The Closer
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Mariano Rivera has never been one of my favorite people. After all, for many years he was a fixture for the New York Yankees, divisional rivals of my own Toronto Blue Jays. When a game came to the final inning and the Jays were down by a run or two, Rivera would jog onto the field and shut it down. Once he came onto the field, the outcome was rarely in doubt.

But he has retired now, and I like him a lot better. No sooner did he retire than he got to work penning his memoir, The Closer. It’s quite a story. Born in abject poverty in Panama, Rivera grew up in, on and around fishing boats, working with his father to scrape together a living. When the tides were out, he and his friends would play baseball on the beach, improvising the equipment they needed: wadded up fishing nets for balls, rocks for bases, tree branches for bats, and milk cartons for gloves. It was an unlikely start to one of the great baseball careers.

When he was in his late teens, Rivera began playing shortstop for a nearby amateur baseball team. One day the pitcher played so badly that Rivera was asked to take over for a couple of innings. The results were so impressive that friends contacted a scout for the New York Yankees. Rivera gained a try-out, then a minor league contract. And the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to become the most dominant closer in the history of the game, earning 652 saves in the biggest baseball market in the world. He was an All-Star 13 times, won 5 World Series, and was once the World Series MVP. He had a storybook career and through it became world famous and fantastically wealthy, with his earnings topping $150 million. He has come a long way from that fishing boat in Panama.

But there is more to his story than baseball. In his early twenties Rivera was exposed to the gospel and became a Christian—an unashamedly outspoken Christian. While the book describes his life, it also describes his faith and, to borrow a sport’s metaphor, he leaves it all on the field. He tells how important his faith has been, how it has sustained him, and how the Bible has given him guidance throughout his life.

The Bible can’t tell you the story of my walk with the Lord, but it can tell you everything about how I try to live, and why the love of the Lord is the foundation of my whole life. For me, the Bible is not just the word of God, but a life road map that is packed with wisdom that you cannot beat even if you spent the next hundred years reading spiritual books and self-help books. It is the best kind of wisdom: Simple wisdom. This sort of wisdom, from the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, verse twelve: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

When it comes to his faith, Rivera describes just what he believes and why he believes it. While it becomes clear that he loves the Lord, it also becomes clear that he is not a theologian. Unfortunately, a few of the things he says are unclear or confusing and probably owe more to Pentecostalism than to the historic Christian faith. And yet, again, it is clear that he is passionate about the Lord and the spread of the gospel. In the aftermath of his storied career he has both moved on and stayed just the same. “For the last nineteen seasons, the Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to play professional baseball for the New York Yankees. My job was to save games, and I loved every part of it. Now I have a new job—probably better described as a calling—and that is to glorify the Lord and praise His name, and show the wonders that await those who seek Him and want to experience His grace and peace and mercy.” To do this, he and his wife have co-founded a church where they serve as pastors.

As is the case with most sports memoirs, this one is dominated by descriptions of games and plays. Those who love sports, and who love the Yankees in particular, will find it riveting. Those who are a little less enthusiastic about sports may find themselves skimming over certain sections. And if you’re like me, you may find yourself silently finding yourself hoping he’ll lose the games, just because he’s pitching for New York. In any case, Rivera’s story is a good one and well worth reading.

There is something to be said for evangelism strategies and discipleship programs. My guess is that most churches have some way to introduce unbelievers to the Christian faith and to mature those who are new to the faith. I would guess as well that most churches keep an eye on the various new offerings, looking for what is original, what is interesting, what promises results. But what if we’ve made it all too complicated? What if both evangelism and discipleship can be as simple as reading the Bible?

One To One Bible Reading
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One-to-One Bible Reading by David Helm offers the simplest solution of all. “Reading one-to-one is a variation on that most central Christian activity—reading the Bible—but done in the context of reading with someone. It is something a Christian does with another person, on a regular basis, for a mutually agreed upon length of time, with the intention of reading through and discussing a book or part of a book of the Bible.” In their book The Trellis and the Vine (a must-read for anyone involved in ministry), Colin Marshall and Tony Payne dream about just this kind of thing:

Imagine if all Christians, as a normal part of their discipleship, were caught up in a web of regular Bible reading—not only digging into the Word privately, but reading it with their children before bed, with their spouse over breakfast, with a non-Christian colleague at work once a week over lunch, with a new Christian for follow-up once a fortnight for mutual encouragement, with a mature Christian friend once a month for mutual encouragement.

It would be a chaotic web of personal relationships, prayer, and Bible reading—more of a movement than a program—but at another level it would be profoundly simple and within reach of all.

It’s an exciting thought!

