If Your Church Went Away

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I have gotten in the past an advertisement that begins with a question like, “What if your church went away, would anyone notice?”  The implication is that my church is so inconsequential that no one would.  Therefore, I need to buy their product (or program or whatever) which will revitalize my church so that my city would notice it (if it went away).

Leaving aside the value of the offered program, I have been thinking about that question of, “If my church went away, would anyone notice?”

I think the answer is: it depends on how it goes away.

First off, are we just referring to the building?  If my church(building) [hereafter referred to as the CB] were to go away because someone torched it, that would probably be noticed because there are people living nearby.  It might even make the news, especially if it could be proven to have been a “hate crime”.  But the news would soon fade away, except that the local news might come back later and run a paragraph and a picture about the grand re-opening.  Otherwise, the story would soon fade from the collective consciousness.

The same might be said by other, more mundane methods of losing a CB: faulty wiring leading to fire, drunk plows his car into the building, neighborhood rezoned and plot of land turned into a Quick Quack (car wash or emergency care center).

Now, if the CB were taken out by something that was clearly an act of God—like a fireball from heaven plowing into the building leaving said CB as nothing but a smoldering hole in the ground while the rest of the neighborhood stays intact—that might be noticed a little more.  Might even make the national news—especially if there were people (hopefully not me, personally) inside at the time.  But, soon, it would disappear from the news and the minds of everyone except for those people who run those “end times” conspiracy websites*.

These scenarios aren’t really what the ads were talking about, though.  The church they are talking about going away is actually the group of people who meet in the CB.

Where did they go?  And did anyone see them leave?

The implication is that the answer to the second question is “no” which makes the answer to the first question, “Who cares?”

According to the fliers—either implied or stated outright—we churches have lost influence in our neighborhoods/communities and, if we go away, we won’t leave a hole there, physically or spiritually and I don’t argue with that assessment.

With one caveat: are we talking about one church going away at a time?  This does happen from time to time and this is what the flier-writer knows and is trying hedge against (make a profit off of).  Second Church of the Lower East Side used to be quite a going concern, with a choir and a youth group and all but, over the years, it shrunk numerically.  Maybe the neighborhood demographics changed, maybe the whole town changed, or whatever, but it grew smaller and smaller until—like those grotesque and cheaply produced puppet aliens at the end of the Star Trek episode “Catspaw”—it just dried up and blew away.  No one—or almost no one—noticed because the influence was long since gone.  Some people may remember that church fondly and kind of wish it were still around, but a] it’s not a big deal to them and 2] there are lots of other churches around now.

Which may be a big part of the story of Lower East Side.  When first founded, it was not only the only church in that part of town, it was the only thing going at all in that part of town.  In the years since, several other churches have moved in and—in addition—the focus of the people of the neighborhood has been pulled away by their kids’ athletics, cable & satellite TV, the Rubik’s Cube and a general desire to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

The flier wants to provide a remedy (often at some expense) to this malady and show me how to “double my Sunday school in six weeks” or “create a rockin’ worship experience” or whatever.  Some of them even have ground-breaking—nay, even revolutionary!—ideas, like returning to the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Without getting into the value or validity of their offers (in this blog, anyway), I’m still wrestling with that question of, “If the church goes away, would anyone notice?”  [The astute reader will notice this isn’t exactly the question as written earlier in the blog.]

Again, how is it going away?  A collection of fireballs that wipe out each individual church member (we’re not talking CBs here!)?  The rapture (as some envision it)?  I’m going to answer this question by saying that either yes, they would notice because this is a large portion of the world’s population suddenly turning up missing or no, because the non-millenialists were right and this was the end of the world, in which case there’s no one or no thing left to do the noticing.

If I’m “doing church” to be noticed, or if I judge the efficacy of my church (or CB) by the metric of being noticed, I am probably doing it for the wrong reason.  Like the guy Jesus talks about whose prayers are lifted up so he may be noticed by men and his reward is on earth (and, by implication, not in heaven), having my church noticed on earth is at best a side-benefit but likely a hindrance to what should be my goal (pleasing God).

Should I worry about the church going away?  No.  God’s pretty clear on that: there will always be at least a remnant on this planet until he sends his son to come and get us.

Should I worry about my church going away?  Again, that may be the wrong focus because 1] we’re specifically told not to worry and b] my focus should be on God and serving him.  If I am doing that, it will probably strengthen my local body.

 

* Which are kind of fun to visit and read, though they often have a grasp of scripture somewhere south of Joel Osteen (but still ahead of Rob Bell).

Hymns vs. Choruses

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            (or, how about a good old-fashioned Gregorian chant?)

