Thursday, January 22, 2015

Who Will Go First? (This Week's Sermon)

The book of Judges is filled with murder, intrigue, battles, lust, power, and all sorts of other stuff. It's the story of a downward spiral into idolatry and disunity. And yet, the book is often preached as a collection of stories about heroes who should be emulated. In the coming weeks, we will be looking at what God has to say to us through this troubling book about troubling times, when each man did what was “right in his own eyes” and what it can mean for the Church today, living in our own troubling times when, again, everyone is doing what is right in his or her own eyes. And yet, we will find that with God, things are never hopeless.

(Click here to download MP3. You can access many more of my sermons on the church website,

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dem Bones (This Week's Sermon)

This week, I preached on Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. In it, we find great hope for ourselves, our churches, and the Church Universal. When things look dead, all is not lost. Our God is an Awesome God and Resurrections are kind of his thing.

(Click here to download MP3. You can access many more of my sermons on the church website,

Monday, January 12, 2015

Evangelical Clichés Redux

Here's a list of Christian cliches that I compiled at my old blog.  Don't get all twisted up; this is all firmly tongue-in-cheek. Oh, and please feel free to add your own in the comments section. I'm sure I'm missing some doozies. Also, I seem to have been in a particularly snarky mood when putting all this to paper (and by paper, I mean the ugliest blog template anyone has ever was a big brown mess). Anyway, that really comes through in this piece, which I now present with very little editorial comment:

An Annotated Guide to Christian Buzzwords

Authentic - Yeah, let's all be really intentional about being "authentic." We can probably synthetically produce authentic authenticity. (Cf. "relevant" and "engaging culture.")

Best Life Now - This idea has nothing to do with the Christian life between the first and second comings of Christ, unless you consider being lied about, mocked, persecuted, and facing "all kinds of trials" as your idea of "the good life."

Christ-follower - I've mostly noticed this listed as people's "religion" on social networking sites. I guess there's not really anything wrong with this term per se (apart from its grammatical awkwardness), but whenever we start using a new word/term in place of an already established word, I have to ask: why? What's wrong with Christian? It's what the "Christ-followers" were first called in Antioch and we've been called Christians ever since. So is "Christ-follower" supposed to be a translation (rather than transliteration) of Χριστιανός? That's over-reaching. I suspect that the real motivation is to set oneself over and against the masses of people who wear the name "Christian," to be part of an elite group of people that take this Jesus stuff much more seriously than those "Christians." And to that I say: yikes.

Comfort Zone - This was probably a good term when it was the new buzzword, but it's definitely run its course. Not to mention that it's misused more often than not these days. Sure, Jesus called us to a life of making disciples and being disciples, which often involves being uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean that we're all called to do everything that makes us squirm. If you're scared to death of speaking before a group, that doesn't mean God is calling you to "get out of your comfort zone" and preach on a Sunday morning. Quite the opposite.

Community - This falls under the category of "regular words that were re-cast as buzzwords and now make me want to throw up." I think I'll just leave it at that.

Conversation - Ditto. This is not a particularly biblical word. It only occurs twice in the ESV, once in the Old Testament and once in the New. The NT reference is to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, talking about how Jesus has died and how they had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel. Then Jesus came alongside them and did the craziest thing. He didn't say, "Well, just keep being authentic and asking questions." No, he stepped into their "conversation" and provided answers from Scripture. Starting at Genesis, he walked them through the whole Old Testament, explaining how it was all about HIM. Why is it that the new "conversation buzzword" is used to move us in the opposite direction?

Creating a Space (or "Creating a Sacred Space") - Borrowed capital from New Age. I say they can keep it. Our desire to turn spiritual practices into disciplines and rituals by which we enter God's presence is unhelpful at best and blasphemous at worst. And really, only God can actually create space. Besides, the "space" doesn't matter when we approach God (John 4:23, Heb 4:15-16).

Decision for Christ - The Holy Grail of Finneyism and a perfect example of exalting the byproduct. My "decision for Christ" can only take place as a result of Christ choosing me (John 15:16). Shouldn't we be making a much bigger deal of the latter?

