I’m not sure exactly the time, but I can remember the speaker and the place. The speaker was Jim McGuiggan, and the place was Harding University. We had traveled to Searcy to listen to Jim speak at a youth event hosted by Harding. The quote has stayed with me for all these years, and it just seems to get more appropriate with each passing year.
I’m not even sure what Jim’s overall message was that afternoon, but at some point in the lesson he said, “We live in a bent and broken world.” Now, you have to hear that phrase through Jim’s measured cadence and thick Irish brogue for it to have its full effect. I think he might be the only person I know who could get two syllables out of the word “bent.” The phrase grabbed me, and has been a part of my preaching and teaching since that day.
It should not even be debated that we live in a bent and broken world. It has been ever since Adam and Eve took a bite out of that fruit. It became even more bent and broken when Cain killed his brother. I was reminded just how bent and broken the world was (and remains) when I pointed out to my Old Testament class that Moab (Moabites) and Ben-Ammi (Ammonites) were sons born of incest and the class almost had a collective heart attack. We are bent and broken now – and we have been bent and broken since the fall.
It would also seem to be beyond doubt that the major concern of the church today would be to heal this bentness and brokenness. I mean, would it not make sense that the church, which is the body of Christ on earth, should want to bring people to the great physician so that he can restore them to health and wholeness? Sadly, I just do not see that happening to any great extent today.
I see a large portion of the church simply turning blind eye to that which bends and breaks humans today. Worse than that, this faction of the church actively promotes that which bends and breaks humans. “Don’t worry, be happy” is the mantra. “You’re okay, don’t feel guilty – the only sin worth forgiving is the sin of feeling guilty – and you are forgiven!” Just like a hot air balloon that floats gently on the prevailing winds, this “church” simply coasts along, never even once suggesting, or even recognizing, that the winds of culture might just be carrying their members right into a disaster from which there will be no escape.
Conversely, there are those who look upon those who are bent and broken – and curse them. Not in so many words, mind you, just with their attitudes and sniffling high-minded prescriptions. Just like the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke, these folks are long on solutions and amazingly short on assistance. “So, you are naked and hungry – why don’t you get dressed and eat some supper.” Or, in biblical terms, “Be warm and filled.” Some things never change.
Part of being human after the fall is recognizing that we are all, every one of us, bent and broken. We all share in the human predicament. But that does not mean we have to promote it, or refuse to help those who seek to climb out of the muck and mire of their squalid conditions. And it certainly does not mean that we have the right to condemn those that we feel are beneath our station (how did we make that decision, anyway??). No, we live in a bent and broken world. We must accept that fact that if we are healed, we are called to be healers and share in the healing of this world. We have to call sin, “sin,” and we have to name that which is destroying our world. But we must always remember that we are “wounded healers” (to steal Henri Nouwen’s beautiful phrase).
If I am anything in this world, I am a wounded healer. I am bent and broken, too. I believe I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, but that does not mean I do not walk with a limp, and carry a few scars. Knowing that, I can share with others how I met the Healer. That, I believe, is the role of the church. We must confront that which bends and breaks the human soul. We can no longer make excuses for this toxic culture. We must not, however, shoot those who are wounded. Let us bring them to the one who will make them whole. Let us be what we claim to be – the hands and feet of Christ.
It’s been a long time since I have had two spare minutes to put together in a sequence, but I just finally decided that I was going to sit down and write again. So much has happened (in the big world, and in my little world). Where to begin . . .
As an observer and sometimes participant in the development of thoughts and ideas of people around me, I have noticed something that increasingly bothers me. The old idea of “political correctness” is just killing the church. I say that as someone who is both guilty and who abhors the idea. As Walt Kelley said through the mouth of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Have you ever stopped to consider how much time we spend worrying about and finding ways NOT to offend someone? I work with and around a lot of young people, and regardless of where I am or who I am with, one major consideration about the words or the images that are raised in a discussion is this: will what I say, or even the manner in which I say it, be considered offensive to someone around me? I am not speaking about flagrant obscenities or obvious insults. I am talking about normal, everyday speech in which we use images or ideas that, for whatever reason, have been deemed “off-limits” by some group or conglomeration of groups.