It is, indeed. Can you imagine this in your church, in your neighborhood, in your home? It would be a beautiful thing to see.

Helm sees at least four potential benefits in something so simple as one-to-one (or two-to-one or three-to-one) Bible reading:

  • Salvation. The Bible alone, when read and understood, is sufficient to turn a heart from darkness to light. In this way it is an effective means of evangelism.
  • Sanctification. Christians are told to encourage one another and to build up one another. What better way to do this than to learn together from God’s Word—to allow the Bible to be the training manual.
  • Training. Simply reading the Bible together is a great way to train new leaders and future leaders toward greater ministry responsibility.
  • Relationship. Many people, and perhaps most people, are hungry for more and deeper relationships. Reading the Bible together is an ideal means of growing deeper in relationship together.

This short book not only explains the why of one-to-one reading, but also the how. In fact, at least two-thirds of the book offers gentle counsel on how to actually go about such a relationship—who to look for, how many times to meet, what books to read in specific circumstances, and so on. There are even short guides to some of the books of the Bible to help those who are uncertain about leading another person through Scripture.

What I love about one-to-one Bible reading is that it extends the expository ministry from the pulpit to the pew. It is not only the preacher who is going to God’s Word week-by-week and day-by-day to teach, to train, to call to faith, but the entire church. It is not longer simply expository preaching, but an expository church where every person is leading others to and through the Word of God.

One-to-One Bible Reading is a short and inexpensive book, but one that accomplishes its purpose well. It’s just the kind of book you can buy in bulk and distribute within your church. Buy it, read it, and implement it!

31 Days of Purity

Through the month of March, I am inviting you to 31 Days of Purity—thirty-one days of thinking about and praying for sexual purity. Each day features a short passage of Scripture, a reflection on that passage, and a brief prayer. Here is day twenty-eight:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

God tells us that victory over sin is certain—even those sins we have held to for so long. This can be hard to believe when we look to the past and see only failure after failure. It can be hard to believe when sin’s power is so strong and when giving in to sin promises such satisfaction. Yet we must believe that in Christ we are new creations—the old has gone and the new has come. In Christ we are becoming who we are, increasingly taking hold of who we are in Him. Where we once delighted to do evil, we can have confidence that one day we will delight to avoid evil. Where we once hated to do what is right, we can have confidence that one day we will delight to do what is right.

We really can hope and believe for such radical change. However, there may be a long period of time and many struggles between the two extremes. It rarely happens overnight. In that period where you are battling hard against sin, where you are developing new patterns of doing what is right instead of doing what God forbids, be sure to celebrate the small victories. Each of those victories is an evidence of God’s grace in your life. When you choose to do the right thing instead of the sinful thing, give thanks to God. When you have gone longer than you’ve ever gone before without succumbing to the temptation, celebrate with a friend and thank the Lord. Celebrate his grace by praising his name.

Father, I am thankful that in Christ I am a new creation. I believe what you say: the old has passed away and the new has come. Let me be who I am in Christ. Let me take hold of all Christ offers. I thank you for giving me grace—grace to see my sin, grace to hate my sin and grace to overcome my sin. All of this is an evidence of your work in my life, and I thank you for it. Help me to celebrate day-by-day what you are doing in and through me.

What Now? Consider joining our 31 Days of Purity Facebook group. It is optional, but you will find it a good place to go for discussion and encouragement. (Note: that Facebook group is for men only; here is one for Women Supporting Men).

This may well be the most moving and encouraging video I’ve seen in a long time. YembiYembi: Unto the Nations chronicles the work of modern-day missionaries Brooks and Nina Buser as they take the gospel to the unreached YembiYembi tribe in Papua New Guinea. It tells of their call to missions, their long labor, the remarkable response to the very first time they shared the gospel (and God’s kind providence in the moment), and the great celebration the day they delivered the very first complete New Testament. Watch it and be encouraged!

To watch the video, Click here.

 

The False Teachers

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers and to examine the false doctrine each of them represents. Along the way we have visited such figures as Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Adventism), Norman Vincent Peale (Positive Thinking) and Benny Hinn (Faith Healing). Today we turn to a man who helped lead the Emerging Church and who was once named by TIME as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.

Brian McLaren

McLarenBrian McLaren (born in 1956) studied humanities at the University of Maryland and graduated with graduate and post-graduate degrees in English. Beginning in 1978, he taught college-level English, before founding Cedar Ridge Community Church in 1986. He served this church as its founding pastor until 2006, when he handed off the role so he could focus on writing and public speaking.

In 1986 Zondervan released McLaren’s first book, The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix. This book established him as a leader and thinker in the church at a time when Christians were attempting to grapple with the dawning reality of postmodernism.

