Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ramping Down . . .

I never had a chance to lean into this blog the way I wanted to.  I got busy (don't we all?) with ministry, and secured a literary agent at about the same time. With that comes a whole buffet of commitments: online stuff that needs to be tended to regularly (i.e. new blog, website, etc.) and more writing.

I'm sure not going to wind up short-changing my family or my congregation, so . . . I guess Out of Sardis will remain kind of a half-realized-type deal for the meantime.  But don't fret--after I've moved beyond my current book (Demoniac: A Novel), the one and only Ted Kluck and I will be writing a book to do what this blog was originally supposed to, hopefully reaching many more people than the blog ever would have.

Keep your eyes peeled. You can find more info as that time approaches on my website.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Herding Cats and Conquering the Acropolis

[First time here? Read THIS first.]

I would apologize that two weeks have passed since the last post here, but even the Gadfly is falling behind, so I’m in good company. Also, I recently made a post over at Dispatches with some implications for our topic here.

Anyway, let's talk about Sardis.

Among the seven cities in modern Turkey whose churches receive a letter from Jesus in Revelation 2 and 3, Sardis was one of the most significant. Unlike Thyatira, which was in a valley connecting two valleys and had a reputation for being kind of Nowheresville, Sardis was a high point—literally. An impregnable city on a hill above a valley, which was protected on three sides by almost vertical sheer rock face, with a river serving as a natural moat at its base.

No army could come charging up on three sides, meaning they could focus entirely on defending the fourth. As a result, it became kind of a symbol for impenetrability (something like “Fort Knox” in our vernacular today). There was a giant acropolis in the center of the city and there had once been a common saying: “That's like trying to capture the Acropolis of Sardis,” which meant, “That's impossible.” Is it just me or does conquering the acropolis of Sardis sound more noble than trying to herd cats?

Anyway, their reputation proved to not be entirely warranted in 549 BC, when they were conquered—not by an army besieging them openly, but by the enemy slipping in through a small crack in the wall and attacking from within (if there is a theme in Revelation 2-3, this may be it: be on guard, not only for the dragon attacking as a lion from without, but slithering in as a serpent to destroy from within).

Here’s how it went down: the Persians were scoping the place out and happened to see a soldier come partway down some steps cut into the rock wall to get his helmet. He probably knew he was being watched, but didn’t care. After all, they were so certain of their invulnerability that they didn’t post so much as a single guard on the three “safe” sides of their city. I mean, this is Sardis; what did they have to worry about?

The answer turned out to be: the legendary military tenacity of the Persian armies. A group of Persian soldiers waited till dark, scaled up the wall, one by one, and slipped into the city. I don’t know if the Persians ever learned to herd Persian cats, but they took the acropolis of Sardis in a matter of hours—not as a robber who uses force (a smash and grab job), but as a thief in the night, one who uses stealth

We might forgive Sardis this cockiness. After all, when no one has ever beaten you, it’s natural to get a big head. But the pathetic thing is that it happened again in 218 BC. Antiochus the Great’s army took the city in almost the exact same way. Fool me once, shame on you and all that, right? And yet, the people of Sardis seem to have remained cocky. And, in the last few years of the First Century AD, when Jesus dictated his letter to Sardis through the pen of the Apostle, Sardisians were taking it for granted that they were hot stuff.

And maybe they were, in a sense. This was still a fairly prominent city, at the juncture of five major highways. They were wealthy and successful compared to most of the cities around them. And, as often happens, the church in Sardis reflected this same attitude.

But Jesus sees their true state, and he’s writing to discipline and exhort them away from their delusions of grandeur and the illusion of life, and back to Real Life.

And we’ll pick up there, God willing, next time.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Our Default Assumption

I will be the first to admit that my default assumption is this: Jesus would do things the way I think they should be done—the way I do them. And I know I’m not alone here. This is a universal problem; since the Garden, we’ve had  a propensity for remaking our God in our own image. And it’s a problem that persists today, even in the Church. We all tend to read our preferences, our values, our politics,and our culture into Jesus and let them determine who He is, rather than vice versa.

Like so:

But we don’t have to. We have Scripture. And not only does God’s Word contain a record of the teachings of Jesus on earth (in the Gospels) and the inspired apostolic interpretations of those teachings, it also contains the oft-overlooked Revelation of Jesus Christ and its seven letters from Jesus to seven churches (from whence this blog derives its name). We need not guess or grasp.

Want to know Jesus’ position on sexual ethics for a church that finds itself in a pluralistic, over-tolerant, “sexually liberated” culture? It’s tempting to read our own  views into Jesus’ heart and lips (i.e. “I just can’t imagine Jesus saying…”), but to do so is naive at best and idolatrous at worst. How much better to read the letters written by Jesus to churches in almost the same setting (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira), in which Jesus addresses these issues directly?

Likewise, when it comes to philosophies of ministry, particularly the hot-button issues of Church Growth and Church Health, it’s easy for all of us to assume that Jesus wants to use whatever ideas, strategies, traditions, or gimmicks we prefer in order to grow our churches. I know I’m guilty of this. And if we’re clever, we can even frame certain narratives from the Gospels such that Jesus seems to be on board with this or that trend, book, or buzzword.

