Q & A with Urban Pastors

Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church | Los Angeles, CA

While you’re thinking of your questions, I was asked if I might just say a few things about a book I’m working on called Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. I wrote the first draft of it last April and now this year I’d like to finish it. I don’t think that I am an ideal or even a very exemplary urban, multi-ethnic pastor, so I don’t write the book from the vantage point of having arrived. I write it on a quest of 64 years of trying to understand and trying to make right some things in my life and my church and my city.

Ethnicity and the Gospel

The thesis of the book is that the problems concerning race, both in the processes of moving towards harmony and the issues that keep us from harmony or reconciliation, are only solvable through the gospel. In fact, I was just reviewing the manuscript on the plane coming down here. One of the parts of the book that was most helpful for me to write was to think of all the sins that hinder both white and black. That’s the main focus of the book. I understand that those aren’t the only two ethnicities in America, of course, but that’s the focus because of my own history and the history of our nation. The sins of both white and black that hinder even working on the issue are amazingly addressed by the gospel. Let me list the ones that I address.

I’ll start with Satan. Satan is not a sin, he’s a person, but he hates reconciliation and he hates harmony. He’s a liar and he’s a murderer. He is against us and would love to draw all kinds of unnecessary lines. Guilt is a huge barrier for white people to even think about this issue. Pride goes both ways. Hopelessness is another one. If you undertake to go to work in a multi-ethnic situation on the issue — and you know this — you’re going to want to quit. It’s just going to get too hard, because you never say it right. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You go to the table hoping something good can happen at the table and you try to say what you’ve been thinking and somebody says, “That’s not the way to say it.”

How do you get beyond that? How do you keep coming back to the table? The gospel has something amazing to say about that. There are feelings of inferiority and self-doubt. The gospel has something amazing to say about that. What about greed? There is greed about property and greed about stuff. It’s a great barrier to even moving into the discussion. Others are hate, fear, and apathy. I have a whole chapter on addressing how the gospel attacks the sins that keep us from even working together on the issue, like those.

I try to deal with the issue of whether the concept of race should even be used. I have a good friend who is pastor of First Baptist Cayman Islands, and you may know him, Thabiti Anyabwile, and he says, “Don’t even use the word. Drop it out of your vocabulary. It’s not a category in the Bible.” That’s true. Race is not a category in the Bible. Ethnicity is, big time. We hear of every tongue, tribe, people, and nation, not race. The concept of race isn’t in the Bible. So he says, “Get rid of it.”

We have long discussions about whether that’s workable, whether you can talk. Can you talk and not use it? So there’s a whole chapter on that, on whether it’s a concept that’s serviceable today. The global credibility of the evangelical church is at stake on whether we tackle the issue. Of course a dominant culture church, or people, don’t have to deal with the issue. They don’t have to think about it. So that’s why it’s not thought about by most of us. If you have a church and you’re surrounded by people like yourself — and that could be true of any ethnicity, I suppose — you just go about your business. You say, “Why are you bringing the issue up? We don’t even have to think about it. Everywhere we go it’s people like us.”

That’s globally very naive, and increasingly in America it’s naive. By 2042, white will be a minority in America. Black won’t be the majority, because hispanics are already more than blacks. But my oh my, the diversity on the way in this country, not that it doesn’t exist already. So for the credibility of the gospel and for the credibility of the church, evangelicals have to think about it, write about it, talk about it, interact about it, and make progress in it, whatever it is or is going to be.

The Deficiency of Politics and Moral Fortitude

Here’s one or two other comments on this thing I’m working on. I try to tackle the issue of the tension between the conservatives who talk about personal responsibility in minority communities, saying, “Get your problem fixed and get your act together,” and those who focus on systemic racism and the structural issues, and they go at each other. We all tend to gravitate one way or the other. Some think the issues are systemic and deeply rooted and ancient and controlling, and the others say, “Forget that. Just got to take responsibility. Fix it. Nobody’s going to fix it for you.” And I try to own up to the truth in both of those and argue that neither has the answer, but only the gospel has the answer.

