Monthly Archives: June 2012
My last post was intentionally “over the top” because I wanted to illustrate the ways in which congregations make their own growth virtually impossible. In the words of Rush Limbaugh, sometimes you have to illustrate, or illuminate, the absurd using the absurd. The apostle Paul knew the value of such reasoning. “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” is a question of absurdity. “By no means!” was his answer.
But today I want to be as serious as a heart attack. No absurdity today. No sarcasm or cynicism today. Just a look at the cold, hard, facts.
Cold hard fact #1 – most small, stagnant or declining congregations are small, stagnant or declining because they want to be small, stagnant or declining. Oh, you will never get anyone to admit this. If you suggested such you would be received with howls of denial and rejection. But, facts is facts, as they say. If I have learned anything in my life as a member and as a minister it is that more congregations do more things to guarantee the impossibility of their growth than they ever do to reverse trends of stagnation and decline.
Just as one example – you can spend thousands of dollars inviting the finest gospel preacher in the United States to come speak to your congregation, you can knock doors and hand out flyers and do all the greatest outreach known to modern man. But all of that money, time and effort is blown completely out of the water when one member makes a racist, pejorative comment or when a family is rudely criticized by a “guardian of the sanctuary” for having a fussy child. That was the point of my tirade yesterday.
I once attended a congregation where the minister could not mention religious error without making some of the most unkind, bitter and, quite frankly unbiblical, comments about the Roman Catholic church. I knew several Roman Catholic individuals, but I could never invite them to attend services with me because I was never sure when one of these anti-Catholic screeds would come roaring out. I knew that the minute the minister called the Pope the “anti-Christ” or used one of his other pejorative terms, the person whom I invited would never be able to view the Church of Christ as anything other than a group of hate-mongers and, what bothered me the most, was that I would be branded along with this preacher as being intolerant of another’s religion. Do I disagree with Roman Catholic dogma? Yes! Do I belive that the human Pope is the vicar of Christ on earth? NO! Do I believe in original sin, transubstantiation, or the immaculate conception of Mary? NO! But I can lovingly and faithfully teach the error of all of those positions without being hurtful or derogatory. And, although it is unnecessary to say so, some of the most Godly and devout individuals that I know are Roman Catholics. During my tenure as a hospice chaplain I learned a great deal about Roman Catholicism, and most of what I learned directly contradicted what I had been taught by Roman Catholic haters. If you only allow haters to teach you, you will end up hating and your behavior will demonstrate that.
Any church that allows that kind of behavior will never grow, and in my opinion that is exactly what they want.
Cold hard fact #2 – most small, stagnant or declining congregations buy into the theory that “evangelism” is the sole responsibility of one individual, the “preacher,” and that if the church grows it is because of his giftedness and if the church declines it is his fault and he is summarily fired.
This idea is so unbiblical as to almost defy comment. But I’ll make a few anyway.
The apostle Paul makes it perfectly clear that evangelism is one of the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4). So, some preachers will obviously have this gift and others will not. But notice in these passages Paul is not talking about the role of a professional “located” ministry. HE IS TALKING ABOUT THE GIFTEDNESS OF EACH MEMBER IN EACH CONGREGATION! Every congregation is located in a particular micro-culture that in turn is situated in a series of larger and larger macro-cultures. It takes years, if not decades, to fully understand those cultures. You cannot bring in a “hired gunslinger” to do your evangelism for you if that gun slinging evangelist is clueless about the culture that he is brought into. However, a member who has lived in that culture and who knows how to communicate to that culture and who is gifted to do evangelism is what the apostle Paul is talking about. They may need some teaching and some encouragement, but that member will be able to accomplish far more lasting results than any “professional” evangelist ever could.
Just one specific example. I have lived most of my life in the Rocky Mountain regions of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We are a weird people, especially the closer you get to Santa Fe. (I was born in Santa Fe, so I am legally, ethically, and morally approved to say that). I can’t really put my finger on what it is, but we are just strange. It is a beautiful and charming kind of weirdness, and I would not change it if I could. But if you transplant someone from another culture into our weirdness they have a hard time adjusting. And, by the way, it makes us natives even more resistant to “foreigners” coming in and trying to change us. We will continue to eat green chile on just about anything, and forget trying to get us to use our turn indicators. No “outsider” is going to come into a small congregation of northern New Mexico and in two years change the culture. It ain’t gonna happen. So why do we think we can hire a minister and in 6 or 12 or 18 months he can magically change the culture of a congregation and suddenly produce dozens of baptisms? If the locals cannot, or will not, do it, why demand that of an outsider?
