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Earnestly contend for the faith

Following the fallout from Lakeland I’m seeing lots of different explanations for what happened. People seem more polarized than ever. While some people like Lee Grady moved solidly in to the critic’s camp, others like Patricia King are laying part of the blame on the revival’s critics . While the Lakeland event has subsided, the tension continues. The conflict between may just be beginning.

What has brought us here? For far too long the church has looked a lot like the Corinthians.

2Co 11:3-4,20-21 NET “But I am afraid that just as the serpent deceived Eve by his treachery, your minds may be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus different from the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the one you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it well enough!… For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) …”

The more things change the more they remain the same. Instead of pure and sincere devotion we want quick fix spirituality, healing, and prosperity. We want blessings but no sacrifice. We want the benefits without the cost. We want the power and the glory. We want a free ride. Those who want to provide those things for us lift up the name of Jesus but which Jesus is it? Even in Paul’s day people preached Christ but it was a different Christ, a redefined Christ. In the charismatic movement discernment isn’t much more than a gauge of feelings or proclaimed manifestations. This isn’t enough, it has never been enough.

People, especially charismatics desperately want to see “revival” or an “outpouring” in their own life. They will go to great lengths to will some sort of healing or manifestation in to existence. I was one of those people back in the “laughing revival” in the old Toronto days. If you get enough people mesmerized with enough repetitive singing they start seeing and feeling precisely what they want to. Doubt does creep in later but it is usually stuffed in to the back as you go with the flow of everyone around you. On a historical note I was a part of a church that experienced the “Toronto blessing.” It completely imploded when one leader’s moral shortcomings became apparent to all. People were devastated. One of the most dedicated whole life mission kind of Christians I knew walked away from church and has yet to return.

There are some who don’t want us to “judge” Todd and just pray for him and his family. I acknowledge that we can’t judge someone’s heart or the purity of their motives. Only God knows the motives our hearts. That doesn’t mean we can’t discern the facts and look at the factors that lead to this unravelling disaster. What so many of the ‘we can’t judge’ crowd miss is how much spiritual, social, and emotional death and destruction that is sown in the body of Christ because of this. These events are far bigger than just one man or one family. To ignore the causes and the impact of what happened at Lakeland is to do a terrible disservice to the weary and the wounded.

A lot of pro-lakeland people are accusing the critics of being Pharisees, bitter, jealous or even demonically inspired. The truth is a lot of the most poignant critics are people who care. People who care about the weary, the crushed, the disappointed and the wounded. They are the survivors from past disasters.

These disasters happen because of deep theological and systematic flaws. Most people in charismania don’t want to consider this. They don’t want the charade to end because it would call in to question so much of what they have invested in. Deep down inside many of them know. The doubts at the back of their mind filter forward to the front. “After all these conferences, books, tapes, impartations and manifestations I’m no different. Maybe there is something wrong with me because everyone else talks about how powerful their relationship with God is. I just need to really pray and get committed.” Doubts are pushed back and people trudge on. Sadly many of us started pealing back the layers of this onion and discovered there is very little substance at the core. What is left is our own pride and selfish desire for more wealth, more spiritual power, more prestige and more glory. Read this testimony of a woman who came out of Lakeland to get a deeper picture of this.

We have to return to substance. Those us who know better have to stand up and in the words of Paul “contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Today we have more of an opportunity than we’ve had in the past. Up until recently our groupings, denominational and otherwise, have insulated us from each other. In the past when major events would break out one would have to drop in to participate in the experience. Today with the advent of blogs, forums, and online video we can watch things unfold in near real time.

There are critics that went overboard with mockery and inflammatory rhetoric, no question. But there was an amazing amount of collaboration and cooperation among people. Some people did a lot of work sifting through stuff like video, property records, and websites. At times it was a bit surreal seeing voices from the hard core fundies, the truly reformed and the post-charismatics all echoing the same concerns. It was clear that an impact was made. Public figures really have to watch what they say because there is a whole army of people ready to double check all the facts. Those on the outside were able to document the errors and excesses of the movement. Even if they did it in an inflammatory way the video evidence was incontrovertible.

We must continue to leverage new media to bring a measure of accountability to the body that has not existed. Many of us have abdicated our roles to speak up. As the details about Todd’s flaws are revealed it is exceedingly apparent that people would have known and they said nothing. No one wanted to stop the “glory” train or perhaps I should say gravy train.

