Bibliophilology (or, What Kind of Book is the Bible?)

The Tianjin Bahai Library in Tianjin, China

I’ve listened to arguments about the Bible all of my life.  I’ve heard it mocked by literature professors and defended by fundamentalists like King Kong cradling Ann Darrow at the top of the Empire State Building (I suspect, if it had a personality, that’s about how much the Bible would want to be protected).  Usually attackers and defenders talk past each other.  Often, I’m not sure that either have read it.

In part, the confusion arises from the lack of clarity about what kind of book the Bible is.  There are different approaches.

A Math Book

Some people think of the Bible like a math textbook.  It is a book of brute facts reducible to logical certainty, and if any one of them is wrong, the whole thing is suspect.  If there is an error in the math book, we’re going to have to scrutinize every problem to make sure the authors didn’t do it more than once.  Aggressors like to point out discrepancies in the biblical texts (Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4), and say that they’ve found a fatal flaw.  Defenders foolishly agree to the argument and concoct desperate explanations about how Once Upon A Time there was a perfect Bible, but then there was a copying error.  This would be like claiming this blog was written by Tinkerbell, and then when someone presents a video of me typing it myself, I reply, “She’s very tricky, isn’t she?”

The mistake is giving in on the idea that the Bible is like a math book to begin with.  The authors had no intention of communicating ideas that work like mathematics.  The statement “The Bible is true” makes as much sense as saying “The tree is true.” That’s not a valid way to evaluate it.

A Novel

Some then say the Bible is like a novel.  It’s a fascinating collection of stories that might have moral points, but they are not grounded in history.  Here, there is immediately a problem – all the history.  The authors of the Bible at a number of points clearly think they are reporting historical events, unabashedly with their own opinions about the events – who was the greatest warrior, who was a liar, and why God did what he did.  The historical character of the Bible is inescapable.  Bart Ehrman, who is not a religious believer and who is deeply skeptical about religion, said of Jesus, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees.”

A defender of the novel thesis might argue then that it is historical fiction – a novel created out of historical events, but truly fiction.  However, from the earliest recorded events to the present, a growing and countless population have believed that some cross-section of the historical events recorded in the Bible actually happened as the Bible said they did.  The authors meant for much of it to be historical, even if inescapably biased, and most readers take that fact at face value.  That reduces the sorting out of the historical from the non largely to an act of bias.  It’s unsurprising that holders of this thesis usually say the supernatural elements are the fiction, regardless of what else might be historical, and that viewpoint comes from a predisposition to a certain ideology, not to a study of history.

A Compilation

Both of these approaches spring from a kind of fundamentalism that the Bible doesn’t encourage.  A better way to think about the Bible is as a compilation of various forms of literature.  There are within it long lists of names that were created specifically to be kept in a file cabinet.  They were not meant to be devotional material – they were meant to keep a paper trail of land owners.  There are poems which have no more truth value than a flower, which is still an infinite kind of value.  There are historical narratives that are brute facts – events that happened and which are recorded by eye-witnesses.  There are fabricated parables, stories created to make a point that don’t even attempt to pose as history, prophetic and apocalyptic predictions of the future, collections of practical advice, records of military conquests, virtue and vice lists, and more.

No two types of literature are the same.  They serve different functions, communicate in their own styles, and must be evaluated according to the norms of that style.  That, for any serious reader and serious believer is not a threat to faith.  It’s a challenging and thought-provoking invitation to a deep study of God.


Vitality and Vision

There is one key characteristic that distinguishes thriving organizations from dying organizations, and that is vision.  Tony Mayo, of Harvard, says “when initially describing someone as a ‘great business leader,’ the knee-jerk reaction is often to cite something about his or her strategic ability or vision.”1  Vision gives purpose to any business, team, or church, and without vision, an organization is rudderless.

The vision of any church should be to reach a lost world for Jesus, simply because it was His vision.  He himself said he had come for the sick, not the healthy and that a good shepherd leaves 99 safe sheep to seek the one who is lost.  Churches whose mission is to care for their own, or to preserve conservative ideals, or “to keep everyone happy,” have committed themselves wholeheartedly to rejecting Jesus’ call on their lives, even while they still talk about Jesus.

