Changing Strategies for a Changeless Church

Read no further unless you consider the following texts: Isaiah 1:11, 16-17; Hosea 6:6 (and therefore Matthew 9:13, 12:7); Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; James 1:27.

As is so often the case, I write one post thinking it will be a stand-alone, one-off post, and then all of a sudden I think (or am reminded by someone) of a tangential point, and then a rabbit pops up that needs to be chased, and all of a sudden I’m up to my armpits in blog posts. So, here is the third in an un-planned series that started with me stating unequivocally that the church does not have to change. I am adamant about that point. The core doctrines and practices of the church do not have to change, and in fact, if we do change them, we cease to be the church. I will not give an inch on that belief.

But that got me to thinking about all the ways in which individual congregations are dying, and what little changes they could make in order to reverse some of the decline. So, yesterday I started with the easiest, and most visible, changes that a congregation can consider – those of the physical building in which they meet. I am just astounded by the the fact that so many people are oblivious to the state of their building, and how much that disrepair communicates an unwillingness to change, or an outright statement of indifference.

In all honesty, I have to say that in today’s culture the building probably accounts for only 10-20% of a guest’s opinion of the church – although it is a critical 10 – 20%. That figure varies depending on region of the country and size of the community. In some locations the physical state of the building may rate higher, in some places it might barely matter. Regardless, there is no excuse for a shoddy building. If you are going to meet in one, make it a priority to have that building as visitor friendly as you can possibly make it.

Today I venture into the 80 – 90% of what our culture views as important, and that is the philosophy or philosophies that drive the work of the congregation. It is popular today to say that the “attraction” model of the church is dead – that the only churches that are growing have moved past an “attraction” model to one of involvement or of being “missional” (whatever that means – all I’ve learned is that it is “insider” lingo that if you use it you are cool, and if you don’t use it you are just so 20th century gauche). I have come to believe that thinking is wrong. Every model of church growth is attraction – the difference is how you are doing the attracting. Are you attracting by saying, “Come to our building and join our little band of Christians because we have everything right” or are you saying, “Come join our assembly; we are trying to change both ourselves and our world and we invite you to join us by changing your life and by helping us in our journey.” Both are attractions models, it is just the methodology that has changed.

So, what drives your congregation? If you cannot say off the top of your head, I have one simple test: how big is your bank account, and by looking at the line items of expenditures, where does most of your money go? That, my friends, will identify whether you are tied to your building, or whether you are actually attempting to move outside the walls and impact your community.

I have a couple of “fer real” stories to illustrate my point. In one congregation where my wife and I attended, the elders had a simple strategy regarding their bank account. Every December they looked at how much money was in the congregational bank account, and they looked at their various ministries. Then, based on the nature of the ministry, they divided that money up and sent it off – to preachers, missionaries, community charities – whatever they supported. They started every January with a $0.00 balance in their account. Silly, you say? Irrational, you argue? Reckless, you harrumph? But what about emergencies, what about crises?

The elders were brilliant men, of that I have no doubt. But beyond that they were men of great faith. They did not trust in the church bank account. If there was an emergency – a flood, a tornado, a fire – they knew that the Smith family had a bank account, and the Joneses had a bank account, and widow Brown had a bank account, and so did every other family in the congregation. They knew that on a moments notice those bank accounts would fly open and every need and every crisis would be overcome. They did not worry about what was in the “church” bank account, because (1) they trusted in the power and love of God and (2) they knew and trusted the hearts of their members. There was no question about the vision of the church. It was present each and every Sunday for everyone to witness and to share.

Second, one of our neighbor families could be described as one of the “nones” that everyone is so worried about. They would attend a church, but they were not really looking for correct doctrine or whether the service was done “decently and in order.” They looked at the bulletin to see what the members were up to. They were especially concerned to note whether the church was open about its finances. They wanted to know if the church was active in the community – feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, housing the homeless. Once those questions were met, then they would consider what most of us would consider the more important issues of doctrine and practice.

You see, many congregations are going to have to change their model of attraction. I still believe in the theory of being an attractional church. Jesus said in John 12:32 that, when he was raised up, he would draw all people unto him. I believe that was both prediction and promise. If we raise Christ, HE will draw people to his church. The question is, are we going to attempt to raise Christ up with philosophies that died decades ago – or are we going to get out into the community, roll up our sleeves, and get our fingers dirty?

