Stuck in the Present

LETTER TO A FRIEND ON DOUBT

 A friend asked how I navigate my doubts. Here is what I wrote him:

I don’t like the word “certainty,” especially when it comes to the Christian faith.

When I teach apologetics as I did for four years at Regents School of Austin, I used the word “pointers” instead of “proofs.”

“Faith seeking understanding” is my preferred way to think about my relationship with God. The “democracy of the dead” who have helped me the most in this regard include, but are not limited to: Athanasius, Augustine, Kempis, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Baxter (and a few other Puritans), Pascal, Edwards, Herbert, Dickinson, Chesterton, Lewis, Newbigin, Willard, Bloesch, Stott, Oden, and Lundin. Most impactful living authors would include but not be limited to: Keller, Rutledge, Wood, Delbanco, Wright (NT and Christopher), McKnight, Piper, and Taylor.

You mentioned “tending your own garden.” Voltaire’s Candide is one of my favorite books. The glib Pangloss (=all tongue!) repeatedly invokes “It is the best of all possible worlds.” Exposure to the horrors of the world eventually make even him no longer believe what he is saying. For all its brilliance, Candide offers a binary trap: be superficial with the harsh realities of life or hunker down on your plot of land.

I believe (that word is instructive!) there is a third alternative: engage with the messiness of the world trusting there is a God who is really there, and more than fine with my wrestling to make sense of the Christian faith. I am grateful that God is mindful that we are but dust (Ps. 103:13,14), blessed if we believe without seeing (Jn. 20:29), and knows that the best of us sees in a mirror dimly (I Cor. 13:12).

I find it somewhat ironic that you liked Hitchens. I did too so I get it. His short book on dying (Mortality) is compelling. I love that one of the three authors that Hitchens requested be brought to him in his last days was Chesterton! The other two were Nietzsche and Mencken. Quite a trifecta! Yet, Hitchens was a man of certainty. Remember, we read and discussed god is not Great. He sounded like John R. Rice, so in the end I did not find him very illuminating.

There are many things I am not certain of, but I will mention one. As you know, I wrote my M.A. thesis (and then slightly expanded book) as a critique of annihilationists on the doctrine of hell. Though Stott, Hughes, et al. were mentioned, I spent most the time on Clark Pinnock’s view. To my delight, Professor Pinnock (along with J.I. Packer and Dallas Willard) wrote an endorsement. Pinnock said it was a fair and worthy treatment.

Years later after writing that first book (it came out in 1995), I am not so sure about many aspects related to the nature and duration of hell.

The following are some of the things that give me a “proper confidence” of what I believe.

*I start with the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. From there, I look at how Jesus handled the Scriptures. See John Wenham’s book, Christ and the Bible. I am fairly confident this is a wise way to proceed.

*I intentionally seek out alternative views to my own. It is why I listened to all three cable stations (we no longer have cable) and in the car listen to everything from NPR to right wing radio. It is also why Ralph Waldo Emerson has been a major conversation partner for over two decades. He wrote things that I need to hear, even and maybe especially when they make me angry.

*I seek out people who are willing to interact over the most contentious issues of the day. For example, in both writing, teaching, and conversations I had many vigorous discussions with pro-Trump Christians. In some of the best conversations we each learned some things we would not have otherwise learned. It is true that I remained a Never-Trumper, but my objections were clarified/slightly modified by these conversations.

You could read this as apologetic that there are others who have not bowed a knee to the Baal of certitude. You may be surprised that there are more than you imagined!

AMERICA’S FIRST POLITICIAN

MADISON REALLY IS AMERICA’S FIRST POLITICIAN

This is a remarkable biography. It is lucid, well-written, and gives a very balanced portrait of Madison.

Cost conveys several of Madison’s mistakes, yet the author does a terrific job of showcasing Madison’s genius, not just in brain power which he had plenty, but in our fourth president’s ability to compromise in generally wise ways.

Some find Madison a typical flip-flopper, but Jay Cost convincingly demonstrates that this is a misread of Madison.

A wonderful read that will elevate your understanding of the early Republic. You will also learn much about key players, especially Hamilton.

AN AUSSIE WHO KNOWS AMERICA BETTER THAN MOST AMERICANS

This is the third book I’ve read by this author. All have been terrific.

Sayers has a real knack for putting things in a fresh perspective. He effectively uses history and global trends to illumine the topic at hand. In this book, it is how the church can wisely address living between eras, what Sayers describes as a “gray zone.”

There are many invaluable insights to be sure in this book, but many times I found myself launching in a direction that the author probably did not intend, but I nonetheless found fruitful.

