My Thursdays are usually filled with a whiskey tasting and cigar smoker with my lads. Recently we tried a selection of Taiwan’s whisky Kavalan. All three bottles were astoundingly good, like an Isla they exploded across the palate but instead of smoke it was fruit. However, there was a cold, calculated clinical feel to them as described by the online reviewer of Scotches, Ralfy. This sent me down the rabbit hole over the weekend learning about Kavalan. My takeaways are that everything about them is young, from the taste of the whiskey, to the age of the whiskey; from the speed at which the distillery is built, to the growth they have experienced. Everything is exponentially fast. And while this has led to a new version of an old thing it somehow lacks the depth and value of a real scotch.
I find this to be an adequate parable for a lot of the explosion of mega young restless and reformed churches and the seeker sensitive ones before them. They are a technically well done recreation of a much older and precious thing. Or to quote Deep Space 9 “It’s a fair approximation… I almost forgot for a moment it wasn’t the real thing.”
A Damning Episode
Much of the weakness of rejiggering church is explored very well in the _ episode of Mike Cosper’s, usually dismal, Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. In this instance, however, Cosper has hit the nail on the head (After smashing around the nail with wild abandon for a goodly while). At the end of the episode the damning remark comes while Driscoll is preaching from Revelation 2:1-7 about the Ephesian church loosing it’s first love, which was Christ. And it is observed by the crew recording the sermon that the letter was about their church. No longer were they about Jesus, but about Driscoll.
To be fair, this is not an isolated problem. In my own city I can direct you to a pastor of a conservative mega church who writes his sermons with applause lines built it. Stephen Furtick is clearly inebriated with his pride. Or of you go small Joe Thorn sometimes is far too enchanted with his own perspective on reformed theology.
And moving out to the macro scale the first love can be lost in the mix of branding, being sensitive to seekers, or building it so they will come. The first love can be lost, when parts of it are removed, ignored or explained away because they no longer gel with the cultural zeitgeist. Like the Fr. from Screwtape, “who has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for a supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his parishioners with his unbelief, not vice versa.”
And not to leave out my own camp. The first love can be lost over tradition. And not just reformed traditions that can become rote, but every church has it’s own little traditions, the things, “we have always done” and now can not be changed. I once saw a comic of two people in a fellowship hall and the first says to the second, “How many church members does it take to change a lightbulb? The second: “Change the lightbulb? I’ll have you know my grandfather donated that lightbulb!” Jesus can walk out the back door of a church just as well in a church that loves stagnation as a church that innovates like Google.
It should not come as any kind of a surprise that there is no substitute for preaching Christ and Him crucified. Any church that banks on the skills or charisma of a pastor is no church at all. Church is about only one man that that is the God man, it is devoted to the worship of Him only. Any church that has lost this love is not a church, it is a temple to an idol, it is a counterfeit church. It may look like the other churches but is not one.* Kavalan noses, tastes in a way that is reminiscent of a scotch, but it is not one.
One of the things to consider in the Driscoll saga is not just what appears to be a severe narcism, but also the fault in our own selves. Idols are tricky things, they demand much, promise much, and fail spectacularly. Part of their fall is that like any savior they often are crucified. There was long a group of pharisees that worked to quicken the fall of Driscoll. They blogged, gossiped, nursed grudges and bitterness, entered the church as wolves in sheep’s clothing. As Screwtape was increasingly ravenous for Wormwood, or at least a bit of him, they too loved Driscoll, and the worse he got the more they became like him. And when he finally imploded they were quick to hoist the petard. And true to form as an idol, they were not satiated. The appetite of hell can never be satisfied.
So again, the first love matters. It guards against idols by being ultimately satisfying. It challenges the intellect, it drives the will, it fulfills longings, it gives life. It isn’t easy on the front end, yet every false god is worse on the back end. In Christ are pleasures, and more pleasures, he makes no secret of of, in his right hand are pleasures for evermore.**
“Oh to behold the Glory of Christ! Here in would I live, Here in would I die, here on would I dwell in my thoughts and my affections until all things here below become as dead and deformed things, and in no longer, any way, calling out for my affections” ~ John Owen
Greasing the Skids
There is something to be said for placing obstacles in the way of a pastor. They are not there to hinder him in shepherding the sheep, that is where elders are to also shoulder the burden. But to obstruct his pride. Just as parents should know the frame of their children, elders should know the frame of their pastor. There are some incredibly gifted pastors who should be kept far from the spotlight, for the good of their own souls. Charisma and capability are not necessarily movements of the holy spirit. Ed Litton may be a very capable administrator and audio reader, clearly he should not be a preacher, much less of a church that size. If he can not write and preach his own sermons he should not be a pastor. Driscoll should never lead an organization. He is proving that once again at his new church. He needed more obstacles in his way to limit him. Elders should not grease the skids for a pastor to go sailing into the abyss.
Mars Hill was a good church for a while, it failed for many reasons, all of them from the pit of hell. Piper put it this way:
“When I look at history—I’m thinking centuries—God must be the kind of general over his army that willingly accepts tactical defeats for strategic victories. That was a defeat. That was a tragedy. The debacle in Seattle is a tragedy from untold angles. Lots of people hurt. It was a defeat for the gospel. It was a defeat for Mark. It was a defeat for evangelicalism. It was a defeat for Reformed theology, for complementarianism. It was a defect. Not trying to whitewash anything. It was a colossal Satanic victory, and the general is not out of control.” -John Piper***
We keep the first love the first love because it can not fail. He is on the move, the gates of Hell will not stand against him. They have stood up to Mark Driscoll, they will hold up to other individuals, but they will not withstand Christ and his Church. We love him because he first loved us. He must be preeminent in all things. The charge is being led, He can not fail, we must join Him and by way of God’s Grace we shall arrive.
*There is room for there to be a remnant inside the larger body that is working to purify and reform, and sometimes God blesses and moves and success is had. Sometimes, however, it is best to acknowledge what has happened and let the dead thing be dead, then resurrect in a purified way. Or to change the metaphor, ash is good for growing plants.
**Again Screwtape but if you have been reading here any amount of time you should have recognized it.