You’re Going to Fail – Preach Anyway

I awoke this morning to a splendid question from an old friend, the crux of which was the latter part of 1 Peter 2:8, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” My friend was having difficulty with the word translated “destined.” Neither he nor I ascribe to the Augustinian/Calvinistic school of predestination, and he was justifiably perplexed. This is a text that, if one so desired, one could make a mountain out of a mole hill and reach for predestination. Anyway, I’m not sure if I answered his question in a helpful way, but it got me to thinking about the subject. Then, almost as if it had been preordained (pun intended), I read John 8:47 in my daily Bible reading schedule, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

Let me say at this point that I am absolutely convinced of the truth of biblical predestination – one would have to be a ninny to read Romans 5-9 among other passages and not accept the idea of predestination – and my mama did not raise no ninny. But there is a catch – and it is a big one. The Bible nowhere speaks of individual predestination in the manner in which Calvin (in particular) built his theology. The context in Romans 5-9 is always plural – it is a group of people who are predestined – the church! The Bible only speaks of an individual being “predestined” in the rarest of cases – I can think of Pharaoh on the one hand and Cyrus on the other. That God chose or appointed or anointed other prophets and the apostles has no bearing on the Calvinistic concept of predestination at all – that is comparing apples to oranges.

So – how can Peter so blithely speak about persons being destined to disobey? Because Peter stood in a long line of preachers who were told their work was going to be largely (or sometimes completely) in vain – yet they were told to preach anyway.

Isaiah was told that his message would be largely ignored or rejected. He was told to preach anyway. Jeremiah was told that most of his words would either be ignored or ridiculed. He was told to preach anyway. Ezekiel was told that he was preaching to a church of people whose foreheads were like bronze – he was told to preach anyway. Jesus himself picked up on Isaiah’s words and used them against the Pharisees who were devout in rejecting his preaching (Isaiah 6:9-10, see Matt. 13:14-15; also Acts 28:26-27). Why all the rejection? Why did God keep telling his prophets, and even his own Son, to keep preaching when their words were to be of no avail?

Because God does not want anyone to spend eternity outside of his presence, and even if it means some will reject his word, he still wants every man, woman, and child, to hear his gospel! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9)

Let’s go back to John 8:47. Why did Jesus tell the Pharisees that they could not hear the words of God? Because they did not have God or God’s will in their hearts. It was not that God predestined them to reject his will or his words. They did that on their own. They had rejected God as the King of their lives and in so doing made it impossible for them to hear his word. Who was it that could hear? The poor, the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – in other words, those who realized that they were spiritually destitute. They could hear. They would listen.

A professor explained it to me simply one time – it is perhaps too simple, but it gets the idea across. He drew three pictures on the black-board (yes, it was that long ago!). One was a slab of butter. One was a lump of clay. One was an ice cube. Then he put a great big sun up in the sky. What would happen to each of the three materials? The butter would melt and become gooey. The clay would harden. The ice would melt and eventually evaporate. The sun was the same source of heat for all three – but it was the inner makeup of the individual materials that dictated the result – not the heat.

Jesus’s parable of the soil is instructive here. The same seed is thrown on multiple types of soil. The eventual result for the farmer does not depend on the seed, his method of broadcasting the seed, whether he prayed for the seed, whether he used the proper technology to apply the seed, or how the crop would later be harvested. The success or failure of the crop depended upon what type of soil the seed landed. Now – don’t push a parable beyond it’s immediate application. Yes, it matters whether we pray and how carefully we speak to our neighbors. But, ultimately, the choice of discipleship depends upon the heart of the hearer, not the voice of the preacher.

So, why preach if the overwhelming majority of your preaching is going to be rejected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored?

Because God said success or failure was not up to us. Yes, we are going to fail. Preach anyway.

Book Review: Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt.3)

Sometimes really smart people do strange things. And then, because they are smart, other people follow them in that strangeness. Pretty soon you have a whole bunch of really smart people doing strange things, not because they really want to, or even because they have really thought about it, but because following the first really smart person seemed so, well, smart. It is called “group think,” and sometimes that strange thing that the first person thought up is just simply innocent and inconsequential, and sometimes it can be malevolent and have some really nasty results.

For years now, maybe even generations, people have been asking the question, “how do we instill faith in our children, indeed, how can we instill faith in anyone?” Over the past few years that question has reached a fever pitch because of the (almost) incessant reporting of how many young people are leaving the church, and how many people now report that their religious affiliation is “none.” They claim to be spiritual, but just not religious. Devoted church members are right to be concerned, and the providing answers to stop the exodus of these individuals is a growth industry within Christian journalism.