Highly recommended!

CHURCH SIZE: TOO BIG TO SUCCEED?

From my newsletter, “Moore’s Musings”:

For the first time I am taking a departure from the regular format for “Moore’s Musings.” In light of my previous comments about “megachurches,” I wanted to list some of my other convictions about church size.

Instead of sending this out two weeks after the previous “Moore Musings” I took an additional two weeks to gather my thoughts. Preaching regularly at a wonderful church outside of Austin also limited my time a bit in working on this edition.

I would not characterize my thoughts here as tentative, but perhaps provisional is an apt word to use. Tentative is too weak, but provisional underscores that my thoughts are still open to further reflection and correction.

I learn much from those who disagree with me, especially those who are gracious in doing so! By all means offer your pushback, thoughts, or questions. You can contact me either by email or post your comments on my blog at www.twocities.org. Your comments via email may be included in future blasts, but I won’t give your name unless you approve.

Away we go…

I have been thinking about the size of churches for many years. Since I have ministered in small, medium, and big churches, it seemed time to make my views more public. I believe the topic merits more attention than it gets. I should add that the recent scandals in several megachurches, as awful as they have been, didn’t influence my thinking below.

Here then are a series of miscellaneous and compressed thoughts on church size:

*I no longer believe the size of larger churches (somewhat arbitrarily set as 300 or more regular attenders) is neutral.

It is common to hear the argument that the size of a church is neutral. Size is likened to a baseball bat. As the logic goes, it is stated that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a baseball bat. Yes, you can kill someone with a baseball bat, but manufacturers like Louisville Slugger didn’t have that kind of slugging in mind when they made their bats.

I think size not only can but does present unnecessary obstacles that make being a body of believers much more challenging. How can a large group of people fulfill all the “one another” commands of Scripture when it is easy to be anonymous?

I have adapted the typical baseball bat analogy to highlight my concerns about big churches. Imagine having a huge baseball bat. Many are impressed by the massive bat. It effortlessly crushes homers. The person wielding the bat is very nice. Many on the field are in awe of the bat and the batters that are privileged to use it. Bats that big would change the complexion of the game we know as baseball. It would no longer be baseball as we have come to understand and love the game. So yes, I question whether thousands gathered together in the same place are still really “doing church.”

*I am keenly aware that small churches can have big problems, while big churches may have smaller problems. I have observed both. This undeniable reality doesn’t affect my concerns about big churches. Read on to see why.

*Small churches can have autocratic leaders who do much damage. Big churches can and do have autocratic leaders, but small churches may feel more vulnerable to tolerating a dictatorial leader since more qualified pastors are unlikely to be attracted to ministry in a small church. I have wondered aloud on different occasions why pastors generally (I know a few exceptions) feel “called by God” to move to a bigger church.

*Because of their size, and even more so if the church is not part of a denomination, smaller churches can get isolated and so make themselves more vulnerable to ungodly influences and unbiblical fads.

*I do have concerns about house churches, many times an overreaction to bigger churches. I have been very involved in both big and small churches, but never participated in a house church. My concerns about house churches mainly revolve around the problems of autonomy and their vulnerability to self-appointed leaders who are not qualified to lead. I have heard a few horror stories. I know there are some healthy examples of house churches, but I think their independence presents obstacles to the best kind of spiritual growth.

*With small churches you don’t have the structural issues that impede being known. A small church is not magically healthy simply because it’s small, but at least you don’t have to fight the structural challenges that come with bigness.

*Small churches don’t have structural impediments to reflecting the family ethos mentioned in the Bible. Like the previous point, small churches don’t automatically do this just because they are small. They must have godly leaders who are committed to functioning as a family. In some healthy small churches, I have seen all ages mixing in an organic way. I have never seen it done very well in bigger churches. In bigger churches you find specialty ministries that sequester the old from the young and vice versa. It’s why you have the sixty-plus old folks in Sunday school classes with names like the “Sunset” class.

*Speaking of specialties, Johns Hopkins University was the first research university in America. Many separate departments with their own specializations. Many good things have come from specialization. With respect to Johns Hopkins, their early adoption of more rigorous research methods in medicine thanks to the inspiration of European scholars, yielded many benefits.

Specialization, for good and for ill, has affected all areas of life including the church. It is why we put modifiers in front of pastor: senior, executive, associate, adult education, discipleship, evangelism, youth, and more. These areas of specialization dull us to the indispensable character qualities all pastors should have. C.S. Lewis wrote how modifiers can kill important words:

As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a “real gentleman” or “a true gentleman” or “a gentleman in the truest sense” we may be sure that the word has not long to live…[1]

*Individualism is a big problem in our culture and in the church. Mature Christian growth does not come from being individualistic. Where is it easier to hide and be the person you want to be: a big church where you can be anonymous or a small one where your presence or lack thereof is noticeable?

