Friday, October 26, 2007

More Than Preaching: A Vision for Shepherding People

I trace my serious interest in counseling issues to the one required course in pastoral counseling I took for my Master of Divinity degree. I distinctly remember one class session in which the professor, a professional counselor, advised us that when we moved to a new congregation as pastors, we should try to make acquaintance with two professionals in the area to whom we could refer people - a Christian physician and a Christian psychologist. The physician I understood. However, I found the assumption that as pastors we would be capable of helping people with minor squabbles but in need of referring those with serious problems to psychological experts puzzling, to say the least. Here I was at a theological institution committed to equipping its students with the necessary skills for understanding and applying the Word of God so as to address people about the most important issue in their lives, their standing with respect to God. Yet, at least in this class, the impression was being given (unintentionally, I'm sure) that that same Word was largely irrelevant to significantly helping people resolve the lesser problems of life. Unfortunately, I have spoken with students who were majoring in counseling at evangelical seminaries who have expressed disappointment that they were not taught how to make substantive use of the Scriptures in the course of counseling.

My reminiscing was stirred two days ago while reading an article from a past issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. It's an interview with John Street conducted by David Powlison called "Exegete the Bible; Exegete the Person" (Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1998). At the time of the interview Dr. Street was Senior Pastor of Clear Creek Chapel in Springboro, Ohio. He's now a member of the faculty at the Master's College.

Recalling the deficiency of his own seminary training Street says:

I was trained through seminary to be a pulpit-oriented pastor. By that I mean my primary role would be that of preaching. Occasionally I would make home and hospital visits and do evangelism, but I had very little to do with individual people and their problems. What problems I did handle as a pastor were minor disagreements or marriage struggles. Basically I was taught that a pastor was not capable of handling anything else.

After I completed seminary I took biblical counseling training, which was required of me as an associate pastor. The Lord humbled me and began to place within me a real burden for not just preaching but for shepherding people. My early biblical counseling training gave me a vision for shepherding people that I had not had. In one sense I had it, but it was very impersonal and from the pulpit, ministering the Word of God to a large crowd. A colleague and I joke about this now. He says, "As I look at it, it's easy to preach. You're not going to have somebody object to what you say. But when you get into a counseling situation where you're sitting across the table from somebody and trying to minister the Word of God, and the ugliness of their sinful nature raises its head and they argue and object and make excuses and blame-shift and run away from the problem, now you're in a struggle." Preaching is not the struggle. I think it's easy compared to working through problems with people.
When asked to select one passage that anchors the way he thought about counseling in the context of Christian life and pastoral ministry, Street cited Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:

In that scene he is passing the baton to the leadership of the church, a non-apostolic generation like us. When he addresses them, he's addressing me. He's saying, "Here's what I want you to do in terms of ministry." He sets his own life up as an example. In Acts 20:20 he says, "I preached publicly and then went from house to house." He talked about the fact that for three years "I went to each of you, day and night with tears." I did not have that perspective at all coming out of seminary. My view of the ministry primarily was forty hours a week in the study, some occasional administration, making some evening calls on people, hospital visits, and preaching and teaching on Sunday. That was it. The rest of the time was preparation and isolation and reading all my books. Oh, my, ministry seemed so easy from that perspective! Who wouldn't want that?

I think a lot of guys escaped to that because they were scared to deal with counseling problems. I was.
I wonder how many seminary-trained pastors could share Dr. Street's testimony. Are our seminaries equipping men to be powerful preachers but impotent physicians of the soul?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Isaiah 53 Debate This Sunday

On Sunday, October 28th, Chosen People Ministries will webcast a debate between Dr. Michael Brown and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach originally held in June of this year. The debate, titled "Did Jesus Die for Our Sins?", focuses on the interpretation of Isaiah 53.

Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from NYU and is the author of several books including the four-volume series Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus and What Do Jewish People Think about Jesus? He is the founder and president of ICN Ministries.

Rabbi Boteach, named "the most famous rabbi in America" by Newsweek, is the host of the popular television show Shalom in the Home. He has also authored numerous books including An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism and Judaism for Everyone.

View the debate here anytime on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Groothuis on Impersonal Education

Doug Groothuis considers the implications of a Christian view of personality for pedagogical practice and lists a number of examples of the "degradation of persons in American education." Regrettably, many of the elements he identifies are characteristic of theological education.

