Discernment and caution

In the last post, I described why it so important for churches to exercise discernment and caution when deciding who will become a member. Though not referenced explicitly in that post, it is just as crucial for individual believers to exercise discernment and caution when selecting a church to join, or when weighing a decision to stay in a church.

The extreme dangers of both are exemplified in an article in the January 26 issue of TIME entitled “A Change of Heart.” The article provides an overview of the varying positions on homosexual marriage within evangelicalism. The church that is spotlighted in the story is Seattle-area EastLake Community Church. The article’s lead paragraph describes all of the ways that the church “looks like a lot of other evangelical megachurches,” but is really praising the trendiness of the church. And before I address that church’s stance on homosexual marriage let me address this trendiness issue. The TIME article says that EastLake “boasts 13 weekly services at six locations…; the head pastor is a bearded hipster; and the main campus is a warehouse turned sanctuary where greeters serve coffee, a tattooed band rocks out beneath colored lights and attendance swells whenever the Seahawks are not playing.”

That these are the characteristics considered common among evangelical megachurches does not speak well for evangelical megachurches! None of those descriptors amount to a thing when it comes to faithfulness to Scripture. God is far more concerned that a pastor is a Bible-proclaimer than a bearded hipster. His desire is that church members actually serve each other and their communities; I suspect He could not care less whether or not the greeters serve coffee. (Actually, if the coffee becomes a focal point or a distraction, I suspect He does care, and He is not in favor). I feel equally confident that God is far more concerned with the lyrics of the songs and the hearts of the singers than He is with the bodily adornment or the colored lights. And if the church’s attendance fluctuates considerably (which “swells” would imply) based on whether or not the local NFL team is playing, I think God would have a question or two about the level of commitment to Him that would be found in the members/attendees of the church. See, I may be wrong, but the notion of church attendance swelling when the Seahawks are not playing makes me think that going to church is the next-best thing to do on a Sunday morning in Seattle for those whose presence “swells” the attendance at EastLake. If the church is a trendy, fun or “hip” place to hang out when there’s no football, there is a problem. (See also: my many previous references to the need for church to be uncomfortable).

All of that aside, the real point of the introductory paragraph of the TIME article is this conclusion: “It [all of the happenings of the church described above] is almost enough to make you miss what is really going on at EastLake this winter: the congregation is quietly coming out as one of the first openly LGBT-affirming evangelical churches in the U.S.”

I will go ahead and say it, and the fact that many will disagree with me or call me intolerant, biased, opinionated or discriminatory matters to me not one bit: “LGBT-affirming evangelical church” is a contradiction. It is something that cannot be. Once a church becomes “LGBT-affirming” it ceases to be evangelical. If “evangelical” means affirming the teachings of the gospels and the authority of Scripture, as I believe most definitions suggest, then affirming homosexuality is simultaneously ceasing to be evangelical, since the Bible is quite clear on the fact that homosexuality is a sin. In other words, one cannot both affirm homosexuality and affirm Scripture. One cannot be both LGBT-affirming and evangelical. That is, of course, unless and until one embraces the relativism of our age, when there is no real meaning to anything and one can pick and choose any combination of things and put them together, ignoring the fact that they are mutually exclusive. We are not talking about toe-may-toe versus toe-mah-toe here; these are not matters of preference or opinion.

TIME goes on to explain that the transition to being “LGBT-affirming” happened slowly for EastLake. “For the past six months, the church has played a short welcome video at the start of every service that includes the line “Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here.” Ignoring the fact that the line is incredibly cheesy, I would agree that there should not be any hate found within the church toward people. The sinful choices of people, however, should be of concern. No church can be faithfully teaching Scripture and be making homosexuals feel welcome at the same time. Beyond the saccharine tag line, the church’s other efforts at welcoming and affirming homosexuals include the facts that the church’s first gay wedding took place in December, and that “one of the pastors now sends a wedding gift on behalf of the church every time she hears that gay congregants are getting married.” (Therein, too, the TIME author unwittingly provided further evidence of the fact that the church is not really evangelical; just as clear as the Scripture’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman is the teaching that women are not to be pastors).

