answer tough questions and we need to demonstrate Christ in our lifestyle and attitudes while we evangelize. Peter speaks to the matter in his first epistle. In chapter 3 he is addressing persecution for the faith. In the midst of his teaching on persecution he says:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. – 1 Peter 3:15-16

The dirty work of evangelism must begin with study and training so that we can be prepared to give an answer. This is the step believers frequently desire to skip over because it is a little boring and requires hard work. Reading, learning and studying are vital to evangelizing effectively. Living under Christ’s discipleship is also fundamental to this process because if we do not, we will not be prepared to act in gentleness and respect, which are fruits of the Spirit. We need to invest in these things to be prepared to evangelize effectively to those who are totally unchurched. In investing in them we need to understand that it is only the Spirit that produces these quality and that only the Spirit can make our evangelism effective. When the time comes to share the gospel, we must be willing to go to unpleasant places at times and answer accusations from those who despise God.

It is my prayer that those who read my posts would use them to defend their faith and to sway the lost and wavering.

Circus Church

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20110814-033944.jpgThe other morning I was driving to work and I heard on the radio “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” by Neil Diamond. Yes, I listened to it and enjoyed it because Neil Diamond may be a cheese ball, but he’s a cool cheese ball. The song is about a traveling evangelist, who sets up a circus tent and puts on a Jesus show for everyone. The whole town turns out because it is entertaining. The lyrics imply that Brother Love is quite the showman. While I was listening to the song, my mind wandered to a discussion I had recently regarding the seeker sensitive movement and whether or not it was a legitimate way to do ministry.

For those not too familiar with the term, the seeker sensitive church model designs the Sunday morning service around reaching non-Christians and bringing them into the life of the church. In an effort to be seeker sensitive, music is chosen because it makes the worshiper feel good, distasteful words like “sin” are replaced with more palatable alternatives like “broken” or some other therapy oriented term. Rather than discuss Christ and atonement, sermons focus on meeting the felt need of the congregation. The general focus is shifted from worshipping God to making guests feel welcome in order to bring them into the life of the church. Ideally, seeker sensitive churches would then move guests to cell groups (groups that meet in the houses of members to do Bible study).

A couple of quick things to note regarding this model: First, it is effective at drawing a big crowd. Go to a mega-church and you will typically find the seeker sensitive model. Second, it is generally very entertainment oriented. It is not uncommon to find seeker sensitive churches doing outrageous things to draw a crowd. Just like Brother Love and his circus, there is a degree of Barnum and Bailey’s at work. These are the churches that talk more about having a great sex life through scriptural principles or feature motocross riders in the service or fire-breathing as a part of the sermon. All of these showman elements are aimed at bringing the unchurched in the front doors for an hour every Sunday. Third, the traditional gospel message is “repackaged” to be more accessible. This sometimes involves changing vocabulary or teaching with parables/stories. Sometimes sermons focus entirely on meeting the felt needs of the congregation. It is common to call them self-help sermons or sharing the therapy gospel. Ultimately, the message shifts from salvation in Christ alone to: how to have your best life now.

20110814-034153.jpgI will begin with a disclaimer: some churches that do this model could potentially do it well and with pure motives. Some seeker sensitive churches teach that we are all sinners and that the only way to avoid the wrath of a just and righteous God is through Jesus, thus doing more than simply teaching people how to feel good. It seems reasonable that some of the thousands of seeker churches that exist clearly proclaim the gospel. Ultimately, this is a method for drawing in unbelievers. The purpose of drawing in unbelievers is to expose them to the Gospel. That having been said, this raises the question of the purpose of the worship service. Is the purpose of worship evangelism? Further still, one of the central tenets of seeker sensitive worship is to focus on the felt needs of the unchurched. How does this gel with worship focusing on God? This question is especially pertinent when we consider the fact that many seeker driven churches soften the Gospel to make it more palatable for the lost that are visiting. This is the constant temptation faced by those who look to grow through seeker sensitive methodology. It is a temptation that results in a broken system on Sunday morning. No man can serve two masters and the seeker sensitive crowd frequently winds up having to deal with meeting the needs to the uncommitted against preaching the Gospel. Thus, we end up with therapy gospel and other messes that turn growth/numbers into an idol we worship rather than God himself.

Another problem with this model is that it often rests on a faulty assumption regarding everyone’s role in the church. In the seeker sensitive model, it easy for the Sunday morning Jesus show to become the primary attraction for the lost, rather than disciples of Christ going out to reach the world for His name. Ministry to the world is often reduced to simple service with no real sharing of the Gospel message of Christ as the one who redeems us. In such cases, serving our neighbor is sufficient ministry and no preaching is ever endeavored upon. Instead, the role of evangelist falls exclusively on the shoulders of the pastor. If a pastor desires to grow his church, but doesn’t so much care to disciple and train members to reach the lost, he is stuck in the role of trying to bring them in through other means. This often manifests itself in the three ring circus that is a seeker church.

One of the central problems, I would argue, is the desire of modern Christians to be served and entertained. They consume church like a product. When they are bored or uncomfortable, they leave and go somewhere else. As a result, congregations are frequently loaded with immature Christians who throw tantrums and leave every few years or throw tantrums and force out the current leadership ‘cause they don’t get what they want.