But, have you noticed something deeply troubling about all the answers? I did not – until I read Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.

No one asks the question, What is faith?

Here we have a massive group think going on because some smart person, actually many smart persons, thought up a solution to why people are losing their faith, and dozens of others have chimed in about why it is occurring and what can be done about it.

And no one, at least to my knowledge, has bothered to sit down and ask that very simple, and fundamental, question. It seems that if we are going to try to form something, we had better be certain of what it is that we are trying to form.

This is why I think Root’s book is so critical at this time, and agree with him or not, at least he has gone back to the core issue. If we do not have a certain grasp on what we are trying to accomplish, I dare say we are never going to be very successful in accomplishing it.

In my own experience, whenever faith is discussed there is an automatic, almost knee-jerk, response to quote Hebrews 11:1 as the definitive answer to the definition of faith, and then move on without much deeper thought. That is, faith is an mental assent, an agreement to a concept or a doctrine. We can’t see it or touch it or taste it, but we believe it, therefore we have faith. While not ever specifically addressing Hebrews 11:1, Root basically identifies this understanding as actually being part of the problem – not that the text is a problem, but our secular understanding of Hebrews 11:1 is the problem.

I am going to simplify tremendously here – and summarize in just a few words what Root does in several chapters – but Root proposes that the core issue we have in forming faith is that all we attempt to do, and all we do if we are successful, is convince people to accept a doctrine or set of doctrines; we really do not form faith. I see this so clearly within the Churches of Christ. We teach someone to accept a set of beliefs about the church, or certain practices of the church, and if they agree with us we baptize them and assert that they have been “converted” from denominationalism or from the world or from whatever, and a few years later they are gone. We shrug our shoulders and say, “well, something must have happened to have made them lose their faith.” No – they had their minds changed, just like we changed their minds before we baptized them. We did not form faith in them, we just made them to be “Church of Christers” for a brief period of time (and, I hate that moniker with a passion that approaches psychosis).

I heard it expressed like this years ago – and the truth of this aphorism is damning – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

After a thorough and rather ruthless examination of our secular age (and what has created it) in chapters 1-6, and after a transition in chapter 7 (which, by the way, is critical to understanding the rest of the book), Root goes on in chapters 8-11 to unpack this fundamental question – what is faith? He does not resort to proof-texting Hebrews 11:1, but rather turns to the apostle Paul and Paul’s pregnant phrase, “in Christ.”

In the briefest of summary – Root’s exploration and explanation of faith is thoroughly Pauline. The core of Root’s understanding of faith is found in Acts 9 – the story of Saul of Tarsus conversion to Christ. From that event Root goes on to examine Paul’s ministry, and through that ministry to define the terminology that Paul uses in his letters. (Aside here – his discussion of Philippians 2:5-11 blew me away – and opened up an entirely new vision of the self-emptying of Christ.) Now, as I did in my first review, I will warn you that Root uses technical theological terminology that many may not be familiar with, and if not, will find confusing (kenosis, hypostasis, theosis, among others). Root demonstrates that faith is formed  through experiencing death, and allowing the death of Christ to transform that death into a new life – a life of service and ministry. Faith is formed when someone (or maybe many someones) minister the death of Christ to us, so that, by our death we become “little Christs” through the death of Christ, and as a result we minister that death to others.

As I have said before – it is a deep argument, skillfully presented, and worthy of serious study and reflection. I cannot – and I probably should not have even attempted – to summarize it in one paragraph. You may not agree with it. But I will say this with the seriousness of a broken leg (something I know about all too well) – if you disagree with Root you had better have your “i’s” dotted and your “t’s” crossed, because Root’s argument is serious, and at least in my humble opinion, 99% correct. I will save my major quibble with Root for tomorrow.

As I have done in each of these “reviews,” I urge you to purchase, to read, and to study this book. It has reminded me of some things that I have been taught in the past (although not put together in the package that Root does), it provides a philosophical understanding of our “secular age” that I found to be gripping, and his presentation of what it means to have faith, and therefore to form faith, was convicting, and to be perfectly honest, embarrassing.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.

