Posted on Monday, November 02, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Todd’s post of last week points towards an important aspect of the YRR movement which explains the ubiquitous multitasking of key figures: the highly limited gene pool of its self-perpetuating leadership.  For a movement beset by scandals among some of its key players over the last few years, from those who do not understand the importance of the Trinity through to abusive leadership practices and adultery, it has proved remarkably resilient.   Even when leaders have had to go because of terrible public scandal, they have simply vanished with no subsequent public soul-searching by the organizations who made them great or who were happy to ride on their reputations until such time as that became uncomfortable.

 

Two factors seem key in this.  First, the major organizations involved in spearheading the movement, such as TGC, Desiring God and the CBMW, tend to have significant overlap in top leadership personnel.  This makes problems in one branch of the movement less likely to be critiqued by others.  Silence on key issues is easier to maintain when different groups share a common pool of leadership.  They thus have both a vested interest in that silence and a means of enforcing it: a virtual monopoly on the trusted media outlets where such critique might appear, and a powerful framework for keeping discipline among the lower orders -- platform patronage and jobs for the boys.  Break ranks and you lose your potential place at the table/conference/blog/bookstore.

 

Second, the powerful personality-driven nature of the movement also makes it hard for the rank-and-file to offer criticism.  Over recent decades, psychologists have noted a strange phenomenon relative to some financial scams: when people have invested so much in them, it becomes virtually impossible for them to stop giving money, even when they know they are scams, because the emotional cost of accepting that fact is simply too high a psychological price to pay.   It seems that a similar thing happens in religious movements when people invest in a particular organization or person: what has been notable about the various scandals surrounding the YRR is not that these have led the rank-and-file to a more sober and modest assessment of the movement’s leadership but that they have frequently generated even more passionate uncritical devotion to the cause, as anyone who has ever dared blog a criticism will know.

 

The YRR started with high hopes and did much good.  But the interconnection of its various parts and the clear emergence of individuals in the movement as brands has served to foster a leadership with a very skinny gene pool which cannot serve the church well in the long run.

Posted on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This autumn is proving a vintage season for books on ministry.  Jason Helopoulos’ book arrived a few weeks ago, and Kent Hughes’ massive tome is about to be published.  Plus the redoubtable Jim Garretson has another gem on a Princetonian due for publication in October.  If it is anything like his work on Samuel Miller, it will be well worth a purchase.

 

The team at Banner of Truth has added to this crop with a great little book by Allan Harman, Preparing for Ministry.  Harman writes as someone who has been a pastor, a seminary professor, and a principal.  Thus he knows all about ministerial training from all angles.

 

The book is delightfully simple.   The two opening chapters address conversion and call.  Then subsequent chapters look at pre-theological study, how to choose a seminary or college, what to expect from a theology course, early ministry, and staying fresh.

 

Perhaps the most perennially valuable parts of the book, however, are the appendices.  Three in particular make the book worth a purchase.  One is a basic guide to sermon preparation which contains a remarkable amount of sound practical advice in just four pages.  Then there are reprints of a chapter, ‘The Minister’s Self-Watch,’ from Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, and of Warfield’s The Religious Life of Theological Students.  I have both of these texts in other volumes but it is great to have them in pocket size form – and great to have them cheaply available for giving to students and friends.  (I might add that Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students is in itself a wonderful volume which should be in every minister’s library.  Regular Sunday afternoon reading in my house.)

 

Once again, Banner has proved that you do not have to be cool or glamorous or recruit the hippest names to be incredibly helpful for pastors and ministerial students.

Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

“It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” Thus did the Scottish theologian, Peter Taylor Forysth, begin his Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale in 1907.  The book that emerged from those lectures, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, for all of its flaws, remains a -- perhaps the -- classic on the theology of the proclaimed Word in Protestantism.

 

What Forsyth does so well in that book are two things.  First, he makes it clear that the direction of the action in preaching is from God to the person in the pew.  Preaching is not a conversation.  Preaching is not a lecture.  Preaching is not primarily the imparting of information.  Rather, preaching brings a word from God to bear upon the people of God who have gathered in His name. 