You can’t find the answer in political systemic manipulation, and you can’t find the answer in just saying, “Buck up morally. Be a better dad. Be a better mom. Have a better family.” It won’t work. There’s no power in it. So both of them have truths. We need to see the truth in both and then recognize the answer isn’t in either of these. It’s in the cross, it’s in Christ, it’s in the Holy Spirit, it’s in the blood of Jesus. I think that’s enough. So, I’m going to stop there. That’s what I’m working on with regard to this book.

I call it Bloodlines, because of a double meaning. We usually think of being part of a bloodline, so that’s part of who I am. That’s one meaning. And then there are the lines of blood that flow from the blood of Jesus and the new lines, the new ways, the new configurations that are created by the blood of Christ. I don’t know whether I’ll stick with that title or not. I just like it. It’s memorable. It’s short. It’s catchy. It raises the question, “What does he mean?” But the subtitle tells it: Race, Cross and the Christian. I’ve sent it to a bunch of people, maybe a dozen or so, and I’m slowly getting feedback and the feedback has been partly encouraging and partly discouraging. And I expect to be discouraged the rest of my life on this issue, and I hope I believe in the gospel enough that I’ll never walk away from it.

The discouraging part is that everybody has a new author that I should be reading that I haven’t read, and I don’t know how far to go. How many people can you read? I sent it to Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York and he read it and said nice things about it. And then he made a list of about six or seven major authors that I hadn’t read, in fact, I’ve never even heard of, that I ought to be interacting with. I said, “Oh brother, that’s another year.” So, we’ll see.

You don’t have to ask questions about that or about what I said in the first hour. You can ask about absolutely anything you want. We have another 35 minutes, and please feel free to ask me anything. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll just say I don’t know. There’s a microphone and guy’s roving around, so stand up and they’ll bring you a microphone. Where are the microphone guys? Okay, no microphone. Go ahead.

Questions and Answers

You brought up from the first hour that you were interacting with a woman who disagrees with you. How are you going to go back and relate to her if you believe that the chief end man is to glorify God and she doesn’t see that?

I miscommunicated, because she would agree with that. She just thinks I’m minimizing something I need to put more emphasis on, namely, that God makes much of us. I’m not sure if she would be troubled by my stressing that God makes much of us for his glory. In fact, I tried that out on her as we were sitting in her living room a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t quite tell how it was landing. I think she felt I was being defensive. And I probably was.

I mean, she was telling me I wasn’t getting it right, and I was saying, “Well, yeah, but . . .” I don’t know if she’s had time to think about it and I’ve had time to think about it and we could sit down and come up with a way to say it that we could both be happy with. I suspect we could. I’ve known her for 40 years and we’re the same age. So I’m not critical of this woman. I misled you by giving the impression that she didn’t think that the chief end of man is to glorify God. She just thinks my way of ministering has been unhelpful to some people because of the high emphasis I put on the majesty and the glory of God. And she’s helping me realize that there are broken people who are not emotionally prepared to be there the way I take them there.

And I receive that. In fact, I want to do better with those people. But you pastors know this as well as I do. You will never be able to be as tender as some people need you to be tender and as tough as some people need to be tough. You’ll always miss some people. You try your best to be as tender as the tender ones need and as tough as the tough ones need, and when you’re tough, the tender ones feel beat up, and when you’re tender, the tough ones feel like they’re off the hook. So I consider that one of the glories of being in the same place for 30 years is that I get to be tough one week and tender the next. And I get to correct myself next week when I didn’t get it right the previous week. I don’t know how pastors do it when they just jump around all the time. But I just hang there and when they lay me down in my grave, I hope that they will assess me for the whole rather than any one sermon.

Would you please comment on the emerging church?

Yes, I’d be happy to. I think the emerging church is a fading reality. I think it has seen its best days, and its leadership is in shambles. I could give you horrible specifics from personal lives that I know about that aren’t public yet. And that’s not surprising given how low their view of truth and doctrine is.

For those of you who don’t know, the emerging church is a very loose designation for a constellation of people and churches and movements that are resistant to and rebelling against the excesses of megachurches and how artificial and plastic and non-relational they feel. They want to have relationships be everything, and therefore they minimize doctrine because doctrine divides and relationships pull together.