Cold hard fact #3 – God wants his family to grow. He has empowered it to grow. He has given his family His Word so that it will have the nutrients it needs to grow. What His family needs to learn how to do is to humbly submit to His power and get out of the way so that He can get back to the business of making His family grow.
When we buy into the false impression that it is our responsibility to “save souls,” when we come to view human methods and human ideas as being responsible for church growth we have guaranteed that we will fail. Over and over and over again throughout the preaching of the Old Testament prophets God spoke to Israel and said, “Don’t trust your own weak human strength. Trust me!” When they listened and trusted God things worked out pretty well. When they stopped their ears and trusted in their own strength things turned out disastrous. Why would God be any different today? Why do we look for the newest, the greatest, the flashiest, the most “proven track record of success” type of man-made, mass-produced evangelistic program when we have God’s own inspired Word as our power? Can it be that God is confusing our language so that we will finally return to his pure and simple guide for Spiritual life?
So there you have my thoughts for today. In order to really grow a congregation is going to have to seriously want to grow, and that means making some difficult decisions, and it means exercising some firm discipline against those who do not want it to grow. The congregation is going to have to accept that God has provided it with the evangelists that it needs and they do not need to, nor can the effectively, hire someone to do their work for them, and the congregation is going to have to surrender its selfish pride and learn to rely upon the power and strength of God and his Spirit.
It really does not get any more simple than that.
(WARNING: YOUR SARCASM ALERT SHOULD BE SET ON HIGH FOR THE NEXT FEW MINUTES)
The 64 million dollar question these days seems to be: What is the one, absolute, failsafe way to make your congregation grow? It seems there are 64 million different answers, so most folks are still left wondering at the end of the day what it will take to reverse the trend of stagnation and decline that they see in their spiritual family. A ginormous amount of effort has been spent on hiring the flashiest and hippest preachers (preaching in ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts seems to be the rage these days), totally revamping the music (praise teams and guitars, anyone?), lighting profuse numbers of candles (anyone check with the fire department on that one?) as well as incense (certainly saves on soap and deodorant) and even the old stand-by of tinkering with doctrine and theology (the charge of the feminism and the LGBT light brigade!). So far nothing has proven to be the silver bullet. Some groups have momentary success with some efforts, but overall the trend still seems to be stagnation or decline.
So, just for giggles and grins, I want to think positively about going the other direction. I mean, if you cannot have success building a congregation, how about killing one? Never one to be at a loss for ideas, these are a few that come immediately to mind:
- Be sure that you have one or more old stalwarts of the faith who fire off racist comments at every opportunity before, during, and after public meeting times. Although it might seem uncouth to mention the “N” word or refer to Hispanics in regard to di-hydrous oxide on their backs, there are surely enough ways to draw some appreciative laughter by making reference to those financially prudent Jews or those hyper-religious Persians who attire themselves with turbans. Yea, verily, the more despicable the race the funnier the joke will be. This will assure that your congregation remains exclusively anglo-saxon and as pure as the driven snow. And, because the nation is becoming more ethnically diverse, your congregation will most certainly never grow.
- Do not stop with race, however. Along with the derogatory comments regarding every color of skin except your own, you have to make sure you ridicule every religious or faith group except your exclusive little tribe. When a particular issue is discussed that you know beyond any shadow of a doubt that you, and only you, have a corner on the truth, make sure you belittle all “those stupid” (and you have to spit the “s” out) Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, and even those “apostate” Church of Christers who no longer believe your Holy Spirit approved interpretation. This way you will be sure to keep all “those stupid” people from wanting to be a part of your group, and with every funeral in your divinely appointed assemblage, your numbers will get smaller.