 

It is only a few years ago that one of the then most influential preachers in North America was recommending a study of stand-up comedians as good preparation for the preaching ministry.  That this comment on its own did not immediately destroy his credibility is an indictment on the state of the church, for it represented a confusion of preaching with (at best) communication and (at worst) entertainment.  Forsyth, by way of contrast,  makes this comment:

 

The Christian preacher is not the successor of the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet. The orator comes with but an inspiration, the prophet comes with a revelation. In so far as the preacher and prophet had an analogue in Greece it was the dramatist, with his urgent sense of life’s guilty tragedy, its inevitable ethic, its unseen moral powers, and their atoning purifying note.

 

The understanding of any task is important to its proper execution.  To see stand-up as analogous to preaching is to misunderstand the task.  It is to fail to see that the message of preaching cannot be accommodated to a flippant medium without loss of a significant part of its substance. Of course, humor can be deployed pedagogically in a sermon; but if the content is supposed to be prophetic, the medium must reflect this at some profound level.

 

The second thing which Forsyth does, and that with a refreshingly cavalier brashness, is dismiss the notion that the preacher should worry overmuch about the tastes and convictions of the world which he is addressing.  As he himself puts it, ‘[t]he preacher has to be sure of a knowledge that creates experience, and does not rise out of it.’   The preacher takes his cue from God’s Word, not from the world around him.  This is the sole basis upon which he can speak with authority, for to do otherwise would doom him to preaching nothing but social work or psychology. By starting with God’s action, with God’s revelation, he speaks for God.   His task is not to improve this world or my experience.  It is to confront this world and my experience with the claims of the God who speaks and acts.

 

With all of the current discussion of how the church should face the challenges of this new era, where sexual politics dominate the landscape and the gap between a Christian ethic and what the world considers ethically plausible is as great as it has ever been and growing greater, the temptation is to panic.  Yet what we now see before us is merely a more accurate representation of what has been true all along: the gods of this age and the God of the Bible are not the same and are indeed opposed to each other as they always have been.  Thus, even as circumstances change, we must not allow ourselves to be mesmerized by this change into thinking the odds are any more insurmountable for the church today than at points in the past.

 

Only the incidentals of our current situation have changed.  The underlying principles remain always the same, and thus  the church’s task remains the same: to declare with a ‘This saith the Lord!’ that this age is passing.  Now is not the time to lose confidence in the very mode of God’s action in this world, nor is it the time to put men in pulpits who lack the conviction, the calling, and the skills for the task.  Now is the time to focus more than ever on the training of those who can speak with authority from the pulpit because they speak with the authority of God himself.

 

It is surely not an overbold beginning for how we might face the current challenges by suggesting that we do so by preaching the Word, in season and out of season.

 

 

Posted on Monday, October 05, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Anyone who has a child at a college or university will know the huge pressure that is put on students these days to conform to the sexual mores of the age.  The Love and Fidelity Network is an organization desgined to promote sane views of sex on campuses, with an appropriately thoughtful philosophy of sex and sexuality.  Their website is here.  I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with two of the leaders at a meeting in New York last year.  It is good to know that there some young people flying the flag for sexual sanity in some of the most difficult and yet influential places in society.

Posted on Monday, October 05, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Yesterday I was given a copy of Jason Helopoulos's new book, The New Pastor's Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry.  It looks excellent, with short chapters on a whole collection of important themes, from the nature of a call to the difference between lectures and sermons.  It seems like a great book to buy, to read, and to discuss.  With this and the imminent arrival of Kent Hughes' The Pastor's Book, it is going to be a bumper fall for good books on pastoring.   There are some easy Christmans presents out there.

 

While it does appear very good, I have not (thus far at least) been able to find one important topic in Helopoulos's new book: Bivocational pastoring.  I have mentioned before that I believe this will become more of the norm for churches in the future, especially those in the USA with congregations of, say, less than 200, where health care etc., is often punitively expensive and thus greatly increases the amount of money a church needs in order to have a full-time pastor.  My church averages about 160 on a Sunday morning.  The people give generously.  But we cannot fund a full-time pastor and keep the roof over our heads.

 

If this is the case, then we need more discussion on what bivocational minsitry might look like.   I am fortunate: my 'day job' is something which pays a living wage, which I love doing, and which offers significant overlap with my pastoral work.  Most other bivocational pastors I know do not enjoy such privilege.   They drive buses or work office jobs or even (in one cae) run a ranch in order to put bread on the table.  They have to fit pastoral life and sermon preparation into otherwise difficult schedules.  I also have some solid elders who understand that their job description is somewhat expanded in practice from what it might be at other. wealthier churches.