Sound Biblical teaching and discipleship are the missing ingredients that keeps Christians immature and prevents them from going out to reach the lost. As a result, the seeker service is the only answer for a pastor looking to grow his congregation, stoke his ego or appease a demanding consistory. This means that, at times, seeker sensitive tendencies can be used as a thermometer to measure the disciple-making efforts/health of a church. When a pastor has to entertain or scratch itching ears to keep people in the church, there is something wrong. That “something” is a congregation that lacks maturity and is not producing disciples. The big show should not be the attraction to worship.

I believe at one of the best scriptural illustrations of this concept is found in the Matthew account of the feeding of the 5000 and the day that followed. Everyone knows the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 from Matthew. In fact, the story is a favorite amongst seeker driven and health/wealth preachers because Jesus draws a big crowd and meets their needs. After this happens, Jesus crosses the nearby lake (on foot), helps Peter briefly walk on water and sets up camp on the other side. The crowd he had fed the previous day comes to find him the next morning looking for more food. There is a great conversation about Moses and manna, in which the people ask for more bread as proof of Christ’s having been sent from God. Christ responds by telling them that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to gain entrance into heaven. The crowd says his teaching is too hard and abandons him. We see this in the seeker movement today. They are fed and their needs are met, but at the first sign of difficult teaching or challenge, they abandon ship, because they did not want to know Christ. Rather, they wanted to have their needs met. We see the same thing happen with the Israelites in the desert when they demanded manna, meat, etc. and wandered when God didn’t jump to their service like a cosmic maitre’ d. The disciples did not abandon Him. Instead, they said that they had nowhere else to go, because only Christ had the words that bring eternal life. This is the response of a disciple of Christ to difficult teaching.

Now, another quick disclaimer: I don’t like organ music and I believe that living in Christ will change my life. Preaching should point me to Christ; in Christ, God’s Spirit will comfort me and produce fruit in my life. However, worship music must honor and worship God. It need not make me feel warm and fuzzy. The change in my life is not from applying principles and pulling myself up by my bootstraps. Rather, it is Christ and his Spirit living in me that produces changes. I also would argue that it is necessary to preach the good news every Sunday for the lost who are present.

Sugar Coated Spirituality

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One of my favorite stories of all time is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I will admit that I enjoyed both movies long before I read the book. What I really love about the story isn’t the whimsy or the candy. It’s the various rotten children who visit the factory, face temptations in various forms and are horribly expelled from the factory. Dahl does a really good job of demonstrating an important concept regarding where happiness comes from. Verruca Salt is an excellent example of this idea. She sees something and instantly wants it. “Daddy! Can I have a squirrel?” (Or a golden goose depending on the incarnation we are considering.)

20110813-023813.jpg She asks and she receives. Then, approximately 2 seconds later, she wants something else. Her contentment upon having her squirrel is temporary. (She only held on to the squirrel for a very brief period anyway.) The feeling passed, and she demands a new something that will make her happy. We see the same idea played out in all of the children, except for Charlie. Augustus eats and is never satiated. Mike TV is suckled on never ending entertainment. Violet must be the best and is never content when she wins.

I fear that many in the church have headed down the path of the various miscreant candy factory tourists. We walk through our tour of the church expecting to be fed from a trough with no efforts of our own. We demand to be entertained constantly and will “church shop” until we find the best show. We feel like we need to best our brothers and sisters in Christ and knock each other down or gossip in order to win. We want health and wealth and are willing to treat the almighty God who created the universe like a cosmic vending machine in the process of getting it. As a result, many simply wander through on their tour of the church until they pass the exit door and drag as many people with them as they can. This attitude of self-centeredness keeps many in the church from ever producing fruit as believers, either fruit of the Spirit in their lives or fruit that can only be harvested by Christ.

Paul makes comment on this matter in Philippians 4. He is writing from prison to the church in Philippi when he says:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, tat now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:8-13

Paul opens his passage with the concluding thought: that we are to focus on good, holy and praiseworthy things. He further indicates that the Philippian Christians ought to practice what they learned and saw in him. What they learned from him can likely be gleaned from early chapters of the text.

-“To live is Christ. To die is gain” can be found in chapter 1.

-Imitate Christ in humility, love and lacking personal interests can be found in chapter 2.

-Put no confidence in the flesh or your ability to do things on your own, but rather trust Christ for all our effort is rubbish (literally dung) in favor of gaining Christ. (chapter 3)

Paul joins his final thought to a comment on his own situation with the word “but” at the beginning of verse 11: “But, I have learned to always be content because I am able to do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” Basically, Paul has learned that contentment is a result of Christ. All things worth having are a result of Christ and we are to focus on the things of Christ. We stand in the body of the church because, in it, we grow closer to Christ. We resist temptation and have a joyous heart because of Christ. We cannot earn it because that would be the law, which would be bad news, not good news. This attitude of Paul ought to be mirrored in the church. Christ is what makes life worth living and all things are rubbish next to having him.

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