We Are All Wrong–And That’s OK


Recently, the Phil Vischer Podcast had an episode with a Bible expert, and the team talked about the many ways people mishandle the Scriptures and how not to. It was a good show.

More than anything, what God drove home to me from that episode is that all of us, in some way, mangle our use of the Bible. Further, that’s OK.

Well, maybe it’s not OK that the Bible gets used wrongly by people but more that everyone is going to do it at some time. Because people are fallible, broken, wrong, stupid, selfish, and just plain messed up. How then can we expect them to always handle God’s words perfectly?

If you asked me what one piece of wisdom I could contribute to the vast collection of human understanding, I’d offer this: Every person you encounter in your life you see a slice of only. You don’t see their whole life, their joys, their failures. You don’t see what molded them for good or for ill. You just see that slice. And like a core sample from arctic ice, that person’s life consists of multiple layers of events and realizations that can only be interpreted after careful and prolonged study. And truthfully, some of it may never be understood by you because the person himself/herself doesn’t understand it either.

There is no growth in the Christian life without starting from a place of error and moving to a place that is less error-filled. You and I don’t get to decide whether the person before us now is in that error-filled place or not. Sometimes, that person is the one we see in the mirror.

This is why grace exists. Remember grace? It’s meant by God for us to use when we encounter flawed people who are in the process and on the journey. And frankly, that’s every person on earth.

God’s promise to us:

The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.
—Jeremiah 18: 1-4

That verse applies to Israel, but what it says about God is what matters.

We are all spoiled vessels. We are all mistaken, wrong, off. And if you catch any one of us in the process of being remolded to the potter’s ideal, we will look ill-formed, ugly even.

But God as potter is faithful to mold us into something beautiful.

So when you come across someone who is wrong or “stupid” or acting ignorantly by your standards, realize that he or she is in that molding stage. It is unfair to judge an artistic work mid-stream, by that slice of life that you see now but which is not the entire creation story. The best thing we can do is to be as faithful as we can to stick around and see how that half-finished vessel will turn out. To the potter at least, it will be gorgeous in His eyes. And ultimately, is not the Author of beauty its best judge?

Rethinking Spiritual Growth


Measring growthI’m part of a closed group of Vineyard and ex-Vineyard folks who discuss theology on a Facebook page.  Someone there raised the age-old question:

How do we measure spiritual growth?

For too long this simple question has baffled evangelical Christians. I think there’s a reason for that, but it’s not what it appears on the surface. But then, this is Cerulean Sanctum, so when do I ever approach things from a surface perspective? 😉

Measuring anything demands we agree on what we are measuring and the tools and terms we use in the measurement. Talking measuring spiritual growth in an evangelical church immediately runs into a wall because we make poor assumptions about those bedrock criteria. Ask the wrong questions and get the wrong answers.

For me, the elusiveness of measuring spiritual growth occurs because the focus has always been on the individual Christian in the individual church. It’s a bedrock principle that what we’re measuring is how a lone Christian in a lone Church grows.

But I wonder if we’re getting this all wrong from the first step.

I go back to two posts from 2013:

No “I” in “CHURCH”–How American Evangelicalism Gets Its Pronouns Wrong

God of the Group

What if we commit a fundamental error in checking for spiritual growth by focusing on the individual rather than on the collective church?

The language of the New Testament, again and again, is the collective you, not the singular. And the New Jerusalem at the close of the age isn’t a loose collection of people, but a unified Body—or more appropriately, a complete city.

I think one reason that leaders on the local church level burn out on growth issues is because all the emphasis is on the individual Christian. But shouldn’t successful growth be centered on what that local church is accomplishing?

Even more, the tendency to focus on the individual removes the collective church from its role as Body. Paul’s metaphor depicts health not as one organ functioning alone but as the organs in the body working in harmony, which has a secondary effect of wholeness for each part. In other words, when the eye is doing what an eye does, the foot and hand don’t end up falling off a cliff along with it.

For too long the assumption has been…

IF the individual is functioning well, THEN the church will be well.

That thinking puts everything on the back of the individual, though. The onus is on him or her to perform. Legalism and moralism can be the only result.

What if we reverse that assumption?

IF the church is functioning well, THEN the individual will be well.

I think that second equation has gone unexplored for too long. And because it has not been explored, it’s not at the forefront of how we think about church, the individual, and spiritual growth. I believe that second statement, though, is closer to the heart of the Gospel.

Shifting toward measuring church growth rather than individual growth makes it far easier to gauge genuine growth overall. The Body metaphor makes more sense and lends a better basis for measuring growth.

We can chart some growth elements from the perspective of an organic Body or organism. Two obvious aspects of a living organism that we can then examine:

How well is the organism feeding itself?

How well is the organism reproducing?

Starting at the second question also answers the first. Healthy organisms reproduce, while unhealthy ones do not. If disciples are not being made and the church is not growing itself, then it is not healthy. At this point, examining reasons for ill health can take us back to the first question and to others associated with it.

