It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem

So, Hillsong declined to publicly declare a position on ‘LGBT issues’.

And the internet was awash with opinions. Some shook their heads in disappointment, because, after all, ‘the Bible is clear’. Others smugly remarked that we shouldn’t expect much from this ‘culturally accommodating’ brand of Christianity. I find neither response particularly helpful or accurate.

First, the response of certainty: ‘A non-answer is an answer.’

I understand this response, and there is some truth to it: a non-answer is indeed an answer.

But it is not saying as much as we might think it is. It does not, for example, (necessarily) mean a ‘shift’ in position. It may simply be a statement about what the church’s mission is: to announce Christ in the pluralistic public square, and to challenge Christians more specifically once they are in the community.

I didn’t read their response as fudging on the what of Christian morality but rather as a statement about the where, when and to whom. Is it the Church’s role to announce ‘positions’ on issues to the public? Or is that tendency a leftover from Christendom– the era where we were gladly the power-brokers of society, blessing presidents and wars and condemning movies and rock stars? The Church is not a government agency; we need not announce ‘policy’ to the public.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking about this as an “LGBT issue.” I read with tears an email from a congregant who thanked me for our clear yet tender conversation about homosexuality. It was the first time he felt dignified as a person. Not an issue or an agenda. If we think of this as an “LGBT issue” or a “gay agenda”, then we will rush to announce policies and positions. But if we remember that we talking with and to people– living, breathing, holy, created beings– then we will be careful to have these conversations in pastoral contexts, not in press conferences.

Secondly, the response of smugness: ‘What did we expect from Hillsong?”

If you’re looking to bag Hillsong, you don’t have to work too hard. Criticism from afar is all too easy. The lights. The arenas packed with the young and beautiful. The upcoming movie. But all these critiques are cheap. And wrong.

Today, Hillsong was accused of ‘accommodating culture’, with the not-so-subtle insinuation that this was why they have attracted such large crowds. But I wonder if the people who wrote those critiques have ever been to Hillsong. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to a sermon. I wonder if they realize that they (likely) sing Hillsongs’ songs in their own churches on Sundays. I wonder if they know that one of the biggest new songs on Hillsong’s latest album is one based on the Apostles’ Creed— written humbly in response to a challenge from an outside denominational leader.

I know how easy it is to form an opinion or to cast doubt on a group of people by what you observe from the outside. I know because I’ve done it. But it’s wrong. From an academic standpoint, it’s irresponsible sociological analysis. From a pastoral standpoint, it reeks of the ‘older brother’ all too willing to see another’s faults exposed. And from a Christian standpoint, well…

Let’s look in the log in our own eye. 

Let’s do some theological reflection for a moment. One of the more controversial statements in Merritt’s article was from Carl Lentz’s wife, who said that it isn’t our job to tell people how to live. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say that by ‘people’ she meant people outside their church.

But what if she didn’t? What if she meant that as pastors it wasn’t their job to teach their congregation how to live? Now, this would be extraordinarily troubling. But it would say more about us— all of us as modern, Western, Protestant, non-denominational Christians– than it would about Hillsong. Let me explain.

What makes it possible to say that it isn’t our job to tell anyone how to live? I submit it is the fruit of seeds many of us have participated in sowing:

  • We have perpetuated an individualistic view of salvation that allows an individual to ‘be on their own journey’– and the Church ought to be silent while they’re on it.
  • We changed the purpose of a church gathering from worship— with the historic ‘four-fold ordo’ or at least the ‘two-fold shape’ of Word and Table– to evangelism, modeling it after the Frontier Revivals– a warm-up, a sermon, and an altar call. If the church gathering is more about mission than formation, why wouldn’t we end up abdicating our role to instruct fellow Christians on a new way to live?
  • We have sent out church planters with little to no sense of ecclesiality (what makes a church a church) or covering or authority, leaving them to give ecclesial authority only to those ‘who are doing it better than us’– which, in short, means those with bigger churches.
  • We have created such a hard (and false) dichotomy between ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ that we have no place for actual moral instruction. All teaching on how we ought to live is too often reduced to ‘law’ and therefore dismissed as ‘legalism’. By misunderstanding grace to be a sort of spiritual autonomy instead of the power that makes us new and helps us live in a new way, we have side-lined any notion of ethics.
  • We have not said enough about the thoroughly biblical notion that the commandments are meant to give us life, that Jesus has a way for us to live that leads us to true human flourishing, that ‘Christian ethics’ is really an invitation to be fully and truly human.