Ryan Meeks, the pastor of EastLake, says that a “turning-point” for him came when he learned that “one of his staffers had been afraid to tell him she was dating a woman.” Says Meeks, “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community. It is a move of integrity for me–the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.” Sadly, there is no integrity in the “move” at all, since it denies the authority and teaching of the very Scripture it purports to support and uphold. The message of Jesus was widely inclusive in one way–that salvation is a free gift for anyone who believes. At the same time it is incredibly narrow and intolerant in all other ways. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” There are five resounding statements of intolerance there; Jesus said He is the only way.

I could say plenty more about the contents of the TIME article, and at some point I may. (I have, after all, addressed only the article’s first two paragraphs!). I believe, however, that I have made my point: churches need to be careful about who can become a member, because the members determine the direction of the church. Believers need to be careful about the churches they join, too, so that they do not unknowingly join themselves with a body that does not affirm and teach the Bible. (Encouragingly, the TIME article does point out that EastLake has lost 22% of its income and 800 attendees in the last year and a half, signaling that at least some of its members were unwilling to remain part of a church that no longer taught the Bible). Discernment and caution are imperative.

Membership Matters

In an interview printed in the February issue of Tabletalk, Russell Moore said, “Our vote for president of the United States is critically important, but our vote to receive members into our local churches is more important.” At first glance, that may seem a bit extreme, but Moore is absolutely right and is making a crucial point. Yes, our vote for president is “critically important,” and each and every one of us should (1) care who the president is, and (2) be sure to exercise our right to vote when it comes time to select a president. Who we allow to become members of our churches, though, will potentially impact lives for eternity. Everyone who has accepted Christ as Savior is a member of the Church–the body of Christ. Membership in a local church, however, is what Moore has in mind, and is what I am going to discuss here.

Churches are made up of believers. Strong churches are built on the foundation of Scripture, but the functioning of the church, the teaching that takes place in the church, the church itself, depends on and is the people who are its members. As important as it is for a church to welcome anyone who walks through its doors–unless and until there is reason not to welcome someone–it is exponentially more important that the church not allow just anyone who walks through its doors to become a member.

“Membership has its privileges” is an old advertising slogan from a credit card, I believe, but it is an idea that holds true for the church, as well. In a healthy church, only members can hold leadership positions, vote, teach Sunday school or VBS, etc. Anyone is welcome to attend, but not just anyone is welcome to assume positions of leadership and influence. That is because these roles are so incredibly important that we must make sure that they are filled by individuals who are equipped and qualified to fill them. I am the administrator of a K-12 school. No matter how much I may sometime be tempted to do so, someone’s willingness to teach a class will never be enough in and of itself for me to hire that person to teach.Willingness and ability are not the same thing, and while someone may have an abundance of the former, the latter is also necessary.

I can give you, from personal experience, two examples of ineffective (and dangerous) church membership/leadership models. the first is something that happened to me in 2001. I had recently moved to a new area to assume a new position in a Christian ministry. The ministry was allowing a local church to use its property/facilities for a Sunday school picnic. I was in attendance, primarily as a way to meet people in my new community. I met the pastor of the church at that picnic. When he learned who I was and why I was there, he asked me if I would like to teach Sunday school at his church. I understand that he was desperate for good teachers. However, this question was a huge red flag in my mind. If he would ask me, within minutes of meeting me, to teach Sunday school, there were likely some other major issues at the church. (There were, too!).

A few years later I was still in the same ministry position and had joined another area church. My wife and I had attended for a while, I had read the church’s constitution and statement of faith and I had discussed a few things with the pastor. It was, we were sure, the most solid church in the area. Yet, its membership procedures were terrible–and dangerous. When someone wanted to join the church, the person would go forward during the invitation time at the end of the service and express to the pastor the desire to join. Following the singing of the closing hymn, the pastor would then present the individual to the church and ask the congregation to vote, on the spot, on that individual’s desire to join. To make matters worse, the pastor would ask for a vote of “aye” from those in favor and then from those opposed. He would say, “All opposed, same sign. And of course, there are none.” Really? I suppose there may well have been times in the early goings when there were no votes in opposition, but eventually this became a self-fulfilling prediction. After all, who is going to vote no when the pastor regularly says “of course there are none”? I often abstained from these membership votes because I often felt I did not know the individual well enough to know whether or not membership was a good idea. Sometimes I did not know the individual at all! I am pleased to say that I eventually became an elder in that church and while I was in that position was part of the church’s decision to change the membership process to include a membership class and a meeting with elders before going to the church for a vote.

