On September 11, I visited a church not far from my house. From the information on their website, I was aware that they aligned themselves with Rick Warren’s purpose driven paradigm. Given such, I went in with my discernment hat on.
Upon entrance, I was immediately welcomed warmly and sincerely. These people were not just volunteer ‘greeter bots’ assigned by some greeting team coordinator. There was a very real and tangible warmth to all those who spoke to me. I picked up a very attractive vibe from this smallish congregation.
In the meeting and greeting, I spoke to one gentleman who described the ethos of the church. He reiterated the websites affirmation that they were indeed a Purpose Driven Church and were aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention. He informed me that their music was contemporary, that they did not do hymns. In visiting other churches, I find it interesting how many almost define themselves by their preference to contemporary praise and worship music.
The ubiquitous video count-down timer did it’s declination to zero, prompting everyone to take a seat at one of the dozen or so round tables. There was a brief announcement, and next, the praise and worship set began. Following the three contemporary praise and worship songs, nicely performed and understated, the sermon started.
I came away from the sermon with mixed emotions, with some tensions. The framing metaphor for this sermon, the first of a series, was ‘The Plan’ that God has for your life. That well-known verse, Jeremiah 29:11,
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare[a] and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (ESV)
was the springboard for the speech, and quite frankly, it bothers me how pop evangelicalism sometimes misuses this verse, how it is so often taken out of proper context and applied as a kind of ‘health, wealth, and prosperity’ promise. It is with some contextual irony that Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. God’s plan apparently involved much anguish and suffering for Jeremiah.
The idea that God has a ‘plan’ for everyone was reinforced by the pastor asking the congregation to repeat after him that “God has a plan” for each of them. He mentioned the we may be struggling with financial difficulties, with problems in our marriage, with prodigal children, but we should not worry, because God has a Plan, and that plan, it was inferred, involved fixing those problems.
While listening to the pastor speak of God having a plan for our lives, I found myself thinking of the martyr Steven, of the hardships Paul experienced, of the hall of the heroes of the faith found in Hebrews 11 who were slain, who wandered about in animal skins, pariahs. I thought, too, of the sufferings of the Messiah, as the pastor continued to talk about The Plan. Sometimes His plan for your life means you are fed to the lions.
I have grave issues with this evangelical exhortation of “God has a wonderful plan for your live’ because His plan may not involve your marriage being fixed, it may not mean you will be free of financial difficulties in the here and now, that all your felt needs will be met. While God in His grace and glory does often give such gifts to His children, His plan may entail that your marriage and family may not flourish as you think it should. One need only read Matthew 10:21, Mark 13:12, and Luke 21:16 to see that being a Christian sometimes causes divisions within families. Quite honestly, I think God’s plan for our lives may involve no small amount of suffering on our part in order to bring us to a place where we find our ultimate satisfaction in knowing and being known by Christ, a satisfaction that will transcend circumstance.
The sermon moved on to the core text, the first 12 or so verses of Ephesians. The pastor essentially taught verse by verse through the text focusing on ‘who we are in Christ.’ He did a fairly good job with the metaphor of adoption and did not side-skirt the doctrine of election though I do not think he gave the doctrine the weight it was due in the context of the text. With no small irony, in light his affirmation of the doctrine of election, of adoption, as put forth in the preached text, he did use some ‘decisional regeneration‘ language later in his sermon.
In exegeting the texts, the pastor focused on the blessings we have in Christ, and he did a fairly good job, but the blessing mentioned in the text were not defined clearly in the sermon. I think illuminating the contrast between the heavenly gifts we are freely given with what we actually deserve from God, His wrath, would serve to more clearly define how we are actually blessed. Perhaps if he continues reading through Ephesians, chapter two will bring this contrast to the table. To reiterate, the nature of our blessings in Christ can only be apprehended if you understand what we actually deserve in light of our fallen nature and God’s perfect holiness.
In thinking more about ‘the plan’ for our lives so often spoken of, I think the New Testament text makes ‘the plan’ fairly clear. We are work honestly with our hands and minds, working for our employer as if for Christ, providing for our families and for those in need. We are to avoid silly, irreverent, and coarse speech. We are to care for strangers and sojourners,for widows and orphans, for the weak and needy.We are to love our spouses. We are to love those who hate us and do wrong to us. I could go on, but I hope my direction of thought is clear. I honestly do not see a call in the Biblical text to discern some personalized plan that God has dangling in front of us like a tease, somewhere just out of sight. I think losing ‘the plan’ metaphors and perhaps speaking more directly about God’s absolute sovereignty over all our circumstances, good or bad, and God’s trustworthiness and goodness therein would be more useful, Biblical, and encouraging.
Above and beyond the aforementioned concerns, I actually felt the pastor delivered a needed message of encouragement to this humble, warm, and friendly congregation. Again, I was inundated with a sense of welcome by these lovely people.
As an aside, I did see a copy of The Shack on one of the tables. I should probably avoid any of their small groups that may reading through that book. I would probably present a difficult test their graciousness 😉