- One of the most simple ways that a congregation maintains its size or even grows is through the encouraging of young couples to have children and to actually bring those children to worship and class. So, in order to kill your congregation you have to make every effort to make these young families feel like dirt if their children make any kind of noise or mess on the floor of the “sanctuary.” When their little one is teething and is especially fussy, make sure that as many of you as possible can and will turn around and give them the “stink eye.” It would be especially effective if you got up and moved to another pew, making it obvious that the little one was the reason you had to leave your homeland for a dry and arid destination. Since you raised your children as perfect angels who never made any noise or never spilled anything, make sure that you tell the parents how perfect you were in your parenting skills and how utterly bereft of any intelligence they must be. No parent who is concerned about the spiritual well being of their children will want to be a part of your special kind of holiness, and so you can rest assured you will have no need to add additional classrooms or need any Sunday school teachers.
- But why stop with children? Surely you can criticize the dress or hair style or tatoos or behavior of the teenage or college crowd. Make sure they know your disgust at their choice of lipstick, or the fact that they might choose to wear army boots along with their mini-skirt. Never mind that they are struggling with issues you never even had to dream about, use every tool in your copious box to make them feel unwanted, unappreciated, and basically a burden to the congregation. They won’t stay long, and so you will not have to be distracted by their flaming orange or dazzling purple hair any longer.
- Make sure that you do everything in your assembly times in exactly the same order every single Sunday, that you only have a repetoire of about 12 songs that are “approved,” and that you only allow one version of the Bible to be read publicly. It would be preferable if the version was the KJV, and that the preacher spoke using the same Old English verb endings and candences. Whatever you do, do not allow the service to have any kind of connection to modern day problems or that it be considered relevant in any manner. It would be best if every sermon dealt with some arcane interpretation of Scripture such as the “language of Ashdod” or the “braying of Balaam’s ass.” Today’s multitude of unchurched and unsaved people long for the Bible to speak to their hurts and fears, so you can rest assured that none of them will want to visit your congregation more than once, if at all.
- Never, ever, allow the carpet, the curtains, or the upholstery on the pews to be changed. They were purchased with money given by dear old brother and sister Fussbudget, and so they can never be altered.
- Same with the seating arrangement. God intended everyone to stare at the back of someone else’s head. That is why he built so many churches with the same pews and the same pulpit. Don’t buck history.
I could probably go on, but I think I have given you a fairly solid beginning to a path of stagnation and decline. Follow these tried and true methods of killing a congregation and I can assure you that your building will be empty within a decade or two, maybe even sooner.
(IT IS NOW SAFE TO RETURN YOUR SARCASM METER TO ITS NORMAL SETTING)
(Not really necessary, but possibly valuable contextual note – Dr. Stassen is one of my professors in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary. Although not a part of the D.Min. program itself, he is guiding me through a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I purchased this book to get a more complete understanding of Dr. Stassen’s work, and as a valuable resource on the Sermon on the Mount.)
Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003. 491 pages plus a comprehensive (!) bibliography.
Followers of this blog know that I have been involved in a detailed study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a part of that study I have also been involved in a debate (with myself, as much as anyone) concerning the topic of pacifism and the Christian’s response to (a) American nationalism and (b) the military in general. I have been reading as widely as I can and still keep my focus on my current responsibility to stay focused on Bonhoeffer. This book by Dr. Stassen and Dr. Gushee allowed me to do a little of both.
This book is primarily a book on Christian ethics. Having taught a course on ethics at the college level I was very interested in the subject. It is also a study of the Sermon on the Mount. And it is also an examination of the moral complexities of our culture, and how the church can speak to those moral problems. If you are interested in any or all of these subjects then I highly recommend this volume. I do not really have a “star” rating system, but if I did this book would have the highest number of stars available.
One thing I look for in books is the even-handedness of the author(s). The chapter on “Just War, Nonviolence and Just Peacemaking” is, for me, a classic in the art of presenting both sides of an emotionally charged and complicated issue with fairness and equality. I would say that this chapter is worth the price of the book, but that would be to disparage the other chapters, which I feel are also worth the price of the book. However, because it addressed several of the questions I have been asking I felt it was especially valuable to me right now.
As a volume on Christian ethics I was impressed with the directness with which Stassen and Gushee addressed the most difficult issues facing the (primarily western) world and the church today. They address abortion, euthanasia, biotechnology, racism, marriage and divorce – all of the “hot-button” issues that bedevil, and sometimes pollute, our conversations. The reason why these issues are dealt with (and dealt with in such a straight-forward manner) – the authors follow the Sermon on the Mount as their primary text! Imagine that – a book on Christian ethics written by professors at Christian institutions who actually base their study on the text of the Bible. How refreshing.