One particular issue that troubles me about this “politically correct speech” creep is that it is creeping into the pulpits of our churches. Ever since the decision by the Supreme Court that homosexuals should have the right to marry, virtually every speech, sermon, or piece of writing begins with the same tepid caveat – “I don’t want to be misunderstood, and we are all sinners, and I do not want to be judgmental . . . blah, blah, blah.”
I can’t imagine the apostle Paul apologizing for his convictions. The idea that any of the church fathers, or Calvin, or Luther, or Charles Spurgeon, or any great preacher for that matter, backing up before he even said a word is just ludicrous to me. Do we want to be intentionally offensive in our speech or response to outsiders?? No, and I do not know who would suggest that we should be offensive or vicious in our speech.
I just do not see how we can “welcome” homosexuals into our congregations “with the intent to change their hearts” unless we say straight-out and up-front – “homosexual behavior is a sin.” Personally, I am deeply suspicious of the psycho-babble about “same sex attraction,” as I think it is just a circular way to minimize the seriousness of homosexual behavior, but I am willing to be taught is someone can prove such an animal exists.
I just do not see how we can discuss “allowable” or “acceptable” forms of abortion if our goal is to protect the lives of unborn children. Either abortion is the unlawful and murderous taking of a human life, or it is not. To equivocate is to surrender the morality of the question. Do we excommunicate or burn those who have experienced an abortion (a female) or one who has caused or paid for an abortion (a male)? No, but neither do we soft-pedal the seriousness of the crime.
And, this – which hits me squarely between the eyes – do we wink and look the other way when we see a couple who is blatantly living together although not married so that we can “teach them the gospel when they are at church”? No – once again, to equivocate is to surrender. We have swallowed the politically correct pill, and it is killing the church. We have lost our backbone and our nerve to confront ANY sin, much less the big moral collapses of the 21st century.
Please, do not think I speak as a perfect example of rigid moral perfection. I have, for way too long, been guilty of turning aside when the issue demanded firm, but loving, confrontation. Stated more baldly, I’m a wimp. But that does not excuse me, nor does it give me any comfort. How many people have I given the impression that their behavior is acceptable to God simply because I am afraid I might offend them or hurt their feelings? Too many to count.
We must wake up. We must grow a spine. We must learn to confront – with the spirit of Christ, for sure – but we must learn how to confront.
Remember – he did braid a whip and drive the godless from his Father’s house. That, my friends, was politically incorrect.
1. Would what I preach get me killed?
2. Would what I preach get me arrested?
3. Would what I preach even get someone angry at me?
4. Would what I preach even upset someone?
5. Would what I preach even get someone to take notice?
Jesus, Peter, John, Paul – they all stressed to their readers that the proclamation of the gospel would result in rejection, tribulation, persecution.
Today we sugar-coat everything. The gospel will make you richer, more peaceful, help you with your marriage, your career, maybe even your health.
All of which makes me wonder if we are preaching the gospel at all. It just seems to me that if we bend over backwards not to have happen what Jesus, Peter, John and Paul all said would happen places us in a very precarious position.
I do not want anyone to hate Jesus. I do not want anyone to hate the church. I do not want to drive anyone away from the truth. So, I try to make the gospel palatable. I try to “accentuate the positive.” I try to shine the spotlight on the empty tomb and try to keep the bloody cross carefully out-of-sight. And, the question still nags at me: does what I preach and teach even matter at all?
The apostles practiced some pretty severe “boundary protection.” They made sure everyone that entered the church did so under the shadow of the cross, and they were not afraid to hand certain malefactors “over to Satan” so that their soul might be redeemed.
Us? Do we tell people – “Hey, get baptized today and tomorrow you may be fired from your job”? Are we willing to tell people that as far as we are concerned they are Satan’s play toy until they learn what being in Hell is really like? Paul had some pretty sharp language, you know (1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:16).
All of which leads me to ask #6 –
6. Are we preaching “peace, peace” when there truly is no peace? (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11. Notice the context!)
