"Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God's faithfulness."

- Eugene Peterson
We Aren't The Cream of the Crop

Saw this on Ray Ortlund's blog

“From Scripture we know that God has deliberately limited the number of Christians He has chosen to be successful. In the latter part of the first chapter of I Corinthians and in the first part of the second chapter the Apostle Paul explains why. He says that not many wise, not many influential and not many noble have been called by God. Then he gives two reasons why. The first is that there is a tendency, even among Christians, to glory in their accomplishments. Yet God does not want any of us to do this in His presence. The second reason is related to the apostle’s own experience with the Corinthian church. He said that he came to them in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. This was because he did not want their faith to stand in his wisdom but in God’s power. Far too frequently successful Christians tend to attract others to themselves rather than to the Lord. . . . From Scripture we know also that God’s people down the centuries have stood adversity far better than they have prosperity. That may be another reason why few of us are successful.”

Hudson T. Armerding, “The Challenge of Success,” Baccalaureate Address, Wheaton College, 21 May 1978.
This Armerding quote verbalizes a gut-feeling I've had for a long time, particularly when I've heard or read Christians (generally bloggers) lament the general low-brow culture of Christianity or the artless nature of the Christians they know (present company, always, excepted). There is usually an added, unspoken lament: "If only Christians were more [fill in the blank], the world wouldn't think we were such losers". Even more often unspoken is the follow up thought: ". . . and I wouldn't be so embarrassed to be associated with those people who call themselves Christians."

My rejoinder: what did you expect?

This isn't a cop-out for things I have done or other Christians have done that were in the flesh and dishonoring to God, but, scripturally, Christians are not expected to be the cream of the crop. The early church was roundly and rightfully criticised for its low-class occupants.

God is building his church, his Bride. Yes, reform is needed, constant refining, further beautification. But have faith that this work of art is, and is indeed becoming, beautiful.

"But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;" - 1 Corinthians 1:27

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Comments on "We Aren't The Cream of the Crop":
1. Jared - 06/28/2011 7:00 pm CDT

Concur.

I did a post a while back at GDC called "Jesus is For Losers" that speculated similarly: successful actors, musicians, etc. don't wind up saved b/c they still have shiny idols to hold. Washed up or marginally talented actors/musicians find Jesus b/c they've found real brokenness in their lack of success and adulation.

This is why I try not to whine too much about "bad" Christian movies (although it still bugs me :-).

2. Quaid - 06/28/2011 11:43 pm CDT

Bill - it's interesting that you posted this quote, esp. the passage it cites. I almost wrote a comment last week on your Cold Love post regarding those who had fallen away citing these same verses.

Part of me wonders if some in our shared ministry were won with human wisdom or with Godly power. There was much cultural wisdom present and much wisdom regarding how to manipulate cultural trends to win bodies in seats. But how much of the "winning" students was a result of the power of God?

No doubt- God worked powerfully in many ways during those years, but is that how people were "won"? Or was it just a product of God working were two or more were gathered?

I don't have as much a point as a question, here. To what extent are we concerned with people not being the cream of the crop and to what extent are they cold? To what extent was the power of God used to win some to Christ and to what extent was human wisdom relied upon as the chief mechanism for "winning?" If we were attracting others to ourselves (and by ourselves, I mean those who are much more winsome than me), to what extent was there a genuine love that grew cold?

3. nhe - 06/29/2011 9:26 am CDT

Whenever I consider this subject, I think of Gideon in Judges 6 (who is described as the "least of the least..........of the least").....and the Lord saying to Gideon "the Lord is with you valiant warrior." Huh?

Seems like maybe we're supposed to view Gideon as the example for "success" in God's economy? I don't know.

I also think of my Campus Director - Carl, when I was a new staff guy with Campus Crusade at Purdue back in the late 80s. He drilled into me that spending time with students who were natural leaders and "movers and shakers" was the wrong way to spend my time as Campus staff guy. He told me to look for the Gideons - the shunned, the unassuming, but genuine.......Carl was convinced of this because he was one of those guys when he was a student.