*Big churches usually have a hodgepodge of unrelated ministries. A church I served in for five years had an annual “ministry fair.” About seventy distinct ministries of the church were offered as possible avenues for growth. We in leadership pretty much left it up to everyone to figure out where they should get involved. That kind of chaos with multiple choices does not produce mature Christians.

*I Peter 5 assumes the leadership knows the congregation and the congregation knows the leadership. At the big church I was at in the 1990s, the elders realized the body largely did not trust them. What to do? They decided to be greeters for a few weeks so people could get to know them. I kid you not. The relationships between the elders and the body did not improve.

Even if the elders are qualified men, how is it possible for them to know and be known by thousands?

*In the pastoral epistles, Paul assumes that one who is engaged in pastoral ministry is an elder. The interesting thing is that it is difficult to find “Bible-believing” churches where every pastor is an elder. I have scoured hundreds of church web sites. When all the pastors and elders are listed, it is almost never the case that all pastors are elders. Why is this if Paul assumes that all pastors are elders? I already knew the answer but decided to ask a few biblical scholars and pastors. The answer: the elders are typically afraid that the pastors will wield too much influence on the body. Fear of a voting bloc is the way some put it. And yes, it seems bigger churches are more prone to this fear.

*Larger churches tend to fast track membership. The large numbers seem to demand it. We had four weeks at the big church I served. I told the elders that an unprincipled Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness could become a member at our church. This certainly could happen at any size church, but when you have large numbers wanting to be members you feel the pressure to fast track the process.

Much more could be said, but this is already too long. If you have read this far, please receive my thanks, and do consider offering a comment or question.

Moore’s Musings is free, but tax-deductible gifts to Two Cities Ministries are most appreciated.

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Dave Moore

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Austin, Texas

78749

 

[1] From C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Death of Words,” As quoted on www.cslewis.com/language-and-the-meaning-of-words.

BRILLIANT AND DEVASTATING ASSESSMENT

First, a note about the cover design. The photo does not do it justice, but this is a beautiful and provocative cover. It is truly a work of art.

Kotkin’s book only has 172 pages of text, but it is not a quick read. This is hardly due to a lack of lucid writing. Indeed, the book is written in a very lucid manner. The reason it is not a quick read, or at least should not be a quick read, is that Kotkin packs so much in for the reader to consider.

In a nutshell, this book does a brilliant job at detailing the forces that are hollowing out the middle class.

Yes, the text only is 172 pages, but Kotkin’s prodigious research into these issue yields almost 100 pages of endnotes.

Highly recommended!

WRITING TO PERSUADE

Trish Hall has the background to write a terrific book on persuasion. And indeed, she has done just that. As the former op-ed. page editor for The New York Times she knows what it takes to write in a compelling way.

Various studies are mentioned in the book. These do not impede there being ample feet on the ground wisdom that helps all writers to succeed at persuasive prose.

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

Reader beware! Didion is a great writer, but also a haunting one. 

Here she reflects on the death of her husband. She also writes about the brutal circumstances of her only child’s ailments which eventually kill her shortly after Didion’s husband.

Didion does not believe God is in control. As she writes, “The eye is not on the sparrow.”

So be careful if you choose to read this seductive and sad book. Discerning readers will be enriched, but one must be ready to face the utter hopelessness of one who does not believe there is anything/anyone beyond this world.

STUCK IN THE PRESENT

When I wrote Stuck in the Present, I was not thinking about megachurches per se, but this excerpt describes a concern that seems more formidable in larger churches:

“A community, especially a Christian one, is a group of people who share something in common that transcends socioeconomic or racial backgrounds. What Christians share is a common history—a living tradition. When we lose sight of this living tradition, we put ourselves in a perilous situation. With a sketchy understanding of our common identity as Christians, we are no longer able to have true community with one another.”

David George Moore, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians, p. 93.

WHY JOHNNY CAN’T PREACH

Gordon has written what legitimately could be called a “thin and weighty book” on preaching.

In just over 100 pages, Gordon offers much insight with his penetrating and provocative comments about the dire state of preaching.

As one who preaches from time to time, I can say that this book protected me from some of the common gaffes that preachers make in either preparation or delivery.

Highly recommended, and I should add that all teachers, not just preachers, would derive much benefit from working through this book.