Years ago many Churches of Christ shied away from community outreach because they believed (erroneously, I might add) that to do so was to participate in the “social gospel.” I believe that fear has to be firmly and finally eradicated from the mindset of many congregations if they are to stem the exodus of young families, and if they are to ever attract non-Christians to their worship services. Stated bluntly, but to borrow an old adage, people today do not care what you believe, unless and until they see you living what you believe. If we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to learn how to live that gospel. I am not saying we have to change our view of the roles of men and women, that we have to turn our worship services into three-ring (or three screen!) circuses, that we have to become “open and affirming” of sinful practices, that we have to change our view of salvation, church leadership, or our worship practices such as the Lord’s Supper. I repeat, the church cannot change certain immutable truths and practices.

But, returning to those texts I listed at the start of this post – can anyone seriously question that community outreach and care for those who cannot care for themselves is not a part of the gospel? That justice and mercy are any less important than baptism and the sanctity of marriage? That false (vain) worship is any less of a sin than homosexuality?

After one of my earlier posts, a good friend suggested that churches need to learn how to church. I know “church” is not a verb, but I like that thought. It’s brilliant, actually, even allowing for the grammatical imprecision. We need to learn how to church – beginning with personal discipleship (blog post #1) and moving through congregational re-alignment and re-dedication to serving their communities with the flesh and blood of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us never surrender an inch of what the church is, and should be. But let us always be alert to ways in which the church can be the body of Christ in the community of which it is a part.

Change – or Die!

Yesterday I was emphatic – apoplectic almost – in denying that the church had to change. What must occur, I said then and I say now, is that individual members must learn what true discipleship means. When the concept of individual discipleship is fully grasped, differences between generations (that is fueling so much of the demands that the church must change) will disappear. There will not be a “builder church” or a “boomer church” or a “Gen X church” or a “millennial church.” There is only one church – Christ’s church, and we don’t get to make the rules. That was yesterday’s post.

Today I want to argue that some congregations must change, or they will die. I am drawing a fine line between a congregation and the one church. What was true for Ephesus might, or might not, have been true for Jerusalem or Rome. What was true for Corinth might or might not have been true for Antioch. Each congregation of the Lord’s people is unique and different, and so each has a life span, and in that life span there are changes and adjustments that need to be made.

What needs to be fully understood is that I am not talking about doctrine – God’s word stands firm and I don’t need to or want to repeat yesterday’s post. We cannot add to or subtract from teaching that is as old as the apostles. Some things never change – and the church does not have permission to re-write holy Scripture.

What I am talking about is the aspects of a congregation that have nothing to do with God’s word. I am talking about meeting places and philosophies that drive a congregation. I am talking about things that might have been true one or even two generations ago, but are simply no longer valid (or, be as important as they once were). Congregations that meet in homes do not share as many of these issues. Congregations that rent space to meet have a few, but not as many. Congregations that own their meeting spaces have most, if not all, of these issues.

Just as a starter – walk around your building (if you rent or own) as if it was the first time you entered the building. Block out all previous experiences. Walk in with the wild eyed wonder of a child. Look with eyes that have not seen before. Get as many member as you can to join you.

How bright is the building? How many unlit or burned out light bulbs are there? How welcoming is the general entrance? Are there signs pointing to rest rooms? Are there signs pointing to the main auditorium? Are there signs pointing to classrooms? Is there someone posted near the front who can answer general questions (maybe not accosting people as they enter, but conveniently close enough to be helpful)? Is the carpet clean? When was the last time it was vacuumed, or deep cleaned? Is it worn or does it need to be re-stretched?

Walk into the auditorium. Does it have pews or chairs? Are the pews so long that no one (and I repeat, not even a long time member) will sit in the middle of the pew? Are the pews so close together that there is no room for diaper bags or walkers or walking canes? Are the pews upholstered or bare? If upholstered, are they clean or do they show the results of far too many communion service boo-boos? Do you still use song books? If so, in what state are they? Are they new and fresh, or “rode hard and put up wet”? Do you have a pulpit? If so, how “separate” and apart from the people does it present the preacher? Is the preacher glued to one microphone or do you have a wireless microphone system? How well does the sound system project? Are there dead spots in the auditorium? If you use an over-head projector, is the screen blocked at any point? Do members sitting on the extreme edges have a clear view of the screen, or is it distorted? How fresh is the projector bulb, or lighting arrangement? Do you have the ability to dim the lights in the auditorium, or is it “all on or all off”?