And there are all kinds of experimental ways of doing church and experimental ways of doing spirituality. The most recent book by Brian McLaren, who is their biggest guru, I would say, I have not read, but everybody I trust who’s read it says it’s a catastrophe. Scott McKnight, who’s been one of the most cautious defenders of the emergent church, threw the towel in on this latest book by Brian McLaren and said, “It’s over. He’s not orthodox. He’s just gone so far that it’s barely possible to call him a Christian anymore.” And his book is selling like hotcakes at Amazon right now. It just came out a few weeks ago.

So, if he represents where the emergent church is going, and I think he does, it’s going into heresy, it’s going away from the gospel and away from the Bible. That’s what happens when you begin to prioritize relationships over truth. If truth is prioritized, you get relationships thrown in. If relationships are prioritized truth doesn’t get thrown in, it gets lost and then the relationships are ruined, which is what I mean by saying that the leadership is in shambles. Immorality is rampant.

I think you will not even hear the term “emerging church” in 10 years. I think it will be over and gone. I hope you didn’t get swept up into it. It wasn’t a phenomenon in the Black community, I don’t think. I think you guys are just stable enough that you didn’t get into it. It is an upper middle class, white departure from orthodoxy.

Some of us here are from Master’s Seminary. I would just like to know what you think is most lacking in men coming out of the seminary and what you think is most needed?

I think it would be really presumptuous of me to make a broad, sweeping comment about what’s lacking because I don’t know most of them. There’s hundreds and hundreds coming out of dozens of seminaries. I don’t know. So it’s easier to answer the second half of the question. What am I looking for?

I don’t think seminaries can do everything. And I get very tired of hearing young men or pastors who are seasoned blame the seminaries for their inadequacies. I don’t think seminaries are designed to make complete pastors. Pastoring makes complete pastors, life makes complete pastors, families make complete pastors. Seminaries are a little slice of influence in life and they’re good for languages. They’re good for theology and for historical theology. They’re good for apologetics and they’re good for a few techniques here and there. And that’s pretty small. Just think of what the challenges are in ministry. If you go into ministry and say, “Oh, the seminary didn’t prepare me for this,” I’m going to say to you, “Why do you think it should?”

Here’s my situation. I went to Fuller Seminary, 35 years ago. I doubt that I would go there today, but this is being videoed. Hello, Richard Mouw. I loved it and I love it to this day. And I skipped every practical course I could and took Exegesis instead. And I would do the same thing today. Why? When I took my first pastorate, I had never baptized anybody, I had never buried anybody, and I had never dedicated a baby. I had preached 15 sermons at age 34. I had done two weddings. I had never sat beside a hospital bed while anybody died. I was totally green. And then I went to school for five years, the school of life.

I did a funeral every three weeks for 18 months. And the old people fell in love with me. It was the best gift I ever got, because they all showed up at the funerals. The young people never came to the funerals. All the old people came to the funerals. They heard me preach over and over again, and they began to like this young fellow who helped them die well and helped the families. And I didn’t know how to do a funeral. I just opened my Bible and read about death and resurrection and gospel. I thought, “Whoa, I’ve got good news.”

I didn’t need a course on funerals, and what a useless course. The month before I took the church, I went to David Livingston on vacation at a motel and I said, “I’m going to be a pastor in a month, show me how to baptize people.” He took me to the swimming pool and he said, “Take your left hand, put it on the right hand. Leave the right hand free to hold their nose. Grab them by this arm right here. Put your hand behind their back and push them under and pull them up.” That didn’t take a course, and it was free. And if he hadn’t told me that. I would’ve figured it out. And on and on and on it goes. For baby dedications, I wrote the words for the baby dedications. People dedicating little babies would say, “Where’d you get that?” I said, “I made it up.” I was just trying to figure it out. I thought, “What are we doing here? Is this in the Bible?” Well, it’s once or twice, maybe. So here’s the point.

I want guys to come out of seminary loving their Bible, knowing as much of it as they can. I want them to be broken and humble. I want them to be prayer filled. I want them to be full of the Holy Spirit. I want them to love people and care about the lost. I want them to have a vision for the world and a few skills and a willingness to make a lot of mistakes and learn heaps in their first year. So that’s it. The Bible is the main thing. Get your feet on the ground in the Bible in seminary.

