Category Archives: Church
The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.
I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.
Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.
Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55). Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.
Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.
Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.
Lo and behold – I am in the final stages of getting my DMin dissertation approved. It has been a wild ride. Soon, though, I hope to have it in my rear-view mirror. In 2015 I hope to present a series of posts here that will kind of summarize my dissertation, although I will probably add some comments here and there that were not necessarily pertinent to my academic paper.
One benefit of my paper was that I was introduced, and perhaps re-introduced in some areas, to some parts of my history that I was not aware of. Even now, as a result of reading a book that came into my vision as I was writing my paper, I realize that I know very little of my own spiritual history – the history of the Churches of Christ. This is odd, because before I started writing my paper I would have argued that I knew quite a bit of this history. I had classes in Restoration History, I have read extensively (so I thought) in Restoration history, and yet…I barely touched the “hem of the garment” as the old saying goes.
Why are members of the Churches of Christ so adverse, or afraid, of learning and teaching our history? As I address this and issues next year I will undoubtedly expand on some of my thoughts here, but here are some of the reasons that have occurred to me as I have worked on my dissertation.
1. We deny that we even have a history. Other churches have histories, we do not. We were created on the day of Pentecost, round about AD 33 in Jerusalem, and that is that. No need to study all that historical stuff that happened over the past 1900 + years. As Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” Just study the Bible and that is all you need to do. Sadly, this is the opinion of a great number of members of the Churches of Christ today.
2. Even if we admit that we have a history, there is no use studying it, because it really does not matter anyway. Studying history only dredges up old fights and issues that no one wants to deal with today. Let sleeping dogs lie. Besides, if I do not study what actually happened in my history, I can write my own history. That way my side is always right. Do not try to confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.
3. We are simply mortified to find out that our history, is, well, so different that what I pictured it. I am stunned to discover that some members’ (even well educated members’) understanding of our history is so blatantly wrong. I have taught a couple of survey type courses on Restoration history in congregations, and without fail someone will walk up to me and say, “I never knew [insert subject] happened that way.” Usually it is in regard to the instrumental music question, but several other topics always seem to catch people off-guard. Case in point – recently a congregation had a “Friends Day,” always a perilous adventure in Churches of Christ because visitors are stunned to find that the band packed up and moved out. So, explanations must be made as to why there is no electric guitars, drum sets, or nary a piano to be seen. Now, a perfect opportunity exists to open visitor’s eyes to the depth of understanding that encompasses over 200 years of Restoration thought. But no, not for this congregation. No, the reason there was no band up front was because it is our tradition not to have instrumental music. No mention of the biblical, historical, or theological reasoning that lies behind that tradition. No mention that Churches of Christ are just one of many groups that recognize the power and beauty of acapella singing. Nope. Just a half-hearted dodge from someone who was terrified that a visitor might think that there was actually a defensible reason why there was no instruments of music in sight. You see, if your history embarrasses you, it is far better never to actually investigate that history.
4. Studying our history exposes our weaknesses and our failings. Here is where I spent most of my time briefly surveying the history of the Churches of Christ as it related to my specific topic. Everyone wants their history to be a history of nobility, honor and unimpeachable righteousness. How strange that the Churches of Christ would want to think this, seeing as how the entire history of the Israelite people (the original “Church of God”) is one long history of mistakes, faithlessness, and more mundane goof-ups. Why should we expect our history to be any different? The fact is the leading voices of the Churches of Christ have made just as many mistakes as they have made things right. But, admitting your weaknesses and failings is a painful, humiliating experience. Many, if not most, members of the Churches of Christ would just rather blithely go through their life thinking that the men (and sometimes women) that they have some vague connection to are enshrined as God’s cherubim and seraphim – blameless, holy, and untouchable.
I genuinely wish more members of the Churches of Christ would learn to appreciate our history. Our history is one of the richest, most exciting, and dare I say, most entertaining of stories. It is replete with triumph and tragedy, success and failure. This history is part and parcel of who I am – how can I deny it? And, for those who have come to the church late in life, it is an amazing story of the American spirit (for good or ill) and learning from this history explains much of the current religious situation in America today.
Why are we so afraid of our history? Maybe I know, and maybe I don’t know. But it bothers me that members of the Churches of Christ are so blatantly ignorant of our history. I pray that changes. Maybe the next generation will not be so phobic about pulling out some dusty history books and turning a few pages…
Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).
I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.
One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.
Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.
You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”
Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.
I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.
Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.
Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.
Have you ever watched a puddle of water evaporate? It seems like nothing is happening for the longest time, and then it is gone. Slowly, inexorably, the water just becomes vapor, then a damp spot, and then, nothing.