Not content with simply pointing out the problem, Groothuis proposes the following correctives:
1. Students and teachers live not too far from each other or perhaps even on the same compound. They spend protracted time together in many different situations, as Jesus did with the disciples.

2. Class sizes are fairly small, such that students get to know each other and the teacher is allowed into the lives of the students and vice versa.

3. Class timing is more elastic, more kairos oriented and less chronos dominated.Few institutions allow for such oddities. Most that approximate these ideas are probably not "accredited" by an official agency. This would include the L'Abris worldwide and ministries that are similar.
Jesus said that a fully trained disciple (i.e., learner) will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40). Therefore, truly Christian education has the formation of character and not the transmission of information as its ultimate goal. Groothuis's vision is consistent with this end. I hope more Christian teachers and institutions catch it.

To Everyone Who's Sent Me One of Those Inspirational Chain E-mails

I did what you told me...I sent the email prayer to 12 people like you said. I'm still waiting for that miracle.

For a more substantive rant against Christian chain e-mails, see my Forward If You Love Jesus.

A Congregation of Customers

The Wall Street Journal's Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews James B. Twitchell's Shopping for God:
Choosing a religion, he argues, is much like choosing any other product--from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the "spiritual marketplace" in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book's smug chapter titles: "Christian Consumers Are Consumers First."


If you can find a way of seeing religion primarily as a form of consumerism--skipping the (how to put it?) faith and truth part of religious belief--then Mr. Twitchell's analysis makes some sense. And in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to "grow" their flock, and they obey a market discipline. Mr. Twitchell notices a sign hanging in Mr. Hybels's megachurch office that quotes Peter Drucker, the business guru.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Spiritual Battle After Sexual Sin

In a CT article adapted from a message he gave at Passion '07, John Piper gives gospel-grounded instruction in withstanding Satan's onslaughts after sexual sin:
The problem is not just how not to fail. The problem is how to deal with failure so that it doesn't sweep away your whole life into wasted mediocrity with no impact for Christ.

The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.

I have a passion that you do not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. But mostly I want to take out of the Devil's hand the weapon that exploits your sin and makes your life a wasted, worldly success. Satan wants that for you. But you don't!

What broke George Verwer's heart back in the 1980s, and breaks mine today, is not that you have sinned sexually. It's that this morning Satan took your 2 A.M. encounter—whether on TV or in bed—and told you: "See, you're a loser. You may as well not even worship. No way are you going to make any serious commitment of your life to Jesus Christ! You may as well get a good job so you can buy yourself a big widescreen and watch sex till you drop."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Idols of the Heart and "Vanity Fair"

At last, David Powlison's masterful article, Idols of the Heart and "Vanity Fair" (PDF), is online! This is one of his works to which I frequently return and which I've long wished was available on the net so others could readily access it. It's a profound, practical look at the relevance of the recurring biblical theme of idolatry for understanding motivation. Here's Powlison's introduction:
One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences? Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.

One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question. Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures. So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question. How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior? In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?
Reading this article will help you understand why C. J. Mahaney credits Powlison with being the "living guy" from whom he's learned the most about sanctification and Elyse Fitzpatrick, in Idols of the Heart, thanks him for reconfiguring her thinking about idolatry. (HT:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

God Delusion Debate Audio

Audio of the Richard Dawkins - John Lennox debate is available:

Part 1 (47:28, 13.6 MB)
Part 2 (44:01, 12.62 MB)
Part 3 (27:28, 7.87 MB)

(HT: Steve Bishop)

Michael Horton on Osteen's Gospel of "God Loves You Anyway"

In connection with Michael Horton's appearance on 60 Minutes' segment on Joel Osteen, The White Horse Inn is offering a free audio download of a program that addressed faith and the gospel. Dr. Horton's opening commentary on Joel Osteen's message is outstanding. Here's a transcribed excerpt (which I later realized is taken from Horton's essay "Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study"):
Instead of accepting God's just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers to just reject guilt and condemnation all together. Quote: 'If you will simply obey His commands, He will change things in your favor. God is keeping a record of every good deed you've ever done. In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you're taken care of.'

Now, it may be Law-Lite but make no mistake about it, behind a smiling boomer evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God's wrath or justice there's a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news. The sting of the law may be taken out of the message but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God's holiness.