These days, I most often see this done (and have been frequently tempted to carry it out myself) with regard to the uber-popular notion that you can tell where God is moving (and how powerfully he’s moving) by how many people gather together, how much of a buzz a church generates in the media, and how large and impressive the facility is.1 This assumption is so prevalent in mainstream Evangelicalism today (under more than a dozen different banners and slogans) that it is now assumed without challenge by many pastors and church members. And, as a result, many pastors and church members find themselves discouraged, beaten down, even despondent by the fact that God is apparently not working in their normal, ordinary, non-state-of-the-art, non-revolutionary churches.

And yet, in Jesus’ earthly ministry, we don’t see Our Lord sharing this assumption, nor do we see this in his seven letters. There are innumerable charts out there, showing the seven-fold structure these letters follow, and even a quick glance at one of these charts reveals a few intentional holes in some letters. These holes are very telling. The two churches with  no commendation or praise at all2 are the two most impressive, outwardly successful churches who generate the biggest buzz. Likewise, the two churches with no rebuke or threat are the two least impressive, seemingly insignificant (from the world’s perspective) congregations who really ought to meet with a consultant and razzle-dazzle up their operation. But Jesus does not tell the struggling churches to emulate the superstars. Quite the opposite.

This is not the first time Jesus addresses this theme. In John 6, we find what Dr. Robert Godfrey has called “Jesus’ Church Shrinkage Seminar.” Jesus, who has just met the felt-needs (read: fish and chips) of thousands of people, starts the chapter with five thousand plus consumers and weeds it down to a handful of disciples. They leave because he’s teaching “difficult doctrine” (including the doctrine of election) and emphasizing the importance of the Lord’s Supper, which the crowds find to be not only irrelevant but downright creepy (drink your blood?). And Jesus’ response is not to entice them all back and say, “Sorry about that, guys! What do you want me to teach about and emphasize? How may I further meet your felt needs today?” No, he turned to his disciples and said, “Are you leaving too?” He knows their true need, and while it was easy for Jesus to keep himself surrounded by happy, adoring crowds, he did not give in to the temptation.

Let me be clear about what I’m not saying here: I’m not saying that big churches are bad and small churches are good. Many small churches are dying because they have become little more than social clubs for their members. Others have embraced the Sardisian philosophy with abandon, trapped in the same destructive thought patterns as Sardis, but without the trappings of outward success.

 On the flip side, when large numbers of people truly come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, that’s something to be celebrated. In Acts 2, we’re told that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls . . . and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (vv. 41, 47, ESV) During the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards reached tens of thousands of people with the Gospel. Spurgeon likewise had a very large church and, today, I could name off the top of my head at least twenty megachurches (complete with video production teams and house bands and multiple campuses) that are solid, Gospel-focused churches.  Two in my own town. But the reason we know that God is at work in these churches is because they’re faithfully preaching the Gospel, not because they’re huge, cool, slick, or famous. And not because the number of people in the auditorium is growing larger. Growth is good when it results from the seed landing on Good Soil, but as any oncologist will tell you, all growth is not good growth (particularly not fast, superficial growth).

Whether a church is alive or dead depends not on how big or impressive it is, how cherry the coffee bar, or whether their service is broadcast in three states, but on what they value. The marks of a church, according to the reformers, are the preaching of the Word and the sacraments (sometimes church discipline is thrown in their too). Are these central to a church? If so, that’s a good start. Is their primary reason for gathering together to receive Christ in the Word read and preached and in the bread and the cup? Are they preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name and equipping members to go out and fulfill the Great Commission? What do our churches ultimately want for themselves? What’s the big dream?

This is often readily observable in church mission/vision statements, some of which are so focused on the outward, worldly marks of success that they may as well read, “We want to be like Sardis. We want our church to be loved in the community, for people to come in by the droves, feeling right at home, having their needs met and itches scratched. We want to grow, not because sinners are repenting of their sins and coming to faith, but because masses are coming in and filing the seats. We want our church to be on the news, to hear the world praising us without reservation.” And even when the official documents don’t lay it out like that, our hearts often do. I don’t know a single pastor (myself included) who doesn’t struggle with a desire to exhibit this type of success in our churches.

Again, this is our default assumption at its strongest, because this is where I get to assume that God wants to glorify me.  Was Jesus Himself tempted by this train of thought? Yes. When Jesus hadn’t eaten for forty days, and had been driven/led out to the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted by the devil, Satan knew he only had a few shots at the Son of God. He had to make each one count; he had to pull his most effective weapons out of his arsenal. And two of the three temptations were exactly along these lines: don’t go the way of the cross, instead go the way of pleasing men and receiving their praise. Go the way of big, outward success by compromising on the whole “taking up  your cross and dying” issue.

