Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blogs I read (and blogs I don't)

I read a lot of blogs. Some of you know this, and have asked about it-- specifically, why do I read so many blogs, and what sort of blogs do I read?

First, the “why”-- I consider most of my blog-reading to fit into the category of “personal development,” in the same way that someone might read a newspaper or a trade journal. Maybe a dozen of the blogs I read are written by friends and strictly for the purpose of keeping me informed of their lives. The rest are related to something I am or that I do: ministry, writing, technology, productivity... plus a small handful of news blogs and feeds.
This post is a perfect example of why I read blogs.

Now, a few more words about what sort of blogs I read. Here are some key factors for deciding whether I’ll continue to read a blog or feed:
  • Teach me something frequently. A lot of the blogs that have earned a longstanding, permanent place in my feed reader* are there because they regularly give me something to chew on-- even if it’s “just” a quote or a short snippet of an idea. If you want me to look forward to seeing a new post from you, give me something to think about.
  • Write with humility. Help me see that you don’t think you have the final word on a topic, unless it is your own opinion-- and in that case, help me see that you don’t think that yours is the only opinion that matters.
As importantly, here are some things that almost guarantee that I’ll drop your blog from my reader:
  • Spending all of your energy selling me something. I won’t deny any blogger the right to make some money from their blogs, but don’t make it all about that. Just yesterday, I removed a feed because every post was centered around a book that was linked to (through an Amazon affiliate link) and the gist of each post was, “to REALLY learn about this, buy this book...”
  • Toot your own horn often. It’s great to hear about something you’ve done that is praiseworthy. If more than half of the posts in a given week or month are all about your accomplishments (especially if they read like, “let me tell you about the great thing I just did...”), you can bet I’ll stop reading soon.
  • Focus often on a topic that isn’t germane to your blog. It’s one thing to offer an occasional comment or idea about something that is apparently outside your normal field of topics; it’s another to spend a lot of time (yours and mine) on it, especially with a tone or voice that suggests that I should take your word as more than just another opinion. During election season, I dropped a couple of blogs from my feed-- one from a popular Reformed writer, and another that is supposed to be a news source for our denomination-- because both spent at least every other post hawking the editors’ personal political views.
  • Put yourself forward as the watchdog for a particular group or cause. Someone recently said, “commentary is, sadly, always a few notches below creativity.” One thing I’ve come to despise is the set of blogs from folks who spend most of their time pointing out where everyone else is wrong. I tried reading some of the blogs that offer frequent discussion about matters in the PCA, but I just couldn’t stomach it.
  • Write with no concern whatsoever for grammar or style. There are a few blogs that I would read regularly, if only the writers would use decent punctuation, capitalize properly, and break their text up in to paragraphs. As much time as I spend staring at a computer screen, if my browser is suddenly full of text that looks like an unbroken string of characters from top to bottom, my eyes glass over and everything goes fuzzy.

So, for whatever it’s worth, thats a quick summary of why I read blogs, and what sorts of blogs I read (and what sorts I don’t).

*I use a piece of software called a “newsfeed reader” that handles all of my blogs and other feeds. The one I use is called
NetNewsWire. I only read blogs that offer an RSS feed (or something like it, that my reader can use)-- these notify me of new content and automatically summarize it for me. If a blog doesn’t offer a feed, I won’t read it with any regularity.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Church marketing

(HT: Russell)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Manliness for sale

A friend of mine posted this on her blog, which was e-mailed to her: a CraigsList ad for a FSBO Nissan XTerra. All I can say? Hilarious.

NINJA HAULER: 2005 Nissan Xterra - $12900 (Ronan / Lake County)

Reply to: [?]
Date: 2008-12-02, 7:25AM MST

OK, let me start off by saying this Xterra is only available for purchase by the manliest of men (or women). My friend, if it was possible for a vehicle to sprout chest hair and a five o'clock shadow, this Nissan would look like Tom Selleck. It is just that manly.

It was never intended to drive to the mall so you can pick up that adorable shirt at Abercrombie & Fitch that you had your eye on. It wasn't meant to transport you to yoga class or Linens & Things. No, that's what your Prius is for. If that's the kind of car you're looking for, then just do us all a favor and stop reading right now. I mean it. Just stop.