The Gospel of the Second Touch – Jesus in Mark 6:31 – 8:30

Over the past few weeks (and ultimately into January) I am preaching a series of lessons on the question, “Who is Jesus?” I am basically following the outline of the gospel of Mark presented by Richard Peace in his book, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve. Dr. Peace was one of my instructors in my Doctor of Ministry program, and is one of the very few individuals in a position of power/authority who ever genuinely complimented any of my work – so, that little bit of personal attachment must be taken into  consideration. The following is a synopsis of my sermon this past Sunday (11/25/18), and is based on the third of what Dr. Peace views as a major section of the gospel of Mark. However much I have gained from Dr. Peace, some of the following is my own observation/deductions, and so don’t blame Dr. Peace for any/all of the mistakes you may discover.

Dr. Peace points out that in the section 6:31-8:30 in Mark’s gospel there are two cycles of stories. This is an illustration of the beauty of Mark’s gospel, and, from my perspective, just another indication that the gospel writers were not the red-neck, hayseed, fishermen that so many preachers want to make them out to be. But I digress.

Both cycles of stories begin with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes (6:30-44 and 8:1-9); those accounts are followed up with a trip on the sea of Galilee, in which a discussion of the miraculous feedings reveals that the disciples do not understand what the miracle was meant to teach (6:45-52 and 8:13-21). Both cycles contain a record of a dispute with the Pharisees (7:1-23 and 8:10-12, which is slightly out of sequence). Significantly, in the first cycle there is another miracle healing that is not duplicated in the second cycle – a point that I suggested in my sermon that screams out for further investigation (7:24-30). Both cycles then end with another healing, the details of which are remarkable similar and, likewise, scream out for further study (7:31-37 and 8:22-26). This major section then concludes with Jesus querying the disciples about his identity, which is then climaxed by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (8:29).

So often we are in such a hurry to get to Peter’s confession that we miss the beauty, and therefore the punch, of how Mark has constructed this section of his gospel. I know I have, and until I worked through this section more closely I simply missed what Mark was doing.

In the interest of time, let’s just look at the concluding miracle story in each cycle (equal time needs to be given to the opening miracle in each cycle, but I am not writing a book here). Note that in each of the healing stories Jesus is either in Gentile territory or a border city (yeah, I know that Bethsaida was in Jewish territory, but it bordered the Decapolis, and probably had a strong Gentile presence). Second, the men who would be healed are brought to Jesus by a group of people – a curious fact Mark seems to emphasize. Third, and this is truly something that Mark is intent on his readers seeing, Jesus takes the men away from the crowds. Fourth, Jesus heals both men with a physical touch – and in a manner that would offend most Jewish sensibilities (Matthew would NEVER describe a healing in such unhygienic fashion, and likewise would never suggest that Jesus would have to expend a second effort to heal someone!) Finally, Jesus commands both men not to speak, and in the second case, not even to re-enter his village.

Do you not think that Mark was trying to tell us something here?

Immediately following the second healing, Jesus pulls his disciples away from the curious crowds, elicits from them the profound truth that he is the Messiah, and then immediately and curiously commands that they withhold this information!

The point, convincingly made by Dr. Peace, is that the disciples can only see this truth incompletely, or in the language of the second healing, only in a blurry fashion. It is going to take a second touch by Jesus for their eyes to be fully open, and in the language of the first healing, for their tongues to be fully loosed. That second touch comes in the second half of the book, as Mark beautifully explains what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

If you are curious – buy Dr. Peace’s book. I do not accept all of Dr. Peace’s conclusions (especially that the gospel ends at 16:8, but he complimented my work, so I am going to promote his!), but Dr. Peace has opened the gospel of Mark up to me in a way that is deeply touching.

My point in my sermon was this – the gospel of Mark is in many ways the gospel of the second touch, of second chances. Mark illustrates how the disciples were repeatedly given the truth of who Jesus was, but it is not until the very end of Jesus’s life – and only from the Roman centurion – that we hear the confession that Jesus is the Son of God come from the lips of a mortal human being.

Reckon why that was?

Maybe, just maybe, because Mark wanted us to know that however obstinate and hard headed we might be, that Jesus is still calling us to him, still extending his hand out to us, still willing to heal us however uncouth that healing might be.

The gospel of second chances – the gospel of the second touch. I love that. I need to hear that. I need to preach that. I need to live that.

May we all learn to be willing to extend the second touch to those who are too confused, or are unable for whatever reason, to receive it the first time.