The "He must increase, I must decrease" perspective is referenced a lot, but not trumpeted from the mountain tops like it should be.

4. Bill - 06/29/2011 9:59 am CDT

nhe, your Campus Director sounds like he rocks! That's rare - when I worked for Campus Life, the focus was on the "key kids" - the football captain, cheerleaders, student council, etc. Of course, there was grace and love shown to all the kids who came, but the real excitement was there when one of the movers and shakers started attending.

Having never been anywhere close to "key kid" territory when I was in HS, this struck me wrong. I felt like I was, in some way, betraying my own tribe.

In complete defense of my Campus Life director, when I was in HS I do remember he often invited me (I wasn't a believer then). Like I said, grace, love, invitation was shown to all. But the prize was the "winner" kids.

Quaid - thanks for the comment. I somewhat regret my last comment in the Cold Love thread, and also anything I've said that makes it sound like an indictment of what we did. There are many success stories, I know. And I do believe that we all, and our leaders, meant well and really wanted to reach people. I have learned some things, and lost some friends, in the aftermath that has made me question things and re-assess our success - in particularly, I think we did not understand the importance of truly integrating new believers into the church as a whole, and to their parents and other older people, and there was certainly an element of "what you win them with is what you win them to".

But I am not in any position to stand in judgment of my fellow-workers.

5. nhe - 06/29/2011 12:09 pm CDT

what if we did ministry like the prize was the "loser" kids?.........it would look insane, but I wonder what God would do?

6. damien - 06/29/2011 7:23 pm CDT

what an encouragement that god makes somethings of nothings. weaklings and fools take heart.

7. Karl - 06/29/2011 9:57 pm CDT

I like Armerding; used to attend classes in Armerding Hall. But I'm not sure I see a necessary connection between his words and people like Mark Noll who bemoan the "scandal of the evangelical mind" and would call the evangelical church to greater depths. There are those like Ken Myers who think objecting to the capitulation of a church to the demands of the market isn't an elitist thing; but rather a concern for the message being sent and its impact on the formation of souls:

http://www.mtio.com/articles/aissar42.htm

excerpt:
"It is true that many people coming to church on a given Sunday morning (believers and non-believers) do want something more informal, upbeat, and generally more consonant with the popular-culture sensibilities that they live with Monday through Saturday. But they want these things for the same reason that the ghetto kids want a pair of Nikes: because the ambiance of popular culture within which they live promotes certain sensibilities and authenticates or normalizes them.

"And, as suggested above, popular culture is not neutral with regard to the sorts of sensibilities it encourages. Because of the centrality of commercial concerns, popular culture maintains a preferential option for the upbeat, the informal, the new and interesting, not because these are the sorts of virtues that make a better person (let alone a better Christian), but because these are the attributes that make for the best consumers."

8. Bill - 06/29/2011 10:13 pm CDT

Thanks for the comment, Karl.

I don't think we're talking about the same thing, though - I'm certainly not advocating for (or excusing) the consumerism and shallowness that one often sees in the American church (and in me, for that matter). That didn't actually cross my mind. I think I know what you're getting at: I believe that being a Christian should elevate our minds and if we truly do everything heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, all our works (writing, art, etc) should become more God-glorifying (i.e., better). But we shouldn't be surprised when the message of Jesus attracts the lowly, the untalented, the uneducated, the non-exceptional. And I believe many of us need to work harder to appreciate those God prizes most highly (and, frankly, to realize that we are rightfully among their ranks - I certainly am). There's no "us" and "them". Just "us"

9. Karl - 07/01/2011 11:12 am CDT

That's fair enough, Bill. And any time we've discussed this topic (or similar) here, we end up agreeing that CSL comes down in the right place with his observation that the "4th rate hymns set to 5th rate music" were being sund by an old saint whose "elastic side-boots" he was unworthy to fasten. So your reminder is one well worth remembering.

Yet I do side with CSL in wishing the church would aspire more often to something better than 4th rate lyrics set to 5th rate music, even if that's what many people's consumer-culture-shaped sensibilities genuinely respond to. Not because I am better than those people - I'm not and often they are closer to the spirit of Christ than I am. But because good music (or teaching, or thinking, or preaching, or art) really is better, and better for us all in the long run, than the mediocre stuff.