On a technical note, one aspect of the Sermon on the Mount that Stassen and Gushee introduced to me was the “triadic” structure of the Sermon. I don’t want to attempt to explain the entire concept, only to say that Jesus (through Matthew) structures his sermon according to a pattern of a description of “traditional righteousness,” then a description of a “vicious cycle” of downward behavior and then concludes with a “transforming initiative” of Kingdom Ethics. Their argumentation is impressive, and it opened up for me an entirely new way of viewing the Sermon. They challenged me to another deep study of the entire gospel of Matthew viewed through this lens of “triads” and I hope to do so in the near future (along with completing my D.Min., spending more time with my wife and daughter, curing cancer and developing a cost-effective method of transportation to the moon. Well, okay, at least spending more time with my wife and daughter.)
As I mentioned before, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. You may not agree with everything the authors suggest. (Avast – Dr. Stassen even criticized Dietrich Bonhoeffer! I almost wanted to put the book down at that point. However, I soldiered on and eventually practiced forgiveness as the good Drs. suggest. However, criticism of Bonhoeffer is still a burr under my saddle.) The conclusion I came to as I read this book is that if the principles advocated in the book were actually practiced in the church we would see a radical change in the world. As the authors repeatedly stress, the Sermon on the Mount is not a list of unattainable platitudes. It is the path that Jesus set forth for his disciples to follow. The imperatives in the Sermon are transforming initiatives (author’s words) that the disciple of Christ is commanded to follow.
As I noted, the book is quite large and requires some dedicated reading. This is not because of complexity, but rather due to its richness and depth of involvement. If you read this volume with an open mind it will change the way you view the Sermon on the Mount, Christian ethics, and the disciple’s responsibility to the world.
My bottom line – add this book to your library!
Perhaps some of you read an earlier post that has now been removed. I have to admit that it was a tad bit, um, how shall I say, “prickly.” I guess I just woke up the wrong way this morning.
What I really wanted to say was that my little girl will never have the chance to experience the things that I considered to be a given part of life when I was her age. Life has moved on. Things have changed so radically in my adult life that I cannot even begin to imagine what will happen in the next 20 – 30 years. I fear for my daughter’s generation and the one that follows that.
We have lost so much. We claim progress, but I really do not see much progress. Most of what I see is just motion, movement.
So, I was writing out of a lot of pain and some fear and not just a little frustration. I hope that I did not push too far.
But, just like the referees in the NFL now use instant replay to make sure they get the call right, I decided that I needed to make sure I had the call right. Upon further review I decided to throw a penalty flag on myself and my post.
Thanks for following along – and I hope that the things I DO end up posting are beneficial to all who stop by.
As the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus used to say, “And now for something completely different…”
Many years ago I enjoyed the sport of hunting. I must clarify myself here and say that it was the hunting I enjoyed. I never actually shot anything by myself. It got to the point that I named my rifle “Barney” because just like it’s namesake deputy in Mayberry, all it ever needed was one bullet and that bullet stayed in my chest pocket. However, I did get a lot of exercise, enjoyed many cold mornings and got to be up in the mountains.
One evening as I was coming down from my hunting area I happened to startle a doe feeding in a small clearing. She jumped up and practically gave me a heart attack. She bounded effortlessly over rocks and crags that I was having to carefully step foot over foot in order to keep from breaking an ankle. I stopped and watched her graceful motion as she first jumped, and then kind of gamboled for a few hundred yards. When she felt like she had put enough distance between her and her rude intruder she turned and looked at me. Her huge ears (she was a Mule deer, very aptly named) pointed in my direction and I could tell she was smelling the wind to see if she could identify me. I softly told her she had nothing to fear from me, even if I would have had a doe tag she still had nothing to fear from me, because my heart was racing so fast I could not have hit the broad side of a barn if I shot from the inside. She ambled off and I continued my journey down to my truck.
A short distance away I startled another critter, although it took me longer to figure this one out. At first I thought it was just another boulder, but it started moving. “Waddling” would be the best description – a very slow and deliberate movement that was clearly away from me. As I tried to get closer to it I got to see more of what it was and it dawned on me that I was following a porcupine. Now, I had never seen a porcupine up close (although my dog once did, with very painful results) and I figured this would be perhaps my best and only chance. I started to circle around to get a view of the critter’s face (having learned from my dog, of course).