Using the Wrong Business Model

When I was an undergraduate student there was much discussion and hand-wringing over the idea of churches using growth models created or perfected in the business world. Some thought it was the only way to go, as growth was growth was growth, and how it occurred should not be an issue. For others the very idea of using business strategies to grow the church was the moral equivalent of worshipping the the house of Baal, and even the thought of incorporating business models was met with the most vigorous gnashing of teeth.

Since I was not smart enough to know much about business, I guess I never really got that exorcised one way or the other.

However, I have now come to see at least one business model that should DEFINITELY NOT EVER be used by the Lord’s church for any purpose. Just for ease of identification, let’s call it the “high risk, high effort, low return” model of recruiting workers.

Because of our current financial situation, I am looking for a simple little part-time job that will help smooth out some little bumps over the next couple of years. I am not looking for an engineering position with NASA, just something for about 20 hours a week. What I have discovered is that many  industries CLAIM that they want seasoned workers, individuals who have a little experience and who know how to put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, yet the very process they go about attracting said workers is diametrically opposed to the message they are trying to communicate.

Here is a “fer example.” A position opened up in a nearby school system. The pay would have been not much more than minimum wage, the work was basically menial work (the minimum education was an associate’s degree), but it would have allowed me to work with kids, and to get involved in the local community. I opened the process to apply.

It would have taken me close to an hour, if not more than an hour, to fill out the computerized application process. Ridiculously ineffective and counter-productive. I passed.

Consider the alternative: an ad is placed detailing the work and the requirements. At the bottom a simple little statement – if you think you are capable of filling this position, and would like to discuss the possibility further, please contact our office for a brief interview. Poof – all the glittery computer generated hoo-haw could still be completed at a later date, but the “human resources” person (a title that is increasingly becoming a profound contradiction in terms) could have a much better idea of how well the applicant could relate to children – and not just enter data on a computerized form. But, you see, that is not how business operates these days. Fill out the computer form. Let the computer do the analytics. Let the computer spit out the best candidate. Who needs people anymore? Especially in a “human resources” office??

Do we in the Lord’s church adhere to the same philosophy, if not the same technology?

Do we demand high investment, high effort, and high risk for people who are searching for a church home, and then only offer them low rewards for their interest?  Do we make them feel like they are barnacles on the cruise ship of our existence? Do we condescendingly suggest that if they prove themselves to be worthy of our love and attention, that maybe in five or ten years they might be able to assist in the children’s nursery?

I am not suggesting that every new convert who is baptized on the first Sunday of the month be given an adult class to teach on the second Sunday of the month. But, on the other hand, what if someone comes to the church with a lifetime of experience in education, in finance, in leadership, in volunteer organizations – and we still make them fulfill some “internship” or “catechism” before we surrender our precious power and allow them to exercise their strengths and abilities?

One of the simplest principles in all of Scripture to obey is the command to treat others the way we want, and would want, to be treated. Honestly, I don’t think some Christians treat their dogs with the same amount of disrespect and condescension that they treat visitors and new converts. They certainly do not treat those visitors and new members the way they would want their children to be treated – let alone how they would want to be treated.

Whether the church should learn from the business world or not is still a debate that I have not come to master. I guess it would have to depend on the tactic being discussed. I think many businesses use concepts that the church would do well to duplicate – but, my question would be did those concepts come from Scripture to begin with? My guess is, yes they did. Some obviously would not have originated with God’s word.

However, I do know there is one model that the church should run away from as fast as it can.

True growth in the kingdom begins at the bottom, and that is where we as the Lord’s disciples must be actively seeking to serve.

Making It Real

There is an old saying that has renewed relevance in today’s religious world. I grew up hearing of Christians who were “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” It was a sharp comment; it needs to be pulled out and sharpened a little bit more. All across America, and indeed throughout the Western world, authentic biblical Christianity is taking a beating. Not only is the philosophy of humanistic atheism experiencing somewhat of a rebound, but people are leaving churches by the scores. What is occurring, and why it is occurring, are questions that occupy both sociologists and theologians. I think one answer that deserves some examination is the idea that for far too many people Christianity has simply become a concept to think about, a few doctrines and principles to believe. However, for real life, one must turn to philosophy, and increasingly that philosophy is rooted in the self. This is true of both secularists and Christians!