This car was engineered by 3rd degree ninja super-warriors in the highest mountains of Japan to serve the needs of the man that cheats death on a daily basis. They didn't even consider superfluous nancy boy amenities like navigation systems (real men don't get lost), heated leather seats (a real man doesn't let anything warm his butt), or On Star (real men don't even know what the hell On Star is).

No, this brute comes with the things us testosterone-fueled super action junkies need. It has a 265 HP engine to outrun the cops. It's got special blood/gore resistant upholstery. It even has a first-aid kit in the back. You know what the first aid kit has in it? A pint of whiskey, a stitch-your-own-wound kit and a hunk of leather to bite down on when you're operating on yourself. The Xterra also has an automatic transmission so if you're being chased by Libyan terrorists, you'll still be able to shoot your machine gun out the window and drive at the same time. It's saved my bacon more than once.

It has room for you and the four hotties you picked up on the way to the gym to blast your pecs and hammer your glutes. There's a tow hitch to pull your 50 caliber anti-Taliban, self cooling machine gun. I also just put in a new windshield to replace the one that got shot out by The Man. My price on this bad boy is an incredibly low $12,900, but I'll entertain reasonable offers. And by reasonable, I mean don't walk up and tell me you'll give me $5,000 for it. That's liable to earn you a Burmese-roundhouse-sphincter-kick with a follow up three fingered eye-jab. Would it hurt? Hell yeah. Let's just say you won't be the prettiest guy at the Coldplay concert anymore.

There's only 69,000 miles on this four-wheeled hellcat from Planet Kickass. Trust me, it will outlive you and the offspring that will carry your name. It will live on as a monument to your machismo.
Now, go look in the mirror and tell me what you see. If it's a rugged, no holds barred, super brute he-man macho Chuck Norris stunt double, then contact me. I might be out hang-gliding or BASE jumping or just chilling with my ladies, but I'll get back to you. And when I do, we'll talk about a price over a nice glass of Schmidt while we listen to Johnny Cash.

To sweeten the deal a little, I'm throwing in this pair of MC Hammer pants for the man with rippling quads that can't fit into regular pants. Yeah, you heard me. FREE MC Hammer pants.

Rock on.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Filling the gap the government left"

The title came from a description that a pastor gave about what his church was doing by offering refuge to folks fleeing the path of Hurricane Gustav. This ironic statement echoes exactly what my friend Craig and I recently dialogued about on his blog. What’s wrong with this picture?

This quote demonstrates how thoroughly the ideas of “postmodernism” have influenced even the church. Without getting deeply into all of the aspects of postmodern philosophy, one thing that is notable is how the shifts in philosophy have led to consequent shifts in the seat of authority-- when, by “authority,” I mean the arbiter of truth, stability, and purpose. Follow with me:

philosophical divisions

Whether he realizes it or not, this pastor (quoted above) has clearly become convinced of the Post-Modern position, at least as far as whose role and duty it is to care for those in need. Historically, the Church has been the default institution that would be assumed to be charged with caring for the needy. In that sense, it would be just the opposite: the governmental services would be filling the gap the Church left.

How is that our mindset? Do we recognize that the
Church’s job-- not the government’s-- is to attend to the needs of those in need? Do we understand the implications of this for the way that we vote or take up political activity? When we believe that the fundamental and primary solutions to our social and community problems is to vote the “right” person into office, have we sold out our biblical view of the church for a Postmodern illusion of solutions?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent reflection 4: teaching ourselves the season

My fellow pastor Jeff Myers of Providence Reformed PCA in St. Louis recently offered this catechism, introducing the basics of what the season of Advent means:

The Church Year

Q 1. Why do we have different seasons of the year?
A. God created the seasons for man’s use and enjoyment.

Q 2. What do Fall and Winter remind us of?
A. Fall and Winter remind us of sin and death because it is dark and cold.

Q 3. What do Spring and Summer teach us?
A. Spring teaches us that God brings light and life to the world through Jesus Christ.

Q 4. What does the church calendar chiefly celebrate?
A. The church calendar celebrates the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Q 5. Why does the church have her own seasons?
A. The church has her own seasons to teach the world that true life is found in Jesus Christ and to resist reducing life to politics and economics.