As Paul advised Jude we must earnestly contend for the faith. To contend for something is strive for it in the face of opposition. My thanks go out to those who have contended for the faith in face of criticism and slanderous attacks. There is more to come. It appears very few are learning what they need to. Charismatic Christianity has as much credibility as a sub-prime mortgage and there is a deep need for a tremendous turn around.

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Lakeland Outpouring fallout

Bene passed on the unfortunate news that Todd Bentley has filed for separation from his wife which in Canada is usually the legal prelude to divorce.  Some couples do reconcile before getting a divorce though.   Todd received a huge endorsement from several major players in the charismatic/prophetic/apostolic movement not too long ago.  There was a huge commissioning service  you can see on youtube (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) .  In this service many prophetic words were spoken which seem extremely unlikely now.  Already one of the major players, C. Peter Wagner,  is distancing himself from Bentley.

Bentley’s marital problems are really the latest of several easily discernable blows to the movement.  The Internet and youtube played a prominent role in both the promotion and discernment of the Lakeland Outpouring.  God.TV promoted it and a legion of bloggers and youtube broadcasters combed through the video highlighting false doctrine, inconsistencies, and strange behaviour.  Another blow came when the mainstream media couldn’t find an independently verified miracle connected with the Lakeland Outpouring.

Often Christian organizations construct boards and councils to ensure accountability.  Far too often this mechanism fails because boards can be filled with "yes men."  A board loses a lot of potency when the leader of the organization decides who gets to be on it.   True accountability occurs when there is transparency and openness, when people with concerns can share them without fear of being attacked or sidelined. 

It is telling that some in the "New Apostolic Reformation", those that stress that everyone needs to be properly aligned with God’s apostolic authority and covering, are among those who uncritically endorsed Bentley and the Lakeland Outpouring in public.  It seems as through proper alignment with the apostles amounted to very little in this case. 

I’ve long been critical of the NAR because imposing control through hierarchy is the surest way to undermine true fellowship and accountability.  In his letter to the Corinthians Paul advises "let the prophets speak and the let the others judge."  A key part of this voice is letting people thinking through things on their own.  They shouldn’t be systematically coerced or manipulated in to giving approval to everything that is going on.

One of the more devastating components to this whole mess for me is the involvement of Rick Joyner.  Rick was at the commissioning service and has given Todd and an enthusiastic approval.  You can even find the DVD’s for the recent Bentley impartation service on the MorningStar website.  Mr. Joyner has a lot of favour in my city and has had considerable influence amongst the charismatic community I’m familiar with.  In my opinion he has written some very compelling stuff.  TheHeresy.com used to be primarily a clearinghouse for Rick Joyner’s stuff.  I started becoming less sure of Joyner after his reaction to 9/11.  Eventually I converted this website to a blog and most of his stuff is gone.  The ministry he is affiliated with, MorningStar, has progressively become more and more commercial following the same path that several other charismatic ministries have taken.

This should be a wake up call.  Only God knows Todd Bentley’s heart is but my guess would be that he is a sincere gifted Christian.  The way things are setup with the money, the hype, the cult of personality I don’t know how anyone can survive it without compromise.  I don’t think I could handle it if the superstars of the Christian world stood on a stage and publicly proclaimed me to be God’s "living epistle" to the world.  What a total mind job! 

I think a lot of this comes down to money.  We start selling a few T-shirts and hats to "support the ministry" and we find ourselves tangled in a web of marketing, hype, manipulation and commercialism.  We have to return to simplicity and give up the quest for money in ministry.  We cannot serve two masters.

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Whacked on the head by God with a sock full of silver dollars

Today I was listening to the Kunstlercast, a podcast about "the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl." They talk a lot about energy, new urbanism, peak oil and other fine subjects. Kunstler is one of my favourite commentators on the future because his very direct and unvarnished way of saying things.  He was featured on the CBC a little while ago and he featured in the documentary "The end of suburbia."  They have some interesting comments about evangelicalism in America.  Keep in mind neither of them of religious. You can listen to the audio here.

Kunstler: I have a feeling that there isn’t going to be a whole lot of structure left except what may be supplied by some kind of a spiritual or church setting.

Crary: Here is the problem that I see though.  Most of the religions, I don’t think, I think that as organizations they would be equipped to help us in to the future, but I don’t think the message that a lot of them are preaching actually one of humanism, about fixing the human [condition].