I want to illustrate my argument with a common scene – one that I encounter quite frequently but one that I am sure any of my readers have experienced as well. Maybe even you are guilty. But picture a class or discussion where the teacher is really getting personal – really getting down to “brass tacks” and laying things out “where the rubber meets the road.” He, or she, can begin to see some light bulbs come on, and there are some signs that the class is beginning to formulate some honest-to-goodness concrete applications for the lesson. Then, just as some real work is about to take place, the resident Pharisee blows the entire discussion up with a comment that, on the surface appears to be a profound addition to the conversation, but in reality shifts the entire focus off of a concrete (and therefore possibly costly) application and places it in the realm of a “spiritual” application that is utterly worthless.

You see, the Pharisees (or perhaps to be fair, at least a sizable majority of them) had no problem with spiritual application of the biblical text of their day. The Pharisee that came to test Jesus knew the greatest command of the law, and the second as well. It was no problem to assert that one was to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. The Pharisee just could not get his mind wrapped around the idea that a Samaritan, of all people, might actually be the example of biblical love that God was commanding, and that waylaid, half-dead travelers might actually be the necessary recipient of  such love.

What is going on that so many people are leaving the church, and why so many people are hesitant to consider becoming a part of the church? Another “preacher’s story” might help. A little boy and his father were discussing the sermon they had just heard. The little boy asked his father, “Daddy, what is a Christian?” The father went into great detail about how a Christian is one who has dedicated his life to Jesus, who lives according to God’s word, who tries in many ways to make the world a better place, and who realizes he is not perfect but still tries to be the kind of person that God wants him or her to be. The little boy was quiet for a while and then said, “Wow, daddy – do we know any Christians?”

I have to confess that for far too long I have been a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. It is far too easy for me to retreat into the “spiritual” so that the “real” does not cost me anything. Also, when someone attempts to blow up my classes with a “Sunday School Answer” that is meant to spiritualize the application instead of making it explicit and verifiable, I acquiesce far too easily.

Let’s be honest here – I want the Pharisee’s answer, not Jesus’s.

One of the things I have learned from reading the Old Testament carefully and meditatively (my “spiritual” side) is that God was really, seriously concerned that hungry people be fed, that naked people be clothed, that poor people be given the chance to earn their keep, that issues of justice be administered fairly without any fear of bribery or other manipulation. I am utterly convinced that Jesus, the twelve apostles, Paul, Luke, and the Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament authors are just as vitally concerned about those issues.

A man cannot hear the gospel if his stomach is growling.

What we call “spirituality” and the concrete issues of social, racial, economic, and environmental justice are not polar opposites. The church has been duped into thinking that we either focus on “saving someone’s soul” or making sure they have a decent job, adequate clothing and enough food on the table. Why should anyone pay any attention to our pleas that they be baptized if they know we steadfastly support efforts to deny them basic God-given rights?

I have been asked what is the greatest problem facing the church today. I have been asked what my thoughts are as to how we can reverse the trend of people leaving the church. I honestly do not have the perfect answer, but I think I have a clue: If we want people to fall in love with Jesus to the point that they will commit their lives to him and become active, productive members of his body, maybe, just maybe, his body needs to start caring about what God cares about and behaving like Jesus behaved.

Philippians 2:1-17, anyone?

The “Age of Accountability” [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Logic and illogic have a certain symbiotic relationship. Often we think very carefully and long about something, and then act in such a way that is laughably illogical. Yet, when confronted with our illogical behavior, we argue that it was the most logical thing to do that we could possibly imagine.

I think of that conundrum when I ponder one of the most difficult questions a minister is ever asked – how old should a person be before he or she is baptized? I guess I should say this is only a difficult question for a minister who serves a church that rejects infant baptism. A “pedo-baptist” does not have to worry about that question – just bring the infant to the font whenever all the family can be together. But for “credo-baptists” (those who withhold baptism until there is a measure of faith), the question gets significantly more sticky.

The answer for many “credo-baptists” is, “when the person has reached the age of accountability.” That answer, I am becoming more and more convinced, is as clear as mud. It really does not solve any question, and even raises more, at least in my mind.

First, let me say that it does offer some form of assurance – we withhold baptism until a person is “accountable” for either their sins or their confession of faith. But which is it? When does a person become “accountable” for their sin? Or, when does a person really become “accountable” for their confession of faith? If we answer with a specific “age,” then it appears to me that we have answered the question for everyone, for all time and eternity. Let’s just put an age here – say, 12 or 16, or 20 or even 30. Before that age no accountability, after that age, accountability.

But that is not how we work the game. We immediately shift to the person’s (and I suggest here it is usually a young person) state of mind. So, we say age of accountability, but we invariably end up arguing level of maturity. Now here is where it really gets interesting for me.