Do Church - It's almost like we choose these buzzwords based on maximum grammatical awkwardness. The meaning of this one is kind of elusive. It either means, "Let's commence diaconal ministries" or "Let's make everything really exciting and hip" (cf. "relevant" below). Either way, "do church" is a case of "verbing" (which is, itself, a case of "verbing," ironically)--taking a noun, "church," and making it into an action. But here's the thing: when the New Testament refers to the church, it's using a word that started out as a verb (ek-kaleo, "to call out.") I don't want to make too much of this, since the noun form (ἐκκλησία) had long meant "assembly" when Jesus' earthly ministry began. But either way, when we "verb" the word "church," the action/focus should be on assembling (something we do) or being called out (something that happens to us)...yet that's almost never what people mean by "do church."

Do Life Together - This may be the most awkward phrase ever. And for what? There's already a verb form of the word "life." When you want to know where someone resides, do you ask, "So where do you do life?" No, you say, "Where do you live?" But we don't want to say that people in the church "live together." (Never mind that the New Testament church pretty much did live together--Acts 2:43-47). If we're not going to follow in their footsteps, let's just drop the pretense. Or else, to be consistent, next time your vehicle is in the shop and you need a ride, ask your co-worker if you can "do car together" tomorrow.

Engaging Culture - If you want to be worldly, just say it. If you really want to be like Paul on Mars Hill, then don't sit there and say, "How can we engage culture?" You've just pretty much guaranteed that you won't. (Cf. "authentic" and "relevant"). [NOTE: five years after originally writing this, I'm not sure what my beef was with "engaging culture." I think I had just seen several people use it as an excuse to partake in some worldly "fun." I'm less bothered by this phrase at present.]

Faith Journey - Ugh.

Felt Needs - 1. a lack of Flannelgraph supplies.  2. a buzz-word often used to take the focus off the cross and put it on the market. I dealt with this one in my sermon on the Gospel Driven Church. You may want to check that out. Suffice it to say, Jesus never worried about people's felt needs because fallen humans purposefully create false "felt needs" to distract us from our true need (see Romans 1). Every time someone came to Jesus with a felt need, he re-directed them to what they really needed. If they weren't willing to make the shift, he sent them packing (e.g. rich young ruler, woman at the well, the masses seeking bread, James and John, etc.).

Incarnational - As in "incarnational ministry" or "incarnational living." No one quite knows what this means, but it generally seems to mean playing down the actual Incarnation for my own improvised version.

Invite Jesus into your Heart - Much more manageable than dying to self and being resurrected with Christ. Comes from our old buddy Finney's influence. For some reason, we don't think children will understand the concepts of repentance, faith, and atonement, so we hit them with an abstract, poorly constructed metaphor that is found nowhere in Scripture instead. Good call.

It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship - My boy Ted Kluck had this to say in my [not so] recent interview with him:

"[That buzz phrase] is bogus. It is about religion. When Paul was confronted with the altar to the unknown God, he didn’t respond with: “Hey, mystery, that’s great! You have an unknown God…I have an unknown God…let’s do life together and be authentic in our uncertainty.” He preached. He implored Timothy to preach, and to guard the good deposit. I love relationships as much as the next guy, but I also love the gospel and think that if it was important enough for Paul to endure beatings and imprisonment for, it’s something I can and should take a stand on myself. In that same Acts passage, Paul ended with (v. 31) “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

Missional - In his book Don't Stop Believing, Michael Wittmer writes:
"It doesn’t help when postmodern innovators punt many of the important questions into the inscrutable realm of mystery. Earlier this year I attended a conference on the missional church. When asked for a definition of the term missional, a leader of the conference mysteriously proclaimed that the concept was too lofty for him to explain. Then he asked us to accept his inability to define it as proof that he understood it, implying that anyone who could put words to it would prove that they did not get it. So if we think we know, we don’t; and if we don’t know, we do. At this point I realized that I had just lost two days of my life to a cause that even the leaders knew little about!" (p. 135)

Red Letter Christians - A self-designation that means I take the words and ethic of Jesus more seriously than confessional or doctrinal Christians. It also indicates a complete misunderstanding of inspiration, as the "red letters" are no more authoritative and no more the Word of God than the black letters. Again, Jesus himself said that the whole of Scripture is about Him.