When a church has rejected Jesus’ vision, it picks a surrogate.  Leadership guru John Maxwell writes, “If your organization has a wonderful culture, but no vision, then you might really enjoy your time together, but you’ll never go anywhere.”2  Instead of reaching for a high-impact future, a church without vision turns to memories of the glory days and talks about how great it is because of how great it was.  It returns to the same leaders it has always had, the ones who provided it a vision in the past, because it does not realize that yesterday’s vision cannot be today’s.  I always read news articles about churches that have failed, because the quotes from the last remaining members are so revealing.  They say things like, “We used to have such great potlucks.  I don’t know what happened.” They hide behind claims like, “I guess people just don’t go to church like they used to.” What has actually happened is that at some point the church settled for life as usual instead of pursuing a mission to reach a lost world.  They traded vision for safety.

A vital church is one in which vision defines the church.  It decides what programs and activities happen and which ones don’t.  Vision defines the vocabulary, visual imagery, and public presentation of the church.  A vital church is ok saying “Good-bye” to those who reject the vision.  It’s not ok with saying “Good-bye” to vision in order to please the discontent.

Vital churches are churches that declare, “There goes Jesus!” and go chasing after him.  It’s a vision you don’t have to second-guess, rewrite, or pass occasional amendments to.  It’s his vision, and it works.



Transformative Leadership and Church Planting

There are a range of types of leadership.  I don’t mean styles, like authoritarian or laissez-faire; I mean contexts which call for different kinds leadership, like entrepreneurship, which is appropriate at the initiation of an organization, management, which is leadership for steady organizations with a charted trajectory, and rehabilitation, for organizations that are facing an impending closure.  You really need different kinds of leaders for different contexts, and most leaders are going to serve better in one context than another.

Something that’s fascinating about starting a new church is the kind of leadership it requires.  You are certainly an entrepreneur, but the first thing you have to do is to lead change.  That’s because the first people who usually come visit a new church are not people who don’t believe in God; they’re Christians who are looking for a new church.  They’ve decided whatever experience of church they had before wasn’t what they want or are called to, but they’re not giving up on church.  For that population, those who lay the groundwork for the for the future of what the church will be, leadership must be transformative.  The leader inherits the whole package of experiences and expectations that Christians already have, and then he or she must lead change from the start.  But unlike an established organization, there are no formal institutional traditions for anyone to lean on.  The leader has to lead transformational change specifically in the expectations of a people who have come looking for something new.

I’m new to this.  We’re a year in to our new church.  Here’s a few things I’ve learned so far about transforming expectations

1. You have to be clear about what you’re not.

Being clear about what you are is fun and exciting.  You can proclaim big visions for life-change and kingdom work.  But refining your mission into a specific task requires defining boundaries against what you are not.  For instance, megachurches from at least the 1980s have thrived on offering a buffet of activities for every demographic.  When you list them all, it looks like the menu at the Cheesecake Factory.  Effective new churches start with the idea that we’re going to do a few things well.  Specifically, a good church seeks to experience dynamic worship as a community, effective discipleship in small groups, engaging children’s programs, and absolutely nothing else.  That means all the favorite menu options have to go.  When they ask for a sports ministry, you have to respond the way Chick-fil-A would if you ask them for a cheeseburger.

2. You can teach what you know, but you can only recreate what you are.

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Telling people that they should talk to lost people about Jesus is great.  Giving them examples of people who have done it is inspiring.  Having seminars to teach them how to do it is thoughtful.  But if the leader isn’t doing it, neither is anyone else.  Want to hear your church talking about their conversations with people who don’t believe in God.  Tell them your stories about talking to people who don’t believe in God.  Some great stories that I’ve heard have come to me as I was standing at the door after a Sunday worship service, and someone ran up to me and said, “That story that you shared reminds me of something that happened to me this week….”  And if I’m paying attention, and if it’s relevant, I ask that person to share that story in church or on video the following week.