I am not advocating careful procedures for church membership because someone might somehow be unworthy of joining the church. None of us are worthy, expect through the blood of Christ. I am not concerned that someone might not be “good enough” to join, either. I believe it was Adrian Rogers who said, “There is no such thing as a perfect church, and if there was none of us could join.” My concern–and Russell’s I believe–is that those who become members of a church are those who shape, influence and drive the future of the church. They vote on budgets, determine how leadership positions will be filled and by whom, have a say in curriculum and programming decisions, and more. Most importantly, those members decide whether or not the church will stay true to God’s Word. As we will see in the next post, that is the most important concern of all, and protecting the church’s adherence to Scripture is why membership votes are so critically important.

Be churchy

At the beginning of this year a fellow WordPress blogger named Samuel Kee wrote a post entitled “The Church Is Called To Be Churchy, So Deal With It.” He clearly and cleverly explained how ridiculous it is for anyone to complain about a church being “too churchy.” Sam began his post, “I’m sitting in a donut shop. I’ve been here many times and nobody has ever complained about this place, saying, ‘This donut shop is too donutty.’ It’s a donut shop; so you expect it to be donutty. No one ever said that a sporting event was too sporty, a library too booky, a concert too musicy, an airport too planey, a home too homey, a college too schooly, or a hospital too hospitally. Yet, I hear all the time, ‘That church was too churchy.'”

Sam has a point there. After all, with just about any other situation in life, we expect something to be exactly what it purports to be, and if it were anything less we would be concerned, possibly enough to even stop going there. Yet, like Sam, I have heard complaints about churches being too churchy, too. What does that even mean? Presumably it means that churches staying true to their calling tend to make people uncomfortable. “Why do we condemn the church for being about Jesus, your soul, God, spirituality, conviction of sin, heaven, hell, salvation, righteousness, and judgment?” Sam asks. Why indeed. That, after all, is exactly what the church is supposed to be.

God instituted the church to teach His Truth to His people. Church is supposed to be a place where believers gather to learn more about God, the Bible, and the application of biblical principles to everyday life. Church is supposed to be a place where unbelievers go to learn more about God and, hopefully, to meet Him personally. Church is supposed to be a place where those who are hurting can find healing, where those who are searching can find answers, where those who have sinned can find forgiveness and where those who are sinning can find conviction. None of that can truly happen if the church strays from its God-intended purpose. By that, I mean that none of that can happen if the church tries to be a social hub, a community playground, a philosophical society or a self-esteem seminar. All four of those things may become aspects of the church when the church is fulfilling its purpose, but if any of those things become the purpose then all hope is lost.

Frankly, no one should be able to attend church for very long without feeling uncomfortable. I am not talking about the seating, the lighting or the decor; I mean the “you’re stepping on my toes and getting a little too personal now” kind of uncomfortable. That is because the Bible is to be a mirror, and the church is to faithfully preach and teach the Bible. If I can look into a mirror everyday and think I look (physically) just fine, either the mirror is broken, my eyes need to be examined or I’m a little sick in the head. The same goes for the church, spiritually. I have blogged before about why the church should be “uncomfortable.”

“Since some churches actually believe that they should not be churchy, they try to hide their spiritual donuts, if you know what I mean,” Sam writes. “Participants can attend, be fairly comfortable and entertained, without being confronted with too many spiritual matters. Then, right at the end, a little ‘Jesus’ is slipped in.” There are no shortage of churches like that in America, and probably around the world. One of the side effects of living in a country with religious freedom is that we do not have to take our faith seriously in order to dabble in it. If attending church or naming the name of Christ was an offense that could result in persecution, imprisonment or even death, none of us would do it lightly or casually. I am not asking for persecution, because I surely do not want it. But persecution does serve as a purifying fire, separating those who are playing around from those who are serious.