If Jesus could be tempted this way, let none of us think we’re above it. And if Jesus could resist that temptation by looking to Scripture, then we can as well. And that’s why we’re doing this study. Too many times, from the inside and the outside, I’ve seen churches throw themselves into programs that essentially promise to turn your church into Sardis. I’ve seen churches (sometimes despondant) buy the books and the kits, implement the programs, only to get surveyed to death, torn up by conflict, their funds depleted, and little or nothing to show for it. But the sad thing is that, in most cases, even if the book or program had delivered, to be like Sardis, with all the signs of life, the perfect branding, the punchy vision statement, and the buzz all around—and yet with anything but the ordinary means of the reading and preaching of the Word and the administering at the sacraments at our core—we’re walking right into a harsh rebuke from him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

We’re now working our way through the diagnosis. Bear with me; we’ll soon be speaking in positive terms, looking to Scripture for a cure. In our next post, we’ll have a look at the actual city of Sardis and the situation there. Until then, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach


1 We will not flesh it out here, but one can easily derail this assumption by pointing to Mormonism or Islam or even the New Atheism; many unbiblical systems of thought and worship are “growing” from a worldly perspective. Is God by necessity working in these? Sadly, more and more of the early leaders in the resurgence of Sardisian church philosophy seem to be following this reasoning to its natural conclusion and assuming that God is, in fact, at work just as much in Christless man-made religion as long as it appears to be growing in some sense.

2 We’ll deal with the existence of a faithful remnant in Sardis in a future post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When Are We Going to Grow Up?

A small excerpt from the current cover story of Christianity Today magazine (click here for the whole thing):

When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity

We're all adolescents now.
When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Well put (although I'm not sure this process ever revitalized anything). This is what I'm on about here at this blog. Church has become youth group for grownups. It's not working in any sense, and yet we just keep doubling down on this same tired, broken, unbiblical bet. It started a lifetime ago, then the Baby Boomers cemented Kidstianity as the new default Christianity. And we've continued down this road with a vengeance for decades now.

Youth ministry led the way in the modern Sardisian resurgence, and now the Church at large is following behind.

Time to grow up.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Sardisian Captivity of the Church

Jesus actually vomits in Revelation 3.

We've all been reminded of that more than once—that the literal rendering of Rev 3:16 is, “Because you are luke warm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.” I suppose it’s a good enough rendering, although preachers sometimes imply an intimate familiarity with this particular Greek word, despite this being its only use in the New Testament.

But either way, none of us wants to make Jesus puke; that much is obvious. And what triggers this awful response in our Lord? Why, our lukewarmness. Therefore: don’t be luke warm. Be excited, be active, wrap yourself in a flurry of religious activity, anything to avoid even the appearance of luke warmness.

The context of this dire warning, of course, is the letter from Jesus to the church in Laodicea—the last of seven letters in Revelation 2-3 to seven different churches in Asia minor. These letters generally follow a standard format and include, among other things, praise for the church, a rebuke of the church, a warning or threat, and an exhortation. That’s the general outline followed by all seven letters. Except that there are two churches with nothing negative said about them—no rebuke, no threat, no warning. Nothing but encouragement, approval, and exhortation.

And then, of course, there’s Laodecia, which has nothing positive said about it, further reinforcing just how bad it is to be luke warm. In fact, if there’s any church we don’t want to emulate, it’s Laodecia. And so we don’t. Church growth and congregation health gurus regularly remind us—and we remind each other—of Revelation 3:16 and how we need to avoid becoming another luke warm church in danger of being vomited out.

Instead, we try as hard as we can to be just like the church in Sardis. And every day there are new methods and books explaining how to be more Sardisian in our approach and new success stories of churches who have grown as a result.

There’s just one problem: Sardis is not one of the two churches for which Jesus had no rebuke and no threat. In fact, it was one of the two churches for which Jesus had no commendation, no praise—nothing good to say at all. Only the harshest of reproofs and most fearful of warnings. In the name of avoiding one deadly hole, we’ve been going deeper and deeper into another. Luther famously wrote of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Today, we might instead speak of a Sardisian Captivity of the Church.

That’s what this blog is about: how the church’s conventional wisdom has shifted with and bowed to the world and its culture, how the books, the experts, the buzzwords, and the movements all assume what the church assumed in Sardis, namely that the way to gauge where God is at work is to use the world’s understanding of life, marketing, and mob psychology.

This is not a discernment blog dedicated to calling people/churches out, naming names, and anathematizing masses of sell-outs and heretics. There are more than enough blogs out there doing that. Instead, this space will be dedicated to shining light on the unrelenting trend we see in Western Christianity, a trend of the Church trying to look like Sardis, instead of Smyrna or Philadelphia.

How will we go about this task? Here’s how I see it (although it may shift mid-course): I will begin with a series of mini-studies on the letter of Jesus to the church in Sardis, drawing application to our churches today, then move on to survey some of the other letters in Revelation 2-3. When that is done, I will begin to add other contributors as we begin to apply these concepts more specifically. The goal of this blog is not just to raise the alarm about this disastrous trend in churches big and small, but also to provide insight and promote discussion about how we can head back out of Sardis.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but together we will hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach Bartels