The porcupine must have had a sixth sense, because I never got to see its face. Every few steps that I took to circle it, it just rotated its body and kept waddling along. A couple of times I got to see a shoulder or maybe a flank, but never a head and certainly never a face. I was partly perturbed and partly amused. Finally, like a master chess player outsmarting his opponent, the porcupine reached a small Pinon tree and climbed up a few feet, and then, as if to say, “Ha! Fooled you!” it turned and faced me for the first time. It was really comical. I could have easily killed it (animals know nothing of high-powered rifles) but in his or her world he or she was utterly safe and so could turn and face its pesky irritant.
Once again, I reassured it that it had nothing to fear from “Barney,” or me, and I thanked it for an entertaining few minutes and then I started on down the last leg of my journey to my truck. Reminiscing on the events of just a very few moments in time something occurred to me. God gave the deer her oversized, sharp, pointy ears so that she could identify danger from a great distance and he gave her sharp, spindly legs to be able to cover large amounts of terrain in a very short period of time. Her defense was in her ability to identify danger and flee.
On the other hand the porcupine was built for anything other than speed. It was slow, clumsy and had no large ears or powerful, swift feet. What it did have, on the other hand, was a whole bunch of little pointy things in its tail that gave it virtually assault proof protection. All it had to do was keep its tail pointed in the right direction and it knew it was safe. Its defense was in its tail.
Flee or hold your position? The question faces disciples of Christ virtually every day. It is interesting that in some cases we are to “flee” from all kinds of temptations and evil. On other occasions and in different circumstances we are exhorted to “gird our loins” (a beautiful King James phrase) and fight as befits a soldier of Christ. And for those purposes God has give us both large and sensitive ears (if we will use them) and the Sword of the Spirit (if we will take it out of its sheath).
What say you, disciple? Are you smart enough to flee? Are you brave enough to hold your position?
Thus endeth the parable of the pointy things.
Due to the needs of my family and the needs of the congregation where I now serve as a minister, my family and I will need to relocate as soon as possible, but certainly by the end of this summer. I would like to put out a special request to those of you who read this blog from time to time. If any of you know of a ministry position or a position working with a religious organization, could you please let me know? I would be deeply grateful.
I have much to offer a congregation or an organization, and in turn I would like to have some assurances for me and my family. I have approximately 15 years of ministry experience (from youth ministry to pulpit preaching through hospice chaplaincy) and another 10 years of secular work experience. I hold two Masters degrees and I am very close to completing my Doctor of Ministry degree. My wife and I have been married over 27 years, and we have a precious little girl who just turned 6 years old.
Those are the “cold, hard facts” that fill up so much of a resume. I can offer other “intangibles” that are difficult to quantify but can only come with age and experience. I have the ability to evaluate difficult situations and come up with viable solutions. As a flight instructor I was often assigned to the students who were struggling because I was able to analyze their problems and work with them to successfully pass their flight exams. I believe I have a stabilizing influence and the congregations where I have served have enjoyed peace and growth during my tenures.
My greatest gift, in my opinion, is my love for teaching and preaching the text of the Bible. My education has given me a great respect for scholarship, both old and new, but my emphasis is and always will be the text of Scripture. I love to write and I love to study so that I can understand the Bible and present my lessons in a challenging manner. I am certainly no Billy Graham in the pulpit, but I work hard to learn from my mistakes and I look for ways to improve.
Given the right situation my wife and I would be willing to relocate to just about anywhere in the US. We would prefer the southwest, but we will talk with anyone who is interested in my services.
I mentioned the possibility of an organization outside of a congregation, but that is also focused on kingdom ministries. I have in mind here a school, a hospice, any group or organization that could use a writer, editor, teacher, public speaker, public relations professional, etc. I want to be useful in God’s kingdom, and I want to be open to any position where I can use my gifts and abilities.
I would also consider a new congregation plant or a congregation that is looking for the right minister in order to grow or perhaps to overcome recent division or discord. I cannot promise that I would know all the answers or have the perfect solution. However, it never hurts to visit with a prospective minister, or in my situation, a prospective ministry. Sometimes even the phone call is valuable.