 

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

            ~Sir Isaac Newton

 

Or, possibly, Sir Fig Newton.  Or maybe Jimmy Neutron.

Anyway, someone said it and life since then tells us they were either very right or highly quotable.

Since the beginning of the Christian faith, believers have gathered together and sung.  (See Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26 and Acts 16:25 among other verses.)  In the early days, I’m guessing they sang the Jewish songs they had grown up with, but shortly after that, I’m sure they began writing their own hymns.  Some people have even suggested that certain parts of the books of Paul may be him quoting early hymns.

And, I’m relatively sure, that when the first Christian songwriter wrote the first Christian hymn and presented it to the loving fellowship he worshiped with, the loving members of his fellowship beat him to an ever-loving pulp and excommunicated him.

Eventually, his song caught on and other people wrote similar songs in a similar style and they were for the most part well-received.  The problem arose when someone wrote another song that was just as theologically sound, and the loving members of his (or her) church family shouted epithets at him (or her) until they broke down crying and agreed to only write songs in the way songs had always been written because that was the way God wanted songs written!

Flash forward a couple thousand years, with the knowledge that this cycle has been repeated throughout church history for the entire time of the church’s existence, and we come to “modern times” where we have become so sophisticated that we no longer excommunicate or beat anyone for music we don’t like, we just write blogs like this and articles for “Christianity Tomorrow” about “Why My Music Makes Me Holier Than Your Music, Which Will Undoubtedly Land You in the Screaming Infant Section of Hell”.

Lately, the articles I have been reading are about these wonderfully enlightened “worship leaders” (some of whom are so enlightened they’ve gone back to calling themselves “song-leaders”—just like Paul probably referred to his leader of songs back when he was conducting those brush-arbor revivals in Troas, Iconium and the southern section of Macedonia) who have been leading their congregations in praise choruses for several years* before coming to the surprise knowledge that, “Hey, some of those old hymns aren’t so bad!”

So they lead their congregations in hymns and write blogs about what “diadem” and “Ebenezer” mean and how much better and “richer” and “fuller” is the lyrical content of the old hymns, forgetting that some old hymns have all the theological and/or spiritual depth of an old Burger King jingle.  I’m looking at you, “Church in the Wildwood”.

Meanwhile, they feel a need to denigrate the modern “worship choruses”, lumping them all into a “too repetitive and emotion-only” bag that is remarkably similar to the bag they used to lump all the old hymns into.  In other words, for every action (in this case, a swing toward choruses), there is an equal and opposite reaction (back to hymns).

I’m not going to make one of those “can’t we all agree that … “ pleas, because that would be like trying to get all Americans to agree on and vote for the “sane” party.  However, if I were going to try and build a consensus it would be that we all admit that not all hymns are great and not all choruses are bad.  If I had to put an intellectual and well-written hymn, for instance, against a repetitive chorus that quotes Scripture … well, what if I like them both, for different reasons and for different uses?  Maybe my spiritual diet would be best served with portions of both emotion and intellect.

This might well be delivered by a single leading voice, a choir, a worship team, a person on guitar, twelve people on guitars, a keyboardist or someone with limited rhythm playing the drums.  (I just don’t understand the need for all church drummers these days to be surrounded by enormous spit guards.  If they’re worried about loogies from the teens, that’s what the moving guitar players are there for: interference.)

I think the real reason we like arguing hymns versus choruses is a] because we want to validate our personal preferences and 2] a well-presented argument on the subject makes us feel superior.  That being said, maybe we’d all do well now and then to participate (participate, not just sit and listen) in a worship service that takes us wildly out of our comfort zone.

 

 

*There are some churches who have been singing the same chorus over and over for all those years, because apparently no one knows how “Pass it On” is supposed to end.

Is the Church Relevant

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The little churches are declining.  The big churches are, often, getting bigger.  Now, in the little churches, we often complain that we’re getting smaller because the big churches are getting bigger.

But I’ve looked at the numbers—at least in our town and other towns I’ve been in—and the statement doesn’t hold true.  Yes, the little churches are getting smaller, and the bigger churches are getting bigger, but there’s not a direct correlation.  If I were to estimate (and why not? It’s my blog, right?), I would say that for every 100 people who have left the little churches, less than 25 are being added to the big churches.

I look at the people that we, as a small church, have lost over the 7 years I have been here and I can only think of one couple that went to a bigger church.  Some died, some are chronic church-hoppers and we knew from the beginning we didn’t have them for long … and some have just stopped going to church.