Relevant - 1. A cool magazine and now-defunct publisher. 2. A once-helpful buzzword. When Christianity had cornered the market on irrelevance (e.g. Stryper, Lord's Gym T-shirts, and Jesus dog tags), this term came in as a helpful litmus test. Unfortunately, it's been over-used until all meaning has been sucked out of it. Let it die. If we all stop saying it now, then the magazine won't have to change its name.

Seeker-sensitive - What Jesus was trying to be when he told the crowds they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Then, when many people walked away, he turned to his disciples and said, "You gonna leave too?" SEN-SI-TIVE!

Soul Tsunami - A term coined before we all equated tsunamis with thousands and thousands of people tragically killed. The idea behind it is that we shouldn't ask God to bless the work we do for the Kingdom, but rather should find where God is already blessing and glom on to it. My first reaction to this is, doesn't somebody have to first start doing the work for the initial blessing to happen? More importantly, though, what if Moses, Gideon, Deborah, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, St. Paul, etc. had decided not to obey and begin the work, but rather to find where God was already blessing someone else to lead Israel out of bondage, defeat the heathen, rescue the Jews, build the wall, bear the Messiah into the world, or prepare the way for him...?

Visioning - Another verbed noun. The standard proof-text for treating the Body of Christ like just another restaurant chain is Proverbs 29:18a, "Where there is no vision, the people perish:" (KJV) Yeah, Solomon must have meant "vision statement" type of vision. Remember, it's really important to mine 500 different translations for every occurrence of words like "purpose," "vision," "mission," etc. The translators of the NIV, though, understood that the Hebrew chazon means a vision in the sense of "revelation" (or, as the ESV translates it, "Prophetic vision"). But even the rest of the verse in the KJV should clue us in: "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." The kind of "vision" that keeps people from perishing isn't dreamed up by a superstar pastor our brainstormed by a task force; it's found in the pages of Scripture.

What Would Jesus Do? - Nothing wrong with this question. Just remember, that it's LAW, not GOSPEL. Jesus came primarily to do something, not show us what he would do.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

If I Enjoy It, It Must Be Bad . . .

I recently told someone that photos of big city skylines are “like porn” to me. I immediately recognized that it was a pretty crude thing to say (which isn’t surprising; the taming of my tongue is my greatest struggle, and the old gab-box has to be slapped back down from time to time as part of my sanctification), but it also planted a weird seed of thought in my mind that germinated over the next few days.

Here’s what I started to ask myself: was there maybe something to that analogy? Was there something sinful about my love for leafing (or clicking) through pictures of Chicago, Detroit, LA, Beijing? After all, these are images of places that, according to the Scriptures, are passing away. Why do they do it for me? Was this an indicator that I was setting my eyes on “earthly things,” and not on “things above” (even though skyscrapers are both earthly and, ya know, above)? 
The Scripture passage in question is, of course, Colossians 3:1-3, “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”  And, given that context, it becomes quickly clear that setting our minds on “things above” does not mean having our head in the clouds, avoiding anything physical, or making sure we don’t enjoy the wonderful creation God has given us. In fact, the more we set our minds on things above, the more we’ll find them right here at ground level.

So how can I tell if my ground-level interests are harshing my piety? Well, first off, let the Scriptures themselves tell us what they mean by “earthly,” “worldly,” and “fleshly.”

Here’s a montage (provide your own power ballad):
  • “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5)
  • “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?” (1 Cor 3:3)
  • “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” (Gal 5:19-21)

So I check my tendency to thoroughly enjoy cityscapes against these works of the flesh and worldly things. Is it leading me to anger, division, and fighting? Nope; that would be weird. Into idolatry? i.e., if I’m honest with myself, am I looking to these images for comfort that I should be receiving from God? (This isn’t as crazy a question as it may initially sound). I determine: no, I’m not.

