Why the Church is not Growing

Okay, I hope the above title is not just click bait. I really do have an idea. It may not be the most pleasant of ideas, but until someone else has a better one, I’m sticking with it.

My proposed answer as to why the church is not growing: the preachers. There are two halves to that indictment – the pressure put on preachers, and the self-inflicted wounds made by preachers.

First, a little back story. Every church wants an evangelistic preacher. Just check out the “preacher wanted” lists on any college, university, or associated web site. Way up at the top of the list you will see evangelism or “proven evangelistic success” as a major requirement.

I only have one question: where are these evangelistic success stories?

Read any survey, take note of church growth reports in virtually any report and the answer is the same: the church is shrinking. In my own experience the only congregations I know of that are growing are the recipients of members who are leaving other congregations for a variety of reasons. I am aware of congregations who list a number of baptisms, but these are all too frequently just “family” baptisms in which children or relatives of members are being baptized. These are wonderful events, and should not be downplayed – but they do not speak of the kingdom growing.

So – once again – where are the congregations growing that would produce the “proven evangelistic success” that every congregation is searching for?

Which leads me to point number one of my answer. Congregations do not want to participate in evangelism, they want to watch it. Hire the right man and sit back and watch the converts come streaming in. “We pay the preacher to evangelize, so get out and evangelize.” I think I have tipped my hand, but I just do not see this happening much, so I wonder where these blossoming evangelists really are. But, regardless, this is an illegitimate model. It puts (a) too much pressure on the preacher/minister and (b) it puts him in a position to pat himself on the back with far more enthusiasm should he be successful. What was it that the apostle Paul said regarding this very question? Oh, yea, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:17)

But, second, in perhaps a more nefarious situation, preachers promote this “I’m the professional evangelist, so get out of my way” mentality much more to the detriment of the church. The goal of ministry is not to make people think like the preacher, or even to act like the preacher. The goal of ministry is to draw people to Christ, and therefore to believe and to act as Christ has empowered them to believe and to act.

I do not want people to follow in my footsteps. They are too small and too frequently fall off of the path. I want people to follow in the footsteps of Christ. If the goal of preaching (and therefore evangelism in every sense) is to lead people to Christ, then the proof of that preaching (and therefore evangelism) is that those who are converted then become participants in the congregation’s further evangelistic efforts. They may not become personal evangelists, but each member supports those efforts to the extent they are gifted/empowered. (See Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Cor. 12:4-11, Romans 12:3-8)

So, why is the church not growing? Because individual congregations have placed an unbiblical and impossible burden upon a “paid professional evangelist;” and because all too frequently the “paid professionals” are too condescending to expect, and believe in, the members to whom they preach to actually want and be capable of sharing their faith.

I believe there are congregations that are healthy and growing – even though I may not know where they are located. But it is NOT because of some evangelistic “wunderkind.” It is because the congregation has accepted, and promotes, the New Testament pattern of congregational responsibility in evangelism and overall congregational health.

Congregations will grow when they ascend lower – when they seek to serve and count others better than themselves, and to lift up Jesus so he can draw people to himself. That should be our goal in evangelism.

April 9, a Day of Infamy

Many people remember December 7, 1941 as a “Day of Infamy” from President Roosevelt’s speech to congress declaring war on Japan. Actually, there were a number of “days of infamy” related to World War II, and April 9 rates very high on that list.

As I will be busy this coming Sunday, I wanted to get this post in before something happened and I failed to mention this anniversary. April 9, 2017 will be the 72nd anniversary of the murder of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was sentenced to die by Adolf Hitler because of his links to the many conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler. In many ways, however, he went to the gallows in the Flossenburg concentration camp because of his Christian convictions.

The narrative of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans von Dohnanyi, General Hans Oster, Admiral Walter-Wilhelm Canaris, and many, many others stands as a stark reminder to those today who put their hope, and trust, in a human leader. The relative peace and security of the past couple of decades has numbed us to the reality that evil lurks deep in the hearts of mankind, and all it takes is a little crack in the foundation to allow that evil to escape.

April 9, 1945 was a day of infamy, as were so many other days during that dark time. It is good that we stop and remember those days, and offer a prayer that we never see their likes again.

