Small Groups as Part of the Good Life

Isolation kills. Spiritually, we are meant to live in community. One way to do this is through small groups, by whatever name they are called. There are many reasons to conduct and participate in small groups, but one I have not seen is to me central, and that is the definition of the good life given by Aristotle:

“happiness,” or the good life, which is to be attained in a community of family and friends who can satisfy one another’s material and social needs, behave justly toward one another, and, according to their capacity, contemplate the Good.

There are many nights when I don’t feel like going to small group. I’d rather stay home, avoid the drive and rest. But this definition springs to mind and helps me to focus on a primary reason for going. Contemplating “the good” – in our case, the Triune God – is done in some measure by being with other Christians and reflecting on God’s Word together. It’s a simple concept, but it has been held to be central to human happiness throughout Western history, and I believe that vision holds true today.

 

Sovereign Grace’s Evolving Polity

For some time, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) has had “Apostles.” Now however, things have changed and the apostolic team is now the much more mundane “regional leadership team.” This post has the details. It seems like most movements that begin with a charismatic, non-institutional flux end up with a tight structure and with their own institutions. The move away from using the term apostle is a move in the right direction. Now, why aren’t they honest enough to drop the “family of churches” for the dreaded “denomination”?

Looking at the situation a bit further, notice that SGM has four men on their overarching “Leadership Team”, see here. This team is above the regional leadership team and its eight men. It’s funny as someone who believes in the episcopacy to watch these groups bump around until they find something roughly equivalent to episcopal ministry. C.J. and the Leadership Team are Archbishops, while the regional leadership team are bishops of their regions.

I find the very existence of the group alongside the seemingly similar-in-belief Acts 29 and the Grace Network to be a bit puzzling. Is there no degree of catholicity possible, even amongst churches with identical beliefs? Do atmospherics count for that much? Does John 17 figure at all in our theology these days?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:11 ESV)

Needy Churches

Father Dan Claire has a good post up at RenewDC on how healthy churches should be needy churches. He says in part:

A healthy church grieves the departure of members not because of the loss of revenue, but because of the loss of gifts. Departures drive the remaining members to their knees to pray for new body parts, so that the body might be complete, and the church might fulfill her vocation as a kingdom outpost. Likewise, when God sends new people to a healthy church, there are legitimate holes to be filled and everyone rejoices in the Lord’s provision.

Losing Old Church Buildings

I’m hearing that the court case against the Virginia CANA churches may not go well. Truro, Falls Church and others may be forced to leave their historic buildings. I’ve never been a fan of the “defend the property” strategy, but this is still very sad news. Turning these buildings over to heretics is akin to the North African Church falling to Islam a long time ago.

With that said, it occurred to me today that one reason that it is such a blow to lose these venerable buildings is because there is so little chance of replacing them in our lifetime. Our theology of architecture is so impoverished, and the buildings that we typically build as Protestant churches are generally so awful, that losing these old buildings is a great tragedy.

Most new church buildings are ephemeral, not durable. They are ugly, functional, “multi-purpose” facilities where people worship in the gym. There is generally no art, no stained glass windows and nothing that would really differentiate these buildings from the prison-like school buildings that we build today. On the other hand, places like Truro have a simple elegance and exude a sense of tranquility and “churchiness” that is lacking in most modern Protestant facilities. It seems that Catholics have kept their senses and are producing some great buildings even today. I live down the street from one and I’ve seen many others, such as the gorgeous Holy Apostles in Meridian, Idaho.

So if we are going to continue to think that buildings don’t matter or that we need to build the cheapest, ugliest thing we can get away with and call it good, then losing the old places like Truro (and the many, many United Methodist parishes in Virginia that are gorgeous and given over to heresy) is a very sad event indeed.

A Church Home At Long Last

We have been wandering in the Wilderness for four years. Moving out of range of a good church was the worst decision we ever made. We left The Church of the Resurrection and weren’t willing to sacrifice to stay closer. We tried to hack it at unfriendly churches, shallow churches, churches with bad theology, or all the above combined. We got to go on a grand tour of what is wrong with churches today.

Being liturgical, sacramental and whole-Bible in the Kuyper/Van Til/Jordan and Leithart way limits your choices. For the first time in our Christian lives we experienced the total despair of essentially giving up and not going anywhere for almost six or seven months. And I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss the clueless worship, lack of Bible, historical ignorance, Great Commission absence or lack of community. If your church has no community, then staying home on Sunday isn’t much different from going on Sunday morning except for the lack of driving and going through the motions in a service that grates on you from beginning to end as people ignore you on the way in and the way out. I can’t justify not going – I know the commandment and I know I was not keeping it, but I didn’t see any way to keep it and stay sane.

