Why Denominations Matter

I recently returned from a great time at my fourth Together for the Gospel Conference. It was a great time with my wife, old friends, and new books sitting under great preaching, eating out, and enjoying a preview of Spring.

The session I was actually most looking forward to was the Panel entitled, “Denominations: Your Grandfather’s Oldsmobile?” The importance of theological traditions and denominational affiliation has been growing in my mind over the past few years. I grew up in a certain denominational context and then left that for broader Evangelicalism in my college days. Over time I’ve come to identify and benefit from what may be called the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement expressed in conferences like T4G and organizations like the The Gospel Coalition. But I’ve also stumbled into a Southern Baptist Church and from there been drafted into denominational service and initiated into our confessional history and theological distinctives.

I was hoping that the Panel would be focused on making the case for YRR types not to settle for a mere non/inter/transdenominational movement, but to also settle down in a clearly defined ecclesiastical tradition. As it turned out, the discussion focused mostly on what to do if your denomination goes Liberal.

[As a fascinating aside: it was the hierarchical denominations represented (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Reformed) that had irretrievably strayed from orthodoxy and the Baptists representing congregational polity which told a story of righting the ship.]

One illustration that has helped me a lot in this comes from Michael Horton, drawing on C.S. Lewis:

I’ve argued elsewhere that evangelicalism is like the village green in older parts of the country, especially New England. There may be two or three churches on the grounds, but the green itself is a wide open space where people from those churches can spill out in conversation and cooperation. Evangelicalism is not a church, though it often acts like one. It isn’t the big tent (more appropriate, given the history) that encompasses all of the churches on the green. It’s just…, well, the green. When it tries to adjudicate cases of faith and practice through conferences, press releases, and blogs, evangelicalism (including Calvinistic versions) exhibits its movement mentality.

My analogy echoes C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”: a hallway in a large house where believers mix and mingle, often opening the door as non-Christians knock. But, as Lewis insisted, it’s in the rooms where people actually live as a family—where they sleep, are warmed by the fire, fed and clothed, and grow. We are formed in the family life of Christ’s body by particular churches, with their distinct confessions and practices. You can’t live in the hallway.

I’m not against evangelicalism as a village green or hallway. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful meeting place. However, when it acts like a church, much less replaces the church, I get nervous.



What is unction? According to W.E. Sangster it is “that mystic plus in preaching which no one can define and no one (with any spiritual sensitivity at all) can mistake.”

How do we preachers get it? “Unction comes only of praying. Other things precious to a preacher come by prayer and something else. Unction comes only of praying. If nothing else revealed the poverty of our secret prayers, the absence of unction would. Able preaching can often reveal the cleverness of a man… Unction reveals the presence of God.”

W.E. Sangster, Power in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1976), 106, 107.


Sunday Kinks

It’s Monday.  For all of you evaluating how yesterday went, consider this quote from Annie Dillard:


A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one.  In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks.  We positively glorify them.  Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.  Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens.  Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people.

From Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 20. HT: George Guthrie


Full of Leaks

From The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions:

My mind is a bucket without a bottom,

with no spiritual understanding,

no desire for the Lord’s Day,

ever learning but never reaching the truth,

always at the gospel-well but never holding water.

My conscience is without conviction or contrition,

with nothing to repent of.

My will is without power of decision or resolution.

My heart is without affection, and full of leaks.

My memory has no retention,

so I forget easily the lessons learned,

and thy truths seep away.

Give me a broken heart that yet carries home the water of grace.


Military-Entertainment Complex

Before the Super Bowl on the last Lord’s Day, Andrea and I read from James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.  There is a section of the book that evaluates several ‘secular liturgies’ of our day.

