Quit Crying – It’s Our Fault!

Yesterday’s daily Bible reading made me a little queasy:

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. (Obadiah 15)

Our God is a crafty one, he is. He figures out the absolute worst punishment for every infraction: he lets the criminal decide his punishment by virtue of the crime.

In the United States the two most vocal groups are (1) those who believe that all is lost, that our culture is minutes, if not seconds, away from annihilation, and (2) those who believe that we have not moved far enough, that we need to keep pushing to free it from any semblance of a Christian heritage.

I think God has listened to both, and taking both into consideration, has allowed our culture to become exactly what it is – and is becoming. Just consider:

  • We have pushed the idea of individualism to the point that there can be no collective, no “union” at all. We are radical individualists, and that is just a grenade toss away from anarchy.
  • We have obliterated the distinction between the genders, or sexes, depending on which word you prefer. No longer is there “male” and “female” but only one’s chosen preference, how one “identifies” at the moment.
  • We have spent billions, that’s billions with a “b,” on the “war on poverty” and all we have to show for it is a permanent underclass that depends entirely upon the government for its existence. When you can make more money (in cash and benefits) from doing nothing than in working an entry level job, why work? We now have multiple generations mired in this web of laziness and entitlement.
  • We have spent even more on the “war on terrorism.” How’s that “hopey, changey” thing working for you? I kind of miss getting on an airplane without getting undressed in front of hundreds of my fellow would-be terrorists.
  • In the church we have focused almost entirely upon generic evangelism to the virtual elimination of the concept of discipleship. Oh, we are baptizing large numbers of people – people who have no issue with abortion, with gambling, with greed, with a government that starts wars with reckless abandon, with a malignant form of capitalism that is destroying our environment as well as our family structures, and with a doctrine that begins with the phrase, “I think . . .”

So – what do we have to show for all these achievements? We have athletes, teachers, and other public figures who are censured, and sometimes lose their jobs, because they say something that “offends” another person. We have a permanent underclass that increasingly makes demands that will soon be impossible to meet. We have a culture that is so confused about gender that we are even arguing about the definition of “mother” and “father.” And, we have a weak, beggarly church membership that views the church as a social club and not a collection of individuals following a crucified messiah in absolute discipleship.

In other words, God looked down on us and said, “Okie fine, if that’s the way you want it – that is the way it will be. I’ll be here when you figure out that your nest is too foul to live in, but until then, don’t come crying to me.”

Do you realize that God told Jeremiah 3 times to stop praying for the Israelites! God told a prophet 3 times to just stop it, DON’T PRAY FOR THESE PEOPLE. (7:16, 11:14, 14:11)

I wonder what he would say today?

I, for one, do not believe our culture is so far gone as to be unredeemable. However, I also stand firmly in the footsteps of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and dare I mention his name, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who all preached without fear or favor that the only way this generation will be saved is through the mighty power of a holy God, and through the working of his Holy Spirit.

We are not going to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ve drank from that poison long enough. It’s time to pray for a revival – a holy revival – where we all start by getting down on our knees and confessing:

“Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

Maybe then God can start to clean up the mess we have made of ourselves.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Study IS Ministry

I wrote a much longer version of this topic over the weekend, and just decided the post was too long and complicated. So, here is the abridged version. Still might be too long . . . but, oh well.

As a result of a questionnaire I completed recently I had somewhat of an epiphany – a light bulb over my head kind of moment. Although I was aware of the truth of this thought for some time, I don’t think I had ever really put it into words, or as few words, as I was able to do. To cut to the chase, here is my epiphany:

Study is ministry.

I have found that many congregations have a dualistic view of the role of a minister. Either he is a vitally involved, active minister, tending to every aspect of congregational life, or he barricades himself in his office, only poking his head out of his shell long enough to teach a class or preach a sermon. Either a minister or a bookworm. Either a do-er or a be-er. Either an extrovert or an introvert.