I feel like I am watching a puddle disappear, and that puddle happens to be the only church I have been a part of, loved, and occasionally argued with. The vast center of the Churches of Christ is simply evaporating. More quickly in some places, more slowly in others – but the tide of change is undeniable.
When I was a child, then a young man, and even into my young adult years certain things could be counted on. Death and taxes were two of the more unpleasant, but there was a definite comfort in knowing my faith family was solid. Oh, we had our crusty fundamentalists and our wild-haired “digressives,” but like most families the outliers were pretty much used for illustrations and family reunion jokes.
Now, the joke is on the middle.
The fundies and the un-fundies have long been sharpening their knives, and now the hostilities are fully engaged. The more progressive the one side gets, the more reactionary the other side becomes. This just infuriates the progressives (who steadfastly protest that they do not care what the fundies are doing) and so they "push the envelope" even further. Anyone who just wants to follow Christ and wear his name is accused on the one hand of being "soft" on doctrine and of being a cultural coward by the folks on the other side of the aisle.
I used to stand comfortably in the middle of this grand, varied, and sometimes confusing assembly. Now, I am not even sure where the middle is. I fear it is gone.
- I cannot believe in a 6,000 year old earth because I studied and learned how that number was ciphered out. I must be a liberal.
- But, I believe in the inspiration and authority of all of the Scriptures – even the ones that claim Moses wrote the greater part of the Pentateuch, and that Isaiah actually did write all of the book that bears his name. So, that makes me a reactionary.
- I have received multiple degrees from ACU and now have my Doctor of Ministry almost complete from Fuller Theological Seminary. By virtue of guilt by association, color me a flaming progressive.
- Except that I believe there is firm scriptural and theological evidence for such issues as baptism for the forgiveness of sins, acapella congregational singing, and male spiritual leadership. Avast, I’m a knuckle dragging troglodyte.
- I believe in the necessity of a highly trained, deeply educated “professional” ministry staff. Hefty lefty, am I.
- Except that I also know all too well the intoxication that comes with an advanced education that is divorced from reality. An education is only as good as the grounding of those who provide it – and a thermometer is not the only thing in this world with numerous degrees and no intelligence. I must be a tighty righty.
- I believe in the power and strength of a solid, healthy tradition to anchor our peevish human ways. Way out in right field! But I despise a stifling traditionalism that squelches the moving and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. So I’m so far out in left field that I’m selling popcorn and hot dogs.
I know I am introspective by nature. When I take one of those psych tests I raise the “melancholic” bar to impossible heights. It’s not fun always seeing the dark clouds behind the silver lining. If I sound like a bucket of cold water – well, that’s me. But I used to find solace in knowing my church family had my back.
I’m sorry, but the only thing I feel now is that one side or the other only wants to bury their knife in the middle of my back.
It’s not only lonely trying to be in the middle, now it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous.
I have not often reblogged or suggested that people read other blog posts without adding some of my own comments. But I am today: please go and read Tim Archer’s important post:
Tim is an experienced missionary and I could not add to his wisdom if I wanted to, which I don’t, because I don’t want to look any more foolish than I already do.
One caveat, Tim is from Texas, and is a San Antonio Spurs fan, and if I am not mistaken, also supports the Dallas Cowboys. So, while his theological insights are often spot-on, his sports acumen is questionable.
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
I apologize to my out-of-the-U.S. readers, but this is where I live, and if you do not have this problem consider yourself extremely blessed.
Yesterday I wrote what probably has been my most angry post. I am still fuming – and believe me, what I posted was nowhere near as vitriolic as what I deleted. Quite simply I cannot fathom why anyone would consider a personal “right” (whether it truly is or not is debatable) over the life of another human being, but especially the child of grieving parent. Enough of that.
The question I want to pose today is why do American “Christians” have such a morbid attachment to the U.S. Constitution? Why are American Christians so emotionally attached to that piece of paper? Can anyone explain that?
Really, people – its just a piece of paper. A bunch of human beings got together, wrote it down and then voted on what they wrote. It is as simple as that. There was no divine intervention, no words from Mt. Sinai, and there were clearly no words from Golgotha. It was a significant human achievement, I will grant you. But Americans, and Christians in America especially, act as if Moses carried down the mountain before the 10 Commandments. I mean, wasn’t Moses elected president of the NRA? That’s good enough for most Duck Dynasty fans, anyway.
Here is a little exercise for you – think of the most horrific thing that can happen to the U.S. Constitution. Was it destroyed? Did a foreign country overwhelm the U.S. and burn it to ashes? Did the President get it annulled? (Our current one is working on it, by the way). Got it? Now, what would change about your life?