I have been given the opportunity to preach again this coming Sunday (yea!) and in the process of working on what I wanted to say a thought occurred to me. Now, it’s not everyday that I have thoughts that occur to me. I was actually pretty excited.
Anyway, this is what came floating through my mind, and pardon the stream of consciousness thinking here – I hope everything will make sense by the last word.
We (and I am speaking inclusively here, obviously there are exceptions to every general statement) have been working diligently over the past who-knows-how-many years (more than a decade, less than a generation) to make every verse in the Bible easy to understand. That is to say we have been teaching what the books and sections and verses of the Bible mean. But we have overlooked one very important issue that has now come back to haunt us.
We have been forgetting to teach that the Bible means something anyway.
You see, we can teach the exact meaning of every single verse in the Bible, but if we fail to teach that the Bible itself has meaning, then all of that instruction is pointless. You can teach me what every word Karl Marx wrote means, and I will say to you, “So what?” You can teach me the precise meaning of every word that Joseph Smith wrote down and will respond the same way. The writings of Marx and Smith mean nothing to me, so the meanings of each individual section, sentence or word are completely meaningless to me.
So, today, we as teachers and preachers and parents and other church leaders can exegete and decipher and work out the meaning for every jot and tittle in the Bible, and the sum total of our efforts is a big fat zero because of one fundamental fact: the Bible is totally irrelevant to a large and growing population of the United States.
So, I think we need to back up a little bit and ask a fairly basic question: what does it mean to say that the Bible means something, anything?
To my generation, and certainly to generations preceding mine, it was just assumed that when you spoke from the Bible that most people would care. They might disagree with what you said, but at least the Bible mattered to them. Today I do not believe that is a valid assumption. It is my experience that a large number of people, if not a majority of people today, simply look at the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. This is especially true among the college age and younger generations. So, even if you get the meaning right, it doesn’t mean anything.
We are truly living in a post-Christian, post-biblical world. I think we are going to have to stop teaching in paragraphs and go back to something a little more basic. I think we are going to have to go back and teach the alphabet.
And that means we are going to have to start living like we believe the Bible means something, before we can teach that the words within the Bible mean something.
Okay, I plead guilty. The above title is intentionally provocative. But if you stay with me, I think it is appropriate.
The lovely and always insightful Mrs. Smith and I were having a discussion this evening about several issues that are troubling us. In regard to the current state of things in the church, and with a passing reference to F. LaGard Smith’s book “Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony,” (no relation, by the way), my wife had this observation: “You know, in just about any morally conservative church, if a couple started sleeping together outside of marriage and they based their behavior on the fact that they had ‘prayed the lover’s prayer’ and had ‘accepted one another into each other’s hearts,’ the leadership would demand that they stop sleeping with each other or, at the very least, formally declare their relationship through a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, those same churches will accept anyone as a ‘Christian’ just because of some non-biblical prayer or an emotional declaration that has no biblical support.”
Sometimes I wonder who has the better theological mind.
The image was striking to me. We have congregation after congregation after congregation that accepts individuals who claim to have an intimate relationship with Jesus and yet will deny, sometimes adamantly, that a formal rite is necessary to formalize their relationship to Christ. Some will come to that sacred rite only after they have claimed their intimacy with Jesus. Either way the only way to describe their relationship is promiscuous. They are spiritual fornicators. To borrow an earthy but descriptive phrase, they want the milk but they do not want to pay for the cow.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament the sacred rite of baptism is described in many ways: a death, burial and resurrection, an adoption, a physical union. The image of a wedding ceremony is equally powerful. Especially in the current debate over homosexual marriage and the importance of marriage in general, it is insightful to cast the ceremony of baptism as a wedding.
Why is a wedding ceremony important if two young lovers have “prayed the lovers prayer” and “accepted one another into each other’s heart?” Because we know that the power of a ceremony has a binding effect. Yes, it can be broken. But from the very beginning couples have been performing, in whatever culture they live, the sacred rite of a wedding ceremony to make their marriage union both legal and morally acceptable.
Why should we treat our union with our Savior with any less respect and honor? Especially with two worn out phrases that traffic in far more emotion than they do biblical or theological support.