Such a dualistic view is not only wrong – it is actually dangerous – dangerous for the church that thinks it, and dangerous for the minister who is forced into accepting one extreme or the other. Congregations must learn that study (serious, quiet, involved, and undisturbed study) is critical to any healthy ministry. In fact, study is in itself, a minister’s ministry.

I offer three arguments, although others could be suggested as well:

  1.  Quality classes and sermons do not just happen. A man with 25-30 years of study and experience may be able to open his Bible and preach a full sermon extemporaneously. I would suggest that most who try, however, end up offering a collection of opinions, worn out cliches, and more than a few sentimental remembrances. Just as you can go to any McDonalds or Burger King and eat a meal in 10 or 15 minutes, you can pull an outline from a file or glance at a book and whip up something to occupy 35-40 minutes of dead time. But a quality, challenging, and most important, biblically sound class or sermon takes time – lots of time. The time a minister spends in study is critical, solid ministry. It is ministry in the word.
  2. Bad theology will eventually destroy a congregation. How do strong, seemingly invincible congregations come to wither away and die? Many reasons can be given, but high on the list has to be anemic preaching. Anemic preaching is the result of anemic study. Either a preacher thinks it is beneath his dignity to have to study for a sermon, or the congregation he serves thinks it is more important for him to be seen at every civic and social event of the community. There are only so many hours of useful work in a day. Every hour spent glad-handing and being “visible” to the community is an hour that cannot be recovered in the study. I am not arguing that having a visible presence in the community is not important – it clearly is! What I am arguing, however, is that there has to be a priority assigned to either being a minister of the Word or a public relations specialist. Being popular in the community does not translate into being faithful to God’s word. Know this for sure – when a crisis hits, a family will much prefer a minister who has solid, concrete words of comfort as opposed to a “busy” but otherwise empty-headed populist.
  3. Theology really does matter. Why gather together to listen to a speech that really has no meaning? Why spend the time in assembly if that assembly has no purpose? The very reason that a minister is hired should point to the priority of his time and effort. And, yet, strangely it does not! We do not gather on Sunday mornings to hear a report on the monthly Kiwanis club meeting, or to learn what is happening with the Rotary club. We do not assemble to listen to a re-play of the last football game, or to hear a critique of the community dinner theatre.  We gather to worship, and a major component of that worship is to be taught, to be strengthened, to be edified, and occasionally to be disciplined by the reading and explication of Scripture. The time that a minister devotes to his study is healthy ministry for the congregation. It is his ministry to the congregation. And, most important, it is his ministry to his God who has blessed him and equipped him for the role he must fulfill.

Please do not read this post to be a defense of a minister who never visits, who cannot be bothered to call on the members of the congregation as needed, who feels it is beneath is exalted station to get out and pull weeds or mow the lawn of a needy member. I am not excusing laziness or an irrational withdrawal from the community or the activities of the congregation. The office-turtle is no more sound and healthy than is the community gad-about. The point of this post is simple: the study that is demanded of a minister IS his ministry, and if he fails in that over-arching ministry it simply does not matter how personable or popular he becomes.

Success is not demanded of any member of the church, but faithfulness most certainly is. And if that is true of each member, it is exponentially more important for the minister.

Blessed is the minister whose congregation honors and protects his study!

The Vibrant, Healthy, Living, Conquering, Transformational Church

Past couple of posts have pointed out what causes congregations to die. Now, time to turn the tables. How can a congregation overcome the problems that are proving to be so fatal to so many? In a word, the congregation that wants to grow, to become vibrant, to conquer and to overcome, must be a transformational church.

A wise man once warned that if you marry the philosophy of the day you will soon be a widow. Church leaders that rush to make their message compatible with the prevailing worldview will soon realize that they have to change their message about as frequently as they change their underwear. Put a little bit more “homey,” a wise old preacher once said, “never try to fiddle folks into the church, because when you quit fiddlin’ they are just going to go find another fiddler.” Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to many conservative congregations during the 40’s and 50’s of the last century. The country was basically conservative, the world was reeling from two disastrous world wars, and the idea of many churches was to present a message that fit that conservative time.