So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that he smiles when he says it. In its therapeutic milieu, the sins we need to avoid are failing to live up to our potential and failing to believe in ourselves and the wages of such sins is missing out on our best life now.
The audio also includes a conversation with D. A. Carson about the newly formed Gospel Coalition

Thinking Biblically about Life's Problems

Two new publications are forthcoming from Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation faculty members Paul David Tripp and Ed Welch. Click on the pics for more details. (HT: Mark Combs)

Girl Talk's Carolyn Mahaney interviews Elyse Fitzpatrick, author of Love to Eat Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits, about a biblical perspective on anorexia and bulimia (Part 1| Part 2).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Joel Osteen Making the Network Rounds

Joel Osteen was on Good Morning America today promoting his new book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day. His wife, Victoria, is scheduled to make an appearance on tomorrow's broadcast. The strong of stomach can view a video of the segment here. In a brief interview, Robin Roberts asked Osteen's wife how they met. Victoria recounted that fateful day when Joel came into her family's jewelry store to buy a battery for his watch and added "He says I've been taking his money ever since." To make sure that viewers understand that this was an attempt at humor, Victoria explained with seemingly nervous laughter, "That's his joke." I agree, Mrs. Osteen. That was awkward.

Reading the comments at GMA's site I learned that Osteen was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment last night (video and transcript available here). This is more in-depth than the GMA piece. If you can only watch one, watch this one. No softball questions here. Reporter Byron Pitts points out, for example, that none of the seven principles laid out in Osteen's new book, mention God or Jesus Christ. Osteen replies:
"That's just my message. There is scripture in there that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I'm called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, 'Here’s a book that's going to explain the scriptures to you.' I don’t think that’s my gifting." So, the pastor of America's largest church, who is influencing people around the globe, admits that he is not a gifted Bible teacher?

The 60 Minutes piece also includes an interview with Westminster West's Michael Horton who calls Osteen's message a "cotton candy gospel" that can be summarized as "God is nice, you're nice, be nice."

Coincidentally, this morning someone left a comment on a two-year old Osteen-related post in which he claims to have attended Lakewood Church for almost two months while visiting the US from Africa. Jorge contends that, contrary to critics, Osteen does preach Jesus and salvation while admitting that Osteen plays down "other aspect[s] of Christianity" such as the doctrine of hell. There's no doubt that Osteen preaches a Jesus (as did false teachers in Corinth) and a salvation from such things as poverty, negative thoughts, and low self-esteem. But to the extent that he de-emphasizes human sin, divine holiness, the necessity of repentance and faith, and the mediating work of Christ, he is preaching neither the biblical Jesus nor the biblical message of salvation by grace through faith.

UPDATE: Tim Challies reviews Osteen's new book. I think Tim is right about the reason for Osteen's mass appeal:

I think the secret to Osteen's success is this: he teaches self-help but wraps it in a thin guise of Christian terminology. Thus people believe they are being taught the Bible when the reality is that they are learning mere human wisdom rather than divine wisdom. Osteen cunningly blends the wisdom of this age with language that sounds biblical. He blends the most popular aspects of New Age and self-help teaching with Christianity. And his audience is eagerly drinking this in.
Had I done any blog reading over the weekend I would have learned about the 60 Minutes interview from Justin Taylor who points to a series of essays titled "Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study" written by Michael Horton after his interview with the news program.

Michael Spencer hits the proverbial nail on the head in his reactions to the 60 Minutes piece:

As much as I would like to join those who say that Osteen is a simpleton who doesn’t know what he’s doing, a close examination will show that at every point where there is a choice between being part of the church or departing into heresy, Osteen sticks with the church where there is money to be had and departs from the church where there is a faith to be confessed. He’s a heretic, even if he is a believer, and he communicates a purposefully false trivialization of the person and work of Jesus Christ in favor of a man-centered motivational message of self-improvement.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Recent Discovery

Philosopher Victor Reppert, whose book, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, I referred to two posts ago, has a blog appropriately called dangerous idea. (HT: The Stuff of Life)

"The God Delusion" Debate

Richard Dawkins will engage John Lennox (Reader in Mathematics and Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green College, University of Oxford and author of God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?) in a debate tomorrow (10/3) between 7 and 9 PM CT. The debate will center on Dawkins' views as expressed in his best seller, The God Delusion and their validity over and against the Christian faith.

