The Sunday Reader

This week's insightful and interesting links.

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Why Our Expectations for Teens in the Church Are Way Too Low (video/article)

Cameron Cole argues that kids should be given meaningful roles for contributing within the Body.

The Canons of Dort (Article)

R. Scott Clark, a URC pastor and professor at WSCAL, gives some background on the history and significance of the Synod of Dort.

The New Normal in Church Security (Article)

Without stating his own view, Tom Rainer describes the lay of the land with respect to how churches have responded to recent violence.

What Is Life (video)

The idea that reality as we know it is a "computer simulation" used to be relegated to science fiction. As this video shows, you can now find physicists, engineers, and other intellectuals placing faith in this far-fetched flight from accountability. After all, even if this is a virtual world (and it isn't) that only pushes back the question, Who created the real world running the simulation? “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’” Disclaimer: contains a mild expletive.


The Sunday Reader

This week's insightful and interesting links.

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When Churches Have Bad Reviews

Rev. Spotts provides counsel for how to evaluate churches online and what to make of bad reviews. 

Bearing the Burdens of the Broken

J. D. Greear challenges assumptions about what it means to bear others' burdens and the extent of our duty. Especially useful to church officers.

Ten Critical Trends for Churches in 2018

Tom Rainer serves up an insightful forecast of the forces shaping American Christianity. 

Prayer for the New Year

Wunder-Blogger Tim Challies provides an excellent prayer to use in your own devotions.

Flocking Patterns (video below)

A neat visual of the way sheep move and why they need good shepherds.



When Churches Have Bad Online Reviews

For many, the first step in deciding where to go on Sunday begins with a "G," and I don't mean "God."

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Having the Internet at our fingertips enables people to scrutinize options in a way that was impossible twenty years ago. Whether selecting restaurants, barbers, or bedding, we've become hyper-aware of a vast sea of alternatives from which to choose. Whereas before, you might have pulled over at the nearest sandwich shop and left satisfied, many now feel compelled to search out the best option their city has to offer, every time. Nearly every decision, from the momentous to the mundane, requires us to consult a virtual Delphic oracle.

Enter, online reviews.

Search engines and review aggregates, like Google or Yelp, not only identify options. They cull the experiences and opinions of thousands of people to provide on-the-ground information. Scanning reviews helps us feel confident that we're making the best possible decision. Naturally, that habit extends to which churches people visit. Queuerying “church near me” not only pulls up names and locations, but star-ratings and testimonials.

What I want to ask is, should online reviews apply in the same way to Christian churches as they do to Church's Chicken? For a variety of reasons, I want to suggest online reviews are inadequate indicators of which churches people should visit.

Unknown Character of Reviewers

Relative anonymity might not factor in to decisions about taco joints. When deciding where to worship, though, it is crucial that you know about the person leaving the review. Religious judgments can be highly skewed, both positively and negatively, by the morality and beliefs of the reviewer. And the simple fact is that it may be difficult or impossible to establish such details as:

  • How long have reviewers been Christian? 
  • What sort of Christian?
  • Did they visit only a few times?
  • Were they actively engaged in congregational life?
  • Did they leave to avoid discipline?

Some reviewers may be poor judges of what constitutes a worthwhile church. Others might have an idealistic axe to grind against Christianity itself. In such cases, who is to prevent antagonists from leaving negative reviews on all the churches in a city? How do you know “Sam Gustafson, Age 35” is not an angry teenager whose parents for make him attend youth group? Often, you can't.

Personal Experience

No church is above bad reviews. In fact, not long ago, the church I pastor received this brief gem:

Racist, wealthy, family owned, "christian" business club.

My first instinct was to reach out to the reviewer to address his concerns. Unfortunately, his account had no other activity or contact information. Since I am unaware of any person by his name having attended our fellowship, it would appear he came so briefly that his opinion can hardly be fair, or someone slandered our entire congregation as “racist” from behind a pseudonym. 

Thankfully, the charge is untenable. Pastor Phil and I preach pointedly on how Christian unity transcends differences of race, wealth, gender, and nationality. Our pews are filled with believers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who esteem one another equally. Just this Sunday, I saw a black first-time visitor warmly greeted, invited to a home meal, and hugged by a white member, all within minutes of arriving. Given that we voted to prepare a brother of black and Mexican descent for pastoral ministry, the overall convictions of our leaders and members are clear.

Of course, I can not promise that no one among us will ever have racist tendencies. Christ calls sinners to be his disciples, and even the Apostles had to address prejudice among early Jewish and Greek Christians. I can tell you, however, unabashed racists will be readily confronted, instructed, and, if necessary, disciplined from our community. People who read Google reviews won't see that, though. With dozens of churches to choose from, why not skip the one accused of racism, right?

Similarly, the reviewer's assertion that we are "family-owned" is nonsense. Our leaders are congregationally elected. Nor do we allow two men from the same family to serve as elders at the same time. Every major decision, including the budget, goes before the entire congregation for approval.

Last, the charge that we are a “wealthy... business club” is laughable. Wealth is not itself sinful, nor are we all well-off! Indeed, for my poorer brothers' and sisters' sake, I might wish it were more true. Our largely working and middle-class congregation nevertheless manages to donate much of their excess to others. About half the budget goes to charity, as our public financials attest.

I suppose worshipers in suits or business-casual clothing could be mistaken as showing off wealth. But this would be an unfair judgment. The preference of some for conservative attire has more to do with an expression of modesty and reverence (and knowing about 30% off coupons at Kohl's) than about signalling status. Yet others worship among us in tee-shirts and sandals and are no less valued. You wouldn't know this by reviews, though.