Really, seriously – what would change if the Constitution was to be destroyed? Would you maybe lose your job? Would you become a slave? Would you have to go to an interment camp? Maybe your family would be killed? Maybe you would be killed?
Well, guess what, good Christian American – each and every one of those things has occurred to people as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution! If you doubt be ask the descendent of a slave. Ask a Native American Indian whose ancestors were beaten, raped, forced to live in “Reservations” (which is a really polite word for “Concentration Camp”) and, if they resisted, were murdered by the thousands. Ask the Chinese who were forced to work as virtual slaves as the country moved west. Ask the Japanese and German immigrants who were forced to live in interment camps during WWII simply because of their last names. Yeah, boy, we have a long list of Christian accomplishments – all at the power of the U.S. Constitution.
If the U.S. Constitution were destroyed tomorrow I will tell you what would still be true – God would still be God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would still be effective for all who believe in him, disciples of Christ would still be able to live in the greatest free country in the world – the country of the Kingdom of God.
No human can ever be really free just because of the accident of his or her birth. No human can ever be a slave to anyone if that person has been set free by the blood of Christ. We are all, each and every human who has ever lived, ultimately the slave of whichever god we choose to be the ruler of our life. And that subjection is proclaimed most clearly by the things we protect the most fiercely and those things we absolutely refuse to give up.
So, I ask again, why are American Christians so devoted to the Constitution? Oh, I think I just answered my own question.
Another gem from my daily Bible reading today – Leviticus 18:1-5 (Yes, it is okay for Christians to read Genesis-Malachi):
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD. (NRSV)
This passage, of course, precedes the great holiness chapter in Leviticus 19 where the phrase, “I am the LORD” falls like a drumbeat on the ear. But maybe more on that another time.
I was struck this morning with the profound counter-cultural message of Leviticus 18:1-5. God cannot make it any more clear – do not be like the people that I am delivering you from, and do not be like the people that I am going to drive from you. You are my people, therefore you will follow my statutes and my commands and my ordinances.
I wish more religious/spiritual/Christian leaders would read the Old Testament. Especially the holiness passages.
Today what we hear from far too many spiritual gurus is that the Lord’s church has become too exclusive, too secluded, too provincial. What the church needs to do is get with the culture – become more affirming, more inclusive, more accessible.
To be specific, if the dominant culture dictates that there are no differences between the genders then the church must become gender neutral. If the culture dictates that marriage is simply a matter of “love” and physical attraction then the church must not only accept same-sex marriages, it must bless them. If the culture dictates that nationalism is synonymous with spirituality then the church must preach subservience to one’s country, and perhaps even one political party within that national structure. If the culture dictates what is acceptable in dress, in language, in entertainment then the church must alter its message to accept that clothing, that language, and that entertainment. If the culture dictates how a person is to spend his or her time, then the church must alter its schedule to find a time in which a person who is “busy” with soccer or softball or football or gymnastics or dance or whatever else may conflict with previously scheduled times of worship may attend without missing out on the “important” aspects of life.
To be perfectly blunt – the 21st century church has forgotten from whence we have been called and whither we are being called. We have forgotten that Egypt was our place of slavery and that Canaan is nothing but a spiritual cesspool.
Okay – we have never been slaves in Egypt and Canaan is all the way around the world, and several centuries removed from our experience. But the message of Leviticus is clear: our God is a Holy God and he expects us to disregard the culture in which we find ourselves and to follow only His commands, His statutes.
That means we have God’s commands as a priority when we find ourselves in an unfriendly culture and when we find ourselves in a friendly culture. Maybe especially when we find ourselves in a friendly culture.
For far too long Christians in America have soothed our consciences by repeating the mantra: “America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation.” Well, whether that has been true in the past is a matter for debate (I, for one, do not think so). But it clearly is no longer true. We may not have moved to Canaan, but we certainly have allowed Canaan to move into the U.S.
Let us be done with cultural accomodation. Let us stand and be recognized for what we claim to be – God’s holy and chosen people. If that earns us scorn and ridicule and censure then so be it. Those are the promises given us by none other than our Savior, Jesus (Matthew 5:10-11; John 15:18-16:4). If the shoe is supposed to fit, maybe it is time we tied it on and started walking in it.
Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.
Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.
Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?
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As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.
Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!
You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?
I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.
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My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.
And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.
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I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.
So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”
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The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.
Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.
Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.
A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.
By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.
We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.
So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.
Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.
No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.
2. We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.
But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.
3. We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy, and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.
But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
4. The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.
Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.