3. You have to repeat the thing you just repeated.

If you haven’t said it in 6 days, there’s a solid chance they’ve forgotten it or marginalized it.  If you sent your congregation out on a mission last Sunday, start this Sunday by asking them how it went.  If it slips away for you, it’s definitely gone for them.  Placing vision statements on your site, in your print materials, on signs, and in speeches is an essential form of repetition.  At about the time you’re sick of hearing yourself, someone is only just catching on.  When you’re transforming people’s expectations, this is an essential step to breaking old patterns.


If the pastor is the only person who sees the vision of the church, it’s not a vision – it’s a hallucination.

4. You have to switch from fulfilling goals to pursuing vision.

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Send off after Easter baptisms this year

Good leaders know how to set goals and love doing it.  Youcan’t very well lead without a sense for what you want to achieve.  But pursuing vision means breaking out of the standard measurable goals inherent in your field and chasing after vision-driven goals that many people might not respect.  This week I talked with Ger Jones, the pastor of Vintage Church LA.  I went to his Alpha program where I ended up in a conversation with an atheist who had been invited to the church by another atheist.  Neither believed; both loved coming.  Ger noted that at ordinary churches you might count how many people attend.  At great churches you might count how many people are baptized.  But he wondered how many people count how many conversations your congregation had with atheists that week.  I myself would ask – how many churches have atheists who are not only attending, but are evangelizing others and bringing them to church?

Transforming the expectations of already churched people means changing the standards of measurement that most churches are using.

These are just a few of the early lessons that I have learned and am learning again.  Starting a new church was nothing I ever dreamed of doing, but in the end, it’s been more educational than college, but exhilarating than mountain-climbing, and more clearly Spirit-led than any ministry I’ve ever experienced.



Worship has been changing in America.  It’s been changing radically in the 20th century, and even more so in the second half of the second century.  The so-called “worship wars” of the 1980s led to the rise of contemporary worship styles and services.  “Blended” services were formed in order to allow contemporary worship and a variety of instruments into shrinking churches with the hope that the church would slowly evolve and grow.  By the late 1990s, most churches that had hope of having a future had already changed mostly or entirely to contemporary worship.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the American Church witnessed rapid church closures, the impending death of mainline Protestant churches that had refused to change what needed to be changed, and the rise of a massive church planting movement.  Church plants began from the ground up with contemporary worship styles, following on the successes of churches that first pioneered contemporary worship in the 1980s.

Today, churches that cling to traditional worship styles are among the few.  Most of them have designated a single service to traditional worship for those who still long for it, usually meeting in a separate room on campus while the main worship space is used for contemporary worship.

This is where we are.

For most people, this is not a surprise.  Most people have looked around the church culture and seen that this change is not only underway but is now pervasive.  The media has widely reported on the signs that traditional worship is passing from our culture.  Commentators have observed that traditional churches do not have a strong future.  In my own area, one church has recently cancelled its only traditional worship service, another church has removed its traditional elements from its largest, formerly blended service, and a nearby church plant that started with contemporary worship 3 years ago now has 2000 people attending each weekend.  But behind these facts are a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and that’s where a pastor’s heart goes.


The most challenging part of this is that there is still a population, largely septuagenarians, who feel alienated by the change.  For them, the experience of modern worship is a lot like the couple of hours I spend playing with my kids in the afternoon: it’s noisy, it wears me out, it gives me a headache, and it’s not really fun for me, but I do it because I love my kids.  After my kids go to bed, I have “me time,” which is far more peaceful and relaxing, and is really what I want.  For that generation, a worship service that is “for the kids” wears them out, and they are left wondering where to find a space for themselves.  They feel disoriented and ignored.