Kunstler: That is probably the most characteristic about evangelical Protestantism in our time, especially the brand the emanates from the sun belt is how consumerist and materialist it is.  How obsessed it is with riches and getting something for nothing and getting whacked on the head by God with a sock full of silver dollars.

If you want to know why the church is declining and descending perilously into irrelevance is that we make clubs for ourselves and there is nary a hint of sacrifice for anything bigger than ourselves.  From the self-help sermons, to megachurch malls and shallow self-serving spirituality we are revealing what we are really all about.  The world can see through it all.  We’ve hitched ourselves to the wagon of consumerist excess and we will go down with it.

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Todd Bentley

In the last few weeks the question of Todd Bentley and what is called the Lakeland Outpouring has weighed heavy on mind.  I don’t think I could comment negatively or positively without putting myself in tension with someone I care about.   For those unfamiliar with Todd Bentley he is Canadian charismatic evangelist leading what is considered by many to be healing revival in Lakeland Florida.  By most standards he is unorthodox.  He is a younger man, covered in tattoos, and his ministry is marked by manifestations like shaking, being drunk in the spirit and laughing.  Bentley has been a polarizing force.  As such people tend to strongly embrace or strongly reject was going on. Nightline just did a story on Bentley and couldn’t find one independently verified documented miracle.

At this point I haven’t seen a lot that I can embrace.  Everything that I’ve been learning in scripture about the nature of the church, salvation and ministry is at odds with what I see at Lakeland.  The message that is presented contrasts too heavily with the picture the New Testament paints.  The Lakeland message is pretty much summed up with one of Bentley’s catch phrases: "come get some".  While healing was a significant part of Jesus’ ministry all the talk of impartation’s, transferable anointings, and healing angels is foreign to scripture.  Some have attempted to take some scattered tidbits of scripture and try to make a case for this brand of Christianity but the attempts fail to measure up against the direction and the force of theologically orthodox Christianity.  While one could find  lots to criticize in Bentley’s brand of revival Christianity the most disturbing is what is missing.  I’ve yet to see a proper presentation of the message of the cross, sacrifice or death to self. 

Upon some sober reflection I can’t judge Todd Bentley the man (1Cor 4:5).  I can tell you that the message he conveys isn’t the gospel I know and believe in.

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Charismatic Christianity : Two steps forward and three steps back

I had a meaningful conversation with Len recently.  There are some common threads between us. One of them is a significant involvement in the charismatic realm.  As the conversation unfolded we spoke of how the charismatic movement added something to the lives of many mature grounded Christians who came from other church backgrounds.  For these people the emphasis’ of the charismatic movement were a welcome addition to their faith.  Those who know only the charismatic realm are missing solid biblical and theological grounding and are much more prone to fall for the distortions and aberrations of the charismatic movement today.  The anti-theological and anti-intellectual attitude so prevalent in the charismatic movement has severely handicapped the movement ability to stay faithful to a pure, simple devotion to Christ.  Discernment no longer resembles mapping things according to the guideposts of scripture.  The criteria now is more about a sense of anointing  or whether the name of Jesus is used. 

Now the worst extremes of authoritarian theology, the prosperity gospel and revivalism have infected much of a movement that brought real benefit to me and many others.  My feelings span the spectrum from saddened to sickened.  Sometimes I’m even more disheartened at the reaction of those on the outside who recognize how bad things have become.  On one side we have those who really don’t want to do anything.  On the other we have critics that are so vitriolic any solid point they make is easily dismissed by those they might be able to correct. 

I think the charismatic renewal is warning for other would be renewal movements like the missional church movement or simple church movement.  If we discard too much from the historical church we may not realize that we are missing essential elements of church life until it is too late.  As pioneers in these new movements we bring strengths of conventional church with us.   For example the first generation of simple churches may stay faithful to Christian orthodoxy because so many simple church pioneers come with abundant theological education.  If the second generation of house church leaders doesn’t have the same grounding it could easily go sideways. 

If we aren’t faithful and thoughtful we may end up making the same mistakes over again.

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The parable of the honest employees

A wealthy investor started a department store.  He hired some managers to the run store and went away on a long trip.  While the investor was away the store became very large and they hired many workers.  At first the work culture was good but as time wore departments started to resent each other.  Employees started stabbing each other in the back to climb the corporate ladder.  Workers became lazy as coffee breaks and lunch breaks started getting longer and longer.  Poor service started irritating customers.  Managers forced employees to endure unproductive corporate training.

