It is my contention that, if you did not already believe that Newspring has jumped ship from the broadest use of the term “Christian,” you must now concede that Newspring has finally sprung — whatever Newspring is, it is not a Christian church. Last Sunday I had the displeasure of attending John Ortberg’s
sermon motivational speech at Newspring church. I would call it a sermon, were it based, even loosely, on Scripture. However, though some Scripture was read, Ortberg did not teach from Scripture — I never thought I would write a sentence this absurd: John Ortberg spent more time teaching what the Dr. Seuss story “All the Places You’ll Go” had to tell us about our lives than he spent talking about what the Bible has to say. (I literally had to stare at the screen re-reading that line of text because of the overwhelming inanity of this whole thing.) Ortberg reads from Revelation 3, verses 7-8:
To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Rather than exegeting the context and theology of what door Christ has opened (hint: it probably has to do with salvation), Ortberg says that an old teacher of his talked about how the picture of an open door in the Bible signals limitless possibilities. For the forgiveness of sins? Nope! Limitless possibilities for “significant living.” It means “you can somehow be useful to God.” As if (a) God has some great need for us to do something for Him (see Paul’s sermon in Acts 17) and (b) we could actually do that thing, rather than keep on sinning. Ortberg encourages mystical practices by saying “I want you to start thinking of the open door in your life and start asking ‘God, what’s the door that you want to open for me?'” So now Ortberg has used the text to distract us from Christ and to fix our eyes back on ourselves. This is a distinctly anti-Christian approach to life.
Ortberg then moves into his second reading: the Gospel according to Geisel. “Oh the Places You’ll Go” becomes the second text. Ortberg says he wants to “play with both of those fabulous images: I’ve set before you an open door, this is your day, oh the places you’ll go.” Now, I’m sure if you asked Ortberg he would not say that “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is a fifth Gospel, but he certainly conflates the authority of the two texts. Don’t believe me? Just watch: From about the 28 minute mark to the 30:10 mark in the linked speech. He gives us a series of convictions about “God-opened doors” in our lives.
I’ll leave further sermon reviewing to the professionals. To sum it up, for the rest of the address, Ortberg continues to take the ideas of Dr. Seuss and insert them into the Biblical text, rather than letting what Christ has to say inform his sermon. In other words, rather than reading what Scripture says and then using a quote from Dr. Seuss to illustrate that, Ortberg reads what Dr. Seuss has to say, and then finds anything he can in the bible to support that. It is the opposite of Christian preaching.
What I have said here will suffice for our discussion. I would like to substantiate my earlier claim that Newspring is no longer a Christian church. As a caveat, I want to emphasize that when I say Newspring I am referring to those who determine what is taught and practiced at Newspring, not necessarily each individual member of the congregation. Some individual Newspringers may be exempt from the criticism below; if this is the case, they ought to flee Newspring and head for high ground, so to speak. On to the discussion.
A Christian church is a particular kind of thing. It is not defined by a building, or by the people in the building, but by it’s Head: The Church is found where Christ’s Word is found. Where Jesus is speaking through the Scriptures, there are His sheep, hearing His voice. But where those Scriptures are neglected, obscured, and tossed aside for the wisdom of men, there the faith of the Church is starved. In other words, by functionally elevating the text of the Blessed Doctor Seuss to a higher authority than Scripture (interpreting the open door of Christ’s letter to the Philadelphians through the lens of “The Places You’ll Go”), John Ortberg has switched the kind of food our faith needs for spiritual junk food, to put it mildly. He is starving anyone who trusts Jesus of Jesus’ very words. Which brings us to another point: Why doesn’t Newspring trust Jesus?
In the prologue of the Gospel of John, the Apostle tells us that those to whom God gave the right to become His children were born “not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of [the will of] God” (1:13). Later in this same Gospel Jesus says to Nicodemus “Unless one is born again…of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:3,5). John is showing us that, as Jesus says, we have as much to do with our second birth as Christians as we did with our first birth as a human. Another image used by the apostles is that of a dead man being made alive (Eph. 2:1ff). Much how Lazarus didn’t have to decide to come back to life before Jesus could raise him, so also we don’t make a decision to become a Christian. Rather, God creates faith in our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel (Romans 1:16-17; 10:13-17). John, near the end of his Gospel, says “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).
Newspring does not believe that “these things,” namely the words and works of Jesus in Scripture, are enough. That’s why, in a weekend with anywhere from 10 to 20 thousand people, including people “far from God,” as Perry puts it, instead of proclaiming the Gospel loud and clear for the world to hear — namely, that though these people are sinners for whom Christ died — Noble instead signed off on a puerile homily based on Dr. Seuss. This is not the action of someone who believes the promise of God that “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). This is the action of someone who believes that we are able to appeal to people and convert them to faith by making Christianity appealing. That’s why Perry had no problem redefining the Ten Commandments as “Ten Promises,” contra Christian thought and doctrine for thousands of years [here and here]. That’s why Perry had no problem playing Highway to Hell on Easter morning. It’s why Ortberg felt comfortable saying “The book of Jonah isn’t about Jonah, it’s about you.” It’s why Newspring is going to move farther and farther from being a Christian church: Because they don’t trust Jesus — they don’t believe that Jesus is enough. This is not the Christian faith.