Here’s the thing: Measuring the growth of individuals will always have periods of mixed analysis. If you wish to measure an individual’s activity but do so while he is sleeping, bad analysis may result. What may look like slacking off may actually be recovery from a day’s strenuous work. This analytical mistake is why charting individual growth is so hard in the church and may not be a viable source for an accurate assessment. Our results depend on something that is too variable. Stepping up to a broader measure may be a better way of charting the real growth info we need to examine, and it provides us a way to work backwards and make general statements about the growth in the individual.

The main problem is that we’re not used to thinking that way, so many of our tools, questions, and interpretations will need to be recast to look more at the collective church rather than the individual Christian. Once we start thinking differently, I think we’ll have better results for making accurate statements about spiritual growth in American churches.

9 Reasons Why Today’s Books on Christian Living Are Terrible


Bad, terrible, lousy, shallow booksI was sent an advance reader’s copy of a Christian book set to debut next week. Part-way through and I just want to toss it.

Anymore, I read little contemporary Christian nonfiction. Though I graduated from a Christian college with a degree in Christian Education (now called, trendily enough, Spiritual Transformation), I find most books in that field and in general Christian Living written today border on the insufferable. As a result, it’s all I can do to make it past the first few pages with my sanity intact.

Here’s why:

1. Paid, professional pastors who write books about how normal people should live are NOT normal people. Anymore, the disconnect just seems more and more glaring. When paid, professional pastors who have gestated for decades in the safe womb of institutional Christian ministry write about how the everyday working man should live his life, those pastors have no idea what the world is like outside their artificial womb. And that naiveté actually seems to be getting more pervasive not less.

2. Really, I don’t care about all their credentials either. Read a book on Christian living from 100 years ago and I can promise you the author did not spend page after page talking about his credentials or casually dropping on the page all the wonderful things he has done that should convince you he’s an expert worthy of following. Authors of 100 years ago let the Holy Spirit establish credibility through the spiritually astute words on the page.

3. Drawing on illustrations that apply to only 0.01% of people won’t help anyone. So you’re writing a book about drawing closer to Jesus, but every illustration comes out of your life in a Christian commune. That may be great if the point of the book is how to start a Christian commune, but for everyone else who doesn’t live in a Christian commune, well…

4. Do I really need to have sectarianism and branding/marketing ever before me? I don’t recall Christian books from yesteryear constantly shilling for the author’s brand of Christianity. Books back then seemed to focus on Jesus more and less on this denomination or that. And even if an author had a clear denominational background, it wasn’t so pervasive on the page. Today, in cases where the author started a nondenominational, unaffiliated church, the constant on-page marketing campaign for the church doesn’t help either. Same goes for conferences or parachurch ministries.

5. To the shallow, all things are shallow, including the book they just wrote on how to be deep. Maybe it’s me, but today’s books on Christian living seem obvious. I know I’m not a babe in Christ anymore, but too many of those books ramble with stories about how the author did such and such, and they never get around to pressing in deeper. I’m always startled by how much more reasoned and filled with rare wisdom older Christian books are. Maybe Christians of 200 years ago were just deeper people and knew the Lord more intimately.

6. Christian publishers give too many book deals to callow dudes who haven’t lived. Yes, I am getting older, but I find it wrong that so many authors of bestselling books on Christian living are young hotshots running a trendy megachurch everyone is trying to emulate. Give me someone with some life experience instead. A guy who has buried a quarter of his congregation has a lot more to say about life than some 35-year-old dude who wears bowling shirts, can quote The Big Lebowski, and loves to drop in casual conversation what microbrews he drinks.

7. And why is it that all the young dudes always quote each other? Sometimes it seems as if Christianity started 30 years ago, if many of today’s books are any indication. This is especially true of books that discuss ministry models. It’s as if no one before today did anything worthwhile in the name of Jesus. In addition, a friend noted that the only way to make money blogging is to write a blog about making money blogging, and I wonder if that circular focus afflicts too many Christian nonfiction titles today. The way to sell Christian books on a topic is to get all your buddies who also sell Christian books on that topic to refer to your stuff in their books. The incestuousness of it all bugs me. That’s also a recipe for not only multiplying errors but also for believing too much of your group philosophy’s press.

8. Stop with the constant reference to your other books. If you’re going to publish a new book, don’t spend half of the new book referring to to something you wrote in a previous book that I’ll have to read before I can make sense of what is written in the new book. I get that you need to make a living through your writing. Great. How about achieving that noble goal by writing better books?

9. Where’s Jesus? We know Waldo is hiding amid the crowd, but why must Jesus be reduced to lurking amid the plethora of words in a book on living the Christian life? People are dying for Jesus. They’re not dying to hear an author ramble about his favorite video game and what life lessons can be drawn from playing Master Chief in Halo. I don’t care how big that pastor’s megachurch is or how fast it’s growing. Jesus’ Church is bigger. Tell me and everyone else about Jesus. Christian books from long ago did.

The Christian life deserves better. I wish I could find more of that better in the pages of today’s bestselling books on Christian living.