Some managers were honest enough to acknowledge the dysfunction and make the best of the situation.  They rarely bucked the system because they found the task of challenging the system too daunting.  The dysfunction of the company started to impact the profitability of the company.  Managers spent company money on endless seminars, consultants and motivational speakers.    Different promotions brought in new sales but they spent so much on perks, benefits, and extra vacation days there was rarely, if any profit. 

Lots of people complained.  Most complained about how dysfunctional things were and how they weren’t fulfilled in their careers.  Some people moved from department to department thinking the next move would leave them more satisfied with their job. 

There were some in the company that started to wonder whether it was morally correct to take so much company money and spend it on themselves.  If the owner ever came back heads would roll.  They started asking poignant questions about how much money the company was really making.  Some managers  and other employees felt threatened by the questions.  Some others entertained the questions but never got around to answering them.  The honest employees sat in limbo as changes were promised but never seemed to materialize. 

Eventually it became an ethical issue for some of the managers and employees.  They began to wonder how long they could be complicit with system that was cheating the owner and so completely disconnected with the purpose of the store.  Management seemed overly concerned with sales while disregarding the truest measure of success: profit.  When they asked management if they could change a few things they were told that the owner hired the managers and they were plan a, there was no plan b.  Some stayed in the company making the best of the situation but many left the company because they could no longer pretend anymore. 

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Sacrificial love should be the life blood of Christian ministry

A lot of great thinkers have concluded that the church needs to shift towards mission. Frost, Hirsh and others believe that Christ should shape our mission and the mission shapes the church. That might be an overly simplistic description but I’m not picking on it. In general I think it is a good move.

Changing the flow our strategy will not be enough. The next reformation of the church needs a sweeping change in heart and values. I’ve probably been spending a little bit too much time reading 1cor 13 and John but more and more I believe sacrificial love should be the life blood of Christian ministry. In conventional ministry the life blood of ministry is information. The underlying assumption is that knowledge changes people so find the right people who will present the right information to everyone else and they will change. It isn’t working out so well now.

If sacrificial love is as important as Jesus, Paul and John make it out to be why doesn’t this value shape what we do? If love is more important than knowledge than why do we spend so much time absorbing information and so little time interacting with people we care about? In as much as I believe in a simpler approach to church organization the size isn’t the pivotal factor. It really isn’t about how many people are meeting where. It goes deeper than that. It is about the Spirit having an opportunity to work through the body and that a Christlike genuine sacrificial love be evident in the lives of those who are committed to each other. If we organize ourselves in such a way that we prevent real genuine caring relationships to form and we put curbs and barriers up to manage people we are squeezing off the life blood of Christ’s body.

Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is an essential element and with out it we are destined to get sidetracked. Theology is very important but it too is also better understood in the context of learning interactive loving community.

Paul said it well when he said “without love I am nothing.” If our ministries are full of good things but do not have sacrificial love they are nothing. Jesus said “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What does it mean to be a people that will leave the ninety nine to find the lost one?

I’ve had to ponder this deeply lately as I consider all the options for my son.

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Measuring the right things

I was trying to think up an analogy the other day for the church. I was wondering what sort of metaphor could capture how much we miss the point in our faith. If the essence of the gospel is trusting in Christ and his love while being transformed in to his likeness how did we get to the place we are now. If the church is a body held together in sincere love, empowered by the Spirit working through every member why are things the way they are?

If the church were a business we would measure our profit and if we weren’t making enough we would change. If we were a hospital we would measure how many of the sick and injured become healthier. If we were a vocational training institute we would measure how many people get jobs and keep them in their area of training.

Now imagine a school that measured how much people enjoyed the classes, how great the day care was, how inspiring the teacher was, the levels of enrolment and the amount of funding they had but only passively cared about the success of their graduates in the workplace. That my friends describes most of the church in North America today.

We need to change what we measure and how we measure our success.

· Do people have a proper understanding of the gospel?

· Do they love the people that can offer them nothing in return?

· Are people willing to sacrifice for others?

· Are people becoming more like Christ in their values and behaviour?

· Do they have life and freedom?

If we considered these things, we would realize the state we are in and we would change. As long as we measure things based on our own personal satisfaction or by the markers of organizational success we will miss the point.

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A way that is beyond comparison

The simple church I’m a part of is in an excellent place.  I can only speak for myself but I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of something that so consistently makes a positive difference in my life.  I don’t know if others could say the same but I do know that some people are in a better place than they were a couple of months ago and I know some people have found warmth and acceptance.  They feel at home.