Over the past few months I believe that in one of your blogs you addressed Barack Obama and there was a call for repentance, not only for him but for our nation. And my question is, how do you feel the church should address politics, or what role should the church play in politics?

The observation is that there’s a YouTube video of me speaking right to Barack Obama. I mean, I’m looking right into the camera. I did it intentionally, and I’m talking to him. I said, “Mr. President.” This is right after he was elected, and I was calling him to repent for his view about abortion. And I’m saying, “I wish you got that right,” and I said some positive things.

The question was, what do I think the role is of the Christian or the church in addressing politics? That’s huge. So let me just make a few random comments. I do think the role of the Christian and the role of the church are not the same. The role of the church as an institution, I think, has to be more careful than the role of any of you individuals. You’re going to vote, you’re going to think, you’re going to talk, and you’re going to express your opinions at work. You can be tussling and interacting. The church has to be a little more careful. It’s an institution. It speaks for a lot of people. You can’t just go blathering and say, “The church this and the church that.” Someone will say, “Well, how do you know?” So, keep separate in your mind the roles of institutions in addressing and the roles of people in addressing. I think the Bible’s pretty clear that the people should be salt and light scattered in all the institutions and all the layers of society to do as much influence and good as we can. You’re just scattering that church out there. Be involved in as many things as you can be and speak for Jesus everywhere and stand for righteousness and justice and love everywhere.

Now, as a pastor in the pulpit, I don’t want to play any partisan politics, even on issues I’m totally committed to. Now, what I mean is that I’m going to preach on abortion and I’m going to preach on racial justice. It’s so interesting, providentially in our country, that the sanctity of life Sunday and Martin Luther King weekend always come back to back. We make hay out of that at our church. We make the Republicans mad and the Democrats mad by putting those back to back. Because Democrats don’t give a hoot about pro-life and Republicans don’t give a hoot about racial justice. So we put them back to back and I preach on the racial things on Martin Luther King weekend and pro-life things the next weekend. And I say to the church, “We are not Democrats and we are not Republicans. We’re Christians.”

We have King Jesus, not Obama, not Bush. King Jesus is our champion. I really want my pulpit to feel prophetic. I want to get in the face of Republicans. I want to get in the face of Democrats. I don’t care who’s in the White House. I want to speak for Jesus. And I think that will be undermined even if I take right political partisan stands in my pulpit. In other words, if I start saying, “Vote this afternoon for this particular law in Minneapolis,” or, “Vote for this particular candidate,” because the world is going to hear me and no matter how I qualify it and they’re going to say, “He’s right wing.” Because I’m probably going to vote that way. They’ll say, “He’s right wing or he’s left wing.” It doesn’t matter. And therefore, my prophetic voice into the right and the left is going to be blunted.

So one of the criteria I use is — and I’m speaking to pastors, which is why I emphasize this — to ask, “What strategies of involvement will preserve my freedom to be in peoples’ faces, all of them?” I have really wondered what I would do in this situation. I’ve never gotten a call like this and I don’t expect to. What would I do if I got a phone call from a president who said, “I’d just like a personal, spiritual counselor. Would you be willing to meet with me every month or so? Nobody knows. It’s just you and me.” I’ve wondered what I would do. I don’t think I would do it, but I don’t know for sure. I mean, there are biblical examples of prophets who were counselors to kings. But I’m almost sure what would happen if I did that or if Bill Hybels did it or Rick Warren did or Billy Graham, is that we’re going to get co-opted. We’re going to get used. I’m going to get used by the Republicans or by the Democrats. It’s going to come out. And then people will say, “Piper’s schmoozing with the president.”

And as soon as you’re schmoozing with a politician, you’re not a prophet anymore. You might not be schmoozing, but the people are going to say you’re schmoozing. I mean, why else would you go to Washington every week? People will say, “That’s pretty cool, man.” And there’s an ego trip and all that. So frankly, I’d say, “Mr. Obama, this is quite an honor and I think I have lots to say to you, but sir, if I were to hang out with you, I think it would undermine my credibility with my prophetic office to be able to criticize you as I ought or to criticize your critics as I ought. So, sir, as much as I’m honored by your call, I don’t think I should do this.” Now, that’s utterly egocentric of me to think I would get a call like that.