Thank you all for reading this blog, and I look forward to many more entries.
Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, by Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, illustrations by Ron Hill. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
For all my Bonhoeffer friends out there (or for those who would like to begin to read Bonhoeffer but don’t know where to start) this one is for you! This one is short (152 pages, but they are small and virtually all of them have a little cartoon illustrating the text) and very accessible to the “armchair theologian.”
One of the difficult things about reading Bonhoeffer is knowing where to start. Some of his writings are very readable, works like Life Together or to a certain extent Discipleship. Others require more work and a greater degree of theological background, such as Creation and Fall or Christ the Center. Moving further into his more scholarly works the books become almost opaque, especially in my opinion is Act and Being. If you are a newbie to Bonhoeffer, or you have started to read the easier works and want to delve more deeply into Bonhoeffer the theologian, Haynes and Hale are to the rescue!
The first 76 pages of the book give a brief but amazingly thorough overview of Bonhoeffer’s life. It took Eberhard Bethge over 900 pages! But, seriously, the outline Haynes and Hale provide is more than adequate for the book. The rest of the book is designed to explain 5 major thoughts that run through all of Bonhoeffer’s writings – Christ Existing as Community, Costly Grace, Stellvertretung and Ethics as Formation, and Religionless Christianity. An especially well written final chapter explores Bonhoeffer’s legacy and points out the dangers of turning Bonhoeffer into a mirror image of what we want ourselves to look like and also just taking one aspect of Bonhoeffer and turning that into a caricature of the entire man.
I was able to hear Lori Brandt Hale at a recent lectureship on Bonhoeffer, so when I saw that she co-authored this book I picked it up and thumbed through it. What immediately caught my eye was the wonderful artwork by Ron Hill. Many of them are humorous, but with a painful “gotcha” lurking beneath the surface. The illustrations are valuable in themselves, and add a “picture is worth a 1,000 words” component to the book.
Just about my only beef with the book is its brevity. After reading it I wanted more…which, I suppose, is exactly the purpose the authors wanted to achieve. They do a great job of putting some very difficult theological concepts into language that I found to be clear and understandable. Now, I have read deeply in Bonhoeffer, so maybe my opinion here is not the best, but Haynes’ and Hales’ book did help me tie up some loose ends that I have been struggling with in terms of putting the whole Bonhoeffer together.
If you are looking for a primer on Bonhoeffer, or you just want to add a volume to your religious library, I highly recommend this book. And, if the other selections in the “Armchair Theologian” series are as high a quality as this one, I will be buying more of them! (Next up for me, the one on Karl Barth, a theologian who for me is even more difficult to follow than Bonhoeffer, and who influenced Bonhoeffer tremendously).
(P.S. – I tried to find a picture of the cover of the book, but my search skills are not the swuftest. The cover is basically white with blue print, and one of Hill’s great drawings of Bonhoeffer as a prisoner with a pencil in one hand and a Bible in the other.)
Last night I had one of those “impossible to sleep” nights so I got up around midnight to do my daily Bible reading. My schedule called for me to read (among other sections) Ezekiel 36-37. Reading Ezekiel when you are suffering from insomnia is a real trip, but that is not really what this post is about.
Leaders in the church are rightly worried today about the direction the church is going, at least in the western world. In Europe and the United States the fastest growing group of people are the “non-attached” religious group. They may have religious inclinations, and even hold to a modicum of Christian beliefs, but they do not belong to any church and do not rigorously defend any specific set of doctrines. They are not necessarily atheistic, just agnostic.
As I mentioned, church leaders are puzzled not only with the existence of this group, but also what to do about them. Inviting them to church, the so-called “attractional” model of church growth seemed to work fairly well with baby boomers, but it clearly does not work with the children and grandchildren of the boomers. A new model, the “missional” model seems to be gaining some traction, although it to too early to say that this message has any long-term viability. In order to be sent on a mission there must be a core belief system and a core community. While missional churches are a much-needed corrective to the lethargy of a “salvation by association” message of the attractional churches, they are beginning to show that without a well-defined center all of the “mission” in the world simply degenerates into well-intentioned do-goodism. It is the social gospel of the early 20th century regurgitated in post-modern language. It did not work too well in the pre-WWI days and it is not any more likely to succeed today.