Walk down a hallway. Are the bulletin boards bright and cheerful, updated frequently? Are class rooms bright and inviting? Are teachers present EARLY enough to greet every student? Is the furniture in each room age appropriate? Do you have available technology for each classroom (TV or video monitors, overhead projectors, etc.) In classrooms for small children, is there enough staff so that a child (or children) are not left with one single adult at any time? Do you have a system so that only a parent (or designated other) can claim a child after class? If doors close and lock, do you have a glass window so parents (and others) can view the room?

Visit the restrooms for both males and females. Are they clean, bright, and fresh? Are there appropriate supplies (toilet paper, soap, paper towels or hand dryers, hand lotion, tissues)? Do you have adequate space for the handicapped? Do you have adequate accommodations for the little ones – step stools or smaller facilities? And, sad to even ask the question, are the facilities clearly marked and do you have a policy clearly stating that the restrooms are for the  gender of biological birth and not some whimsical choice?

What about the outside? Is the parking lot clearly striped? Are there spaces reserved for handicapped? Are there spaces reserved specifically for guests and visitors? Do you have members outside to meet and greet visitors? If you have a lawn and landscaping, is it cared for weekly? Is there signage directing guests to the main entrance? Is there adequate assistance for those in wheelchairs, walkers, or with small children? If there is a playground for children, is it monitored? Is there a place for the littlest ones to play free from harassment from the older ones? Do you have a video surveillance system? If so, is that fact clearly identified? If your meeting space is in an area that is prone to theft, do you have regular patrols protecting the vehicles of your members and guests?

I could probably go on, but I think you get the idea. Every single one of these questions will be answered by your guests. Your members may not even notice, and that’s the rub. When most members of a congregation walk into the building they don’t even see those things. They see weddings, and funerals, and special VBS days, and they see the faces of the saints that used to sit on the left hand side five pews back. A visiter will notice if he or she has to ask for directions to the restroom, if there is no toilet paper in the stall they use, if the carpet is dirty, ripped, or worn, if they have to sit on a cramped, bare pew, if it is so dark they cannot read their Bible, if they cannot hear the preacher, if they have to wait past the start of class time for their child’s teacher to show up, if their song book does not have the page the song leader calls out. Visitors will notice – and judge. And, rightfully so! Nothing says “We do not care about growing, in fact, we would rather die” more than a building that is a poster child for neglect and carelessness.

Most buildings were built during the age, or at the very least, with the philosophy of “build it and they will come.” That theory no longer holds true. The outreach of a congregation now is more important than the building (next blog post!), but at some point a guest is going to want to visit the worship assembly of the congregation. What I wanted to point out in this post is that, except in very rare cases where there is a member (or a group of members) who are really sharp about these issues, a congregation can actually communicate that it is NOT interested in outsiders and visitors by the condition of its building. If that is the case, no preacher, no teacher, no new program, no latest and greatest church growth model, will change the guest’s opinion of the congregation.

And, if said congregation is unwilling to change, it will die. It will take time, obviously, but the last one out the door will turn off the lights and they won’t come on again.

For some congregations all that is needed is a wake-up call and a general work day. For others it may mean spending several thousands of dollars refurbishing and re-newing their worship and education space.

The church of Christ cannot change – but look at your meeting place carefully. Your congregation might have to!

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

A House With No Foundation

I am simultaneously amazed and saddened as I observe what seems to be an inexorable decline in civility and in productivity in both the American political system and in the American church. Although I am not a specialist in either field, I do have my own observations, and for the most part what I see happening in the secular world is being duplicated in the church. I’ve tried to put words to my thoughts, and although the following is preliminary, I sincerely believe my observations to be valid.

In summary, what I see happening is that in both our secular world and in the church we have ceased to be thoughtful and creative, and instead have become perpetually reactive. We do not respond to any issue with reason and deliberation. We view every movement as a threat to our existence and react in both fear and anger. Our response then prompts an equal, or perhaps even exaggerated response from our opponents, and the cycle not only continues, but descends into further chaos.

Part of this condition revolves around our technology. Not only do we have the ability to see and hear everything that occurs the instant it happens, but we also have the ability to comment just as quickly. There was a blessing in only being able to see the nightly news at 6 and 10, and having to wait for the morning paper. There is no buffer time now. It is instant see, instant hear, instant react. We have ceased to be a rational people – reason is quickly becoming extinct.

