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.

The Measure of Greatness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pray for such wisdom!

Can We Admit We Are Wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admit It – We ALL Have Presuppositions!

One of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, obstacles to overcome when we approach Scripture is the acceptance of the fact that we come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. HORRORS! “That may be true of you, bub, but my intentions and purposes are as pure as the driven snow!” may be your immediate response. With all due respect to your meteorological observations, that self-proclaimed innocence is just flat out wrong. We ALL, every single one of us, come to Scripture with preconceptions. Only by admitting that fact can we weed out the possible mistakes those preconceptions are prone to create.

 

An oft-used illustration is appropriate here. It is as if when we peer into the pages of the Bible that we look into a deep well to see what is at the bottom. The image that we see, reflected as if we look into a mirror, looks remarkably like our own face! We see our country when we examine the ancient Israelites. We see our cities when we read of Corinth or Rome. We see our happy little church when we pick up a copy of Ephesians or Colossians. Even the aroma of the flesh pots of Egypt share the same comforting smell of our kitchens.

As I said before, so now I say again – this is only how it can be! We never stood toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. We cannot understand what it must have sounded like as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem. We have no way of experiencing a mob riot at the Ephesian amphitheater.

But we CAN, and I dare say that we MUST account for the fact that when we read the Bible we admit our preconceptions. Then, by bringing them out into the open, we can ask whether they augment, or distort, our conclusions.

Here, for example, are just a few of the preconceptions I bring to my study:

  1.  The Bible is the inspired word of God. I do not hold to the concept of “verbal dictation,” but I am constantly amazed at how the accounts related in the Bible can only cohere if there was a single, divine, overseeing presence that both created and preserved this book.
  2. Although written for a specific time period, the Bible was preserved as a record of how God expected his people to believe and act throughout all of history. The Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was written not just for the ancient Israelites – but for us as well. Corinthians was certainly addressed to a congregation in the Mediterranean, but for Christians in the 21st century as well. Note the sequence: to the Corinthians, but for all time.
  3. God never changes, Jesus never changes, and the lessons provided through the stories and codes recorded in Scripture do not change. Murder is still a sin, and elders are still supposed to be husbands of one wife.
  4. God in in heaven, and I am on earth, therefore my words about His word should be few, and those few words should be carefully thought-out and prayerfully delivered.

I could probably come up with many more. The point is, we, as humans, are bounded by time and culture. Some of that culture is positive, some of it is neutral, and some of it is positively perverse. Our culture, however, causes us to view the Bible with a certain lens – a lens of bias. I am a male, American by nationality, relatively well educated (how much of that education has actually stuck is a matter of debate!), and a young baby-boomer by generation. Each of those characteristics flavors how I read the Bible. If I do not take those characteristics into consideration, I can end up with a horrid misinterpretation of the Word of God.

So, let’s face it. We all come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. The critical question, then, becomes whether I can honestly let the Bible correct that bias (or destroy it completely), or whether my bias distorts the meaning of the text.

Why is Error Taught (and Believed)

In my last post I argued that it is not wrong to confront error. That statement presupposes that there is, indeed, error that needs to be confronted. That statement presupposes that there are those who teach erroneous doctrines, and that there are those who believe those erroneous doctrines. That statement raises the question, “Why do false teachers, and false doctrines exist?” I write today not to cast aspersions on any particular group, with the possible exception that I want to examine my own thoughts and actions first, and then let the chips fall where they may.

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I will begin with what I believe to be the most malevolent and culpable motivations, and work toward the least intentional, though perhaps not significantly less culpable.

  1.  Those who know they are promoting falsehood. This might be for financial or emotional gain, but these individuals know they are wrong, but do not care – or rather, they care more for what they are getting out of the process, not for what they are fostering.
  2. Closely related – those who refuse to stand under Scripture, but rather insist that they are somehow above Scripture. They adhere to the “assured results of modern scholarship” school of thought. The biblical authors were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, superstitious, uneducated – all of which we have been able to put behind us.
  3. Those who are blind to their own cultural influences and those who are more interested in following the crowd/garnering praise from the crowd. These may not know they are teaching/believing error, they simply assume that there is “strength in numbers,” or more correctly, that there is truth in numbers, and they do not want to risk embarrassment by asking critical questions.
  4. The fourth group are closely related – they are simply lazy scholars or learners. They just do not do their homework. They do not intentionally promote error, they just do not want to look to hard to find it, for the real reason that they would have to struggle with why is is in error, and what to do to correct it.
  5. And finally, the “innocent” promoters of error. They are simply following what they have been taught, in the honest belief that those who taught them would not, and indeed could not, deceive them. Their teachers are not only paragons of knowledge, they are paragons of virtue. Therefore, to accept what they taught is not only wise, to question these teacher would be the height of arrogance, and impertinence.

I believe that I have been in each of these positions, with the possible exception of number 1! I pray I have never intentionally taught error. I know I have taught error, for who can say with a straight face and honest heart that everything they have ever said or taught is perfectly true?? So, I would have to say that my error stems from arrogance in light of the clear meaning of Scripture (#2) to an honest and deeply felt admiration for my teachers (#5). Have I ever stood “above” Scripture? Probably – I would be a fool to deny the accusation entirely. I know I have been guilty of numbers 3-5.