Do you think prosperity preachers are all being deceptive, or do you believe that some of them are themselves deceived and preaching what they believe?

There is no doubt in my mind there are people in both those categories, and there are all kinds of prosperity preachers, some of them are not all that bad. In other words, the prosperity gospel is a broad phrase for a continuum of emphasizing immediate worldly benefits as a result of following Jesus. Now, the reason I say it’s a continuum is because you may have an absolute charlatan over here who’s in it for the money and he’s a crook. That’s the first kind. And then you may have somebody who genuinely believes he’s preaching the truth because he sees in the Bible that we’re children of God and children ought to dress like it, drive like it, live like it, and fly like it.

And then you have the guy over here who’s right on the edge of truth, because you know, it’s true life gets better in many ways if you become a Christian. Moral changes that Jesus works in a person’s life help him in a lot of practical ways. They help him be a better dad, they help him to work harder, they help him to be a more responsible citizen. It’s not an accident that Western countries prosper. They’re all influenced by Christianity. So prosperity does come in indirect ways when the gospel moves into a culture. It does. History proves it. So you might have a guy there and he’s just getting the balance there not quite right.

I just published a week ago the third edition of Let the Nations Be Glad, my book on missions. And the new thing about the book is that there’s a chapter on the prosperity gospel. You can get the chapter free and download it at Desiring God. Go to the introduction and print it out and you’ll have 12 pages of my critique of the prosperity gospel. I try to put it in the form of pleas to prosperity preachers. I don’t want to condemn them lock, stock, and barrel. I want to rescue them. I want them to become more holistic and get the gospel full and right. And I think when you make promises that you can’t follow through on because God is not going to follow through on them, then you hurt people.

The saddest thing is that the prosperity preachers take it to the poorest countries of the world. We export the prosperity gospel from rich America to West Africa, and we gather a stadium full of 30,000 dirt-poor sustenance farmers and we tell them their pigs won’t die if they follow Jesus, or they’ll find some running water, or their wife won’t miscarry. And then they collect their offerings and go home. And who cares what the result is. And those poor people come and they need help, they want hope. And we have a great message for them, the forgiveness of sins and a Christ who loves them and cares for them, and in fact, he will give them capacities that will enable them to improve their life. But it’s different than making those unrealistic promises about immediate material blessings. So I don’t mean to say, brother, that they’re all charlatans. There are many that are totally well-meaning, and there’s some that are not only well-meaning, but are getting it almost right. So if you want to know my thoughts about it, you can get that chapter and just print it out.

What preachers do you listen to?

If you got my phone, you could ask, “Who did he download last week?” I think I downloaded Matt Chandler and I think I downloaded J.I. Packer. I listened to two messages from Mark Driscoll a couple of weeks ago. I would listen to Sinclair Ferguson. I like to listen to the interviews that Mark Dever does. I have listened to Alistair Begg. I’m a Reformed guy, right? So I listen to these Reformed guys. Who else do I listen to? I ought to say MacArthur here I suppose. But frankly, I don’t listen to John very often because I’ve listened to him so much. I think I know what he’s going to say about everything. I used to listen a lot to John MacArthur, and I still do now when he does special conferences and he addresses special urgent things. I think, “Ooh, this is going to be controversial, I want to hear this.” That gives you a flavor.

You mentioned some negative things earlier about the emerging church, and you said the Black community didn’t get into it, but the Black community did, at least some of us, get into 40 Days of Purpose from Purpose Driven Life and Purpose Driven Church and Rick Warren. And Rick Warren isn’t emergent, but maybe not totally separate. Mark Driscoll just preached there and preached on the cross and Rick was moved. What do you think about all that?

