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.

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.

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.

The Barbarian Conversion

Richard Fletcher [The Barbarian Conversion] notes that ancient Christendom was not monolithic:

In terms of custom and practice there were many churches in sixth- and seventh-century Europe, not One Church. Christendom was many-mansioned.

Fletcher talks about the motif of exile in the monastic expansion. Christians, following the writing of Augustine, saw themselves as exiles and pilgrims and then the monastics took this exile literally. They often left their homeland and people to found monastic missions amongst others. Fletcher says:

Pilgrimage, in the sense of ascetic renunciation of homeland and kinsfolk, is of special importance in our understanding of the phenomenon of conversion in the early Middle Ages. Pilgrimage merged insensibly into mission. The monasteries that were founded by the exiled holy men had something of the character of mission stations. It was not that they were established primarily among pagans; indeed, they could not have been, dependent as they were on wealthy patrons, necessarily Christian…for their endowments…But their monastic communities were situated on the margins of Christendom, and had what might be called “diffusive potential” among nearby laity who were Christian only in the most nominal of senses.

It seems to me that we could apply this same method to the diffusion of the faith in our day. Establishing tightly-focused communities at the margins of our society, for example in rural areas and urban areas that aren’t glamorous. Communities devoted to Biblical saturation, mission and learning which could aim to gradually convert the surrounding area.

Mourning

I was very sad today to hear that Michael Spencer’s cancer is terminal. When I iron I usually (used to) listen to his podcast to keep me company and he ‘s one of those guys that I felt I knew even though I’ve never met him and he doesn’t know that I exist. I disagree with him on a lot of things, but I so admire his love for Jesus, his love for the Church and the way he wrote himself into the broader world, using his talents to say what was on his mind and get recognized and admired for it. Thank you God for giving him to the Church. I will still pray for his healing, but if he indeed is called to Jerusalem above, I will thank God for his brief time on this earth. And how scary it is to read this post of his on “the day before” just a month before his cancer struck.  He said:

Live each day as the day that all of the Gospel is true. Live this day and be glad in it. Live this day as the day of laying down sin and taking up the glad and good forgiveness of Jesus. Live this day determined to be useful and joyful in Jesus. Live this day in a way that, should all things change tomorrow, you will know that the Lord is your God and this is the day to be satisfied in him.

Amen.

Stanley Fish on Liberalism

Fish discusses the liberal Western order (not political liberalism) and observes:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.

How is it that he sees things so clearly and yet Christians are so blind?! He writes later:

That is what Marsden should want: not the inclusion of religious discourse in a debate no one is allowed to win, but the triumph of religious discourse and the silencing of its atheistic opponents. To invoke the criterion of intellectual validity and seek shelter under its umbrella is to surrender in advance to the enemy, to that liberal rationality whose inability even to recognize the claims of faith has been responsible for religion’s marginalization in the first place. Marsden wants to argue against that marginalization, but his suggestion for removing it is in fact a way of reinforcing it. He calls it “procedural rationality.” The procedure is to scrutinize religious viewpoints and distinguish between those that “honor some basic rules of evidence and argument” and those that “are presented so dogmatically and aggressively as not to be accommodated within the procedural rules of pluralistic academia.”
One could hardly imagine a better formula for subordinating the religious impulse to the demands of civil and secular order. Presumably it will not be religion that specifies what the rules of evidence and argument to be honored are; and it surely will not be religion that stigmatizes as dogma any assertion that does not conform to the requirements of those rules. Dogma, of course, is a word that once had a positive meaning: it meant the unqualified assertion of a priori truths and was indistinguishable from a truly strong religiosity. It is only under the liberal dispensation that dogma acquires the taint of obdurateness, of a culpable refusal to submit to the test of reasonableness as defined by the standards and norms of the civil establishment.

Fish sees the Van Tillian antithesis. The very notion that “religion” should “contribute” to a “public square” marginalizes the truth which is that all of reality is encompassed in the rule of the resurrected Messiah from Nazareth. I think such public square attempts are fine if they are recognized for what they are: tactics in the long war which will tide us over until the nation is baptized and under the reign of King Jesus.

Jordan on Pastors

James Jordan says:

Second, by no means are all pastors, teachers, and preachers gifted as exegetes or expositors. Pastors are curates of souls primarily. Teachers often are called to pass on the heritage of the faith, not rework it for modern times. One of the errors I encountered in seminary was the notion that all pastors should develop their sermons out of an in-depth exegesis from the original Hebrew and Greek. Virtually nobody ever does this, of course, but it was held out as an ideal. There is nothing ideal about it, however. Preachers need to pass on the heritage of the church to their people, with a pastoral eye to their psychological and spiritual situation. If they get their homilies by borrowing from Spurgeon, or from other people’s outlines — what’s wrong with that?

Church Government = National Government?

I’m wondering if the church often reflects the governing paradigm of the world-empire that it is situated in. In Roman times this meant the highly-structured governmental organization that mirrored the Imperial government. In America it means a reflection of corporate governance, with the pastor as CEO and maybe a “board” with some other trappings of democracy. My impression is that even in the Catholic Church, democracy has invaded at the local level to a large extent.


James Jordan writes “One of the essential failures of the Protestant Reformation was the forfiture of a truly international ecclesiastical organization, and too close a tie of the church to national interests.”