 

With the rise of the bivocational pastor, numerous questions must be asked: What does ruling eldership look like in such a context?  How do congregational expectations of pastoral care need to change?  What form should pastoral education take?  Should seminaries be starting to address the matter of bivocationalism in their curricula, both in terms of content and delivery?  The end of Christendom does not simply change how the church will relate to the wider world.  It is changing how the church relates to herself.

 

I first raised this matter some four years ago, when I took the call to Cornerstone.  It seems that the discussion still isn't happening in any significant way. It really needs to start soon.

 

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Rod Dreher has a typically pungent piece on the matters that have apparently caused much hilarity and Scotch drinking in Moscow, Idaho.  I wonder what Rod's particular problem is?  Is he an idiot incapable of reading English?  A buffoon who doesn't understand the brilliance of self-published Muscovite rhetoric?  Some envious and evil figure out to destroy a venerable ministry?   Or a bitter and nasty nobody, using the opportunity for a bit of one-up-manship? We eagerly await enlightenment as to which of the standard simplistic categories Rod is to be assigned and thus dismissed.

Posted on Wednesday, September 23, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at his blog, Douglas Wilson has an interesting post on why Christian women are prettier.  I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

 

"Unbelieving women either compete for the attention of men through outlandish messages that communicate some variation of “easy lay,” or in the grip of resentment they give up the endeavor entirely, which is how we get lumberjack dykes. The former is an avid reader of Cosmopolitan and thinks she knows 15K ways to please a man in bed. The latter is just plain surly about the fact that there even are any men."

 

So there you have it.  That is Mr Wilson's sophisticated take on the psychology of non-Christian women: they either aspire to be sex mad prostitutes or, failing that, turn into butch lesbians.

 

I guess he must be describing my mother because she is not a Christian -- but I am not sure at what point in her life she quite fitted this description.  I must have missed it.  When she married, still chaste, at 20?  Throughout her 46 years of faithful, devoted marriage to dad?  When she patiently and lovingly nursed him through his long, final, painful illness, administering his meds, lifting him on and off the toilet, attending to his most basic and undignified bodily needs? During the years since his death when she has been faithful to the memory of 'the only man I will ever love', to use her phrase?

 

To be sure, she is not a Christian.  She needs Jesus as her saviour.  But I suspect the reduction of non-Christian women to whores or lesbians says more about the psychology of the writer than it does about my mother.  And maybe other mothers too?

 

Posted on Saturday, September 19, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Can Christians vote for Carly Fiorina for President?  If so, aren't the questions of whether women should lift weights in the gym or how they should give traffic directions to men a bit of a non-issue?  Or am I missing something here?  I think we should be told.

Posted on Wednesday, September 02, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The return of Tullian Tchividjian to a ministry role is scarcely surprising, though the speed would no doubt make even Jimmy Swaggart green with envy.   It is the logical outcome of the culture of celebrity which has been consciously cultivated most disappointingly by some in reformed evangelical circles over the last decade.    Those who have decried the critics of celebrity culture as hypocrites because they too are known outside of their local neighbourhood really missed the point.   Celebrity is not just about being well known.  It is also about developing informal and formal extra-ecclesiastical structures of authority (and thus of accountability, or lack thereof) which focus on specific personalities and subserve the needs of those personalities.   Thus, for example, the faux intimacy of twitter helps build a popular, informal base of support.  Twitter followers come to think they really know the individual.  They then believe his propaganda, conflate message with messenger, and can ultimately even subordinate message to messenger.  This rapidly morphs into an angry bodyguard when the beloved celebrity is threatened.

 

At a more formal level, the language of accountability is transferred from church to specially selected individuals or parachurch organizations.  This is where it becomes really complicated.  If money changes hands, then an already problematic arrangement is potentially corrupted.   If no money changes hands but the parties have a mutual interest in brand protection and promotion, the same applies.  Thus, for Tchividjian, Paul Tripp, PCA officebearer and of Paul Tripp Ministries, entered the frame, having escaped just in time from that other place to which he had recently been called to help keep the pastor accountable, Mars Hill, Seattle. In the ensuing context (or perhaps 'contest'?), the Presbytery was bound to lose because it is bound by rules of due process which pay no heed to concerns other than the honour of Christ's name, the well-being of the church, and the spiritual health of the offender.