I’ll put my cards totally on the table here. I have invited Rick Warren to come to the Desiring God National Conference this fall, and he’s coming. Now, I will get a lot of criticism for this from my Reformed brothers, not because Rick Warren is openly non-Calvinistic or non-Reformed. I don’t think he wears his theological distinctives on his sleeve. He would probably be more theologically at home with where I am than where an Arminian is. I believe that. When I wrote to him, here’s what I said, “The conference is called, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. I want you to come. You are the most well-known pragmatist pastor in the world. I don’t think you are a pragmatist at root. Come and tell us why thinking biblically matters to you in your amazingly pragmatic approach to ministry.”

I want him to lay his cards on the table. I want him to tell us what makes him tick, because he does come across in much of what he says and does as very results-oriented, pragmatic, and not theologically driven. And yet, I met him for the first time last year at Ralph Winter’s funeral in Pasadena. We sat beside each other on the platform for three hours. I like him because he sings, and he sings badly. Anybody who’s willing to sing when they sing badly, I like him. And we were talking beforehand and he said to me, “I’m reading all the works of Jonathan Edwards this year. I pick a great theologian every year, and I read all of his collected works. I’m on volume 17 of the Yale series of Jonathan Edwards’s works.”

You have to be kidding me. Nothing he has ever said would incline me to think that. These guys are going to go interview him tomorrow, I think, so you can quote some of these things. I do think he’s deeply theological. He’s a brilliant man. He wouldn’t have the church he does or the peace plan or all the influence he does if he wasn’t. Of course, the greatest sentence in the Purpose Driven Life is the first one, isn’t it? He says, “It’s not about you, it’s about God, the glory of God.” So I don’t think he’s emergent. At root, I think he is theological and doctrinal and sound. And what makes him tick actively and do church, I intend to find out. So I like him and I’m frustrated by some of his stuff.

What would your counsel be to people who are part of a mega-church that is prosperity-driven, emphasizing more of the material benefits of Christianity than the cross?

That’s a question I get asked about anybody who goes to a church where there’s defective preaching or defective ministry. I try not to urge people to leave their churches quickly. I’m not eager to push people out of churches. I don’t want to be a sheep stealer, I don’t want to be a rustler, and I don’t want to hurt churches. I want churches to be Reformed and churches to be helped. So my first inclination is to probe with them and ask, “Do you think there’s any hope that through your prayer and through your involvement in smaller settings that you could bring to bear a good influence in this church for the sake of gospel-centered life that emphasizes the sacrifices of love rather than the prosperities and materialism?” And if they said, “Not a chance,” I’d say, “Well, then you probably should seriously consider looking for a church where you could flourish without any sedition, and flourish under gospel preaching.” I think that’s what I’d say.

What are the boundaries of ecumenical involvement or interaction?

I don’t think I’ve thought this through well enough to give a very good answer, but I’ll tell you sort of how I function. The principle that I work with is this. To the degree that hanging out with, or interacting with, or praying with, or walking with a person who holds a defective view of the gospel would appear reasonably to endorse that defect, to that degree you shouldn’t do it. Does that make sense? If it looks like you are going to this prayer meeting where there are Jews, Muslims, liberal Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals would communicate that you think all those people are connecting with God when they pray, you shouldn’t go. Frankly, I wouldn’t go to one of those. I don’t go to ecumenical prayer meetings. And by ecumenical I mean Muslim, Jew, and Christian, because I think those prayer meetings are built on the assumption we’re all connecting with God.

However, in a few weeks, over on Ford Parkway, outside Planned Parenthood, there will be an eight-hour prayer vigil that I have been part of many times, in which every half hour a different pastor speaks for five minutes about a word from the cross and relates it to the sanctity of life outside one of the most active abortion clinics in the cities. And the rest of the 25 minutes in the half hour we’re carrying a big wooden cross and silently praying with no ugly pictures. There are Catholics, there are Protestants of every sort, and there are evangelicals, and I go. Because I don’t think in our culture, most people view your attendance at a pro-life prayer meeting as the endorsement of the theology of everybody who’s there. So I feel free that I’m not compromising my stand at that place.

Now, that principle doesn’t solve all your problems. There are a lot of ambiguities in that principle, and you just have to make the call for yourself. But that’s generally the way I go about it. If my association with a person will give a strong impression that I endorse the error, I don’t want to go there. So I’ll pull back for the sake of the gospel and I’ll try not to do it.