And then, sort of out of the blue and not painlessly, God allowed us to move. This move is life-changing in many ways, but the best of them is that we get to go to a church that gets it. Last night we went to The Church of the Ascension (AMiA) in Arlington. A place with people who talked our ears off after the service – some old friends and some new. We almost had to tear ourselves away to go home. A place with clergy committed to evangelism, discipleship, the sacraments, the liturgy, and to sound theology in a Reformed via the 39 Articles way. During the entire service I was thinking, “this is it, this is where we belong.” It is almost too good to be true and I am grateful in ways that I can’t fully express for this long period of trial to seemingly be over. There will be challenges no doubt, but it will be worth the fight.

It’s hard out there in American churches if you have any sort of convictions beyond “I want a rocking praise band and programs for the kids.” I don’t know how people do it in much of the country. My suspicion is that they give up like we were and stay home. Read a book, mow the lawn, watch football, do anything. What are they missing? A goofy guy with a goatee trying to be relevant? Not much of a loss. I hope that in the few decades I may have left on the earth, people everywhere will at least have one good local option that is robustly Protestant, sacramental, liturgical and Bible-saturated. I guess that would be some form or revival, and it would be welcome.

I Can’t Interpret the Bible but I Can Interpret History

Perhaps responding to recent apostasies, Mark Horne put the problem with certain conversions to Rome and the East perfectly:

You are not impressing anyone when you claim that you don’t have the ability to read the Bible for itself but you do have the ability to study all of Christian history and identify the supernatural office that can tell you what to think.
If you can really read and argue from history in the hope of persuading others, then why not simply argue for your views from Scripture?  If you aren’t following your own authority in deciding which church to submit to then how are you following your own authority when you read the Bible and believe what it says? If you are willing to argue over the meaning of the last papal writings, why not argue over the meaning of Scripture?
The fragmented nature of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches gives the lie to the “unity” narrative. And yes, you think you can interpret history perfectly, but not the Bible…patently absurd.

To Change the World 5

Chapter 5 is called “Evidence in History” and in it Hunter traces how his take on transforming culture has played out in the growth of the Church in Rome, its expansion through the Middle Ages, and the Reformation. I really have very little to say about this chapter. It is a solid run through the past 2,000 years and I agree with it. In all of these cases you have inspired Church leaders who are steeped in the Bible and have a heart for outreach who are also connected to patrons who support them financially and make change possible. In many cases elites are converted (think of those in Caesar’s court already in the New Testament) and populations follow.

My main take away in thinking about this chapter a bit was that most change is sheer providence and riding the wave of timing and opportunity. I doubt that Luther set out to turn the entire world upside down and shatter the unity of the Western Church. I doubt that Augustine was plotting to dominate Western intellectual history via his writings. Things happened and they were in the right place at the right time. The vibe I am getting from this is that being intentional is fine and making plans is fine, but really we have zero ability to forecast the effects of what we do and we certainly cannot force change onto the world. A lot of our worldview training and strategic thinking looks laughable in the light of this. We should do what we do, work and pray, raise our kids and make it our ambition to lead a quite life. God will take care of the big changes. If you are rich or well positioned academically then you might be in place to make a greater contribution, but most of us will not do so. There are only a few figures riding the waves of change.

I think of the Beatles in this regard. What they were and what they did cannot be duplicated because they were at the right place at the right time. The culture was seething and things were changing rapidly. These guys caught the wave and rode it. They didn’t have a mission statement about how to change music. They were just there when it all happened. Serendipity, as Hunter says. I also recall one of my pastors growing up who talked about the fall of Communism and how the Church was scheming and planning to do this and that, and then God simply knocked a wall over and knocked regimes over in a matter of months. The unthinkable happened and it wasn’t due to any grand design or 50 year plan. I take comfort in this. God is in charge of the storm and it isn’t up to me or you to out think the world and come up with some think tank that produces young leaders who will overthrow everything.

To Change the World, 4

I really liked this chapter. It presents “an alternative view of culture and cultural change in eleven propositions.” Scott already posted them, and since I am short on time tonight, I will copy and paste Scott’s list in an abbreviated form. The 11 propositions are:

  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.
  2. Culture is a product of history: The fact that culture has been built over centuries also helps to give culture its staying power.
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical: Culture is not only symbolic, it is also made.
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power: Certain people and things in cultures have more cultural power than others.
  5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”
  6. Culture is generated within networks.
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent: Culture is not independent from other factors in a society, but rather is bound together with institutions like the economy and the state.
  8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.
  9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige.
  10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap.
  11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight.
I wish I had time to expand on all these points, but let me instead riff on them a bit. I find the views put forward in this chapter to be very in line with how Biblical culture seems to operate and with my own experience in life. I have a largely Norwegian heritage and I grew up in Minnesota. These cultural markers stay with me wherever I go (it’s why I love Garrison Keillor so much)! My family jokes about these things, but they are real. Our reticence to confront people publicly, our suspicion of those who are noisy or draw attention to themselves, our point of view on just about everything is real, and yet hard to define or articulate. It’s the same with everyone, although American life is a jumble of ethnic heritages and Church histories, these things still impact us. I hate being told to clap or repeat something a pastor says, not for any identifiable propositional reason, but due to cultural sensibilities that have been caught, not taught.