Q 6. How are we to sanctify the seasons that God created for our benefit?
A. According to 1 Timothy 4:5, we are to set apart the seasons with the Word of God and prayer.

Q 7. How has the church set apart the seasons with the Word of God and prayer?
A. The church has chosen readings from the Old and New Testaments for each season and has ordered the prayer life of the church to match the life of Jesus.

Advent & Christmas

Q 8. What does the word “Advent” mean?
A. The word “advent” means “to come” and has to do with the coming of Jesus.

Q 9. What portion of the life of Jesus does Advent celebrate?
A. Advent celebrates the times leading up to the birth of Jesus as well as his coming again at the last day.

Q 10. How many Sundays are there in Advent?
A. There are four Sundays in Advent.

Q 11. What are the colors for Advent and what do they mean?
A. The colors for Advent are purple and royal blue. They remind us that Jesus is a glorious King.

Q 12. What do we pray for during Advent season?
A. During Advent we pray that Jesus our King would continue to come to us and serve us as he has promised.

Q 13. In our Advent prayers are we pretending that Jesus has not yet been born?
A. No. During Advent we are praying for him to come to us again and again as he has promised.

Q. 14. How did God fulfill his promises to his people in the Hebrew Scriptures?
A. God fulfilled his promises by uniting himself to our human nature in his Son, who faithfully lived a perfect life of service, died the death we deserve, and was raised to life again as the new man, and all this for our salvation.

Q 15. How has Jesus promised to come to us today?
A. In many different ways—to be with us on Sunday for worship, to help us daily when we are in trouble, and at the end of the world to establish the new heavens and earth.

Thanks Jeff! Also, be sure to check out
Jeff’s collection of posts defining and defending Advent and Christmas.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Why churches are big or small, part two

Not long ago, I discussed a key psychological and social factor that often keeps churches smaller. Today, let’s talk about what it takes for a church to become bigger.

If the factors I mentioned are at play, it is easy to see why churches remain small. To refresh, there appears to be an inherent limit to the number of relationships we can actively “manage” in our heads, and that number is somewhere around 150. Many more than that, and evidence shows that people naturally begin to break into smaller groups. This built-in limit, I suggested, is the reason why churches often seem to hit a wall around the 150-200 size and cannot easily grow larger than that.

Back in the 1970s, some smart men began to study the idea of church growth, and their studies realized about the same thing: without (apparently) applying the sociology and psychology that I mentioned in the last post on this topic, they nevertheless arrived at 200 as a cap for what they called “small churches.”

[An aside: why 200, instead of the sociologically-proven number of 150? Here’s my reasoning: in a church with 200 members, it’s easy to imagine that 50 or so are not actually a part of the regular social and relational life of the congregation. There will always be home-bound and shut-in folks who are elderly, sick, or otherwise unable to regularly attend worship and other activities. There will inevitably be a few households where part of the family-- maybe the wife and children, but not the husband-- are more active than the rest. And there will be others who are considered members of the congregation-- and even consider themselves as members-- but are either in the process of switching to a different congregation or their commitment to participation in church has ebbed. So a congregation with a membership of 200 probably has 150 or less people in active participation.]

This study eventually became known as the
Church Growth Movement, led by Dr. Donald McGavran. Now, this movement has its fair share of critics, and in many cases the critics make important points. Let me be clear about this: I’m not promoting the Church Growth Movement, or suggesting that I accept and promote all of the theories, principles, or methods of that movement. I do believe, however, that there is much to learn about the life of the church from them.

One of the men who has written more recently as a part of that movement is
Gary McIntosh, a professor at Talbot School of Theology, which is the seminary of Biola University in California. McIntosh is a prolific writer, but the work of his that I want to focus on here is called One Size Doesn’t Fit All, and details the differences between the different-sized churches.

McIntosh breaks all churches down into three categories by size:
  • Small churches-- 15-200 worshipers
  • Medium churches-- 200-400 worshipers
  • Large churches-- more than 400 worshipers

Now, it’s worth mentioning here that 80% of all churches in the U.S. are smaller than 100 in membership (which means they are even fewer than that in worship attendance), while more than 90% of the churches in the U.S. are 200 or less. So the second and third categories that McIntosh describes represent less than 10% of all churches in the U.S.