What am I learning through this?  I think Jesus was right.  Yep, that is it.  I think Jesus is right.  "No one has greater love than this — that one lays down his life for his friends."  There are people in this church that show genuine care and concern for me that extends beyond meetings.  It is wonderful to know I have friends that will respond to me when I reveal my weakness and even my sin.

At its heart ministry it isn’t about models, mission, church size, location, finances or a whole bunch of other stuff we focus on.  At the core it is sacrificial love.  It is what Paul spoke of when he said "And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison."

If your concept of ministry gives you abundant opportunities to serve people in the context of sincere loving relationships then you will see things change.  If your concept of ministry is filled with any number of good things but insulates and isolates people from each other through complicated structures, theology or busyness then it will not change anything.

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The heart of ministry

The most effective life changing ministry happens when two people who genuinely care for one another connect.  The best situation is when both will serve each other sacrificially. This isn’t always the case.  Often sacrifice goes more one way than the other.  This is normal because one has to take the time to earn trust through sincere acts of service.  Jesus is our example.  The willingness to love as Jesus loved, to lay down ones life for a friend, to risk in order to help is the mark of true ministry.

This kind of ministry happens best in a sincere community.  In a place where people have an opportunity to be real, to grow in grace together, to discover their gifts and talents and use them to care for one another.  To be the body as Paul describes in 1Cor 12.

This kind of ministry is the hardest because it requires that your life be put on call.  It doesn’t require excessive demands on your time and resources but it goes far deeper than a commitment to attend a meeting or two.  It requires that one open up their home, not just their wallet.  It means going out of your way to show you care and deliberating passing up the things of this world that distract us from one another.

People change when they know they are loved.  It is in the trials of life that we find the best opportunities to help people understand truth and grace.  If we have no one we really trust, no one we can talk through our failures with then we are truly alone.  It doesn’t matter what level of commitment we have to a group or organization. 

One of the dangers of conventional church ministry is that in the minds of many singing some songs, listening to a sermon and attending a small group is the majority of church.  While there is some value in doing all these things they don’t get you to the point where you can feel real love and encounter life changing ministry.  It is almost impossible to be honest about the deepest issues in your life in a large group. A small group is better but people still find it difficult to open up in sensitive areas of their life.

Many small groups are just another event which at their very core function much like Sunday service.  They are primarily leader led with only modest participation from the group .  People find it very difficult to be transparent and open.  The best small groups go beyond this, embrace broad participation where people are given freedom to use spiritual gifts.  These groups touch people on relevant issues in their lives.  These types of groups do all a small group can do but we need more than what a small group can deliver.

We need connections with people that are forged with a deep level of trust and commitment.  Relationships that can endure flaws and mistakes and even hurt feelings.  Relationships with people that can extend grace and unconditional love when we reveal the dark corners of our soul.

One of the reasons why so many people find their way out of conventional churches is that they are lonely and disconnected in a sea of activity.  For a long time they believed that sitting and listening was participating in community.  They believed that being in a small group was being supported and loved.  They come to sense a huge disconnect. 

I’m in a community but I’m all alone.  I’m in a small group but I’m going through the motions.  I recognize there is more I could do, more I could try but I have tried for 20 years and I realize that so much of what I do is empty.  I know I’m supposed to be committed and be a part of the church but I am surrounded by church and I don’t know if I’m a part of anything of substance. 

So they leave.  Some people leave and give up on faith altogether.  Others start looking for those connections they longed for and find them.  While they aren’t part of any formal organization they discover an essential aspect of church life they have only had small tastes of up until now.  It can be rightly said that these folks are missing out on other essential aspects of church life. However they are getting the an element of church life that is no less essential and powerfully transformational. 

It is sad that these people are trashed from the pulpit so often.  I’ve seen it.  So many of the people who filter out the back door of churches are not seeking to leave the church but to find it.  So many of those who sit the pews cheering on those preachers don’t realize they are missing it.

The heart of ministry is to be Jesus to one another.  Too often we overload ourselves with activities that have value but have so captured our attention that they insulate us from each other.  We avoid the heart of ministry because it is too hard.  We can’t flee from commitment to each other, we must give grace when we are harmed, and we must love when it is inconvenient.  Becoming like Jesus is a sacrifice that most of us are unwilling to make and that is why we lack so much.

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