Moody Broadcasting will live stream the event. Additional information is available from the debate's sponsor, Fixed Point Foundation.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Dawkins Talk Recap

For the sake of at least one inquirer and anyone else who's interested, I thought I'd give a brief report on how things went with the discussion of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion at our local public library almost two weeks ago. My friend and coworker, Tim Hunter, and I got the idea for the event while browsing a catalog from the library announcing various classes and lectures that would be offered as part of their adult programming. Seeing the variety of perspectives represented (a class on numerology especially caught our attention) prompted us to consider how we could utilize that forum to engage people in the community with a thoughtful Christian perspective. I frequently consider what the contemporary analogues to the first century marketplace are. In what public venues are people willing to hear and discuss ideas of great consequence? I think bookstores and libraries are natural answers because, for the most part, those who frequent them care about ideas.

Since Dawkins' book has proved to be of such great national interest (falling short of a year on the New York Times' bestseller list by only a week), it seemed a reasonable choice for a library event.
Our intent was not to give a gospel presentation but rather to chip away at the plausibility of Dawkins' argument in hope of getting people to think critically about his position and, perhaps, to open lines of communication with people willing to discuss the issues further beyond the scheduled event.

Fifty-three people registered for the program though only about 50 showed up with 15 of that number being from our church. Prior to our getting started the library's coordinator of adult programming informed us that someone had called earlier that day complaining that the library was hosting such an event because "only one side would be presented." I was hoping that the caller would be there to offer an opposing viewpoint but if he or she did attend, they didn't offer any rebuttal to anything we offered by way of critique of Dawkins' position. Admittedly, we were slightly nervous about the potential of having hostile audience members but that wasn't the case. The conversation that did take place after our presentation, even with those who seemed sympathetic to Dawkins, was mutually respectful and enjoyable.

Making efficient use of the 90 minutes we were allotted was challenging. We wanted to allow adequate time for Q & A but we also had a lot of material to cover. We assumed that most of the people in attendance would not have read the book and that assumption proved correct. In our introductory remarks we noted that we were the kind of people that Richard Dawkins hopes would be converted to atheism upon completion of his book. We went on to explain that neither of us had such an epiphany as a result of reading The God Delusion but not for the reason Dawkins offers. According to him, "dyed-in-the-wool-faith-heads" are immune to reasoning on account of years of religious indoctrination including dire warnings to avoid "Satanic" books like his. Tim and I said that while we have arrived at a different conclusion than has Dawkins, we nevertheless are in agreement with him that the discussion of whether God exists is worthy of discussion in the public arena and are therefore grateful to him and the spate of atheist authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris who have helped bring the topic to the forefront of public discourse.

We went on to point out another area of agreement with Dawkins, namely that religious beliefs should not be afforded such a privileged status that their being questioned or critiqued is regarded as inherently offensive. We said that while we think that people should be treated respectfully, we think it's misguided to insist in the name of respect that we take a position that counts all religious beliefs as equally valid or true. We added that we think we should be able to argue the merits of various religious systems while being respectful of those with whom we disagree. As Christian theists, we are persuaded that Christianity is true just as adherents to other religious and/or philosophical beliefs regard their beliefs as true which means that regardless of our position, we consider beliefs that contradict those we hold to be true, to be false.

We spent a little over an hour giving a chapter by chapter overview of the book followed by our critique which concentrated on Dawkins' pre-scientific materialistic philosophy, his failure to distinguish between science and scientism, the inconsistency between his Darwinian account of morality and his repeatedly speaking like a moral realist or absolutist, and his failure to even acknowledge the theistic argument from rationality as presented by C. S. Lewis in Miracles and more recently by philosophers such as Victor Reppert in his C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason and Alvin Plantinga in numerous writings including his review of The God Delusion for Books & Culture.

By the time we got through our presentation we had about 25 minutes left for discussion during which time someone said that though Dawkins might overstate the case, he does have a valid point about the atrocities committed on account of religious beliefs. We responded that it is not religious belief per se that causes violence but rather what is believed that is the crucial issue. Another participant voiced frustration with every religion trying to prove that it's better than the others and made an appeal for tolerance. To this we reiterated that if we are to take religious claims seriously, we can't say that they're all accurate descriptions of God and the world regardless of the fact that they are, in many cases, mutually exclusive.

Following our presentation we had some opportunities to talk with a few folks who thanked us for our efforts. The library's program coordinator sent us a very encouraging letter of appreciation in which she reported that numerous patrons told her how much they enjoyed the event. This, along with the number of people who showed up, makes us optimistic about the potential for offering related talks in the near future. We've already started thinking about what other books we might use.