Still, these are helpful categories because of what McIntosh goes on to develop in terms of how each category differs in how it must be led. For example, McIntosh says that the structure of a small church is as a “single cell” while a large church is a “multiple cell” structure. The leadership in a small church resides essentially in key families, while in medium churches it resides in committees, and in large churches it resides in select leaders. Decisions in a large church are made by staff and leaders and are driven by vision, whereas in a medium church they are made by committees and driven by changing needs, and in a small church they are made by the whole congregation and driven by history.

I won’t get into details about any of these; I won’t even try to present the whole paradigm to you about how the sizes differ. But I want to draw out a key, crucial point about this that McIntosh develops: the “medium church” size is
almost always a transitional stage. In other words, small churches that are growing and reach that size will typically either continue to grow and eventually hit “large church” size, or they will reach the struggles of the “medium church” for a season and that will push them back to a small size.

What are the struggles of the “medium church” that either force continued growth or natural reduction? Here are some of the things that McIntosh points out: since decisions are driven by changing needs, things always seem to be changing which brings a sense of instability. The obstacles to growth for a medium church are inadequate facilities, inadequate staff, inadequate finances, poor administration, and increasing complexity-- all of which demand a change in status quo. Consequently, the strategies for growth in a medium church are: develop a distinct identity, add additional staff, use facilities multiple times or expand facilities, offer multiple worship services, write a long-range plan, and improve the quality of ministry.

You can see how implementing these growth strategies could result in the congregation soon becoming a “large church”. On the other hand, failure to address the growth obstacles and other difficulties that a “medium church” faces will bring a natural reduction in their numbers-- which, by returning them to “small church” size will bring the stability that the members and leadership craved during the struggles of medium church status.

This is why, historically, churches are usually big or small. However, some churches and other ministries have tried to find another way-- and I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book giveaway results: Churched by Matthew Paul Turner

Back in mid-October, I offered a give-away of Matthew Paul Turner’s book Churched. Then the twins were born, and I promptly let the book giveaway drop off my radar.

So I’m back to it now, and I’m pleased to announce the winners: Adam and Kara! Congratulations, y’all. I apologize for taking so long.

Adam, I have your mailing address; Kara, would you e-mail me yours?

Advent reflection 3: What means this?

I had a foreign-language teacher in college who was not a native U.S. citizen; thus, her speech patterns sometimes didn’t fit our conventions. For example, when she would encounter a word or concept she didn’t know, she would ask, “What means this?”

I think many of us look at “Advent” and, internally, we ask, “What means this?”

Sure, a lot of us go around at this time of year reminding everyone that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and that we must “keep Christ in Christmas.” Some folks have
taken things a lot farther in attempting to define (or redefine) the “true” meaning of this season. And of course we can always give the default answer: that it’s all about Jesus.

But do we really get what it means? Probably not-- I certainly find myself learning more about it all the time.

“Advent” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “coming” or “arrival.” Thus, Advent is focused on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. It is a season of preparation, anticipation, and waiting. It has traditionally (and by traditionally I mean, in the church and for Christians, not in the traditions of Americans in the last 50 years) been a season of fasting, reflecting on the individual and corporate need for a Savior, and openly longing for the soon-coming return of Christ to reign forever.

Christmas (and Christmastide), on the other hand, is a time of celebration, of feasting, focusing on Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity as Emmanuel, “God with us.”

So it should make sense to us that Advent is distinct, and quite different, from Christmas. Historically, Christians have set Advent apart from Christmas in these ways (among others):
  • With an entirely different set of hymns for Advent from the carols of Christmas
  • By fasting throughout Advent, while anticipating the feasts (yes, multiple feasts) of Christmas
  • In decorating their homes for Christmas in the last days of Advent-- even traditionally on Christmas Eve (think of the scene in a Christmas Carol when Scrooge visits the family who, on Christmas Eve, is decorating their tree together)
  • By having worship services that were marked by more solemn and quiet tones than at other times, especially Christmas
Someone asked me the other day whether we couldn’t just sing “regular” Christmas carols during the Christmas season. Of course, I said-- when we get to Christmas. But just as we would think it out of place to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, or “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in mid-June, we ought to think it out of place to sing, “Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning” (from “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”) three Sundays before Christmas.