Come to think of it, baptism has far more textual support* than does the formal ceremony of a wedding. So, why is it that many “Christians” will get so upset if a young couple is having sex outside of a marriage contract, and yet will gleefully accept the so-called profession of a “sinner’s prayer” or “accepting Jesus into my heart?”
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:21).
*Baptism is mentioned in virtually every book of the New Testament. If the word itself is not mentioned, then the rite is certainly referenced. For documentation, please consult G.R. Beasley-Murray’s book, Baptism in the New Testament.
Dear “Personal Evangelist” “Door Knocker” “Soul Winner” “Missionary” or whatever title you personally prefer,
I have a question for you, but before I ask my question I would like to compliment you on a few things.
First, I want to thank you for not asking how I was, or how my day was going before you decided that my soul needed saving. It would have slowed you down to have inquired about my health. It certainly would have taken much too long for you to have discovered that I am remembering the anniversary of my husband’s death. My daughter is suffering what might be a life shortening illness in another state, so I am glad you did not ask about my family. Living by myself I get very lonely, and so inviting you in to my home was meant to be a day brightener for me, so luckily you kept everything focused on your Bible and your notebook, so that I was not distracted by the struggles in my life.
As far as your Bible study goes, I must admit you were very well-trained by your supervisors. You stayed strictly on task, never swerving from your carefully constructed questions that only allowed me to answer one way. Of course you would have learned that I was a high school debate teacher if you had bothered to ask, but since you didn’t you never learned that I was able to see though your logic like a nicely cleaned window. But I did appreciate you taking the time to read me those passages of Scripture. The Bible has always been a great comfort to me.
I also want to commend you on the fact that you never once allowed the conversation to drift to what I might have been interested in. I actually do have some questions about the Bible, and you even touched on a couple of them, but as soon as I asked a question we always returned straightway back to the “program” that you have so obviously well memorized. Since you never answered any of my questions while you were here, I wanted to know how it was that you have your specific interpretation of a Scripture, but you are totally unable to explain or understand what your religious neighbors believe. I can tell you exactly what the other “personal evangelists” and door knockers believe, because they regularly visit me as well. But don’t be afraid, they cannot tell me anything about why their neighbors believe what they believe either. It seems like as much time as you all spend knocking on my door you might be able to spend an hour or two knocking on each other’s doors.
So, anyway, I just wanted to write this little letter of thank-you. Your visit was a diversion, although when you got to the point where I was supposed to give you a life-long commitment after you had only spent about 45 minutes with me I was a little put off. I may not be as well-trained as you, but it seems to me I remember that after Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus that Saul was given three days to think things over. I know it hurts your statistics, but it just seems like I could be given a little bit of time to think over what you were telling me. I am not a trained Bible student, and, to be perfectly honest, you are not Jesus, either.
Oh, by the way, I almost forgot. I had a question for you. You were in such a hurry to get to your next soul-winning appointment that after I politely refused to go with you to your church you left in such a huff that I never got to ask you this one. Please take as much time as you need to answer me, I will be here if and when you come up with an answer.
My last question to you is this, “Why should I be in a hurry to believe in a God who is so interested in saving souls that he is not interested in loving people?”
I’ll be waiting, but somehow I don’t think I will see you anytime soon.
Your last Bible study victim.
Hearing of a church (or part of a church) having worship in a bar is nothing particularly new – especially if you follow the writings of the Emergent Church. It has been the practice for some time for those who consider themselves to be a part of the “Emergent Conversation” to apply their “missional” theology and to establish worship communities in any number of venues – disco clubs, coffee houses, and yes, bars and pubs. Such endeavors are considered “edgy,” “missional” and “relevant” in our culture today. As I said, such endeavors have been in practice for quite some time now. What is new is for a fairly conservative church to do so. And so when a congregation of the Churches of Christ decided to establish a “Bar Church” and that decision was reported by the Christian Chronicle, quite a bit of fur flew. For some it was the first they had heard of such a thing. For others it was a “ho, hum” moment and they wondered why it took so long for a Church of Christ to do so publicly.