However, it was his 2001 work of fiction, a New Kind of Christian, that introduced him to the wider church and earned him Christianity Today’s Award of Merit in 2002. It was the first volume in a trilogy and quickly became one of the foremost texts for what was soon known as the Emerging Church movement. A New Kind of Christian tells the story of Dan Poole, a pastor who finds himself ready to give up on Christian ministry. Increasingly disillusioned, he has become less and less certain about what he believes. When he takes his daughter to a concert he meets Neil Oliver, a high school science teacher, and together they discuss a long list of core Christian doctrines. According to the publisher, “This stirring fable captures a new spirit of Christianity—where personal, daily interaction with God is more important than institutional church structures, where faith is more about a way of life than a system of belief, where being authentically good is more important than being doctrinally ‘right,’ and where one’s direction is more important than one’s present location.” McLaren became known as a Christian leader who was talking about life and faith in ways that seemed new and fresh.

McLaren followed this book with many more—nearly twenty to date. The most noteworthy of his books have probably been A Generous Orthodoxy which he calls “a personal confession and a manifesto of the emerging church conversation” and A New Kind of Christianity in which he offers responses to “ten questions that are central to the emergence of a postmodern, post-colonial Christian faith.”

In 2005 McLaren was named by TIME as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America under the heading “Paradigm Shifter.” They pointed to his ambiguous statements about gay marriage and said that he represented a kinder and gentler form of Christianity. The following year he joined with Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, and others to found Red Letter Christians, an organization dedicated to seeing Christianity liberated from both right-wing and left-wing politics in America. Where Christianity has been dominated for too long by discussions of abortion and homosexuality, this movement prefers to look to the words Jesus spoke and focus on issues related to social justice.

McLaren has traveled the world as a teacher, preacher, lecturer, and conference speaker, and has been granted honorary degrees from both Carey Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary. In September 2012 he made headlines for participating in a gay marriage ceremony for his son Trevor and his partner Owen Ryan. The wedding was officiated by a Universal Life minister, with McLaren leading a commitment ceremony built around Christian themes.

False Teaching

As McLaren’s theology has matured and taken shape over time and through his books, he has stepped forward as a leader in a new and revived form of theological liberalism. This displays itself most clearly in his view of Scripture.

In A New Kind of Christianity he insists that Christians have long been reading the Bible through the distorted lens of a Greco-Roman narrative. This narrative produced many false dualisms, an air of superiority, and a false distinction between those who were “in” and those who were “out.” These three marks of false narrative have so impacted our faith that we can hardly see past them. His book attempts to do that, and to reconstruct the Christian faith as it is meant to be.

Leading the way is his view of the Bible. He does not see the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word. He displays this, for example, in his interpretation of the account of Noah by saying, “a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship.”

He goes on to say, “I’m recommending we read the Bible as an inspired library. This inspired library preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed.” After all, “revelation doesn’t simply happen in statements. It happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations. Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay between statements.” He understands the Bible to be a slowly-evolving human understanding of God. “Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment.”

This is nothing less than theological liberalism in twenty-first century, post-modern clothing (which is why Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism offers a rebuttal, though it was written 90 years earlier). Like Fosdick and other liberals before him, McLaren has assumed authority over the Bible instead of placing himself under its authority. His understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution. In this way he revisits and reinterprets whatever does not accord with modern sensibilities. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God. And he continues to think and to write, meaning that his theological development is not yet complete.

Followers and Adherents

McLaren has long been a leader in the Emerging Church, and almost all of those who “emerged” with him have known his influence. So too have many of his fellow progressive Christians. He continues to have a broad speaking platform and to write popular books.

What the Bible Says

The Bible insists that it is the living and active Word of God, breathed out by God himself. It is not a man-made document subject to error, evolution, antiquation, or reinterpretation. Jesus himself spoke clearly about the authority and relevance of Scripture, and showed no hesitation in unfolding its meaning and faulting others for misunderstanding it. In Mark 12:24 “Jesus said to them, ‘Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?’” He declared “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

Where McLaren casts doubt on the idea that we can ever really confidently know and understand the Bible, Christians have long held that God spoke and inspired his prophets and apostles to write because he actually intended to be heard as saying something, and that the message would be carried on and be understood forever after (see 2 Peter 1:16-21). This is why Jude calls it “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and why Paul is so emphatic with Timothy that he “guard the good deposit entrusted to [him]” (2 Timothy 1:14). Kevin DeYoung says it well in Taking God at His Word: “The Bible is an utterly reliable book, an unerring book, a holy book, a divine book. … There is no more authoritative declaration than what we find in the word of God, no firmer ground to stand on, no ‘more final’ argument that can be spoken after Scripture has spoken.”