Reevaluating Online Reviews

When evaluating churches online, the words of 1 Cor 13 still apply: “love hopes all things.” I suggest going to the church's website to read their confessional statement. If it bears a faithful witness, why not grant the benefit of the doubt, buckle up, and see for yourself what they are like? In God's sight, due diligence is not wasted time. 

Remember, it will take more than one service to know if you've found the right church. Those casually racists folks you meet the first week might not be the best representatives of the body! On the other hand, they just might indicate you've found a church where actual sinners are welcomed and challenged to grow.

When Your Church Receives Bad Reviews

Like it or not, for the foreseeable future, Google reviews will continue to be the first stop for many seeking a place to worship next Sunday. For that reason, you should consider how to respond when—not if—your church receives a bad review. 

First, don't attempt any kind of censorship (queue, "Streisand Effect" and accusations of being a cult). This is the world we live in. For better or worse, everyone has an immediate platform to broadcast truth and error.

Instead, I encourage all church members to leave an honest, balanced review of their own church, preferably on both Google and Yelp. As the adage goes, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” If it's just one or two poor reviews in a pile of hundreds of positive ones, that speaks volumes. Meanwhile, truly rotten churches won't be able to hide or ignore numerous bad reviews. 

Thankfully, negative reviews aren't all bad. They present church leaders and congregations with opportunities for honest self-reflection. Is there some truth in what was said about my church? Possibly. In any case, I have a better idea of what to pray for, guard against, and preach on in the future. Clearly, God works in mysterious ways!

The Sunday Reader

This week's insightful and interesting links.

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What's the Difference Between a Lament and Complaining? 

Tremper Longman provides a useful and edifying distinction in the Psalms.

Your "Free Time" Isn't Free  

J. I. Packer reflects on Christ's lordship over those non-work hours we often idolize.

Doing Church Away from Church Isn't Church

Eric Davis asks "do we really need to go to a building on a certain day for it to count as doing church? How do we discern what does and does not constitute going to church?"

Falcon 9 Launch  (Video)

In case you missed the spectacle over Phoenix this week, here's a video of SpaceX's satellite launch.

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The Sunday Reader

Worthwhile finds from this week.

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Did Adam have time to name all the animals?

An interesting and fairly compelling examination of how (and why) it might have worked out practically.

8 Marks of True Reformers

Pray that your pastors, elders, and fellow believers grow in these ways.

How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult 

A thought-provoking piece on the challenges we face in a suburban and commercially-driven culture.

How do you know when it's time to leave a church? (video).

Good 2-minute presentation from 9Marks. Not all the reasons are negative!

Pastors' Picks: (Theistic) Evolution

Here are resources addressing arguments for and against evolution, including theistic evolution, which posits God created human beings by guiding the evolutionary process.

Note: In accord with the Three Forms of Unity, I believe God created historical Adam by uniquely fashioning his form from inert dust and breathing life into him, not from pre-existing organisms. 

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Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. 
Edited by J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, et al.

Featuring two dozen highly credentialed scientists, philosophers, and theologians from Europe and North America, this volume provides the most comprehensive critique of theistic evolution yet produced. It documents evidential, logical, and theological problems with theistic evolution, opening the door to scientific and theological alternatives—making the book essential reading for understanding this worldview-shaping issue.

Crossway | Amazon

Reformation Day Quotes

Several people asked for the quotes used in the Reformation Day PM service. Here you go:

Luther was the man who, guided by experience in the life of his own soul, again made people understand the original and true meaning of the gospel of Christ... The penitent arrives at forgiveness of sins, not by making amends (satisfaction) and priestly absolution, but by trusting the word of God, by believing in God’s grace. It is not the sacrament but faith that justifies. In that way Luther came to again put sin and grace in the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The forgiveness of sins, that is, justification, does not depend on repentance, which always remains incomplete, but rests in God’s promise and becomes ours by faith alone.
— Herman Bavink
The strength of that heretic [John Calvin], consisted in this, that money never had the slightest charm for him. If I had such servants my dominion would extend from sea to sea.
— Pope Pius IV
Today we shall light such a fire in England as shall never be extinguished.
— Bishop Latimer to Bishop Ridley, just before both were burned at the stake for opposing the Romish doctrine of Mass. Oxford, 1555.
I am tradition!
— Pope Pius IX to the Archbishop of Bologna, in response to complaints that  church tradition argued against papal infallibility.
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force.  I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.  I did nothing; the Word did everything.
— Martin Luther

The prior quote comes from Martin Luther's Second Sermon upon his return to Wittenberg, in response to the radical “reforms” of Karlstadt, which is worth a longer read:

Once, when Paul came to Athens (Acts 17 [:16–32]), a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot.  Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force.  When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord, and in consequence the thing fell of itself.  Likewise, if I had seen them holding mass, I would have preached to them and admonished them.  Had they heeded my admonition, I would have won them; if not, I would nevertheless not have torn them from it by the hair or employed any force, but simply allowed the Word to act and prayed for them.  For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.
In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion.  Take myself as an example.  I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force.  I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.  I did nothing; the Word did everything.  Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe.  But what would it have been?  Mere fool’s play.  I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.  What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row?  He sits back in hell and thinks:  Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now!  But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him.  For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself.

— The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit.  [Luther, M. (1999, c1959).  Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51: Sermons I.  (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.).  Luther’s Works (51:III-78).  Philadelphia: Fortress Press].  Emphasis added.