If you’ve been thinking, “What means this?” about Advent, a couple of good resources to learn more are
Ken Collins’ Web Site on the Season of Advent and the “All About Advent” page at

Books for November 2008

I read some really great stuff in November-- very refreshing, challenging, and re-shaping. Not a lot of books, but quality made up for quantity. Here’s the list:

  • Living Streams: Journeys of a Life Well-Lived by Stuart Briscoe. This memoir is from a pastor/preacher I had heard of, heard some lectures by, and even read an article or two he had written, but didn’t know very much about. (I was mostly familiar with him through his wife’s ministry, which publishes the magazine Just Between Us for ministry wives.) I found in him a wonderful and humble man who God has clearly used in mighty ways, telling the story of how God uses His saints. Briscoe began preaching at age 17, and now at 80 has a wealth of wisdom and insight into ministry, which oozes out of every page. (9+)
  • The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves. A great book on how ministry isn’t all about us. Think of this one as a pastoral theology of sorts, with the brunt of the focus on how the Gospel is primary at all times. There’s some helpful discussion of how this looks, and a healthy dose of rebuke and humility. I needed this book, even though in some ways I didn’t feel ready for this book: there is a base assumption in Purves’ writing that most of us have gone astray in this manner, and I’m not sure I’ve been in ordained pastoral ministry long enough to be as entrenched as he assumes-- but maybe that in itself affirms how much I needed it. (8+)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Advent reflection 2: The End of Advent

There have been some very good questions coming my way about Advent, and why we (the church) do things the way we do. I want to reflect on the important season of Advent over the course of the next few weeks, and I actually began these reflections a couple of days ago.

This time, I want to encourage you toward an article that appeared recently in
First Things, which is a wonderful journal about religion and culture. The article, by Joseph Bottum, is entitled “The End of Advent” and it reflects very helpfully on why Advent is so crucial to the Christian life.

A couple of key excerpts:

...the disappearance of Advent seems especially disturbing—for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.

I find this to be the crux of the matter, and a huge reason why Advent is so important. Why, after all, DO we anticipate Christmas? It is because of what Christians have historically focused on during Advent: our growing awareness of our need for a Savior, and our longing and anticipation for the coming of One.

Advent has been lost, though-- and in losing it, we’ve lost the purpose for Christmas. (Why do we need a celebration of the incarnation of God Himself if, after all, we have lost our sense of awareness of the need for a Savior?) The fruit of this is that Christmas becomes a nostalgia-fest, looking backward instead of looking forward. Here’s more from the article:

Maybe that’s what has happened to Christmas. The ideas and the emotions have all broken free and smashed their way across the fields. From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play to Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know, there has been for a long time now something oddly backward looking about Christmas music—some nostalgia that insists on substituting its melancholy for the somber contrition and sorrow of forward-looking Advent.

Ironically, such a nostalgic approach to the days leading up to Christmas-- I won’t call that Advent, since it clearly isn’t-- too often longs for the Christmas of our childhood. And what was that? A time when we couldn’t wait for Christmas to get here, yet a sense that, daily, it WASN’T here yet. A time when the days before Christmas had something oddly special about them. Bottum captures this exactly:

When I was little—ah, the nostalgia of the childhood memoir—I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: The hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was somehow like a flavor even to the air we breathed.

Yet, even that has shadows of that true sense of Advent, doesn’t it? A longing, an anticipation that was so real and present that it shaped how the days even felt.

Isn’t that what Christmas-- and Advent-- bring to the Christian’s life? We know our need; we know also that our need has been, is being, and finally and completely will be met in Christ. And we long for that in Advent, which leads us to celebrate its realization at Christmastide.

I highly recommend Joseph Bottum’s brief article, “
The End of Advent.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I agree with 99% of what Michael says here about “what [he] means by Post-Evangelical.”

I find much of the baggage of evangelicalism stifling to my faith, my ministry, and the life of the church. I appreciate his gentle critique, and find it helpful to have some new categories to think in.

What do you think of it? Could you consider yourself a “Post-Evangelical” according to these criteria?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent reflection 1: Labor of love