10. Bobbi - 07/01/2011 11:30 am CDT

I'm not the cream of the crop so I'm happy that God can and will use me for His glory! When I see someone who isn't the icon of youth and beauty that we worship in this culture, I imagine that they are angels unaware, Hebrews 13:2, and I seek them out. Right now I'm worshipping with a broken church. Many are ill, many men come without their wives, wives come without their husbands, some are grumpy, some are unattractive with wounds both visible and invisible, it's a mess. but I am praying with another lady that God will use this church for His glory.

11. Bill - 07/01/2011 4:15 pm CDT

Karl - thanks, I agree with you, definitely.

Bobbi - that sounds really awesome! God can use messes!

12. Stephen - 07/02/2011 10:57 am CDT

Interesting post. However I'd want to guard against Christians resigning ourselves to bad arts based on the logic presented.

I just wrote a similar blog post on the topic: http://blog.stephendenton.com

Thanks

13. Jared - 07/02/2011 3:13 pm CDT

Hey, it's "Check out my blog post" guy!

14. Jared - 07/02/2011 3:15 pm CDT

Stephen, if you actually read the post, you'd see no one is resigning ourselves to bad art. Check out Bill's 3rd paragraph.

Also the comments.

15. Bill - 07/02/2011 4:08 pm CDT

Stephen,

Thanks for the link - I don't disagree, although talking about church music becomes a conversation with diminishing returns, for me. Words like "good" or "bad" keep getting thrown around, but I've never felt that I was the arbiter of what "good" music is. I am not sure good or bad can be determined objectively (although there is, of course, a spectrum. Some things are just bad. Oh Mickey comes to mind)

One could argue that more complexity and a higher value on musical skill defines "good". But there are some worship songs that I love (consider the source, of course :-)) that are scriptural, worshipful, etc, that have four chords in them, repeated over and over. For congregational singing, there is a need to make it attainable for the completely non-musical congregant (who needs to be able to worship too). An analogy can be made to dance music. There is, I'm sure, some very good classical dance music that is highly acclaimed. What you won't generally find in dance music, though, is composers getting cute with time signatures (ala Rush or Dream Theater) - because that doesn't fit the genre and confuses things. Similarly, most worship music is in 4/4 or 6/8, and I've heard people complain about that but to get too far off that makes congregational singing much more difficult, and, frankly, distracting.

A more fruitful conversation (for me at least) has to do with the words. Yes, there are numerous songs that have, at best, silly words and, at worst, words that are theologically dangerous. I think churches should place a premium on getting the words right. The troubling thing I've seen when having this conversation is discovering the person I'm debating isn't frustrated that the lyrics are non theologically sound. They are frustrated that the words are too explicitly about Jesus. One guy in this space years ago said that music gets worse the more Christian it becomes, lyrically.

I can't go there. Veiled references and debatable double-meanings don't do it (at least for me). Especially in worship music.

I'm getting to the point that I think some churches, to be safe and more fruitful, might want to stick with hymns if they can't figure out a discernment around the music they are choosing.

The non-Christian world has a much larger pool of talent, more money, etc, and - to the point of my article - has more of the cream of the crop in its market. So it's not surprising that, to many, the music there is better (although, for me, a few minutes listening to a secular rock station makes me wonder what they are talking about :-) ).

So, my bottom line: yes, yes, yes we can do better. But I'm not going to poke fun at the guy in elastic side boots or bemoan his presence in my church. Especially since, to others, I'm the guy in the elastic side boots!

16. Stephen - 07/02/2011 7:52 pm CDT

Bill, thanks for your thoughtful response. Solid

Agreed that lyrics are higher up there that the accompaniment, and that lyrics that can double as "I miss my boyfriend" themed-songs deteoriate the whole genre.

I would only argue that we can't lean on arguments about not having the funds to make great music, namely because many in the church have tons of it, and many churches aren't poor (in money). It's clearly a conscious choice by the market, and therefore the artists, to churn out the blandness that is praise and worship music.

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