The issues are obvious:

  • Everyone is valuable to God
  • Healthy churches are intergenerational
  • Jesus called us to take up our crosses and die to ourselves
  • Paul tells us to look to the interests of others rather than ourselves
  • Mature Christians should model self-sacrifice for those who are younger and newer
  • Mature Christians don’t act like customers at church, but non-Christians will
  • The church should do everything it can to reach the next generation, particularly in a culture where church influence and attendance are on the wane
  • There’s no way to create a worship experience that everyone likes
  • Traditional worship styles are waning in our culture


The disagreements are not new.  In the 3rd century, churches fought to keep instruments out entirely, because they were associated with pagan cults.  In the 15th century, John Wycliffe complained that the music was being written in a way that was too complex so that only the choir could sing, and everyone else just had to stare.  In the 17th century, Reformed churches fought to keep the organ out.  In the 18th century, a pastor wrote an article opposing the new music being written by Isaac Watts.  He said, “There are several reasons for opposing it. One, it’s too new. Two, it’s often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style. Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.” That was in response to “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.” In 1903, Pope Pius X banned the piano in worship by papal decree.  Later in the 19th century, the founder of the Salvation Army quipped, “Why should the devil have the best music?” and then began writing far more enthusiastic church music.  In the 20th century, many Christians expressed skepticism at the early gospel radio broadcasts of the evangelist Charles Fuller.  Then in the 1970s, pioneers fused modern rock with Christian themes and started a furor of their own.  Sigh.


This puts pastors in a bind.  We have to align our people with our mission, our strategy, and our cultural context.  Usually these four things don’t line up well or easily.  We are left to disregard either the culture, making us irrelevant, or to disregard our mission, making us directionless, to disregard our people, making us insensitive, or to disregard strategy, making us look confused.  The pastor, who is more subject to public opinion (and consequent crucifixion!) than anyone else, has the burden of guiding this alignment and being resented for it, no matter the results.

At a former church, I approached a choir to have them sing less frequently.  I did so with the unanimous consent of our Elder board.  In the midst of the conversation with the choir, I was interrupted, then booed, then told that what I was saying “was a bunch of crap.”  The next weekend, a lone choir member came to me and said, “No one has the right to treat their pastor that way.”

Now personally, I don’t feel any resentment towards those who fondly remember and still prefer traditional worship.  For them, it was a feeling of home and a feeling of family.  Talk of “blended services” today is an anachronism.  Some think the compromise that they made in the 1980s to allow the band to meet in another room for a service for young adults was as much compromise as they needed to make.  And for those who have attended the same church for years, they don’t think that the massive changes that have already happened in our culture need to affect them further.  It’s painful and disorienting for them.

But this is the last chance for churches to live or die.


Today churches that can provide a separate space for a traditional service may allow it to go on in that space for a while.  For churches that have a single worship venue, effective ones will no longer maintain traditional or even blended services if they want the church to have a future.  Those that are trying to do so have by and large already seen their young adults leave for other churches.

That’s the state in which churches and pastors find themselves today.  There is not a quick solution for the population who does not welcome the change in styles.  They feel marginalized.  Nor is there a possibility that vital churches will go backwards.  That is a leadership failure of the highest order, and it will cost them their future.  We love each other and we keep moving.

The only viable way forward will come when people who love Jesus put the gospel and the kingdom in front of their own preferences to make way for those who don’t yet know Jesus.  It’s only when our hearts beat for lost people and for Jesus that the mission of the church will overwhelm our preferences.  This is not something that we can bring about by our own effort, because only the Holy Spirit has the power to change hearts.  At the end of the day, the best we can do is to cast vision, to pray, and to keep preaching the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Disciples and customers

The critical decision that the modern church must make is whether or not to raise up disciples or customers.  The results will be very different.

You can have a very big church filled with customers.  Appeal to the expectations, calm every complaint, give the old guard what they want, and appease the donors.  This can generate a gathering of satisfied church-attenders who bring their friends, promising them a similar customer-satisfaction experience.

On the other hand, a church can create disciples.  This necessarily requires telling peoplehqdefault.jpg that they can’t have what they want, that Jesus’ call is to take up your cross and to die to yourself.  A church in a frenzy of attracting customers can never deliver a message like this.  A church that delivers a message like this will never attract customers.  But it is fundamentally the road to discipleship.  Churches that create disciples define their purpose by their mission, not by the whims of their shareholders.