This is a small town.  I still see these people around town and I talk to them.  I’m friendly, they’re friendly, and they usually tell me something like, “Yeah, I need to get back into church, but … “  For the sake of this blog, there’s no need to go into the specifics of the second half of that sentence.

See, they don’t hate the church; they would never in a million years tell me they hate God; they just don’t have room for either in their lives right now.

So, what has the church usually done to try and address this problem?  Newer, hipper music.  Video screens.  Youth programs.  Gymnasiums.  Let me stress: there is nothing wrong with any of these things.  I see no evidence that any of these things is anti-God in any way.  And sometimes, they even help (though that’s not a guarantee, either).

Travel back in time with me for a moment.  A time when Sunday morning service involved hymns, sung from hymnals, and the sermons were generally expository (and long).  What did people used to call the Wednesday night service back then?  “Prayer meetin’.”  And you know what?  The church was a vital part of the community and the churches were growing and every denomination was planting and growing new congregations and—

Wait, this isn’t a call to go back to hymns, unpadded pews, women’s hats and men’s ties.  While I’m a big fan of expository preaching (or “ex-poz”, as we pronounce it in the biz), I don’t know that it is the answer over topical sermons.

But I’m thinking that one thing we need to stop trying to do is “be relevant”.  Because the more we try to be “relevant”, the less impact we seem to be having on our culture.  The more user-friendly we’ve tried to make the church, the less users we’ve had in the church.  We lost the culture a long time ago and I don’t think we can recapture it.

At least, not on culture’s terms.  I’m glad there’s Christian music and Christian movies and I’ve even tried to do my part to add to the library of Christian novels and all these things may have a place, but I don’t think they are the answer (because, for the most part, they are encouraging the faithful but having little effect on the unsaved).

For one thing, let’s travel back in that time machine again.  Back when the churches played a much larger part in the life of the average American, was life perfect?  Nope.  Not only did they not have satellite TV, they also had crime and poverty and all the vices we do today.  Divorce may not have been as prevalent but there were still plenty of loveless, Godless (but I repeat myself) marriages.

C.S. Lewis said that he noticed that chapel attendance at college decreased when it stopped being mandatory.  While there has never been a country-wide command to be in church here inAmerica, there used to be some societal assumptions and pressures to get in a church when one came to a town.  At some point, though, that ethos ceased to be passed down to the next generation.  Church went from “something you better be a part of” to “something that’s a good idea to be a part of” to, now, “something I can’t understand why anyone would be a part of.”  Those of us who go to church are thought of as harsh and judgmental and uncaring and … and you know what?  The facts have no impact on this argument.

We can blame that on the media or the past transgressions of the church, but the real reason is that the god of this age has blinded people to the truth.  And then he’s convinced them that he doesn’t exist and the one, true God is either a fable or a doddering old man, a vestige of a bygone, unsophisticated age.

What do I think needs to happen?  I think we need to stop worrying about being relevant.  I don’t think the style of music matters nearly so much as what is sung* or the length of the sermon is as important as what is said.  (The Apostle Paul preached so long a dude fell asleep and died—and then, after raising the fellow—Paul went and finished the sermon!  But Jesus’s entire Sermon on the Mount can be read out loud in about 12 minutes, 20 if you’re in the south.)

Ultimately, I think what’s going to save the church is to take the focus off the church and put it on our every-day-lives.  See, I’m convinced that all those people who have drifted away from the church didn’t leave because of doctrinal issues or even the church’s stance on alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, gambling, or whatever.

I think they left because they looked at the people who stayed and didn’t see that church really made any difference.  They heard the Lord works in people but saw no evidence of it other than a few happy bromides, which they could achieve on their own by bailing out on church, sleeping late on Sunday, and getting tweets from Joyce Meyers*.

I think—nay, I’m convinced—that the only way to save the church is to take the emphasis off the church and have Christians living—every day, out in the world—as Christians.

 

* For those people who are always going on about how much better the old hymns are because of the lyrical intricacies and harmonies and such, I think some of the worship choruses surpass the hymns for the simple reason that they are just scripture set to music.  While I, personally, am not big on all the repetition some of the new songs slip into, over all I would have to say that a direct quote from the Apostle Paul trumps the poetry of Isaac Watts (but that’s just me).

* No offence to Joyce Meyers.  She sends out good tweets, which is why she was the first one to come to mind.  There are also great tweets from CS Lewis, Billy Graham, Max Lucado, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler and many more.

Will Our Pets Go to Heaven

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A friend of mine here in town, we’ll call him Ted, doesn’t go to church anymore.  He never went often, but he was going sporadically there for a little while.  Then—for some reason and I have no idea how it even came up in conversation—the preacher at the church where Ted was going told him that his dog absolutely would not be in heaven.