“The church does nobody any favors when it refuses to be churchy. The church needs to be churchy and it must stop apologizing for doing so,” says Sam. “Amen,” says me. If you are attending a church that is not doing what it is supposed to do (see above if you forgot what that is) then you need to have a serious talk with your church leadership and find out why not. If the church leadership is intentionally not doing church the way it needs to be done, and has no intention of changing that, you need to leave and go to a real church. Expect your church to be churchy. Demand it, in fact.

If “churchy” means doing what God called the church to be and do, and not doing whatever seems most likely to attract people and make them feel comfortable, “churchy” is exactly what the church is supposed to be.


It seems I have been reading a lot recently–and not even because of any intention on my part–about the Church. Some of what I have read is good, some of it not so good. All of it has served to generate at least five blog posts-worth of thoughts, ideas and comments in my head. I have scribbled myself a 24-word note outlining what I hope to address in those five posts, so hopefully I will be able to stick with it and crank out all five by the end of next week at the latest.

This first one will on the topic of belonging to a church. Everyone who has accepted Christ belongs to the Church–the universal body of Christ. But what is it about belonging to a local body of believers? Why does that matter–or does it matter?

On January 29, christianitytoday.com posted an interview between Laura Turner and Erin Lane. Lane is a divinity school graduate, pastor’s wife and a program director at the Center for Courage & Renewal. She is also the author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (IVP, 2014).

When asked why the concept of belonging is so important to the church, Lane said, “We have so many options for connecting with one another and all this pressure to make the most of them. But it’s often the case that the institutions that used to broker these connections—institutions like the church—are losing their influence.” While the church struggles sometimes in handling it, Lane says that one of the major premises of her book (which I have not read), is that “we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence.”

That is a crucial point right there–that we are interdependent. That certainly is not what our culture likes to portray, and the idea of needing each other–of needing anyone–is not an overly popular idea. The reality, though, is that God created us for relationships. (Even a relative introvert like myself, who can be perfectly content spending a day alone or driving a thousand miles with someone else in the car without saying a word needs other people!) Try as some of us might, there is simply no denying that need. We may be able to exist without other people, and we may even do it happily for a while, but the long run we would not thrive.

Commenting on this search for belonging, Lane says, “There’s a huge desire to experience belonging in an embodied way. We search for shared interests, like exercise groups—Crossfit, yoga, and Pure Barre. A great deal of belonging is created over food culture and being connoisseurs of things like coffee or beer—for me, it’s cupcakes.” There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course. Lane continues, though: “I worry, though, about whether we’re doing enough to interact with people who don’t inhabit our particular lifestyle enclaves. I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike. … I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.” This is what, in Lane’s opinion, makes the church unique. People from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, with diverse hobbies and interests, can come together at church because of their love for God, His Truth and His Church. Nancy Ortberg, in her book Looking for God, describes sitting between two individuals in a church service whose paths would otherwise never cross. One was a high powered attorney and the other a lowly grocery store bagger. If their paths did cross it would have been brief and inconsequential. At church, however, they were on the same playing field; the ground, after all, is level at the foot of the cross.

Lane explains that there are very little things that can be done to encourage and promote a sense of belonging–even as simple as wearing name tags. At a relatively small church where most people know each other than may not be necessary, but it does provide some leveling and it does invite personal interaction. I can remember watching sermons by Michael Youssef at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta and seeing everyone in the (large) congregation wearing name tags. That actually never appealed to me, but that may be because (1) I don’t really like sticking things on my clothes anyway, and (2) sometimes I kinda like being anonymous. As Lane says, though, “There’s something powerful about hearing your name and seeing other people’s names….” I have to agree. I actually make a point to use people’s names often, whether simply saying hello in the hallway or when sending an e-mail. I don’t always do it, but I think I do more often than not. I notice when someone uses my name–and when they don’t. In fact, I remember once being asked, about a church I began attending when I moved to a new town, “what did you like about our church?” I do not know if I had really thought about it before I was asked, but the greeter at the door introduced himself on that first visit and also asked my name. When I went back the next week, he remembered my name–and used it. That struck me.

