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.

When Translators Let Us Down

As a result of a recent request, I have been researching the nature of the church. As a beginning point I have been studying the use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. That Greek word is the word virtually always translated “church” in our English translations. How we arrived from ekklesia to church is fascinating, but too complicated to really unpack here. Suffice it to say that our English word “church” derives more from the Greek kuriakon than the Greek word ekklesia. This, then, has some fascinating and ultimately negative repercussions.

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To begin with, the word ekklesia is best translated “assembly” “gathering” “meeting” or perhaps “congregation” although the last word continues to have a religious connotation that was not inherent in the Greek. You can see how ekklesia has a secular, and even legal, meaning through passages such as Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 39, and 41. Here translators do not want to confuse the reader with any “loaded” terminology, so that actually translate ekklesia to be either “congregation” (as in 7:38) or “assembly” in the passages in chapter 19, which is more like a mob or a riot.

The problem is, that in using the word “church” in every other instance in the New Testament, unintended interpretations creep in and the more simple meaning of many passages is obscured. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say we have a member of the Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic, and a totally dispassionate non-believer in the same room. We ask a simple question – “What do you mean when you say the word ‘church'”? I am going to guess (as I am not Roman Catholic), that the Catholic is going to think of the church universal, with all the imperial accoutrements – the Pope as the vicar of Christ, and the attendant Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests, and the formal liturgy of the Mass. On the other hand, my response would be to imagine each individual congregation of which I have been a part – Galisteo and Cordova in Santa Fe, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, Barrow Rd. in Little Rock, etc. That is, I think of individual congregations, and more than likely I picture specific buildings. For the Roman Catholic this would be what he or she pictures when he or she hears the word parish. The non-believer will probably have any one of a dozen different images depending on his or her experience with the church – maybe a Christmas or Easter pageant, a wedding or a funeral, a Bible-thumping preacher that condemned everyone to hell, or an ornate but basically useless building.

However, change the word to “assembly” and those differences are most likely to disappear. Assemblies can only refer to one thing – groups of people. To say, “the assembly of Christ” or “the assembly of God” (note lower case “a”) means a group of people connected in some form or fashion to Christ or to God. “Assembly” does leave room for some theological fine-tuning, but it does get away from buildings and hierarchical leadership structures and open caskets and Easter egg hunts.

I firmly believe that is why, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word ekklesia was chosen by the New Testament authors to describe the people of God. It was already in use through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, (therefore it did have a link with the first covenant people) and it could be differentiated from its closest synonym, synagogue. Synagogue had already acquired a formal, and rigid, meaning in the first century A.D. Ekklesia was essentially a secular term, and therefore the early Christians could use it to communicate what it meant to be the people of God without having to “un-teach” the heavily laden Jewish connotations of the word synagogue.

If we would simply translate the word as “assembly” a host of problems disappear (although perhaps not all, and perhaps others would creep in). Try it. When you see the word “church” read “assembly.” Is the meaning enhanced for you? Are some passages now more clear in meaning? Are some possible misunderstandings removed?

It is for me – but, then, I am kind of weird.

Blessings on your Bible study.

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (II)

In my last post I pointed out how Christians are so enthralled with numbers that we hate to think that God is really concerned with more than numbers. While numbers do represent people, what God is concerned about is a relationship. Deuteronomy 7:7-8 confronts us in our numbers-centric thinking.

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“Upping the ante” somewhat, and shocking us even more, Moses even had the temerity to minimize human accomplishments. If we cannot boast in our numbers, even less are we to boast of our human strength:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth. You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18, ESV)

The specific issue to which Moses was speaking was the temptation for the Israelites to think that it was by their own strength and military power that they had achieved their economic dominance. That is application number one, and one that I believe needs to be addressed in our money-and-image hungry culture. However, today I want to address a more insidious temptation to pride regarding our human power, and that is the temptation for us to think we are building God’s kingdom, God’s church.

We see the results of this thinking in the myriad of ways that our speech betrays us. We speak of evangelistic “campaigns” (originally a military term, now used almost exclusively with politics). We attend “soul winning workshops.” In fact, “winning souls” is virtually synonymous with evangelism today. Ministers are measured by the number of baptisms they perform, or at the very least, are performed in “their” church. Youth ministers record baptisms at summer camps like notches on their biblical six-shooters. “How To Do Evangelism” seminars and books are legion.

The surest way not to draw a crowd is to title a seminar, “How To Grow A Church By Doing Nothing” (Exodus 14:14; see also Exodus 14:25, Deuteronomy 1:30; 3:22; 20:4; Joshua 10:14, 42; 23:3; 2 Chronicles 20:13-17; Nehemiah 4:20; Isaiah 30:15; Acts 2:41 (God did the adding!) Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 3:5-8).

No, in today’s church it is all about me, my power, my ability, my skill, my program or book, my ability to “win souls” and to “close the deal” and to “expand the kingdom of God.” (Brief aside – as if God’s kingdom could be expanded, how in the world do we think that we mortals could do it??)

The passage I quoted above is actually towards the end of a longer section that begins in Deuteronomy 8:11 with the words, “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God” and continues in v. 14, “. . . then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God . . .”

You see, when we try to ascend by climbing higher, when we try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, when we try to convince ourselves that it is by our own strength or power that we achieve any goal, the only way we can convince ourselves that we are successful is by forgetting God.

When we remember the LORD our God by obeying his commandments and by submitting to his will, we WILL become victorious! We will be blessed!

But we can only ascend by descending lower.

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (I)

For the most part Christians love to assert that they love the Bible. We buy Bibles, display Bibles, carry Bibles around so that others will know just how much we love the Bible. Occasionally we even read the Bible, but (because I am kind of a sceptic at heart) I wonder just how much of the Bible we actually read? And, beyond that, how much of the Bible that we read do we actually like?

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I think there are three passages in the Old Testament that we as Christians do not like very much, if we spend much time reading them at all. Today I will mention the first, and will discuss the other two in quick succession.

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8, ESV)

Today there is almost a pathological interest in numbers among Christians. We like to point to Luke, our beloved church historian, for our emphasis on numbers and church growth. But Luke was not using numbers or the rate of church growth as proof that the early Christians were right about their politics or their theology. Luke recorded that when people were confronted about their sin and guilt, the Spirit acted to convert them and they were therefore added to the number of the redeemed.

Today we look at church growth/numbers with one of three responses: (a) “See how big we are! God is certainly blessing us! Come be with us!” (b) “Hey, that church over there is growing and we are not. Let’s do what they are doing so we can grow too!” or (c) “The fact that we are not growing is just proof that we are really the ‘righteous remnant,’ because everyone knows that ‘the way to life is hard and the gate is narrow, and few there are that find it.'”

Moses told the Israelites, “Don’t look at the numbers, whether they are big or small. God promised Abraham to make his descendants innumerable, and they will be. Let God fulfill his promise in his good time. Meanwhile, do not think you are special because you are many or few, but recognize your relationship with God because he loves you” (Okay, I paraphrased just a little.)

It is tempting to boast of our numbers when we are growing, or are the biggest. It is tempting to even boast when we are few in number because we are more spiritual than the masses (more on that in installment #3). Moses, and certainly Jesus many centuries later, forbade the practice of boasting of any size of numbers entirely.

We are who we are by the love of God exclusively. Let us revel in his love, not in our numbers.