I responded to the article in the Christian Chronicle, but I felt that the issue demanded a more in-depth response than just a brief comment. So, for better or for worse, here is my understanding of the issues involved, and why I believe such an endeavor is wrong-headed even if it is right-hearted.
To begin with, I understand the thinking behind the “missional” movement, even if that term is so elastic as to be virtually worthless (and it is). I understand that for too many people the church has been an enclave of the pious and the self-righteous and they believe that the “established church” is either dead or dying, and something needs to be done about it. I get the heart. It is the head that I think is utterly wrong here, and when the head and the heart are going in two different direction the end result cannot be pretty.
One of the greatest weaknesses I see in the “Emergent” or the “Missional” church/movement/conversation is a blurring (or abject erasure) of the distinction between the holy and the profane. To set the table we must consider some of the foundational passages of the Israelite People of God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.'” (Lev. 19:1, NIV)
You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses. (Lev. 10:10 NIV)
Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. (Ezekiel 22:26 NIV)
I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned. (Ezekiel 39:7 NIV)
Those quotations should be sufficient, although they are hardly exhaustive. There is a difference between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. Repeatedly and emphatically the Israelites were commanded to observe the difference, and to keep the two separate. It should come as no surprise, then, when Peter wrote in his letter to the disciples dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world:
But just as the one who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15)
Disciples have a hard time with holiness. For one thing, it is hard to maintain any kind of level of separation from the world today, let alone any kind of separation that would fit the description of “holiness.” Second, for generations now the big knock against Christianity has been that “you all are just a bunch of self-righteous, ‘holier than thou’ hypocrites.” So, in order to avoid being called “holier than thou” we run from anything that would separate us from the world.
Except, unless I misunderstand a major, repeated theme throughout Scripture, being separate and apart from the world is exactly what a disciple is called to be.
Returning to the issue of having a “church” or “worship” service in a place where intoxicating beverages are sold for the purpose of dulling senses, if not to the point of absolute drunkenness, then certainly as close to that line as possible. What is the purpose? This is the “heart” issue that I said I get. The intent is to reach people who would not ordinarily attend a “formal” worship service, especially among a group of people who use a special kind of language and dress and act in a way that is completely foreign to the way in which the “unchurched” person lives and speaks.
But what about the “head” issue? What is being communicated when we cease to make any distinction between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean?
I find it especially meaningful that in the Leviticus 10:10 passage I quoted above the immediate context relates to drinking intoxicating beverages when the priests were to enter into the Tent of Meeting to preside at worship. I also find it noteworthy that the apostle Paul in his letter extolling the perfection of the Church as the Bride of Christ uses the term “holy” as a bookend to both begin and end his thoughts (Ephesians 1:4, 5:27). Notice as well that in the Ezekiel 22:26 passage the removal of the distinction between the holy and the profane had a direct result of the profaning of the Sabbath. If you don’t know the difference between holy and profane, then you cannot separate yourself from the one in order to worship and praise the other.
Fellow disciples of Christ – we can have the best, the purest of intentions and still be woefully ignorant of both the error and the negative consequences of our actions. In Exodus 32, Aaron proclaimed a “festival to the LORD,” but the people were worshipping a golden calf and “afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (v.5-6) The apostle Paul had this to say about his fellow Jews:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from god and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1-3 NIV)
I am all in favor of reaching the multitudes of “unchurched” individuals, and I am fully in sympathy to those who see old and decaying churches as being utterly incapable of taking the initiative of reaching those individuals. But, honestly, moving worship to a bar? There can be no distinction between the “holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” if the Holy Spirit is confused with 90 proof Tennessee sipping spirits.
As I stated in my comments regarding this right-hearted but wrong-headed endeavor: there are a lot of descriptions which might be used of such an effort. But “biblical, “missional,” “Christian,” or “holy” cannot be among those terms used.
May God give us a heart to reach the lost. But may he bless us with wisdom in our efforts so that the line between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean is never breached. God does read the heart. He knows our motivations. But the manner in which we exercise those intentions cannot be so profane that they ultimately defeat the intent of our heart. We must remain pure in motive and in practice!