 

The False Teachers

A few weeks ago I set out on a new series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we have visited such figures as Arius, Pelagius, Joseph Smith, and Ellen G. White. Today we will look at the life and legacy of a man who prepared the way for Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, and so many others.

Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Vincent Peale was born on May 31, 1898, in Bowersville, Ohio, the first child of Charles and Anna Peale. Charles was a Methodist minister who served a variety of churches in Ohio, and before long Norman, too, began to consider ministry as his vocation. When he was a boy, one of his teachers accused him of being “a weak willy-nilly” and he soon realized the teacher’s assessment was correct. He saw that he would need to push himself past a deep-rooted inferiority complex and crippling self-doubt.

As a young man Peale attended Ohio Wesleyan University and Boston University School of Theology. During his first summer break he returned home and was asked to fill a nearby pulpit. He dutifully prepared a sermon and showed it to his father. His father read it and promptly advised burning it, telling his son “the way to the human heart is through simplicity.” These are words the young man took to heart.

In 1922 he was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and was assigned a small congregation in Berkeley, Rhode Island. Two years later he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he established himself as a gifted communicator so that in only three years he grew a church from 40 to 900 members. He spent a few years at another Methodist congregation in Syracuse, New York, before changing his affiliation to the Reformed Church in America so he could pastor Marble Collegiate Church, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in America. When he arrived, this church had around 600 members; upon his departure 52 years later it had 5,000. It was here that he would gain worldwide acclaim and notoriety as a teacher of positive thinking.

Peale developed a fascination with psychiatry as an answer, or partial answer, to his congregant’s problems. While he was at Marble, he teamed up with a Freud-trained psychiatrist, Dr. Smiley Blanton, to begin a religious-psychiatric clinic in the church basement. They wanted to respond to the psychological needs of their congregation and especially the deep-rooted effects of the Great Depression. In 1951 this clinic was organized into the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, with Peale as president and Blanton as executive director.

Peale spread his teaching through a variety of media. While serving the church in Syracuse he founded a radio program called “The Art of Living,” and it would broadcast his sermons for 54 years. By 1952 he and his wife were also on the new medium of television, featured on the show “What’s Your Trouble?.” In 1945, along with his wife Ruth, and Raymond Thornburg, a local businessman, he founded Guideposts. What was at first a weekly four-page leaflet evolved to a monthly inspirational magazine that would soon have 2 million subscribers.

During his lifetime, Peale authored 46 books, and the most successful by far was The Power of Positive Thinking. Published in 1952, it stayed on the New York Times list of bestsellers for 186 consecutive weeks and sold 5 million copies, making it one of the bestselling religious books of all-time. It began with these words:

This book is written to suggest techniques and to give examples which demonstrate that you do not need to be defeated by anything, that you can have peace of mind, improved health, and a never-ceasing flow of energy. In short, that your life can be fully of joy and satisfaction.

The book had chapters with titles such as “I Don’t Believe in Defeat,” “How to Have Faith in Healing” and “Power to Solve Personal Problems.” Each chapter contained sections titled “energy-producing thoughts,” “spirit-lifters” or “faith attitudes.” Much of his teaching was distilled to lists of eight practical formulas or seven simple steps. This book rocketed Peale to new levels of fame and acclaim, and elevated his message with him. He became one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world, gaining a voice into business and politics, even officiating at the wedding of David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon. On March 26, 1984 President Ronald Reagan awarded him the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his contributions to theology.

Peale retired as senior pastor in 1984 and died of a stroke on December 24, 1993 in Pawling, New York. He was ninety-five years old. President Bill Clinton honored him with these words: “While the Clinton family and all Americans mourn his loss, there is some poetry in his passing on a day when the world celebrates the birth of Christ, an idea that was central to Dr. Peale’s message and Dr. Peale’s work. He will be missed.”

False Teaching

Norman Vincent Peale popularized what came to be known as positive thinking. He took existing ideas from Christian Science and other inspirations, gave them a biblical veneer, integrated them with psychology, and packaged them for the masses, spreading his message through The Power of Positive Thinking and his other works. His foremost contribution to the world was this notion that thoughts are causative, that our thoughts can change our lives, our health, our destiny. Readers were thrilled with this notion that if they believed it, they could have it, or be it, or do it.