Lane offers other insights about the importance of church and belonging, including the need to let people be themselves, let people speak freely and a lack of earnestness. Her insights are good. I want to read her book. The bottom line, though, is that we need each other. When we are together with other believers at church we are encouraged. We are challenged. We are sharpened. We may even be convicted. The Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. In other words, we are supposed to go to church! Not because it’s a rule, and not because we will get any bonus points or extra rewards, but because we need each other.

I do not remember where I read or heard this illustration, but it has stuck with me and may be one of the best illustrations of the importance of belonging: charcoal. Yes, charcoal. As in the squarish-looking hunks of black stuff that we bar-b-que enthusiasts squirt with lighter fluid and then set aflame. When they are together, pieces of charcoal generate considerable heat–enough to cook hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, fish, whatever. (They look pretty too, with their orange-y glow). Next time you’re around a pile of burning charcoal, though, see what happens if you remove one piece and set it off somewhere by itself. Actually, I suspect you know exactly what will happen. That’s what is likely to happen to us, too, if we stay away from church.


Humbled though I am by the number of people who read my thoughts in this space, I do wonder, fairly often, if there is really any point. Nothing I may say here is going to change the world. While the number of readers may seem impressive to me at times, in the grand scheme of things they do not even reach the level of “a drop in the bucket.” Maybe, just maybe, a drop in the ocean. So does it really matter? Is there any point? I am still not sure, but I keep doing it. And if you’ll pardon my candor, I do it more for me than I do for you. Frankly, I find it therapeutic and good mental exercise. I like the way blogging makes me think through things more carefully and develop cogent arguments and support for my positions. I like that it makes me seriously consider “the other side.” Having said that, I should also mention that these posts are mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff. I do not outline what I will say, I do not read over it and I do not edit it. In occasion I will look back over something and catch a typo or a word I left out, and sometimes my wife will make me aware of the same, and in those instances I will make the correction. In nearly 350 posts here, though, I bet that has happened maybe ten times. So here is my disclaimer: these are not edited, are not polished, and should not be considered exemplars of great writing!

Now why did I say all of that? I said it because a column by Mindy Belz at the end of 2014 reminded me of the importance of words. Mrs. Belz, who writes a regular column and is also an editor of WORLD, no doubt sees all manner of words, from the good to the bad, the splendid to the sloppy, the crucial to the worthless. By her own admission, she receives more than ten thousand e-mails on any given day. Just the act of deleting all of the worthless ones would be a significant time killer! Combining that with the fact that she literally makers her living with words, Belz has a unique perspective on the importance and power of the written language. In her column, she wrote, “[T]he throng of a media-saturated world and the blare of nonstop information can seem more oppressive, more full of noisy gong and clanging cymbal than ever.” How true that is, and no wonder it caused me to reflect on whether there is really any point to all of these words I have posted here over the past few years.

“Scripture has plenty to say,” Belz wrote, “about how we communicate, and models a variety of forms. Recounting history and waxing poetic–even romantic–all have their place, along with harsh admonition and R-rated graphic details of real life in a fallen world. Sarcasm and humor? Those too. But the forms are formed and the point is: Have a point. Speak with purpose. In this day that might mean pausing to think what I hope to accomplish in 140 characters, rather than simply increasing my Twitter followers.”

As I said, this is mostly therapeutic for me, not any intention to increase followers. Still, I choose to get my therapy on a public stage rather than in a private journal, so I would be deluding myself and you if I pretended that I do not hope anyone reads what I write. I am thankful for those that do, and I hope, at least the majority of the time, you can see that I do have a point. If I do not, let me know. If I make a point that you do not think needs to be made, feel free to let me know that, too. Some of you have done that on occasion, and I appreciate it.

Belz ended her column with this: “Brevity isn’t boss, but it shows thoughtfulness. And whether you Facebook, Tweet, Gchat, or hit Slack, words fitly spoken and thoughts that connect are more to treasure than ever.” I do not even know what Gchat is or what “hit slack” means, so I am obviously not as “with it” as I could be. The words I share, though, need to be fitly spoken and need to connect to a purpose. I need to have a point. So, too, the time I use to share them needs to be used wisely, and I need to reflect on whether or not blogging is always the best use of my time.

And it took me nearly 800 words to say all of that…