The result of a disciple-making church is a most likely initially smaller but impassioned group of people who are truly committed to the mission of Jesus in the world.  But when a gathering of people takes Jesus’ mission to heart, they become an unstoppable force for the kingdom.

The leadership of the church just has to decide at the beginning, when the groundwork for the church is being laid: customers or disciples?

Getting our Teeth


The little church that I pastor just passed it’s 6 month anniversary.  We are a church b0rn out of a painful labor that has relaxed into the joy of new life.  There are abundant signs that God is blessing our experiment – new guests, growing resources, fifteen small group Bible studies, and a general ethos that fluctuates between an appropriately modest joy and just outright, childish fun.

Now something happening – the thing that usually happens to 6 month olds.  We’re getting our teeth.  We’re starting to grow into a thing that’s going to be able to influence the world, shape things, have a voice.  The evidence – there are 18 baptisms coming to Real Life between now and Easter.  This means that people are making life-changing decisions to follow Jesus, from young kids to grown ups.  We’re seeing people change direction in a life-changing way.  This is what growing churches are supposed to do.

Most churches in America go months, or even years, without baptisms.  The passion to reach lost people for Jesus passed long ago, and they’ve settled into routines that keep the already converted happy.  You would think a clear reading of the life of Jesus would cure this, but they keep reading it and nothing changes.

A church should look like a ship that’s just weathered a storm at sea – the entire crew is tired, everyone’s telling the story of how it happened, and the floor is soaking wet.  Join us in setting sail at Real Life…we’re gaining steam.

Resolving to Read the Bible


It’s January 2nd, and I really don’t want to go to the gym this morning, because there will be lines of well-intended people who I’ve never seen before.  New Year’s resolutions do that.  I figure I’ve got until Valentine’s Day before I can use the place undisturbed again.

Many people set out every January with the resolution that they are going to read the whole Bible this year, which is a great goal.  I have a few thoughts that may get you past February.

  1.  Don’t read it left to right.  That’s not how it was written – the books don’t appear in chronological order – and that’s not the best way to understand it.  We’re used to reading books from left to right, because that’s the way English texts are written.  Hebrew goes right to left.  Chinese sometimes reads top down.  But the Bible is a book that reads from the middle outwards.  The best place to start reading the Bible is with the story of Jesus’ life, the gospel, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  Everything before that is pointing towards Jesus’ life; everything afterwards is reflecting back on Jesus’ life.  Read the gospel first.
  2. Save the file cabinet material for the end.  I meet so many well intentioned people who tell me, “I’m going to read the whole Bible this year!” And I say, “Good job!”, because I’m a pastor, and I guess I’m supposed to encourage this sort of thing.  They read Genesis, and then they come back to me saying, “It’s great!  There’s so much adventure!  I love it!”  I say hesitantly, “Uh-huh.  They come back a couple of weeks later and they say, “I’ve read Exodus!  It’s amazing!  I love this book.” I say, “Yup.” And then I never hear from them again.  Because then they come to Leviticus, and they aren’t all that enthralled with the specificities of how to sacrifice your goat.  They come to something which, even for the original authors, was file cabinet material, and they get bored.  You know, it’s a really important document, so you need to keep it, so you put it in your file cabinet.  It’s not pleasure reading.  And all those resolutions die in Leviticus like so many sacrificial lambs.  We’re going to read that stuff too – just not yet.
  3. Ask someone who has read the Bible what you should read next.  After reading a gospel, ask someone who knows it, and even better, who also knows you, what you should read next.  Generally I recommend a shorter book that gives you a taste of a bigger genre of literature.  Read the book of James next.  It’s quick, easy, and practical.  It contains a lot of moral advice that’s sometime pithy and the kind of thing a lot of people go to the Bible for.  Then read Ephesians.  It will give you a little taste of Paul’s 13 letters in the New Testament, a sense for his theology, and a sense for those letters trying to teach the church to get along.  Read Micah so you know who the prophets are.
  4. Read each book by itself.  Some guides to reading the Bible recommend a section of biblethis book and a section of that book at the same time.  That can be an ok way to go at it.  To have a true grasp of the context, you want to read any one of the 66 books by itself.  In other words, when you sit down to read Romans, read the whole book from beginning to end, even if it takes a few days.  Don’t read a little of Romans and then come back to it six months later.
  5. Use study aids.  There are commentaries that are a great help to understanding parts of the Bible.  You can read a single-volume commentary, which has notes on every single book of the Bible.  I like the ones with pictures.  When you get further along, you might want to read an entire commentary on one book of the Bible, like Romans.  N.T. Wright has a readable series of commentaries called “The Bible for Everyone.” And of course, you can always listen to sermon series by preachers who like to go through books of the Bible.  Some people find that it helps to take notes, keep a journal, or illustrate the pages of their Bibles as they go.