Peale believed we live in a world that is mental more than physical and this allows our thoughts to be determinative. If this is the case, all that stands between us and our desires is properly controlling our thoughts. In one of his books he taught the importance of

a form of mental activity called imaging. It consists of vividly picturing, in your conscious mind, a desired goal or objective, and holding that image until it sinks into your unconscious mind, where it releases great, untapped energies. It works best when it is combined with a strong religious faith, backed by prayer, and the seemingly illogical technique of giving thanks for benefits before they are received. When the imaging concept is applied steadily and systematically, it solves problems, strengthens personalities, improves health, and greatly enhances the chances for success in any kind of endeavor.

None of this would be remarkable, except that he taught it as a minister who claimed to be a Christian. Yet as a Christian minister he denied that God was a being, saying “Who is God? Some theological being? He is so much greater than theology. God is vitality. God is life. God is energy. As you breathe God in, as you visualize His energy, you will be reenergized!” As a Christian minister he told Phil Donahue “It’s not necessary to be born again. You have your way to God, I have mine. I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine … I’ve been to Shinto shrines and God is everywhere. … Christ is one of the ways! God is everywhere.” He denied the very heart of the Christian faith and replaced it with his doctrine of positive thinking.

Many Christians critiqued Peale, including Episcopalian theologian John Krumm who saw that Peale had reduced God to a force and made Christianity self-centered rather than God-centered. “Very little is said about the sovereign mind and purpose of God; much is made of the things men can say to themselves and can do to bring about their ambitions and purposes.” Surprisingly, some Christians continued to embrace him. In 1966 Billy Graham said, “I don’t know of anyone who had done more for the kingdom of God than Norman and Ruth Peale or have meant any more in my life for the encouragement they have given me.”

Followers & Modern Adherents

The popularity of Peale’s teachings guaranteed his lasting influence. One of his most committed devotees, who patterned himself accordingly, was Robert Schuller, also a minister in the Reformed Church in America. Schuller restyled “positive thinking” into “possibility thinking,” but kept much of the core teaching intact. But Peale’s influence was much wider than that. His voice can be heard behind contemporary books like The Secret, which advocates the law of attraction, another way of speaking and believing reality into existence. His voice can be heard behind the Oprah Winfrey’s, Joel Osteen’s, T.D. Jakes’, and Tony Robbin’s of the world, along with a host of others who teach that the power of the mind, combined with some kind of faith, can change your life and change the world.

Mitch Howoritz points out, rightly I think, that this idea that thoughts are causative is one of the most important theological and psychological concepts of our time. Before Peale it was rare to hear phrases like “Nothing is impossible” or “Be all you can be.” But today we take such phrases for granted. It is not coincidental that the first chapter of Peale’s book is titled “Believe in Yourself.”

What the Bible Says

The Bible makes it clear that the troubles we experience in this life are not merely the result of negative thinking that can be overcome by tapping into our potential through positive thinking. They are the result of a deep-seated rebellion against God that involves not only the mind, but the will. We simply cannot overcome the evils of this world, or even the evil in our hearts, in our own strength. Apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Apart from being born again, we are eternally dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Where Peale taught that our deepest problem is a lack of belief in ourselves and that our salvation comes with a simple shift in thinking, the Bible teaches that no man can save himself, regardless of how positive his thoughts may be. His salvation must come from outside himself. The glory of Jesus Christ is in the fact that he “has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” sinners “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Colossians 1:21-22). Tragically, by his life and legacy, Peale showed that he rejected this Savior and chose to trust in his own strength.

For some time now we have been exploring the history of Christianity through a collection of objects. Each of these objects helpfully signifies or encompasses a person, an event, or a period of history crucial to the growth and development of the Christian church. These are objects, historical relics, you can see and touch and experience. You can stand in The Braccio Nuovo at the Vatican Museum and see Augustus of Prima Porta, standing today as he has for nearly 2,000 years. You can visit the Basilica of Bom in Goa, India, and see Francis Xavier’s forearm, enshrined there. You can visit the Angus Library of Regent’s Park College in Oxford, England, and sit upon William Carey’s couch. As we come to the twenty-fifth and final object, it is fitting, I think, that it is not an object at all. It is a virtual object that exists only in bits and bytes, and one that can be infinitely duplicated and freely distributed. As we complete this series on the history of Christianity, we turn to LifeChurch.tv’s YouVersion Bible App.

Craig Groeschel founded LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1996. He and a handful of congregants began to meet in a small double-car garage lit with nothing more than a pair of $20 construction lights. Very quickly, though, the little church experienced explosive growth and was forced to move to a larger location. Today, eighteen years later, LifeChurch.tv is a multi-site church that reaches tens of thousands of people every weekend through their eighteen physical locations and their online church. Collectively they are considered the second largest church in America.