Today the country has changed. Conservatism has a bad name, the buzzword today is “tolerance,” and the last thing anyone wants to be identified with is a narrow, legalistic, authoritarian, or exclusive message. So, modern “worship” services basically duplicate modern music concerts: the lyrics of the songs might be different, but the atmosphere is the same. Ditto for “egalitarian” worship leaders. To be “hip” with the modern scene you need plenty of women up on the stage. A practicing gay or lesbian worship leader will score you extra points with the “open and affirming” crowd. And whatever you did last week must be exceeded this week or the crowd will find a more exciting venue next week. The pressure of performing for these congregations must be unbelievable.

Well, I hate to rain on the postmodern parade, but God’s message is narrow, it is clearly presented in terms of covenant law, God is the ultimate authoritarian, and the message of the cross is entirely exclusive. You either accept it or you do not. There is no gray, “uncommitted” choice.

So, how does a church speak to such a world without becoming a part of that world? Answer: By transforming both itself and the culture in which is is found.

I spoke of at least three issues that are plaguing the church. Notice how a transformational church addresses these issues:

  1.  Narcissism. A transformational church conquers narcissism by promoting the universal submission that is one of the hallmarks of Christian unity (Eph. 5:21ff). If I submit to you, and you submit to me, what is left of our mutual narcissism? It disappears! I look to what builds you up, you look to what builds me up. We all, as equals in God’s sight, seek the building up of the church. I surrender my rights for you, you surrender your rights for me. “Rights” disappear – mutual submission arises to take its place. Narcissism is transformed into mutual love and edification. The church wins.
  2. Anti-authority. A transformational church does not seek to eliminate authority (which, in no way can be done regardless of the suggestion otherwise). However, in a transformational church authority is recast to be in the image of God’s authority. Notice how both Paul and Peter spoke to the ruling elders of their respective congregations (Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Notice the imagery – shepherd, care, nurture, protect, lead. The New Testament never shrinks from authoritarian language – but it is always an authority that comes from humble service. It is transformational authority. When leaders lead through service, who would not want to be in their flock? The church wins.
  3. Cowardice. I did not previously use that specific word, but it is there. Church leaders have been afflicted with a wretched case of cowardice over the past 3-4 decades. We are afraid to confront anyone (well, a few are willing to confront, but they do so in a most distasteful manner.) A transformational church on the other hand fears nothing except becoming unfaithful to God’s message. A transformational church intentionally seeks to transform both its members and those with whom it comes into contact. A transformational church is by definition a courageous church. It changes lives by confronting both the immediate and the systemic sins which destroy those lives. When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, a culture is transformed. The church wins.

The early church was a transformational church. It did not bend its teachings to fit its culture. The church was born into a world of sexual, economic, militaristic, religious, and philosophical dysfunction. It refused to participate in those dysfunctions, however. In confronting each of those dysfunctions it risked absolute failure. Within the space of just a few centuries, however, those aberrations were largely (although not totally) transformed. No, it was not perfect. The church has never been perfect, nor will it ever be perfect.

However, we have never been asked to be perfect. We have been charged with being faithful to God’s purpose – and that is to be transformational. As we transform ourselves first we begin to witness what can be done in this bent and broken world. One person, one transformation at a time, and God’s kingdom will grow.

A dying church is one that has been conformed to the pressures of this age.

A transformational church conquers the “principalities and powers” of this world and is a victorious church.

So, which church do you want to be a part of?

Why the Church is not Growing (Pt. 2)

Yesterday I wrote about what I think is the number one reason the church is not growing – basically focusing on the role of the preacher/minister, both from a misguided opinion of his role by the church and a misguided (and too often prideful and selfish) opinion of himself. However, the issue of the declining church is far too complex to assign just one cause. I still believe that ministers/preachers carry the majority of the blame, but here are some other issues that must be mentioned:

Narcissism – growing up in the late 20th century I thought my generation was spoiled, but the “Gen X” generation and the  “Millennials” have raised narcissism to a fine art form. I am not the only one to say so – read just about any critique of modern culture and you will read the same thing. Now, before any of you get your dander up and protest that you have a grandson/granddaughter/niece/nephew that is absolutely the salt of the earth, I am not saying every teenager or twenty-something is a narcissist. However, as a class or generation there is no doubt but what those age groups can only be described as narcissistic. We were bad, and we passed on the worst of our selfishness to our children, but we did not need “trigger warnings” in our classrooms before a professor talked about a controversial subject. We did not need, nor did our colleges provide, “safe rooms” where precious little snowflakes could go if they heard something on campus that upset their delicate little psyches. We did not riot for days simply because someone of the opposing political party was elected president.

Narcissism may be bad for education and for the country, but it is simply inconceivable in the church. However, as the world goes, so goes the church, and we can see the results of a narcissistic church all around us. The choice to attend a particular church is no longer based on doctrine or denominational loyalty. Now it is based primarily on worship style, and that has more to do with the style of music than anything. Increasingly another style of worship is gaining popularity, and that is whether or not a woman is highly visible as a speaker/leader. Gender neutrality or blanket acceptance of LGBTQ agendas are co-located with gender egalitarianism. In other words, if I feel it, I want it, and if you are not going to give it to me then I will go where I can find it. Increasingly that means anywhere but the church.

Rejection of Authority – the postmodern philosophy rejects the concept of authority. Authority has inherent within it the concept of power, and to the postmodernist the use of power is the unforgivable sin. There is a deep sense of hypocrisy here, as student bodies and rioting mobs all seek to assert their power over “the establishment,” but consistency of thought went out the door a long time ago. Teachers, professors, police officers, and elected officials in general have all lost the respect they deserve – simply because they represent authority.

It should go without saying that the church is going to suffer here, because the church flows from God, and God is the ultimate power and authority. But, notice how most “church” language has changed. Jesus is no longer “Lord” (meaning Master), he is our “lover” or “friend” or “fellow struggler.” God is a prattling old grandmother who refuses to punish sin (reference The Shack). When was the last time you heard any kind of discussion about “church discipline”? The church is no longer a place of holiness, where right living and right doctrine are pursued and expected, it has become a social club – and a poor one at that. Why go to church when the local sports bar is so much more entertaining?

The inability (or unwillingness) to confront – okay, back to preachers again here. One positive aspect of the younger (Gen. X and Millennial) groups is their willingness to confront evil when they see it (well, except their own corruption, but weren’t we all blind to our own faults?) What they see in the church is an almost universal inability or unwillingness to confront systematic evil. Sure, preachers will rant and rave about drinking, dancing, and rock-and-roll (okay, I’m a little dated here), but they basically ignore systemic issues such as racism, poverty, corporate greed, and an industrial/military complex that has poisoned our environment and threatens to destroy entire cities.

Read Amos some time. Or Micah. Or even Isaiah. Or Jeremiah. You might even want to re-read the words of Jesus. The prophets (and Jesus!) had no problem calling out evil – even if it well all the way to the throne. Twenty-first century preachers have lost their (our, since I am one) voice. We do not preach against a comfortable acceptance of the status quo, if that status quo happens to also be the hand that feeds us.

I could be wrong, but I think that if the younger generations heard a genuinely prophetic voice, one that spoke with clarity and sincerity and honesty, they would respond as the crowds responded to Jesus. Some would reject that voice, some would just be mildly amused – but I think that many would be truly converted.

[By the way, I think this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is so popular among people who read him today. How often do you see a man willing to stand up against an entire political regime based entirely upon his understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ? They may not understand him, and they may not agree with him entirely, but they are certainly fascinated by him!]

I have to confess – I have not been the prophet I often pictured myself being. I too have feet of clay. But I sense that this world needs some Amoses and Micahs and Isaiahs and Jeremiahs. Every survey shows that the church is shrinking. What “we” are doing is simply not working. That means maybe I need to rethink what I have been doing as well.

Maybe it’s because we have been trying to ascend higher, and God wants us to ascend lower. Maybe we need to do things God’s way again.

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.

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.