Consider the rituals that constitute the opening of a professional sporting event such as an NFL football game or a NASCAR race, even if only viewed on television.  In a massive space thronging with people, eager for the beginning of the event, a crowd of a hundred thousand people can be brought into remarkable placidity by the exhortation, ‘Please stand for the national anthem.’  Like parishioners who know all the motions of the Mass by heart, these fans instinctively and automatically rise together.  They remove their caps, and many place a hand over their heart as an artist or group sings a rendition of one of the world’s most affecting national anthems, laden with military themes such that those singing it are transposed into battle, the identity of the nation being wrapped up in its revolutionary beginnings and legacy of military power.  Perhaps even more importantly, this rehearses and renews the myth of national identity forged by blood sacrifice.

The sounds of the anthem are usually accompanied by big, dramatic sights of the flag: a star-spangled banner the size of a football field is unfurled across the field by a small army of young people whose movements make it undulate as if blowing in the winds of battle, proudly defiant, but almost dripping with blood in those red lines across it.  And almost always, the concluding crescendo of the anthem – announcing that this is the ‘land of the free’ and the ‘home of the brave’ – is accompanied by a flyover from military aircraft, whether the searing slice of F-15 fighter jets across the sky or the pulsating presence of Apache helicopters chugging across the air space of the stadium.  The presence of the aircraft has a double effect: it concretizes the militarism of the anthem and the flag while also making the scene something that is felt, as the sounds of the jets or choppers is a kind of noise one picks up in the chest more than the ears.  A crowd larger than many American cities then erupts in cheers and applause as this ritual of national unity has united even fans of opposing teams.

I’m suggesting that this constitutes a liturgy because it is a material ritual of ultimate concern: through a multisensory display, the ritual both powerfully and subtly moves us, and in so doing implants within us a certain reverence and awe, a learned deference to an ideal that might some day call for our ‘sacrifice.’  This is true not only of professional sports; the rituals of national identity – and nationalism – have been almost indelibly inscribed into the rituals of athletics from Little League to high school football.  ‘As is well known,’ Stanley Hauerwas once quipped, ‘Friday night high school football is the most significant liturgical event in Texas.’  The imagination couples these spectacular displays at professional sporting events with the simplicity of the anthem and color guard at a high school football game, and together they build up a story of national unity forged by battle and sacrifice.  Over time, these rituals have a cumulative, albeit covert, effect on our imaginary.  And together, I’m arguing, these constitute liturgies of ultimate concern…

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 105-106.


Smith makes some fascinating observations and helpful arguments in this book.  It’s important to be aware of what’s happening to us in these cultural practices.  What has really captured our imaginations?

I couldn’t find yesterday’s version, but here is the 2011 video production that played before the Super Bowl.  I think Smith is onto something here:


5 Tips for Writing from C.S. Lewis

I think these would largely apply to writing sermons as well (especially #4):


1.  Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.


The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963, ed. by Walter Hooper (HarperOne, 2007).


Work to the Glory of God

Gerard Manley Hopkins (English Poet; 1844-1889) wrote:

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring…. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives Him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give Him glory, too. He is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean they should.

Quoted in Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 191.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor. 10:31).


Book Review: The Wisdom of Stability


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2010), 164 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, January 2014

I once heard Mark Dever point out in passing that Americans descend from the ones who didn’t stay. It’s true: we are a relatively new nation, populated by immigrants. “Consider the interesting gene pool that’s created,” Dever remarked.

Whether it’s genetic or not, there is no doubt that staying put is well nigh un-American. Most American stories involve growing up and moving on. I’ve been reading the Little House on the Prairie series with my daughters and can’t help noticing this pioneer itch to go west, to escape the constraints of civilization.

Today we assume this narrative and take an almost migratory existence for granted. It’s the air we breathe. That is how a culture works. In The Wisdom of Stability Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see that our air is polluted. That is what a prophet does.

This book defines the odor I have been sniffing and wondering if anyone else was noticing. I am a product of that “culture where success means moving up and out” (46). But God’s providence has superintended my life and led me to pastor an urban church which I am seeking to lead to be a steady gospel presence in a particular place. This book’s theme is one that has become central to my heart and an unshakeable conviction.