In 2006, Groeschel and his team developed the idea for YouVersion, an online Bible for a new, digital world. At this time YouTube was becoming a household name, Twitter was in its early days, and Facebook had just opened its doors to the public, having previously been reserved for college students. The people at LifeChurch.tv realized that the world was rapidly changing and that the church would be forced to adapt. They found themselves thinking back to the days of the printing press when, for the first time in history, the Bible suddenly became widely available. They understood that another revolution was underway and they began to consider how they could take advantage of this digital explosion to carry the distribution of the world’s most popular book.

They dreamed big. They dreamed of more than merely distributing the Bible in digital form. They dreamed of allowing readers to have access to the Bible in every possible language, to interact with it, to annotate it, to share it, to form a global community of Bible-readers and Bible-lovers. Though such interactivity is common and expected today, this was still a new idea in 2006.

Bible AppThe team at LifeChurch.tv developed YouVersion.com and, having secured relationships with various Bible publishers, launched the site in September of 2007. They waited in anticipation, but were surprised to see that the response was muted. There was little interest. Though Groeschel and his team were tempted to give up, they first wanted to attempt one more thing: to create a mobile version of the site. They saw that people were migrating from desktop computers to mobile devices—iPods and smartphones—and wondered about the possibilities. Apple’s new iTunes app store provided the perfect means of distribution, so LifeChurch.tv rapidly developed a Bible App and chose to give it away for free. They anticipated they might see 100,000 downloads in the first year, but achieved 80,000 in the first three days alone. Even better, they found that people were not only downloading and installing the app, but actually using it. They were reading the Bible, looking up passages, and sharing what they learned with their friends.

Very quickly the developers began to add new languages, new translations, and new features. And the rest, as they say, is history.

By early 2014, the Bible App had been installed on almost 125 million devices, with 49 million of those happening in 2013 alone. The app now offers 739 Bible versions that together represent more than 460 languages. Many of these versions are available in audio formats, and in 2013 users of the app listened to 595 million chapters of the Bible. The most-read chapter that year was Romans 8 and it was read, on average, four times every second through the entire year. The app has been used to complete an astonishing 15 million reading plans and, all together, its users have spent more than 84 billion minutes reading God’s Word.

The Bible App represents a new era in the history of the church. The digital revolution is an entirely new phenomenon and it is changing everything. Most importantly, it is changing the way people read and experience God’s Word. Our survey of church history has shown that for most of the history of Christianity, access to God’s Word has been scarce. Historically, the Bible has been both rare and expensive. But in a digital world, the Bible can be infinitely duplicated and distributed with no cost at all. We are in a time of transition from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance. As the Internet extends to the farthest reaches of the earth, so too does the reach of God’s Word.

We end this series almost 2,000 years after it first began. We end it in a world so very different from the world that birthed the Christian church. And we end it in a time full of promise and possibility. God has promised that his Word has always been living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. If God has worked so powerfully when this Word has been rare and expensive, we can only imagine how he will work at a time when the Bible can so easily be within the grasp of every person on earth. We can only imagine how God will glorify himself in a world like this.

Outrage Porn

Outrage sells. It’s plain as day. If eyeballs on articles are the currency of new media, there are few things that attract those eyeballs more effectively than outrage. In the wider cultural context of new media there is always lots to work with: Alec Baldwin’s homophobia, Steve Martin’s racism, Patton Oswalt’s insensitivity. It goes on and on. There is always someone saying something dumb or unwise, and new media’s response is immediate, fiery indignation.

We as Christians are also easily outraged. Sometimes we seem to forget that we are sinful people living in a sin-stained world and that sinners—even saved ones—will behave like sinners. Sometimes we appear to hold the people we admire (or admired) to the impossible standard of perfection. We don’t mind if our historical heroes are deeply flawed, but we can barely tolerate the slightest imperfection in our contemporary heroes. When they fail, or even when they falter, we respond with, you guessed it: outrage. For a few days we light the torches and lift the pitchforks in our empty protests. And then we move on.

[Aside: I wrote this article last week, so don’t think that any event that happened this week was the catalyst.]

A new term is entering the lexicon to describe this phenomenon. They call it outrage porn. Like pornography, this kind of outrage is ultimately self-centered and self-gratifying. One person calls it “self-gratification through feigned indignation.” Even when it isn’t feigned, there is still that element of selfishness, of self-pleasure, in it. The outrage isn’t for them, it’s for us. We feel better for having done it, for having participated in it. It is expiating in a sick sense. With the outrage behind me, I am satisfied that I have done my bit, and now I can move on to the next thing. Expressing outrage is almost a kind of brand loyalty—we are outraged together in this common cause.