This development has deeply infected the church as well. A sermon or quote is posted on-line, and within minutes, not even hours, the reaction becomes “viral.” We do not pause to digest lessons or messages – we simply regurgitate what we agree with (or more likely, the musings of the one with whom we agree) or we counter-attack with vitriol. In one of the greatest, and most damning, ironies of our time, we quote Acts 17:11 with the zeal of an evangelist and at the same time we crucify anyone who dares to make us think.

During what had to be one of his most emotionally draining times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, and preached, and argued with both the German church and the world-wide ecumenical movement that before anything could be done about the deteriorating political situation in Germany, a firm theological foundation had to be built that could withstand what he knew would be a furious Nazi response. In his usual clear and precise thought, he knew the church had to make up its mind whether it was going to be the church or the handmaid of any and every political regime. He resisted making meaningless declarations and mere postulations. He knew that if a conference only resulted in some formal resolution, the conscience of the attendees would be salved but the underlying issues would not be solved, or sometimes barely even addressed.

I fear that so much activity that I see in the church today can only be described as “a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that does not exist.” We are wasting valuable time and energy, tilting at every windmill that we see, imagining that they are fire-breathing dragons. What was gallant for Don Quixote is a fools errand for the church. We must do better.

A house with no foundation cannot stand. It will eventually crumble, no matter how impressive it might appear from the outside. If we are to continue to exist as a church we are going to have to stop chasing phantoms and start laying a solid, biblical and theological foundation on which to build a house that cannot be shaken.

Our ultimate foundation, of course, is Jesus the Messiah. I am not suggesting we can lay another, or a better, foundation than that which is already given to us. I am saying, as clearly as I can, that Jesus speaks to this world, this culture, as clearly as he spoke to Jerusalem in the first century. If we do not firmly establish his life and teaching as both the primary and the ultimate meaning for our generation, then the house that we call the “church” will crumble.

Brothers and sisters, let us cease and desist from this mindless and meaningless habit of reacting with knee-jerk responses and shallow epithets. The world has enough of that. What the world does not see are people who are deeply rooted, firmly anchored in both thoughts and actions that are healthy and restorative. We must be that people, or we have no right to tell the world that it is sick.

For my part, I am trying to identify and root out this reactionary tendency in my own life. Looking back I see it only too clearly – and I also see where that tendency has left so much of my work inconsequential. You must know that I am attempting to confront the man in the mirror first before addressing anyone else. I make no claim to perfection here, only what I believe to be an increasing clarity of vision. I pray I am right, and surrender these words to him who judges righteously.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

GOAT Debates, Stupidity, and a Theological Connection

A few posts back I pointed out that I rarely write on purely political issues. I never write on sports related topics, because this is a blog on issues related to theology, and also because so few people share my brilliance in sports conversations that it would be embarrassing if I did so (joke!). Alas, most rules are made to be broken, and I find myself beside myself with frustration approaching apocalyptic proportions, so I figured I had better get this post out of my system.

As I write this the NBA finals are in progress, and so is a debate regarding who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the history of the National Basketball Association. During football season the same debate occurs, so it is not a malady that is restricted to the NBA. I find these debates inane, insane, vacuous, foolish, asinine, absurd, frivolous, fatuous – my thesaurus fails me. They are ridiculous. I make that conclusion based on three indisputable facts: (1) the overwhelming majority of those engaged in such debates are barely out of their second decade of life. Their “all time” basically amounts to what has occurred since the early 2000’s. (2) The players they think are the GOAT are playing now – duh. It is just “Chronological Snobbery” on steroids. It if is today it has to be the GOAT, there is no yesterday in these yokel’s life. That leads me to (3), these mouthpieces and their loyal minions have absolutely no sense of sports history – or of history at all, for that matter. Here is where the entire conversation breaks down because of its utter, complete, and total, absurdity, vapidity, and idiocy.