 

No one begrudges a man the chance to earn a living.  Further, I doubt that WillowCreek PCA has done anything wrong at a technical level with regard to the PCA’s Book of Church Order.  Tchividjian has been defrocked and has not been restored to ordained office.  Morally, however, the situation is this: a man deemed unfit to hold teaching office just three weeks ago is now occupying a position of teaching influence in the same denomination.  Maybe not illegal, but certainly irresponsible towards both him and those he will influence.  At the very minimum it is also most discourteous towards the Presbytery which acted to remove him and whose informed judgment in the matter has been for all practical purposes rejected. This raises interesting questions regarding of the practice of Presbyterian polity for the PCA.  Why has a PCA minister apparently played such a strange role in this?  And does the PCA really want ministerial development in the hands of a defrocked minister? 

 

And the really big lesson in all this?   It seems that when certain people are handling your public relations issues, the pastorate may not be such a dangerous calling after all.

Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A number of good new books have landed on my desk over the last few weeks.

 

John Macleod, Scottish Theology in relation to Church History.  These are lectures given at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1939.  They have been available for man years but are republished here with a new foreword by Ian Hamilton, and with footnotes that help the reader better understand Macleod’s allusions.  Macleod was one of a number of Free Church of Scotland students who left the denomination in the early 1890s over the Declaratory Act which watered down the terms of confessional subscription.  He later returned to the post-1900 Free Church once the Act was no longer in force.   A leading student of Free Church history once told me that Macleod was a brilliant man who had committed intellectual suicide because of his refusal to read literature that might not reflect his own theological commitments.  Nonetheless, he was a learned man within his limits.  Certainly, this is no scholarly tome but as a good read which gives an overall understanding of Scottish theology since the Reformation, it is worth a purchase.

 

Brandon D. Crowe. The Message of the General Epistles in the History of Redemption (P and R).   This book by my New Testament colleague, is a great devotional book and fine popular study of the General Epistles, often treated as the poor relations to Paul and Hebrews.   The volume would work well for private study and also for small group discussion.  Preachers will find the practical, down-to-earth approach very helpful for thinking about how to expound these letters for congregations.  He strikes just the right balance between indicative and imperative.

 

Lynette G. Clark, Far Above Rubies: The Life of Bethan Lloyd-Jones (Christian Focus).  I met Mrs L-J a few times in the eighties when we both worshipped at the same church in Cambridge.  She seemed a very sweet and godly lady.  This is her story.  Married to the greatest preacher since Spurgeon, she was nonetheless a very humble woman who gave up a career in medicine to be a pastor's wife, living a life that was marked by prayer and service for the church.  She was a remarkable wife, mother and woman of God and  great example of the fact that sacrifice for God is no sacrifice at all.  I gave a stack away at church and have received nothing but positive comments on the book.

 

Kevin DeYoung, The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden (Crossway).  I read this over breakfast last Sunday and I have to say it is quite the best ‘big story of the whole Bible’ children’s book I have ever seen (not that I have seen too many, you understand).  Lavishly illustrated, drawing lots of redemptive-historical connections, written in a gentle, conversational style, and with enough of the gory bits to hold the attention even of your typically amoral and psychotic under-ten year old, this is well worth a purchase.  I gave a whole box away in church on Sunday.  As soon as the service ended, the Cornerstone Under Tens Militia descended on me in a virtual recapitulation of the eighth plague. Thankfully, I had nearly enough copies to satisfy them, and so was able to escape with my life -- though I have had to submit an order for more, under threat of reprisals if I fail. I expect this to be a staple of books giveaways in the future.

 

Andrew and Rachel Wilson, The Life You Never Expected: Thriving While Parenting Special Needs Children (IVP UK).  While I like all the books on this list, I have perhaps saved the best till last.  Andrew is a pastor in the UK and he and Rachel are parents to two severely autistic children.  This is a moving account of their family life, with short chapters offering both narratives of their experience and penetrating reflections upon how the Bible speaks to them in their various circumstances. It is not a story of simplistic answers and trite happy endings.  Rather, it is the story of their sometimes agonizing struggle to find biblical contentment in the place and circumstances where God has placed them.  To be honest, you need to read the book for yourself.  It would merely cheapen it for me to offer an anemically pious summary of such a passionate, heart-wrenching and yet deeply hopeful story.  It will benefit not just parents facing similar issues but all pastors, elders and church members who are called to love and support families facing such difficulties and yet who foten feel ill-equipped to do so.  Sadly, US readers will have to wait until next summer to get theior copies, when Crossway will issue an edition under the slightly different title The Life We Never Expected.