I know it because I’ve done it. I know it because, as a blogger, I am especially prone to it. If we really are in an attention economy in which eyeballs on articles are our primary currency, then I, as the proprietor of a web site, will find myself tempted to do whatever it takes to attract those eyeballs. I’ve done it and it has worked. It works because I, as the writer, want it, and it works because you, as the reader, want it. We’re in this together.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are times for controlled outrage and indignation. Absolutely there are. Jesus walked into the temple and was full of the most righteous indignation as he turned over tables and scattered coins. His outrage was pure and holy and good and purposeful. When Jesus saw the disciples turning away children, denying them a blessing, he was “indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’ ” (Mark 10:14). Here it would have been a sin for him to not be outraged.

There are times for outrage. There are times to turn away from leaders who have proven themselves unworthy or unfaithful. There are times to expose the charlatan or the unfaithful and to make a fuss and to raise an outcry for the sake of distancing ourselves and protecting others. But it’s not every time. It’s not all the time.

There is a cost to our outrage porn. Ryan Holliday says, “What is real is the toll that fake outrage takes. Psychologists call it the ‘narcotizing dysfunction,’ essentially that thinking and chattering about something eventually gets confused and equated with doing something about it. Of course it doesn’t—but after enough blog posts we delude ourselves into believing we’ve made a difference.” This is similar to what Neil Postman warned us about all those years ago: That the modern news cycle gives us information we can do nothing about, so that while we feel all kinds of emotion, we actually do nothing at all. Airing your grievances is not the same as taking action any more than looking at pornography is making love to your wife.

But there may be a greater cost: when we are outraged about every little matter, we lose our ability to be outraged about the most important matters. When we respond with outrage to every little offense, eventually we become hardened to the things that actually matter. If everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous.

The fact is, so much Internet-based outrage is manufactured outrage, carefully structured to achieve the end of luring eyeballs to articles. This is the worst kind of outrage because it is designed to attract readers, not to bring about change. It serves us, not the other person and not the church or the Lord of the church. And in that way, the “porn” label fits it very well.

John Piper
John Piper

Last week John Piper spoke at Westminster Seminary, and delivered the seventh annual Gaffin Lecture on “The New Calvinism and the New Community: The Doctrines of Grace and the Meaning of Race” (audio and video). That may not sound like the most exciting lecture you’ve ever listened to, but I found some time to listen in today, and found what Piper began with fascinating (especially in light of last week’s Visual History of the New Calvinism). He began by defining what he means by New Calvinism, and to do that he offered twelve defining features of the movement. He was very careful to stress that these are not things that necessarily separate the New Calvinism from traditional Calvinism or make the new better than the old. Rather, these are simply the markers of the New.

Here then, in brief, are John Piper’s 12 features of the New Calvinism.

1. The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points of Calvinism (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym (or any other systematic packaging) along with a sometimes-qualified embrace of Limited Atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin’s vision.

2. The New Calvinism embraces the sovereignty of God in salvation and all the affairs of life and history, including evil and suffering.

3. The New Calvinism has a strong complementarian flavor (as opposed to egalitarian) with an emphasis on the flourishing of men and women in relationships where men embrace a call to robust, humble, Christ-like servant-leadership.

4. The New Calvinism leans toward being culture-affirming, as opposed to culture-denying, while holding fast to some very culturally-alien positions on issues like same-sex practice and abortion.

5. The New Calvinism embraces the essential place of the local church: it is led mainly by pastors; it has a vibrant church-planting bent; it produces widely-sung worship music; and it exalts the preached Word as central to the work of God both locally and globally.

6. The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on the unreached peoples of the world.

7. The New Calvinism is inter-denominational, with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.

8. The New Calvinism includes both charismatics and non-charismatics.

9. The New Calvinism places a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of the affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship.

10. The New Calvinism is vibrantly engaged in publishing books, and, even more remarkably, in the world of the Internet, with hundreds of energetic bloggers and social media activists, with Twitter as the increasingly-default way of signalling things new and old that should be noticed and read.

11. The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, and culturally-diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural, governing center. There are no officers, no organization, nor any loose affiliation that would encompass the whole. (As an aside, he adds: I would dare say there are outcroppings of this movement that no one in this room has ever heard of.)

12. The New Calvinism is robustly gospel-centered, cross-centered, with dozens of books rolling off the presses coming at the gospel from every conceivable angle and applying it to all areas of life, with a commitment to seeing the historic doctrine of justification finding its fruit in sanctification both personally and communally.

So what do you think? Would you have gone with the same features? Would you have added or skipped any of them?