Nor is it giving birth to lust (as would be the case with actual porn) or lust’s cousins, jealousy, greed, and covetousness. Again, this is not so far fetched; I’ve heard from several people in the last year or so, who tell me that thumbing through pictures of houses, cars, cottages, etc. online or in magazines (a seemingly innocuous practice) has led to incredible covetousness and a sense of deep discontentment. That practice, then, is sinful, insofar as it reinforces a focus on earthly things, as defined by Scripture. However, I have no real aspirations to owning a skyscraper or having a penthouse view and I don’t find myself coveting these things. Ironically, flipping through catalogs of theology books has often led me into covetousness, but looking at an impressive crop of steel, glass, and concrete buildings does not.

And I think it’s fitting that this little case study involves cities—particularly when we consider that the first city was built in direct opposition to God’s command (Gen 4:12, 16) and the next major city planning/building project was an example of full-on insubordination against the Most High (Gen 9:1; 11:4). There’s something dodgy about cities from the very beginning. Perhaps that’s why many people think of them as being full of crime and corruption, when, in reality, you find sin and corruption everywhere you find people.

But there’s good news (as always) and it’s rooted (as always) in Redemption. Sure, cities as a phenomenon got a sketchy, sinful start in the first book of the Bible . . . but check out the last book: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Rev 21:2-3)

You see that? God redeems the very concept of cities! As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one thumb-breadth of the universe about which Jesus Christ does not say, It is mine.” Remember that when you’re worried that your pastime, hobby, interest, or mode of blowing off steam might not be quite “heavenly enough” for a Christian. If it’s not causing you to sin (including coveting what others have or consuming your life and time to the point of becoming idolatrous), you are free to love things on this earth. To steal a line from my friend Dr. Michael Wittmer’s, we were created for this place; we’re earthlings, for heaven’s sake!

It's incredibly telling that Christians often have a subtle sense that “if I really enjoy it, it must be bad.” That kind of quote/unquote “puritanical thinking” comes not from the Puritans, but from the Gnostics. And the Bible straight-up condemns that kind of thinking. “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col 2:20-23) Trying to avoid everything in the world doesnot make us immune to the pull of the world and the works of the flesh.

So enjoy the city skyline. Enjoy hiking and picking wild berries. Enjoy punk rock, hip hop, folk, or reggae. Enjoy studying history and mythology. Enjoy reading fiction and watching films. Remember: your maturity as a Christian is not measured by how miserable you are or your lack of enjoying life. People today might call that view “puritanical,” but our Puritan forebears didn’t believe that for one minute! They enjoyed good food and drink (yes, drink!, although in keeping with Col 3, they were careful to never drink to drunkenness), music, and relaxing with family and friends.

This year, may we too work hard, serve God with all our might, and acknowledge him as the giver of all good gifts, letting all good gifts cause us to return thanks and give praise.

(If you're interested in reading more on this topic, you should check out Dr. Wittmer's book Heaven Is a Place on Earth and his newest work Becoming Worldly Saints, which comes out in less than a month.)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Suspense Zone Interview

Bestselling author Susan Sleeman recently interviewed me for (which is also doing a giveaway of Playing Saint right now). Here's an excerpt:

Zachary Bartels interview with Susan Sleeman
Q: Let me start with asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself. A. I’m the author of several books, the pastor of an incredibly normal-sized congregation, the husband of a beautiful and talented woman, the father of a six-year-old ninja, and a consumer of large quantities of espresso.

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
A. I’ve loved writing stories as long as I can remember. I started writing short stories and screenplays in college and gateway-drugged into novels in seminary.

Q: Could you give us the highlights of your professional writing career including how you got your first writing break?
A: I started getting serious about putting out actual books when I teamed up with my friend (and award-winning author) Ted Kluck, to launch an indie micropress called Gut Check Press in early 2010. I say “serious,” but this may have been (and continues to be) one of the least-serious endeavors out there. Still, we produced some satires that made some noise and I put out my first novel 42 Months Dry under that imprint. In 2012, I signed with a literary agent, and in 2013, I signed a multi-book deal with HarperCollins Christian Publishing.

Q: Would you tell us about your current book release Playing Saint?
A: Playing Saint is a supernatural suspense novel about an up-and-coming megachurch pastor and television personality named Parker Saint . . .

To read the rest, click here. To enter the giveaway, click here.