You see, it’s too easy to scapegoat Hillsong and miss the larger problem we all share. We would do better to address our participation in an anemic or flawed soteriology and ecclessiology– the log in our own eye!– than to waste another minute dismissing a church we don’t really know.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up piece on whether we should make a distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortations HERE.

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Who Is “Church”? Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this blog series, we said that in order to answer the question of “who the Church is”, we needed to first ask who Jesus is, and then ask what His salvation is. I walked through two examples of how we tend to answer the series of questions– Who is Jesus? What is Salvation? Who is Church? What is Mission?— and then offered an alternate set of answers from what I observe in the Book of Acts.

All this is foundational. But it is a paradigm shift. Most of us are not used to seeing Church as anything but individuals united by a common purpose— reaching the lost (fill in the word of choice: evangelism, discipleship, mission). BUT…

Church is not a collective of individuals but a community— one family, one body, made of diverse parts who are not members together of an organization but who are members of one another.

Church is united not by a common purpose but by a common identity: we have been marked as the people of God, drawn into the life and fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are, as my pastor is fond of saying, sons and daughters, not slaves and orphans, or even God’s task force or missional operatives. The New Testament’s favorite image for the Church is a household: a family.

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So, what does all this mean for our gatherings, our worship services? Who is Church for?

In one sense, the Church is in the world for the world. We are blessed, broken and given for the life of the world, because we are in Jesus and He was blessed, broken and given for the world. More than that, we are in the world as a sign in the world: we are, as I mentioned in part 1, an alternate society of sorts, showing the world that a new King is now on the throne and this is what it looks like to live under His reign. In this large sense, the Church as the people of God are in the world for the sake of the world and to be a sign of God’s Kingdom in the middle of the world.

But what about the gathered Church, not the scattered Church living out in the world?

Some say it is to reach people, to go “wide” on Sundays and then “deep” on Wednesdays or in small groups. But while that addresses the need for the Church to be both deep and wide, I think it is still answering the wrong question.

The question that not many today are asking is why the Church gathers at all? If we fail to undestand this, we will treat Sundays in a utilitarian way: do the most good for the greatest number of people. So, if a movie series does the trick, go for it. Or if launching a series on sex on Easter is the way to draw them in, by all means go ahead. Or if rock and roll is what the kids are into, ditch the choir and the organ and let ’em have it. The missional movement, I fear, is a reaction to this so-called “attractional” method. No, they say, if you want to reach people, go to them.

There is merit to both approaches and yet both the missional and the attractional seem to me to be built on the same faulty premise: the Church is here to reach people!

But what if the Church is not first about reaching people but about BECOMING a People? Certainly part of the identity involves being sent into the world to “bear witness in word and deed that Jesus is King.” And certainly that witness looks like serving our city and eating and drinking with people in their homes and inviting them into our homes. But all that flows out of an identity.

You know what the Church has said about the reason it gathers? From the early Fathers to the Reformers, you’d be hard-pressed to arrive at a different conclusion than this:

The Church gathers in worship to be formed as the people of God.

We gather in worship. To center on Christ. To be drawn into the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To hear the Scripture proclaimed. To receive the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.

As we worship, we are formed as the people of God. The table is where families find their identity. At the Lord’s Table, we find our shared, communal, familial identity as the People of God. We are one not because of shared interests or personalities or income levels; we are one because Christ has made us so. Gathering in worship at the Table reminds us of that. No, more than that: it forms us as that People.

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This discovery of how the Church talked about itself long before church growth experts showed up in America has messed me up in good way. I can’t think about Sundays the way I used to. It’s not just that I can’t let the “end justify the means”; it’s that I have begun to see a different end: not reaching people but becoming a People.

You see, for decades church leaders have told us that how we worship–what we do when we gather– is just an expression of our faith, so adjust it according to the people you want to “reach.” But for centuries, the Church Fathers have told us that how we worship actually shapes our faith, so choose wisely. I wrote about the difference between those two approaches and the consequences they have on our faith, not only as individuals but as the community of believers worldwide. Find our more HERE.

Who Is “Church”? Pt. 1

What is “Church“? Who is Church for? The lost? The disciple? What are Sundays for?