I am deeply influenced by marketing and by the corporate culture I exist in. Corporations seem to be only the people that make them up, and yet they are so much more. Ideas and sensibilities carry on through time and are greater than any individual. IBM meant a man in a grey suit with a short haircut. Apple means design principles inherited from Dieter Rams and a certain devotion to elegance and secrecy. Adidas (to me) meant East Coast kids at raves who drive BMW’s and play soccer. This list could be multiplied infinitely. Things press down on us in an unconscious way and stamp their impress on us, and yet we think we are making independent choices. Read Marsden or Noll about the history of American Evangelicals and see how captive we are to notions of freedom and liberty from Common Sense Realism and the American Revolution, and yet all the while thinking these notion are gleaned directly from the Bible. So I agree with Hunter that institutions matter, corporations matter, states matter, and individuals matter.

To his point about the elites being crucial to change, I again agree. This is why Opus Dei is important and successful in Catholic evangelism. Read about Opus Dei and see how they operate: they target educated, elite and rich people who then spread the work to others. They are probably responsible for the conversion of Sam Brownback, Clarence Thomas and others and members that I know of include Roberts, Alito, Louis Freeh and many others. They have powerful ideas and powerful devotional practices that make evangelicals look shallow and tawdry and so they make converts. I think Protestants need an answer to them or we will have a totally Catholic Christian elite in our nation quite soon (we seem to be trending that way on an intellectual level already).

Calvinists today are largely unaware that their movement was at one time the progressive wave and the new thing that took the young intellectuals by storm centuries ago. It was not old men in studies who caught fire and spread Calvinism, it was the same people who a few decades ago would be Marxists and today would be into whatever is coming after post-modernism. C.S. Lewis captures this marvellously in his book English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Listen to him:

This will at least serve to eliminate the absurd idea that Elizabethan Calvinists were somehow grotesque, elderly people, standing outside the main forward current of life. In their own day they were, of course, the very latest thing. Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity, and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong. It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries. It appealed strongly to those tempers that would have been Marxist in the nineteen-thirties. The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. (43)
Calvinism caught the wave and came to power as the leading edge of revolution. So many waves have followed: Transcendentalism, Deism, Communism and so forth. But my point is that Calvinism will not triumph by 25 people in an OPC somewhere clinging to the faith of their fathers, it will have to change and catch a future wave into the center in order to influence the culture truly again.

This also jives with what James Jordan has frequently said about most of the Biblical characters: they were rich or leading men in their day. We are trained that they were all poor and bedraggled, and some where. But Abraham had hundreds of servants and riches, David and Solomon were probably the equivalent of billionaires in our day. Many of the Apostles were probably at least Middle Class businessmen and Paul did not get his education at public school! The Bible itself was preserved by a hieratic caste of priests and scribes who had access to ancient languages and learning stretching back to Egypt and beyond. The Biblical culture was alien even to Israel itself! A small core of godly men preserved rich knowledge in the midst of a completely idolatrous culture around them where idols were in the very Temple of the Living God. In short, elites made the Bible and preserved it. Ministry to elites is vital, not at the expense of the poor, but certainly in tandem with it. The history of missionary efforts in Europe and other countries shows elites converting and mass populations following their lead. But contemporary evangelicalism exalts the masses and thinks that catering to them will produce cultural change – it has not happened. I am aligned with Hunter on these points and strongly encourage you to read this chapter, if nothing else in the book.

To Change the World

Rick Hogaboam, Scott Kistler and I will be reading To Change the World by James Davison Hunter and posting our thoughts about it as we go along. Hopefully we will interact with each other too. I come at Hunter’s book as a postmillenial, Magisterial Anglican and a post-Reconstructionist along the lines of Peter Leithart and James Jordan. Of course those labels may not mean much to most people, but I put them out there to say the obvious which is that I am not neutral on the subjects Hunter will discuss, I pretty much have my mind made up already.

In Chapter 1, Hunter outlines the Creation mandate of Genesis 2.15: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” He says that humans as part of our very nature are inclined to build churches, institutions, families and in short, worlds. This rings of Tolkien’s phrase that we are sub-creators. This perspective on Genesis 2.15 is indeed central to the mission and thinking of many modern Christian institutions and thinkers.

Just how central it is becomes obvious as Hunter takes a quick run through Protestant and Catholic mission statements that span groups from liberal to conservative. From the ELCA to Focus on the Family, churches and para-church ministries say that they want to “impact culture” or bring about a revolution of justice. Indeed, one has only to subscribe to certain Christian magazines engaged in the culture war (as I do) to be inundated with appeals for money in order to fund these organizations who believe that they can turn the tide in our culture.

Hunter’s quick summation concludes with this reflection:

I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.

Further Reading

Doug Wilson has been posting his running commentary on the book, available here.

There is an interview with Hunter here.