Consider the debate in the NBA – the two names most frequently put forward are Michael Jordan and LeBron James, two made-for-TV stars who have piled up almost as many fans as they have millions of dollars. No Kareem Abdul Jabbar, no Bill Russell, no Larry Bird, no Magic Johnson, no Wilt Chamberlain no “Dr. J” Julius Erving, no “Pistol Pete” Maravich. The debate is so bogus as to be – well, see the adjectives above. The points of contention between the contestants are usually points scored, games won, championships won, and some other more esoteric stats. But, just for a history lesson for those of you who are uninitiated, let us consider how the game of basketball has changed:

  • Before 1954 there was no shot clock.
  • Before 1951 the free-throw lane was 6 feet wide. In ’51 it was widened to 12 feet, and then in 1964 it was widened again to 16 feet because of the dominance of Wilt Chamberlain.
  • In 1978 the officiating crews were increased from 2 to 3 officials. The number was then reduced back to two, and a few years later increased back to three.
  • In 1979 the three point line was introduced. It’s furthest point has varied between 23 feet 9 inches and 22 feet (the furthest it can realistically be placed in the corners of the court).
  • Before 2001 defenses had to play man-to-man defense, and a variety of rules regulated illegal defenses. In 2001 those restrictions were completely eliminated.
  • For some fascinating reading, check out double u double u double u dot NBA dot come slash analysis slash rules underscore history dot html.

The point is, a player in 1979 was awarded three points for the exact same shot he would have been awarded two points for just a few months earlier. Jordan and James are both the beneficiaries of a wide-open, perimeter game that did not exist prior to the three-point line being introduced. Players prior to 1954 were schooled in the “get ahead and ice the game” theory of winning games – after 1954 the pace of the game has increased, and with it the opportunities to score greater and greater number of points. The number of referees clearly has an impact on the game – those who played with two refs played a different game than those who have played with three refs. In terms of rule changes, eliminating the “illegal defense” penalty was huge. Once again – to compare offensive statistics today to those of decades past is to compare apples to oranges.  And, for my coup de grace, one single player was responsible for adding four feet to the width of the free throw lane – the afore mentioned Wilt Chamberlain.

Michael Jordan did not change the game. There will never be a “LeBron James” rule – well, except that players favored by the NBA/ESPN will never be officiated equally with the hoi poloi, the common masses. Wilt Chamberlain changed the game. “Dr. J.” Julius Erving changed the game with his unequaled athleticism. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson changed the game in a way that has had a profound impact for Jordan and James – moving the game from the post to the perimeter. All of this is lost in all the chatter about points and championships and blather, blather, blather.

Space does not allow an equal examination of the NFL, but let us just consider a couple of questions: do you honestly think Tom Brady or Drew Brees would have the kind of numbers they have if they had to play with the same rules that governed the game when Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach played? Or just reverse the question – what kind of numbers could Staubach or Tarkenton or Terry Bradshaw or Kenny Stabler have produced if they had played with the same kind of receiver friendly, “don’t touch the quarterback” kind of rules that benefit today’s tutu wearing prima-donnas?  I rest my case before I am thrown out of court for my obvious contempt for that very same court.

Before I get too far astray with sports, let me ask, is there a connection to theology here? Yes, and I’m glad I asked. The same incomprehensible lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, matters of church history is plaguing the church today. It it was said, or written, before, say, 1980 (just to be generous) whatever was said or written is bunk, garbage, worthless. I received my D.Min. in 2015, and the method of church growth that was the front burner issue for my classmates is now considered to be passé. The great theologians of the church are not just ignored, they are openly scoffed at – oh, the humanity!

My point, so brilliantly illustrated (by the facts themselves, not by me) by the GOAT debates in the NBA and NFL, is that without a firm knowledge of, and even a love for, our history, we make some of the dumbest, stupidest, most vacuous and ridiculous statements. We live in the present – to be sure there is no going back – but our present was created by the past. To argue in sports who is the greatest of one generation – that has some merit, as long as the rules of the game are the same and each “contestant” has had the same limitations/benefits as the others. So, to argue whether Jordan was better than James is a legitimate debate as is if Brady is better than Brees or Rodgers. But to argue who is the greatest of all time? Oy. Beam me up Scotty, there is no intelligent life on this planet.

In the church, we cannot return to a glorious “golden decade” or century or whatever, because one never existed in the first place. We do not have to fight the same battles our forefathers (and mothers) fought, nor could they have imagined the battles we must fight. If we try to keep fighting battles that were done and over with decades (or centuries) ago, we are only wasting our time. If we do not address the issues facing the church to day – well, who will?

We learn from our past in order to be better equipped to fight our battles today. We should not worship our past heroes, but let us never forget them, either. Let us love and cherish our history for one very important reason if for no other:

If we know our history, at least we will not be stupid enough to waste our time with debates about the GOAT.