Requiescat in pace, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It’s Not About Truth – It’s About Fairness – (Bonhoeffer)

It is often suggested that if you really want to know about your church, you need to have an outsider come it and tell you about your church. When we look at something we love, and especially if we are invested in that thing, we will never see it dispassionately.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent almost a year in New York attending Union Theological Seminary. When he returned to Berlin he sent a report to the officials who sent him to America. His report is not a happy read for those who claim American exceptionalism. His praise is effusive for those aspects of American life he appreciates. His criticism is withering for those aspects he finds, well, let us say, less than admirable.

One particular comment I find particularly appropriate for the religious scene in America today is the following:

This characterizes all American thinking, something I observed especially with regard to theology and the church; they do not see the radical claim of truth on the way one structures one’s life. Community is thus based less on truth than on the spirit of fairness. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Report on My Year of Study at Union Theological Seminary in New York, 1930/31” in Barcelona, Berlin, New York 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 10, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, p. 306).

This was written in 1931, long before the “Postmodern” scare of the late 20th – early 21st century. Let that sink in – 1931!

If such was true 85 years ago, how much more true is it today? Matters of theology and church do not depend upon truth – they simply are decided based on “fairness.”

I’ll let you apply that observation – or not – to your own situation. But for me, it is a rather chilling observation and one that, quite frankly, scares me.

That is the problem with inviting guests to evaluate what you hold dear. Sometimes they goad you where you least want to be goaded.

Touché, Dietrich.

The Mysterious Missing Word in Peter

I recently did a concordance search for the Greek word ekklesia, the word that is almost always translated “church” in our English New Testaments. I discovered a rather curious fact. I do not want this little nugget of minutiae to be overblown, but I think it is is fascinating to say the least.

The fact is the Greek word is never used in the writings of Peter. The concept of the church is found throughout 1 Peter, although not quite so obvious in 2 Peter. There are probably a number of reasons Peter never used the word ekklesia. There is no hard and fast law that says if a word exists you have to use it. But – considering the theological mountain we have built upon the little word ekklesia, it is at the very least noteworthy that the word never appears in either letter attributed to Peter.

I’m just thinking out loud here – but could it be possible that because Jesus’s pronouncement in Matthew 16:18 was so directed to Peter that he purposefully refused to use the word? Peter’s view of the church is extraordinarily high – in terms of New Testament ecclesiology his is probably the highest. My guess is his omission of the word ekklesia cannot have been accidental (note the frequency with which Paul uses the word, and it is found also in John’s writings, James, and the letter to the Hebrews). Although I would argue Peter intentionally does not use the word, I have no conclusive evidence as to what that intention might have been.

Once again, I am not trying to build a theology on the absence of a term. I am suggesting, however, that maybe, just maybe, we need to pay attention to what is not said, especially when what is said is so emphatic.

The Measure of Greatness

Kinda, sorta, following up on my thoughts yesterday (all of this got all jumbled up in my mind and so if it seems disjointed, it probably is).

When I think of the truly gigantic people in my life, and when I think of what makes them truly gigantic, a number of qualities come to mind. Most are brilliant – although not a few of them have no formal or higher education. “Brilliant” is relative, and some of the most brilliant people in my life have either never attended college, or have little college education. A number of my heroes are acclaimed theologians and church historians, as that is the field where I have spent most of my life, but I could also share the names of a couple of pilots, a book store owner, a couple of preachers, and a number of Bible school teachers.

But the one quality that all of these individuals share (well, almost all) is one that cannot be bought, studied, or manipulated. It is the quality of humility. What strikes me about the list of my “great cloud of witnesses” is the fact that almost to a person, they would be embarrassed to be included on such a list.

I can illustrate this best by highlighting those who would be considered by a majority of people as being at the top of their respective fields. These are men who are scholars among scholars. The list of books and articles in peer-reviewed journals they have published is astounding. They command respect from their peers, and even (if not especially) from those who disagree with them. You can disrespect a pusillanimous little poseur, but when a scholar is singled out by an opponent as having an argument that seriously challenges his view and must then be addressed, you know the aforementioned scholar is worthy of his stripes.

I have studied under a number of these scholar/saints, and beyond the information and training they provided, they demonstrated a grasp of humility that defies description. They chose their words from an infinite vault of silence – the silence that comes from the mastery of a subject and the wisdom to know how much of that mastery to share at any given time. Their measured sentences revealed not only the breadth and depth of their study, but also the realization that what they did not know was just as broad and just as deep. To hear such a scholar admit, “I do not know” was perhaps as provocative as hearing him expound on a subject of which he was well versed. You do not just learn from such individuals, as much as you absorb from them.