I realize, however, that we’re up against mega-forces, what Wilson-Hartgrove describes as “the placelessness that drives ambitious young students to see this university town as a stop on their way to somewhere else” (46). He calls the alternative ‘stability’ and explains that “stability challenges us to question the assumptions of a hypermobile culture” (51). It means “unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else” (40). Not just our culture but our economy is stacked against stability. Being rooted in a place with other people is both countercultural and practically difficult. Nevertheless, Wilson-Hartgrove commends stability and makes a compelling case for it.

The Introduction begins with these words:

This is a book about staying put and paying attention. In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed, I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are (1).

Wilson-Hartgrove is upfront with his intentions in writing this book:

I hope to reprogram your default setting. As participants in a mobile culture, our default is to move. God embraces our broken world, and I have no doubt that God can use our movement for good. But I am convinced that we lose something essential to our existence as creatures if we do not recognize our fundamental need for stability. Trees can be transplanted, often with magnificent results. But their default is to stay (5).

I agree. Epic characters like Abraham get a lot of attention in the Bible, which can cause us to think we must uproot and go somewhere else as the quintessential display of piety. But we must keep in mind that God’s goal with Abraham was to establish a people in a place where generations would enjoy and obey God, each man under his own vine and fig tree in his ancestral allotment. Even in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul’s missionary expeditions are recounted, the purpose was to establish healthy, local, self-governing churches in each city that could continue the task of evangelizing their own locale. He writes to the new Christians in one of these churches – “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (1Thess. 4:11). This is not what we usually think of when we hear ‘ambition’. We mustn’t confuse God’s will with our wanderlust.

While there are many factors that militate against the church that I serve being this kind of stalwart kingdom outpost, I truly believe that the city can be well-suited to stability. I resonate with the sentiment expressed by a man named Brian on page 65 who was frustrated by “the constant commute from home to work to school to church to shopping centers to playgrounds to home again. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do everything in one place?’” Yes! This is the genius of a walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhood, as opposed to a suburban one.

However, our urban neighborhoods are often revolving doors. People are community-starved, yet the ethos of transience prevents us from truly experiencing the fellowship we were created for. ‘Hugging the parade’, as some have called it, is often the best we can do, but it is an anemic version of the New Testament’s vision of love within the body. As Wilson-Hartgrove says, “Stability demands that we do the long, hard work of life with other people in the place where we are” (21). He tells the story of a man named Will who moved with his family to be part of a church that took community seriously. After a year “he wasn’t sure that he was experiencing the community he had expected. Frankly, Will had hoped for more. The pastor listened to his misgivings, then asked how long Will and his family had been there. ‘About a year,’ he replied. ‘Then I guess you’ve got about a year’s worth of community,’ his pastor said matter-of-factly. ‘Stay another year and you’ll have two years’ worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you’re looking for” (19). Who thinks that way?!

Even for those who have recognized the virtue of stability, staying put is hard. Stability is not just a romantic ideal. It calls for plodding (sometime slogging) through commitments with patience and endurance. Like a marathon runner who ‘hits the wall’, when we’re seeking to practice stability we will inevitably become tired, disillusioned, and tempted to believe that what we need is a change of scenery. This has been experienced before and there’s a name for it – acedia. It is what the desert monks referred to as “the ‘noonday devil’ who attacks after one commits to stay and begins to feel the heat of high noon” (108). It is helpful to be aware of this common interior obstacle we will meet along our journey to stay put.

Wilson-Hartgrove is careful to point out that we are staying put to get somewhere. Stability is part of our individual and communal sanctification, but it is also part of our mission. Even though “our mobile world mocks stability’s tactic of changing the world by rooting ourselves in the ground beneath our feet and in the God who walked among us” (134), this is what the world needs. James Davison Hunter calls it ‘faithful presence’. I think it’s also an effective evangelism strategy.