Sports rant over, hopefully for ever. We now return this blog to its original intended purpose.

“Contextualizing,” “Syncretism,” and Whetting Jehoiakim’s Knife

A couple of posts back I opined that one of the church’s modern sins is the process by which the message of the cross is made culturally palatable through the process of “contextualization.” I was mildly chastised for making that suggestion, and for rebuttal purposes the passage in C0lossians 4:5-6 was referred to as evidence that I was wrong. I believe my challenger to be mistaken either about the point of my post, or the context of Col. 4:5-6 (and most likely both), but I suppose the question does give me the opportunity to explain more completely what I mean by “contextualization.” Here goes:

  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we blunt the force of passages relating to male and female, and especially those relating to the sins of homoeroticism, so that the LGBTQ promoters and defenders can feel affirmed and accepted in our churches.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we remove any mention of separate roles for male and female in our congregations, so that anyone and everyone can decide on their own what sex they prefer on any given day, and what role they decide they can perform within the Lord’s church.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we, especially within the Churches of Christ, should abandon centuries of understanding of what worship is, because the world does not understand what congregational, acapella worship is all about.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we strip our meeting places and meeting times of any outward appearance of “religious” symbolism, and that we employ “praise bands,” “praise teams,” “liturgical dance teams” and any other number of entertainment features so that the world can see that the church is really no different than it is. This is the guiding “north star” concept for the Bill Hybels’ (Willow Creek) “Seeker Sensitive” pablum that I was forced to swill during my graduate studies.
  • “Contextualization” is simply a reincarnation of the millennial-years-old concept of syncretism: you take one main philosophy or teaching, and then add to and subtract from that root teaching until what you finally end up with does not resemble either the parent philosophy nor any of the other teachings that were pillaged. Aaron could have claimed contextualization when he created the golden calf in Exodus 32 – ostensibly the calf was made to represent Yahweh to the people, but Moses appropriately identified it as idolatry. Jeroboam could have claimed contextualization when he made the golden calves to worship at Dan and Bethel – both places were shrines to Yahweh, at least in the sense that the shrines were for the worship of the “gods who led you out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:25ff) Never-the-less, God called it idolatry. Jehoiakim could have claimed contextualization when he burned Jeremiah’s scroll – it simply had no meaning for his world-view. God proved Jehoiakim wrong.

At one time the word “contextualization” might have had a positive connotation, such as speaking to scientists in language scientists can understand, and to creative minds in ways that creative minds can understand. But at least for me, it no longer can have that meaning. At one time the word might have been used in the sense of Colossians 4:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but no longer. Now the word is simply a subterfuge – it is used as an excuse to contradict, or to even excise completely, passages of Scripture that make certain elements of our culture feel uncomfortable. Don’t like passages condemning homosexuality? No problem, just make those passages refer to rape or, even more creatively, social injustice. Don’t like passages referring to the differences between male and female (and the fact that God created us to be one or the other, and that there are unmistakable anatomical and psychological differences)? No problem – just excise those passages as being written in a “pre-scientific” historical context. Don’t like those embarrassing stories in the Old Testament? No problem – simply “unhitch” your Christianity from the Old Testament. Don’t like the fact that our worship services have a specific reason for the “liturgy” that is associated with them? No problem – just remove the crosses and the emblems of the Lord’s Supper and add a bunch of rock music, dance teams, and smoke machines, and tell the world that the cross and the Lord’s Supper are really not that important after all.

You might surmise that I am just a little hot under the collar here, and I am. I do not appreciate seeing the church that Jesus died for being diluted into meaninglessness through a process that is being promoted as the best way to save it. The gospel of Jesus is not that everyone is okay, and that we just need to sing our worship songs set to deafening rock music. The gospel of Jesus is not that we can choose our sex – or our sexual partners – in any way that we see fit on any given day. The gospel of Jesus is not that we as humans can think our way out of the pit of hell that we have created for ourselves.

The gospel of Jesus is abhorrent to a culture that rejects the very idea of an all powerful, and all righteous, God. And no amount of “contextualization” is ever going to change that fact. But the gospel of Jesus is also a very beautiful thing to individuals in that culture who have come to accept that the feast the world has set before them is nothing but poison and death. The gospel of Jesus is life, and purity, and holiness – but it can only be preached as such if it is recognized that this world is a horribly bent and broken place.

May God save his church from its friends!

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.