Conversely, I have been in the presence of intellectual Lilliputians; small-minded, yappy little urchins whose self-worth was measured entirely by the volume of verbal effluvia he could spew. It is for good reason that it is said “quiet waters run deep” while babbling little brooks are shallow and quickly disappear in the heat of summer.

I would much rather spend 10 minutes in the presence of a scholar who can admit error or ignorance, as to spend a day in the presence of someone who proclaims to know everything about everything. I would much rather sit in the presence of a person who remains silent and yet teaches the wisdom of the ages, as to have to bear the presence of a person who cannot shut up yet says nothing.

Some ask, “How do you want to be remembered.” Perhaps no finer words could be spoken of a preacher than, “He was wise enough to know when to teach through words, and when to remain silent.”

I pray for such wisdom!

Can We Admit We Are Wrong?

Pardon me if the next post or two seem to be vaguely connected, yet seemingly confused. Working through some things here “on the fly,” but hopefully something will make sense.

I am struck by a strange contradiction between our words and our actions. We (and I include myself here, but am speaking generically) praise humility and our ability to admit error and failure. And yet, on a very basic level we never do so. We are always, without exception, 100% correct on every single issue 100% of the time. This, amazingly enough, even though another person claims to be 100% correct, and his opinion (or facts) are diametrically opposed to ours. It is a mathematical miracle. Two completely opposite “truths” which are both correct, even though both completely reject the other. (confused yet?)

I shall start (in good prophetic style) by pointing out the error of someone I disagree with, and then (much more quickly than Amos did) step on my own toes. It is a common belief – nay, mandatory conviction – among most “evangelical” Christians that those who have been redeemed by Christ have been saved “by grace alone through faith alone.” The problem with this conviction is that it is only half true. The apostle Paul himself wrote that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8). However, the word “alone” simply does not exist in the text. It is an invention of Martin Luther as a hedge against his Roman Catholic opponents. Yet, try to get a good Lutheran (or Reformed) pastor to admit that simple truth. You may get them to admit the word is not present, but you will never get them to admit the concept is also not present. To believe we are saved by grace through faith is to believe Scripture. Add the word “alone” to either concept and you have fundamentally changed the meaning of the text.

Now, for my own toes. How many times have members of the Churches of Christ said that “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” And yet, and yet…

How many times have you also heard that someone who is divorced for a reason other than adultery is “still married in God’s eyes”? How many times have you heard that God created the world in “six 24 hour periods”? How many times have you heard the world is a mere “6,000 years old”? How many times have you heard that if you consume one “drop” of an alcoholic beverage, you are “one drop drunk”? Now, I do not want to aver that any of those statements is wrong on a propositional level. Each may be 100% true. What I DO want to point out is that NONE of the above statements can be found in Scripture. ALL of them are inferences, or deductions, from statements made in Scripture. Thus we SAY we are only going to speak in words mandated by Scripture, and then we build entire theologies and moral structures on ideas that are NOT in Scripture.

[Self-disclosure: I do believe God created the world in six days (Gen. 1). I do believe divorce is a sin, and that God hates that sin (Malachi 2, Matthew 5, 19, 1 Cor. 7). I do not believe in Darwinistic evolution, and I am most assuredly not promoting the practice of social drinking. I merely pointed these statements out because they appear to me to be some of the most egregious “speaking where the Bible does not speak” – at least in explicit terminology. This is where I can agree in principle, and yet still disagree with the language, and sometimes the motivations, of some of my brothers and sisters in Christ.]

Suffice it to say that I have been tripped up enough by my own self-righteous prattle to know that ANY deduction made from Scripture needs to be put under a dispassionate microscope. There has only been one person who lived in perfect unity with God the Father, and that was his Son Jesus. There is only one perfect description of the true and unchangeable will of God, and that is the Bible. All other humans, and all the most deeply studied understandings of that Bible are flawed in some degree or another. To deny that fact is the ultimate in human arrogance.

Simply put, no human can ever be 100% correct about every question or be 100% knowledgeable about every single verse of every chapter of every book in the Bible. Even that which we think we know about the text of the Bible must be re-examined in light of more recent discoveries concerning language, geography, and biblical history.

I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting some post-modern “there is no truth” or “truth is all relative” intellectual garbage. I most assuredly believe there is ultimate truth, and to the extent that God desires that we know it, we as humans can know it, and should strive to learn it.

But Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 scares me, and as one who earns his living by speaking (and writing) words, I believe I am bound to a very precious calling, and I do not take that calling lightly.