“This is not to say that the mission of God never calls people to go elsewhere,” Wilson-Hartgrove is quick to acknowledge. “For all of Jesus’ attention to the local scene in Galilee, it is clear from the Gospel accounts that he meant for his disciples to get out with the message about God’s kingdom, even to the ‘uttermost part of the earth’” (140). But as Gerald Schlabach wisely notes – “We should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways – ready to hear the Abrahamic call” (140).

Like any good thing, stability can just as easily become an idol. “If we embrace stability as a countercultural virtue and persevere in the practice of it for even a few years, we may hear vainglory whisper, ‘Don’t give up; people will notice soon’” (123). This is a needed warning. Yet as a general rule, Wilson-Hartgrove is right – “Maybe the single most important thing we can do if we want to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are” (39).

These are some of the reasons why I greatly appreciated this book. Now here is why The Wisdom of Stability is not exactly the book I’ve been looking for and why I cannot recommend it to everyone. Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the leading voices in a movement called ‘New Monasticism’ that offers many helpful critiques and laudable practices, but also contains many dangers. The monastic rule – “In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it” – is a good one. But monastic spirituality is confused at best and in many ways detrimental.

At times Wilson-Hartgrove gets close to grounding the call for stability in the grace of the gospel, but it was not explicit or well developed. More often he spoke in ways that contradict the gospel, saying things like: “…if we want to ascend to life with God…” (42); “…if we want our very being to rise up into God’s being…” (51), or “…the commitment to climb Jacob’s ladder in a particular place…” (49). This metaphor of climbing Jacob’s ladder is used throughout. The problem, as Michael Horton has put it, is that “it is not a metaphor of our ascent, but of Christ’s descent; not of our coming to Christ, but of Christ’s coming to us.” That’s what John 1:51 says (compare with Genesis 28:12) – Jesus is the ladder, dropped down from heaven for us! This is a huge difference.

The monastic communities were generally based on this false understanding of man’s ascent to God through religious works, ascetic practices, and the like. This resulted in a retreat from the world to secure one’s own soul with God. Instead, the gospel is about what God has done to secure our souls so that now we can engage with the world. God does not need our good deeds, but our neighbor does. In the gospel we are free to love and serve others through our faithful presence and witness. This seems like such a better theology to undergird the call to stability. There are many applications. For example, because Jesus’ righteousness is our identity we don’t have to traverse the world trying to carve out our own. Or: because we have been irrevocably joined to Christ by grace, we can be content and stop trying to attach ourselves to the next new thing. Or: because God has shown mercy and steadfast love to us in Christ, we can forgive and patiently cultivate love with others, instead of leaving a trail of relationships behind us. This lack of a gospel foundation is the book’s main flaw, and a significant one.

I would also like to have seen more biblical exegesis and theology, although he does deal with one of the most important passages – Jeremiah 29 – in chapter 6. Mostly, this left me wishing that there was a popular level book that shared many of the great insights of this work while drawing from and expounding on the Reformed tradition instead of the Monastic one. I’m not aware of one, but it seems like there are great resources in Luther’s doctrine of vocation and Kuyper’s emphasis on common grace institutions for calling Christians to stop moving every couple years… for the glory of God and the good of Man.


Church as Institution

While I have gratitude and respect for certain para-church ministries and benefit from being part of different trans-denominational movements, the older I get the more convinced I become that the church is where it’s at. I recently saw this quote from Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) in the Fall 2013 issue of Comment dedicated to the topic of institutions:

This turn boded ill for Evangelicalism’s long-term future, because although the ‘para’ groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith, you might say, which meant that they were organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of comprehensive, intergenerational community… You couldn’t spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders.


OT and NT Believers

Only this difference was between them and us, that our redemption by Christ’s death and passion was then only promised, and now it is performed and past. And as their sacraments were figures of his death to come, so be ours figures of the same now past and gone. And yet it was all but one Christ to them and us, who gave life, comfort, and strength to them by his death to come, and giveth the same to us by his death passed.

Thomas Cranmer, Works, I (Cambridge, 1844), p. 60.


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