Hope this helps!  May God bless the reading of His Word!


The Grammar of the Gospel

prepositions.pngI have been doing some teaching at a local university, primarily to international students, and in that process, have found myself spending a lot of time explaining English prepositions. A friend of mine says, “If you’ve mastered prepositions, you’ve mastered English.” That’s because the rules governing which preposition we use and when are virtually nonsensical.

If you’re inside you stand in the corner; if you’re outside you stand on the corner. The bus is around the corner.

“I’m sitting on the bus.” Are you? Get down. That’s dangerous.

Martin Luther, in trying to describe the presence of God in the eucharist in a way that was sufficiently un-Catholic called it “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. I’ve parsed the German of that sentence, and I still have no idea what he means.

But it occurs to be that a life lived well is all about the prepositions. If you get the prepositions wrong, you’re going to get life wrong. Most church-goers say they believe “in” Jesus. By this, they mean a consent to the doctrine of his existence. That creed is, according to the Bible, meaningless and irrelevant (James 2:19).

“In” is not the critical preposition. A life lived well is a life lived from Jesus and for Jesus. Belief in, as it is usually used, is just an acknowledgement of present realities. What matters is that we understand the origin of our present reality and then our destination. If we come from Jesus, we do not just know he is real; we make him the foundation, the cause, and the source of who we are. If we live for Jesus, it means our life’s ultimate goal, its telos and destination, are to honor him. We have an initial design and an ultimate purpose – from and for.

The existence of a bus does not tell you who you are greeting at the station or where you might headed yourself. You can believe in the bus, ineffectually. But to know where the bus came from and where it is going are the only matters of consequence.


An Observation
There is a place to which the kingdom of God has not extended in the American church, unnamedand that is Facebook.  Christians seem to think that though God can probe our deepest thoughts, he can’t read our online accounts.  Facebook is to Christians what a long stretch of empty highway is to a compulsive speed-demon, that is, the one place where the authorities can’t see you get away with it.

Except on Facebook, everyone sees it.  I once talked to a man who wouldn’t even consider church because, he said, he looked at what Christians had written on Facebook.

When Jesus says things like “love your enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” and “bless and do not curse,” those commands actually extend not only finally but firstly to our casual daily interactions that seem virtually insignificant.  Those teachings extend primarily into the mundane.  I look at Christians’ Facebook pages that are a long string of insults of political figures, divergent ideologies, and other religions, and I wonder what they’re trying to accomplish.  No one is converted by hatred.

Facebook is a center for childish gossip among those who claim to believe that action without love is just noise (1 Cor. 13).  I once confronted someone about gossip and he told me I just had a different definition of gossip than him.  Going around and talking about what you don’t like about an individual is gossip, no matter why you feel justified in doing it.  We may think a political figure is a viable target, but an intelligent and kind-hearted follower of Jesus should know how to critique a political position without spewing venom. When we talk about our enemies, we are still required to speak in love.  If you don’t love, you don’t know God (1 John 4:8).

fbA Challenge

Scroll back through your Facebook page and ask yourself a question about each recent post.  “Does this show that Jesus loves a lost world?” (Do this on your own social media accounts, not on someone else’s.)  And maybe as an act of holy worship today, you need to delete some of the junk you shouldn’t have posted in the first place.

A Disclaimer

You get a pass for pictures of food, cats, Star Wars memes, and so forth. ; )