It happens regularly. A team or an individual that is not expected to perform at a very high level starts winning games or other competitions and people start taking notice. Soon there are articles written and maybe a TV reporter drops by to do a “feel good” story about a little David slaying a giant Goliath. Then, from the middle to end of the season when other teams start peaking in the demonstration of their abilities, the little team that could starts falling apart and the losses mount. “Why is this happening?” they ask. “Everyone said we were so good – they even did a TV show about us!” The problem is they quit believing in themselves and their dream, and they started believing in their own press.
I suppose we are all prone to this behavior. A student starts out with a few “A” grades and all of a sudden he or she is labeled as a genius and before too long the “A’s” become “C’s” and everyone wants to know why. A worker gets a few promotions and everyone thinks he or she is the next CEO of the corporation, and then in a few months he or she is unemployed, the result of a series of lackluster job reviews or broken deals. The scene may change actors, but the root cause is almost identical. Someone received a little good press, started believing in his or her goodness instead of the effort and integrity it took to receive the good press, and when our pride is in our pride then the fall is not only certain, but swift.
It should come as no surprise that religious groups are also prone to this behavior. A congregation starts out small, but with absolute faith in God and his providence. Good things start to happen. Growth occurs, both numerical and spiritual. Buildings are built. Missionaries are sent. The baptistery is in use 24/7. Then, word starts to get out about the “little church that could.” Reporters stop by and stories are written. A TV show or two wants to include the church in a series on “Religion that Works.” The preacher gets invited to all the big lectureships. And the church starts believing in all of its wonderful good press and then the wheels come off. Arguments begin. Divisions rack the church. The minister runs off with the secretary. Missionaries run out of money. Buildings have to be sold off. The dream is destroyed.
Lest you think I am only writing in hypotheticals, I have an actual case history in mind. As I was growing up one story that was repeated by just about every visiting minister (and by the local minister as well) was that in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s the Churches of Christ were the fastest growing religious group in the United States. It was pretty heady stuff. We made the news magazines. We were talked about by everyone who was anyone. Even ordinary people talked about us and wondered how we were growing. Now, at this point in time I no longer believe that particular bit of “news” was true. Flavil Yeakley, Jr., has discussed this “growth” and has (in my mind) conclusively proven that it could not have been true (or, if in fact it was true, there is no way to accurately and independently verify it). But, whether it was true or not, Churches of Christ as a group in America today certainly are not growing. Individual congregations might be growing, but the movement as a whole is not. Why? How did a group that was growing in significant numbers (that much I do believe) slowly lose that growth and become stagnant, or possibly slip into decline?
Did we start believing our own positive press? Did we become proud of our own pride, and therefore seal our own fate? Did we lose sight of the all-powerful God who turns a boy’s lunch into a kingdom feast? Did we surrender the power of the Word and come to put our faith in the written (news magazine) word?
Since I have reached the age of adulthood the changes within the brotherhood of the Churches of Christ have been staggering. Every change that comes down from the ivory towers or up from the “grass-roots” promises that a new day of growth is just around the corner. Yet, our children are leaving the church in increasing numbers, and entire congregations are abandoning a heritage of commitment to Scripture and are grasping for theological straws. I am struck by a profound irony – today some of the fastest growing church groups are those who proclaim a non-denominational status, and one of the movements that was founded upon the claim of non-denominationalism is now regarded as a full-fledged denomination, and is therefore being ignored.
My answers are always provisional – at least most of them are. I don’t know why this turn of events has occurred. I do know that for many people within the Churches of Christ, our record of growth in the 1950’s and 1960 was and is a great source of pride. It also is a great way for certain ministers to instill guilt in the present generation because we are not growing at the same rate. But, maybe we had it coming to ourselves. Maybe, when we started looking at the numbers instead of looking to God that we were doomed to this result. When you start believing in your own positive press instead of the one who have you the success, bad things are bound to happen.
Here is a novel idea – let’s stop focusing on numbers and start focusing on people. Let’s learn what makes this generation tick. And let’s learn how the gospel speaks to this generation. That means we are going to have to relearn the gospel story ourselves, instead of telling other people that they should join us because we are the fastest growing religious group in the United States.
Good things happen when we believe God – and not our own positive press!
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.
[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.