The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, is meant to be an ongoing crusade that will continue for many generations. Situated on the same property as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the library opened in 2007 and is neither a museum nor a memorial. Rather, it is an extension of the evangelistic ministry that Graham carried out for so many years. The building, notable for its giant cross-shaped door, is meant to expose visitors to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Among the many items it houses is an unusual and fascinating relic of Graham’s famed 1957 New York Crusade—a prayer wheel. And this, Billy Graham’s prayer wheel, is the next (and second to last) of the twenty-five objects through which we are exploring the history of Christianity.

Billy Graham played a crucial role in the emergence and definition of Evangelicalism as we know it today. Evangelicalism emerged as a reaction to the belligerent Fundamentalists whose desire for doctrinal purity led them to separate from other Christians. Where Fundamentalists were primarily concerned with pure doctrine, Graham and other Evangelicals were far more concerned with conversions and cultural impact. “They wanted not only to win the world for Christ, but also to rejuvenate conservative Protestant intellectual culture and earn the respect of the secular intelligentsia. These were the core aims of organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1943), Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Evangelical Theological Society (1949) and Christianity Today (1956)” (source).

A key part of Evangelical strategy was the evangelistic crusade. History will remember Billy Graham as the greatest of the crusaders, and no crusade was more important than the one in New York in 1957.

New York CrusadeThe New York crusade was originally planned to last 6 weeks, beginning May 15, 1957. However, by the time it came to an end, it had lasted for 16 weeks, nearly three times longer than planned. Over that time Graham preached at 114 services and rallies, 98 of them in Madison Square Garden. But the impact carried far beyond New York City. Beginning on June 1, the final hour of each Saturday evening service was broadcast nationwide by ABC and the response was overwhelming, with an estimated audience of 6.5 million viewers. While 18,000 people were experiencing the crusade live in Madison Square Garden, millions more were watching it on television. From this point onward, television would be a major component in every crusade.

The crusade ended at last with an open-air sermon on Sunday, September 1 at Broadway and 42nd Street. Between 60,000 and 75,000 packed the nearby blocks to hear Graham preach on the unknown God. And then, at last, the crusade was over.

Graham’s New York crusade had generated massive crowds, but also massive waves of critiques. Liberal Protestants were bothered that Graham’s kind of evangelism was not concerned with social justice, but only with conversions. Meanwhile, Fundamentalists, led by Bob Jones Sr., were concerned that Graham’s ecumenism led to a diluted message and opened the possibility that converts would be sent not to sound churches, but to Catholic or Liberal churches. Graham continually insisted that he would accept support and assistance from anyone, as long as they did not hinder his message. This crusade marked the final break with many of his Fundamentalist supporters and Evangelicalism’s final distancing with Liberalism.

And as Graham distanced himself from both extremes, he helped coalesce Evangelicalism. “For Evangelicals, the Crusade was a major step in gaining self-confidence, empowerment, and acceptance as a significant national group, concerned not only to preach the Gospel of salvation through Christ, but to apply Christian belief to the life of the nation, even as Evangelicals often disagreed among themselves about what that meant” (source).

The crusade had taxed Graham, and many years later he would say that he never fully recovered from it. Yet during the time he had emerged as the leader and spokesman of American Evangelicals. Americans were drawn to his kindness and sincerity and he was now America’s best-known and best-loved Christian leader.

Prayer WheelOne of the historical curiosities of Graham’s 1957 New York Crusade was that little prayer wheel. The wheel guides the user through 18 weeks of daily prayers, divided into weekly topics. When the arrow is pointed to a day, a relevant verse citation appears in the 3 little windows on the lower right side of the wheel. Topics fall under headings such as “Do you hate someone?,” “Have you had personal sorrow?,” “Do you have moral weakness?,” and “Are you depressed?”. Each is answered by an appropriate Bible verse.

As Edward Rothstein points out in the New York Times, “Personal questions on a mass-produced object are a perfect emblem for Mr. Graham’s strengths. He was able to simulate intimate relationships in the midst of crowds, as if responding to private concerns with public statements. Judging from videos, his power did not come from unusual language or rhetoric, but from that promised empathy. He touched people; he thrived on their being touched.”

More than any other figure, it was Billy Graham who shaped Evangelicalism in America and beyond. Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals has said, “The evangelical resurgence in America has been centered around Billy Graham. He communicated the gospel of Jesus Christ for everyone. Never about politics, ambition, money or power. Just about Jesus. … Billy Graham has influenced American faith more than anyone else in the last century; perhaps, more than anyone else in American history.”

His impact is undeniable. And that little prayer wheel seems an apt symbol of his ability to reach out and touch every person, even in a massive crowd. For good and for ill, Evangelicalism was now a dominant force in Christianity.