Which brings me to my late night (actually early morning) journey through the bizarre world of Ezekiel. In chapters 36 and 37 God is telling Ezekiel that His judgment on Jerusalem will be limited. There will be a renewal. It is the message of all the major prophets, actually, including Isaiah and Jeremiah. God is disciplining his people for their sin, but his discipline will reach a limit. He will restore His people to their land. There will be a new beginning. The graphic illustration of this is in chapter 37, the wonderful story of the valley of dry bones that small children either love to death or are deathly terrified. But you should not read chapter 37 without the context of chapter 36. In chapter 36 God tells Ezekiel what is going to happen, in chapter 37 God takes Ezekiel out to the valley and visually demonstrates what will happen.
I love the conversation between God and Ezekiel. God asks Ezekiel, who is perched on a pinnacle overlooking this ghastly scene, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel, much more reticent than the apostle Peter will be in a future generation, looks out over the bones and says, “God, I’m not touching that question with a 10 foot pole. You know the answer so I’ll let you tell me.” (Ezek. 37:3, Paul Smith paraphrase). Sure enough, God does show Ezekiel that the bones can live. But Ezekiel must fulfill his role. He must prophesy to the wind (spirit? breath?) in order for the bones to live.
I know this may sound canned and trite, but I believe the body of Christ in the US can grow again. It can live and have tremendous power. It does not have to exist on life support. But, it is only God’s power that can make it so. And, in order for the Spirit, Breath, Wind of God to enter the dying bones of a moribund church it is going to take the courage of the prophets to speak to the Spirit, Breath, Wind of God.
Preachers, teachers, professors, and average church members are all going to have to quit looking to human methods and techniques if we are going to see the church become strong again in our generation. I have nothing against the study of psychology, sociology and anthropology in the search for answers about what makes man tick and how we can apply that knowledge in proclaiming the Word of God. But in order for any of those to be of lasting value to the church we must first have a solid and biblical theology. That is to say, God comes first. Once we get that straight, then we can begin to think about psychology, sociology and anthropology.
“O Sovereign LORD, you alone know” was the exact response that Ezekiel gave to God (NIV wording this time). Yes, the church will grow again – I am convinced of it. But it may need to die a little bit more first. The bones may need to get a little more bleached. That will hurt. It may even seem hopeless. But when the Spirit of God starts blowing, even bleached bones start walking.
That, my friends, is a wonderful bed time story!
[last in a ponderously long series. Yea!]
I started this series in order to clarify some of my own thoughts. Hopefully in doing so I have prodded others to re-think what evangelism is all about. I simply grew tired of having some well-intentioned and highly motivated brother tell me about the latest, greatest, sure-thing evangelistic method. The whole process just strikes me as being the very pinnacle of human pride, as we have had the greatest evangelistic method now for almost 2,ooo years. We just quit paying attention to it.
So, that was the purpose of these posts. In this last installment I just want to review my main argument(s) and maybe add a final word or two.
(1) I believe the majority of the mass-produced, question and answer or “follow the bouncing Scripture” type of chain reference evangelistic methods are essentially negative. I have several reasons for drawing that conclusion. First is that they are all written by human beings, most of which live or lived in the mid to late 20th century. Second, virtually all of them begin with mankind and our predicament – that is man and sin. Third, these methodologies then move to what the student (now labeled a “lost sinner”) must do in order to have this sin removed. Those who respond are considered “saved,” those who do not are considered beyond hope and another “lost sinner” is targeted with the “plan of salvation.” So, if you begin with a late human production that focuses on the corrupted and sinful nature of human beings and you drive them to make a decision that either makes them think they have saved themselves or that drives them further into their sinful status I belive you have fairly successfully created a negative approach to evangelism.
(2) Contrast this picture with the one presented in the four gospels. The gospels begin with the unfathomable decision of God to redeem the world he created by entering into it in the form of a little baby. This baby, the Son of God, matures and begins his ministry by proclaiming the “kingdom of God is at hand.” His entire ministry revolves around teaching and explaining this kingdom of God and inviting people to enter into the kingdom. Thus, the gospels begin, continue and end with the story of God acting in the world he created in order to invite his creation to fully enjoy His kingdom, His rule. Man’s sinful condition is by no means avoided. But this condition is only considered in order to proclaim the possibility of living in a fully renewed condition which can only be attained by the gracious gift of God’s redeeming love. In the gospels man is pulled up by the grace of a loving God. In most human evangelistic methods man must pull himself up to a position he never had and therefore cannot regain.