Many pastors jump right to the Great Commission and define “Church” through the lens of a “heaven and hell” crisis. The church invariable gets defined by what it does or what it ought to be doing. But with God, identity precedes activity. Adam and Eve were made in God’s image before they were given a vocation. So, we need to ask what Church is…or more precisely, who Church is.

Before we can begin to properly wrestle with this question, we need to zoom out all the way out and ask who Jesus is. How we think about Jesus and the salvation He brings affects the way you think of Church and our mission.

To say it in theological language:

Our Christology shapes our Soteriology;

Our Soteriology shapes our Ecclesiology;

Our Ecclesiology shapes our Missiology.

Or in a series of questions:

  • Who is JESUS? (Christology)
  • What is SALVATION? (Soteriology)
  • Who is CHURCH? (Ecclesiology)
  • What is MISSION? (Missiology) 

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THIS IS HOW WE TEND TO THINK THROUGH THE LIST:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior
  • Salvation = forgiveness of sins and a ticket to heaven
  • Church = a collection of saved individuals who pass time in the meantime
  • Mission = optional extra credit

OR:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior 
  • Salvation = an escape from Hell
  • Church = a lifeboat (functionally: God’s sales and marketing team)
  • Mission = a mandate to rescue lost souls 

What results is an often frenetic pace of ministry, where the whole focus is on getting people to come to church or get saved. Songs and sermons are aimed at going “wide” on Sundays, while other “environments” are created for going “deep.”

But imagine if you ran your home this way: What if you were constantly telling your kids to keep the house clean because guests were coming over? What if you told them to eat on their own time or in the back room? Eventully, the house would cease to be a home; it would be a showroom. The children would stop being family and would become housemaids. This is, in fact, how so many staff members at many churches feel. Everything  is geared for the “outsider.”

[The rebuttal is often, “But we do a mid-week service for believers…Sundays are for the unsaved or unchurched.” I hope to address this in the next post…but my short answer is, our practices are formative. What you do when you gather becomes what you are. This is perhaps most true of our most prominent gatherings: the weekend service. One might say, “What you do with the most people becomes who you most are.”]

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THIS IS WHAT WE SEE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS:

  • Jesus = “Lord” (YHWH & Caesar– King of Creation & of the nations) and “Christ” (Promised Savior)
    Acts 2:36 (ESV)
    “ ‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ ”

It is not untrue to call Jesus our personal Lord and Savior– the Triune God is deeply personal. But the Lordship of Christ is not, as Leslie Newbigin reminded us, a private opinion but a public truth. The rulers of Rome wouldn’t have trembled if the Apostles preached Jesus as their personal Lord who was living in their heart. No– Herod and Caesar and all the other “powers” trembled because these Christians were announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the Cosmos. For them, the resurrection and ascension were not “Jesus going home” (as though He were ET!)…but Jesus being enthroned!

  • Salvation = God working within His world to redeem and restore all things
    Acts 3:21 (ESV)
    “…until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

By the same token, salvation is much more than the forgiveness of sins. It is the setting right of all  that is broken in the world. At the heart of what is broken is the human; and he must be set right with God. So, it is not wrong to emphasize the forgiveness of sins. It’s just not the whole Story.

  • Church = the Kingdom community, formed by the Spirit, living now as it will be then.
    Acts 2:42 (ESV)
    “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Church becomes not a collection of saved individuals but a new community. The first priority of the eleven apostles in Acts 1 is to replace Judas. Why? Because 12 was a significant number– it signified the Church as the new Covenant People. The Church is a sign of the Kingdom– a people who live as if Jesus is King now, and whose very love for one another point to the Future that Christ is bringing.

  • Mission =to announce Christ as King here and now and to anticipate the Kingdom
    Acts 8:6-8 (ESV) “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.”

We are not told to build the Kingdom. We are not called to expand it. Rather, Paul tells us to build for the Kingdom (1 Cor. 15), to do things here in Christ. So, we announce Christ as King– we preach the Gospel– and we live in anticipation of His Kingdom arriving in fullness. This idea of anticipation is how N. T. Wright frames works of justice and restoration done in Jesus’s name. We are beginning to live now as it will be then. In living this way, the Gospel is both seen and heard.

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There are many more questions to be wrestled with regarding church, not least of which is how we ought to think about our gatherings. I hope to address that in the next post.

But for now, how does this broader framework change your understanding of Who Church is?