As a culture we are in the process of raising the age of assumed maturity, while in many churches we are in the process of lowering it – even to the point of virtually erasing it. Consider the following:

  • The age of consent for consensual sex is no lower, and often above, age 16.
  • Most states require drivers to have reached their 16th birthday before unrestricted driving privileges are granted, some even older.
  • The minimum age for voting is 18. This is also the age for a person to volunteer for the armed services without parental permission.
  • The minimum age to legally purchase and consume alcohol in most jurisdictions is 21.
  • Many jurisdictions will not impose the maximum penalty for certain crimes committed by those under 18 because, and underline this, the brain of a juvenile is simply not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

And, yet, preachers are routinely baptizing children as young as 8 or 7 or even 6 because “they are just so mature.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t get this?

Would we allow such a “mature” child to make his or her decisions regarding sexual activity? Would we give allow such a child to vote? Would we hand them the keys to our new SUV? Would we give them a $20 bill and tell them to go buy some suds for their birthday party? Would we incarcerate a 10 year old in an adult correctional facility if they had a pound of marijuana they were attempting to sell?

The answer to any of these questions is an incredulous NO! We recognize that an 8 or 7  or 6 year old could never be expected to make such decisions – that is why they are safely protected in our homes by (at least supposedly) mature adults.

But we give a child a Bible and a chart of little arrows or a chain reference of the “gospel plan of salvation” and if they can answer a few perfunctory questions we whisk them off to the church and dunk them in the baptistry as fast as we can (we dare not allow them to die in-between the decision and the dunking!)

Is it possible to teach that we are stressing the importance of baptism when in reality we are doing everything in our power to minimize it?

One of the most difficult conversations I have had the misfortune of having is the one where an adult comes to me and tells me that they do not believe their baptism was “effective.” They were baptized, they know, but have come to recognize that the real motivation for their baptism was peer pressure (girlfriends can be really effective preachers!), parental pressure (dad really wanted to be an elder!) or my favorite – communion pressure (who doesn’t want to have crackers and grape juice at half-time!) It is an agonizing question. Six months or so earlier there was no doubt, but now the questions and the fear are palpable. If I answer, “you need to be baptized” I am invalidating what scores of people would have argued was certifiable rock solid truth – a young person was a baptized believer because he/she answered the questions correctly and said the right words. If I tell the person “no, you have no need to be baptized” I am invalidating their fears and doubts, thus calling into question the very maturity they were supposed to have demonstrated at their baptism. So, I never answer the question – I make them answer it. Almost always the person ends up saying, “In truth I was never baptized because of my faith and to acknowledge my sins, and I want to make that confession now.”

I want to add here that I believe every Christian at some point questions the reason why they were baptized. I know I have – and it troubles me. I have talked to scores of Christians who have confessed the same fear. We cannot always dwell on the peak of Mt. Assurance. My wife taught me a very solid practice to share with those I baptize – immediately go home and write a letter to yourself, detailing what, and why, and when you decided to become a Christian. Then, when these doubts surface, you can read your letter to yourself and decide anew whether the decision was one of faith – or of surrendering to some ghastly emotional blackmail. I wish I had that advice when I made the decision. At my age, it is really hard to crawl back into my struggling, adolescent mind.

Never-the-less, I have come to regard the issue of the “age of accountability” (a profoundly uncertain inference) as a red herring. There just is no such animal in the Bible. A person should be baptized when he or she can act with enough maturity that they, as well as the entire believing community, can be assured that they are aware of the seriousness of the commitment of baptism, and that there are no other illegitimate pressures being placed on their decision.

I must add here that I wish a plague of biblical proportions be inflicted on every summer Bible camp and every minister that views “camp conversions” as anything other than group hysteria. Let’s see – let’s place a bunch of hormonally driven, sleep deprived pre-teens in a remote destination and in an exceedingly artificial situation and then preach the fire of hell so hot it singes their eyebrows and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Answering a few academic questions doesn’t cut it. Being able to draw a little diagram with a few arrows and some squiggly lines doesn’t cut it. Being cut to the heart because of a reality of separation from God does count.  Counting the cost of surrendering our life to Christ does count. We are not told that anyone in the New Testament was baptized for any other reason. We should not be guilty of promoting anything less.

If we teach that the baptism of an infant is without meaning, for heaven’s sake let’s stop baptizing infants!