Theology Matters

In my last post I made what some might consider a rather harsh statement: that certain books that speak of a god and spirituality are not worth the paper they are written on. A kind reader asked why I should think thus. It was a fair question and a good one. I felt a brief answer was not enough, so here, in an extended response, are my thoughts as to why I have such visceral responses to theological pablum.

In a phrase: theology matters. Good theology, healthy theology, sound theology – all of these are critical for a sound, healthy, spiritual life. If you eat healthy food chances are you will remain healthy. Eat garbage every day, all day long, and sooner or later you will get sick or die. My issue with certain books that are huge best sellers but contain only theological junk is that their very popularity masks their emptiness. Everybody loves Twinkies (and so do I!), but Twinkies are not health food. In the United States we have been inundated with such products lately, from Heaven is for Real and God is Not Dead and most recently, The Shack. Bad theology is not a recent invention, however, as Joseph Smith (no relation, as far as I know) duped millions with his work of theological fiction, The Book of Mormon.

Since that latest buzz focuses on The Shack I will make a few comments here specifically related to that book, but the fundamental flaws of that book are common to many, if not all, of the recent attempts at popular theology.

First, The Shack purports to be a parable, that is, a picture to describe an attribute (or attributes) of God that are not otherwise seen. The problem is the author does not know the difference between a parable and a caricature. The Shack is NOT a parable – it is a caricature in which one aspect of God’s being is so grossly distorted as to make it a farce. When Jesus told a parable about God’s forgiveness or mercy, it was just that – a parable. God remained a God of justice, a God who will make things right through the punishment of sin.

The god of The Shack has done away with punishment of sin. The god of The Shack is all about everyone going to heaven. Like a grandmother who loves all her grandchildren and refuses to punish any, the god of The Shack is basically unable to confront, and is utterly powerless to overcome, evil. Just think of the basic premise – why would any god not punish the killer of a small child (the whole background story of “the shack,” the place where the little girl was murdered)?

The character that represents Jesus in The Shack says that he is the best way to get to this god, but the Jesus of the gospels is the ONLY way to the real God. If you live in the universe of The Shack, it matters not if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or even a basically moral atheist. All roads lead to “papa,” although if you are willing to accept the Jesus figure you might get to “her” sooner.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I say (as so many have said in so many different venues) “If reading The Shack brings you closer to God, then good for you, and good for The Shack.” Very simply, if you think you have come closer to god through The Shack, you have only come closer to a god of your own making – a false god, an idol. It is not the God of Mt. Sinai, nor of the manger in Bethlehem, and absolutely not the God of calvary.

As evidence, I share two stories from the Old Testament: Exodus 32:1-6 and 1 Kings 12:25-33. In both stories images of calves are formed for the purpose of worshiping God. You have to understand this – the images were used in the worship of YHWH. The context makes this clear. And in both stories the principle architects of the images (Aaron and Jeroboam) are soundly punished for their creation of these “guides to worship.”

Why did God not say, “Well, if the calves bring you closer to me, good on you and good on the calves”? Why punish Aaron, Jeroboam, and all the people who worshiped the calves, especially since they were ostensibly worshiping God? The reason is the calves were NOT God, and by pointing away from the true God, the calves were objects of spiritual sickness. They were symbols of rebellion – of rejecting the one true God.

Why do I object to theological fictions such as The Shack, God is Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real? Because at their core they are golden calves. The authors (and the millions of people who are mesmerized by them) may have good intentions, but their theology is base, it is corrupt, and it is corrupting.

If a person thinks that he or she is coming closer to God by reading any of these books (or seeing the movies), what happens when he or she reads of the true God in Scripture? What happens when the person reads that God hates sin, that God is a just judge, and will punish those who rebel against him, and especially those who kill little girls? What happens when the person discovers that God hates charlatans and those who seek to build wealth and fame from peddling false ideas about Him and his creation? At that point the person will either have to reject the comfortable, impotent, beggarly god of these works of fiction, or he or she will have to reject the God of Scripture. The two are not inches apart – they are light years apart.

There are great works of fictional literature which point to the God of Scripture. C.S. Lewis comes immediately to mind. I am not against fictional works that praise and glorify God. I would not even object to a caricature of God if the work is clearly identified as such (George Burns in O God comes to mind – no one thought THAT was serious theology, but the story did have a good point).

In some ways I hate to be so negative. I would be much more popular if I preached what these books claim to say about God. I just have one problem in doing so.

It’s not good theology – and theology matters.