(3) Thus, in a human constructed evangelistic program salvation is reduced to one visible point in time that can be quantitatively measured, whether it is being baptized or some other point such as “saying the sinner’s prayer.” However, in the gospels salvation is envisioned as a growing and maturing relationship with Jesus. Now, please, hear me out on this point. I am not minimizing the importance of baptism in this relationship. I believe, I teach, and I preach that baptism is a necessary aspect of this relationship, because baptism is taught in each of the gospels and in virtually every book of the New Testament as that single point in time in which we contact the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. In my mind this issue is simply beyond debate (although I will gladly do so in a generous manner with anyone who wishes to do so). I am simply pointing out that in our efforts to create a “fast, simple and effective” method of evangelism we have completely eliminated the core of the gospel, and that is discipleship is an ongoing relationship with Jesus, full of missteps, errors and new beginnings. We have turned something that begins and ends with a positive into something that begins with a negative and only ends with a positive if we as humans somehow make it end positively.
(4) This has huge implications for the current state of (un)faithfulness in the Lord’s church today. If salvation is simply a matter of saying the right words then once that has been accomplished one is free to do whatever one wishes to do. This is a subtle but real message hidden deep in these systems. Finish the process and salvation has been accomplished. A person can say, “I have paid my dues, I have learned the secret handshake, I am now a full-fledged member of the club.” Now, the writers and publishers of these question/answer and chain reference type of evangelistic methods would argue with me here, and they would point to the last page of their questions or the last few verses of their chain reference to suggest that they teach “a life of obedient behavior” following baptism. But, in so doing they make my point for me! An “obedient lifestyle” is nothing more that Pharisaical obedience to a longer and more detailed list of questions, rules and commands. If evangelism is simply getting the right answers to the right questions, or following a set of Scriptures in the correct order, then my relationship with Jesus is unimportant as long as I continue to get the right answers or memorize the correct Scriptures. But, if evangelism is viewed as the creation and ongoing and ever-deepening relationship with Jesus the Son of God, then I am compelled to live and act in such a way that demonstrates that relationship! You simply cannot “convert” someone using a boiler-plate set of questions or Scriptures and then out of the blue start talking about a transformed and revolutionized lifestyle. If you begin with a legalistic set of questions, you will end with a legalistic question-and-answer convert. But if you begin with relationship (as the four gospels do) then you will end with a person who is committed to a relationship with God and His Son, Jesus the Messiah.
Stated yet another way, we have congregations that are full of people who believe and confess the correct doctrine, but are all but dead when it comes to a lifestyle of discipleship. Thousands have left this hypocritical situation because (a) although they were convinced enough to submit to baptism they were never converted to Jesus or (b) they genuinely desired a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and simply could not find it in an atmosphere where coming up with the correct answer in Sunday morning Bible class was the sum total of Christian discipleship.
I have been a part of this negative evangelism for far too long. At one time I thought it was the only way to go. I heard the reports of hundreds of baptisms and I thought, “With results like that this program must be the answer!” But then I looked beyond the numbers in the bulletin and I started asking some very basic questions. Questions like: “If these programs are so successful, where are the converts a year or even 6 months after their baptism?” “Why do I have to go to a 13 week class and be ‘certified’ to ask a series of questions written by a human being?” “Why is this series of Scriptures more compelling than the list of Scriptures that the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists use?” “Why are so many of the questions and virtually all of the Scriptures used taken from the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, and so few (if any) taken from the gospels, if it is in the gospels that we learn about Jesus the Messiah?”
I harbor no illusions about what I am suggesting. If I am correct we must completely re-assess the very concept of evangelism that we have been using for several generations now. We cannot go on using a humanistic system and hope to attain divine results. We must shift our thinking from looking at the reports of baptisms to thinking about the formation of life-long disciples. It will require a complete re-orientation of motives and how we evaluate results. But something is seriously broken in a system that on one level proclaims so many conversions, and on another level results is so few lives being transformed into the likeness of Christ.
It is time for a method of positive, disciple forming evangelism.