So, what to do about it? False teachers – and false doctrines – exist. We all, whether we want to admit it or not, fall prey to promoting them or believing them. We cannot solve the problem by pretending it does not exist.

I have presented somewhat of an answer to this question with my “15 Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (see the related page above). Without rehearsing each of those here, I will simply say that Christians must be alert to their own propensity to believe error, and recognize that all humans have that propensity. The only sure and safe response to any teaching – new or ancient – is to compare it to the text of Scripture.

We must stop being so naive. God did not intend his word to confuse or mislead. Contradictory doctrines cannot both be true. There is truth, and if there is truth, then anything that contradicts that truth must be error, no matter how fine sounding the argument or how popular its reception.

My question today is – are we going to be as ruthless with our own conclusions as we are with those with whom we disagree?

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (III and summary)

So far in this series we have seen how Moses eliminates our ability to boast in our numbers. We cannot be proud to have the most numbers or that we can claim to have popular or “influential” members, nor is boasting that we are the ‘righteous remnant’ any safer. Our only security is in having a loving relationship with God. Moving just a little closer to the heart, Moses attacks our reliance on our self-reliance, our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” If we are able to accomplish anything, it is because God has empowered us to do so. Many times all he asks is that we have faith, and he will do the heavy lifting.

Today Moses cuts to the core; he hits us where it really hurts. Today Moses kills our inflated, and erroneous, view of our own righteousness.

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you . . . Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4, 6, ESV)

Before anyone rises to smite me, yes, I know. Moses is not literally speaking to “us.” He was speaking to the Israelites who had gathered to cross the Jordan and to take possession of the promised land. But I see in these three challenges, or rebukes if you will, a sermon that is as relevant today as it ever was. If there ever was a nation – or a church! – that prided itself on its numbers, its ability to create its own success, and that was overbearingly satisfied with its own righteousness, it is the United States and the populist American church. That is why I titled this series of posts “Three Scriptures Christians Hate.” It is not that genuine disciples of Christ hate these passages (although, to be honest, I am uncomfortable with them, because they cut to my own pride and self-reliance). No, what I am saying is that in the eyes of the populist American “church,” these passages would be anathema.

Moses was confronting the Israelites with three very real human sins. All of God’s people have at one time or another been tempted to rely on “group think,” or the tendency to trust in their numbers and their popularity. God’s people have been tempted to view their own strength as unstoppable. And God’s people have been seduced to think that success is the result of their righteousness. Moses told the Israelites they were wrong on all three counts. I think Moses is still right. I think we look at our numbers, at the size of our buildings, at the popular or “important” people who attend our services, and at our impeccable adherence to arcane doctrines as proof that God is blessing us.

I firmly believe God wants his church to grow. I can find no Scripture that says, “Follow me and become a loser.” The precise plans for the beautiful tabernacle and later the temple lets me know that God does take pleasure when we honor him with our wealth instead of hoarding it for ourselves, or wasting it on frivolous pleasures. And, lest we forget, it was God who said, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Holiness is a good thing, and much to be sought after.

Its just that we can never boast of our numbers (or lack thereof!). We can never boast of our success. We can never boast of our righteousness. We can, and should, give thanks that God has blessed us, that God has given us the ability to grow and succeed, and that God has purified us and made us holy.

In other words, God wants us to succeed, to be blessed, to climb higher. But we ascend by going lower. We win by losing. We live by dying. It is all up-side-down. And that, I believe, is exactly what Moses was trying to say.

Needed Words from an Ancient Prophet

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The prophet Jeremiah struggled with being who God called him to be. Mind you, he was a great prophet, and some of the most beautiful words in the English language come from his pen. But, he was not afraid of complaining to God about his lot in life.

God was pretty direct in responding to Jeremiah:

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? (Jeremiah 12:5a ESV)

Now, if God had disciplined me in this way, I don’t think I would have recorded those words for all generations to read. Probably would have filed them away under “Unfair job review.”

Jeremiah, however his weak moments, did have the strength of his convictions, and this record of God’s rebuke demonstrates that strength, as well as his humility.

Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight’ declares the LORD. (Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)

 

Notice God did not say there were no wise men, no mighty men, no rich men. All things considered, I would much rather be wise, strong, and rich as opposed to stupid, weak, and poor. But wisdom, strength, and wealth are not to be our refuge. God is our strength, our refuge. And what God is concerned about is love, justice, and righteousness.

One of my favorite verses from a country and western song comes from an album by Charley Pride. The second verse of the song, “I’m Just Me” begins, “When people say that life is rough, I wonder: Compared to what?”

Maybe, just maybe, when we get tired enough of tilting at windmills, at trying to make ourselves look big and smart and impressive and rich, maybe at that point we can take a step down and accept what God has called us to be in the first place: heirs with his son Jesus the Messiah of the coming Kingdom.

Is it any wonder, then, that the apostle Paul wrote, “I [want to] know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3:10 ESV)

The apostle Paul, just like the prophet Jeremiah before him, ascended much higher than he ever would have on his own, by descending lower into the strength and power of knowing his God. May we have the courage to share in their ascension!