It wasn’t that the preacher hated Ted’s dog.  The preacher was just certain that no one’s pets would be in heaven.  None of them.  No pets in heaven.  It was a certainty!

Now, some people are going to object on the basis that saying so was insensitive since it clearly drove someone away from the church.  On that score, if the preacher truly believes there will be no pets in heaven, then I don’t mind him saying so.

What I mind is that, having read the Bible through many times, I am confident that Scripture says absolutely nothing about the topic in any way*.  I would never tell anyone their pets won’t be in heaven … nor would I tell anyone their pets will be in heaven.  If you can find anywhere in Scripture that addresses the topic at all, please leave a comment below because I think the Bible says even less about pets than it says about whether space aliens will receive salvation (here).

Why does the preacher believe that no pets will be in heaven?  Because, he says, to get into heaven one must love God and pets do not have the capacity or ability to love.

To which I respond that either this man has never had a pet of his own or he defines love only as a feeling and not—as I believe it should be—as an action.

If I tell you I love you (over and over, even) but, when opportunities to actually show you love come up and I neglect to do so, you are well within your rights to doubt my love.  Love, I am convinced (from Scripture), is an action word.  God showed his love for man by sending his son (among other actions).  David showed his love for Jonathan through action.  Jesus showed his love for people (including us!) by coming, living, preaching, dying on the cross, resurrecting, and more.

By that metric, I would define pets as extremely loving.  If you have a pet, you know whether it likes you or not.  Especially a dog.  The wagging tail when you get home (after being gone for all of five minutes), the desire to snuggle, the way he trots up with his newest toy (or dead, disgusting thing he found in the yard) that he wants to share with you.  The way he camps right outside the bathroom door as you throw up.  I have a golden retriever who ain’t, as my father-in-law liked to describe him, “Eat up with brains”, but he certainly seems to be full of love.  Even my cat shows love for us (more for my wife, even though I’m the one who wanted him!).

Now, does my dog love God?  That I couldn’t tell you.  I don’t know that he has the capacity.  However, it sure seems to me like he performs well the function(s) God created him for.  I can’t say the same about me!

Will I see my pets through the years in heaven one day?  I can’t, from Scripture, say yes.  I’d like to think so.  But I also can’t say, from Scripture, that I won’t.  It’s a topic of pure conjecture and my only issue is going to be with anyone who claims to have arrived at a definitive answer.  Unless they can show me something in Scripture I’ve never seen before, I’m going to think they’ve let a wish become their belief.

*Yes, in heaven Jesus gets a horse.  Whether the rest of us will get one, I don’t know.

Evolutionary Sin

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The citizens of Springfield overwhelmingly voted to allow gambling in their city, but before the vote could be final, everyone in the hall turned to Marge because she seemed the person most likely to throw a wet blanket on the idea.  Marge stood up and said, “Once society declares something to be OK, it’s no longer a sin.”*  Everyone cheered and gambling was OK’d for Springfield.

It is said that the best humor is founded in the truth, but is there truth in what Marge said?  Not really.  It is true that society acts that way—even the society within the church—but there’s no indication in Scripture that God acts that way.

Do we want him to?  At first blush, the answer could seem like “yes”.  See, I want God to evolve where my sins are concerned, but not where yours are.  Well, if you’re a good friend of mine, I’ll be magnanimous and let your sins slide, but let’s be careful ‘cause there’s that guy over there who I can’t stand and I’m kinda hoping God will hold his sin against him!

I was recently pointed to a blog by a pastor who was setting out in four easy steps what he would do if his child were found to be overcome by a sinful lifestyle.  The four steps were:

1]  You’ll know it.  i.e. he wouldn’t hide his child’s sinfulness from the world, but broadcast it for all to see.  In other words, he wouldn’t pretend that his child wasn’t sinful.

2]  I’ll pray for them.  Because this is what a loving parent does.  (Can I get an “amen”?)

3]  I’ll love them.  See the last numbered point.

4]  Most likely, I already have sinful children.  It is the pastor/blogger’s opinion that his child was born with the sin already a marked part of his/her personality and there’s nothing that can be done to change that.

OK, I have to admit here that I have fudged the facts of the dude’s blog just a little.  He never referred to the behavior in question as a sin.  Either he—like Marge—has decided that since society has deemed it OK it’s not a sin anymore, or, maybe it is still a sin but God’s not going to be as uptight about such things as he used to be.

Either way, that’s a mighty big leap.  Now, I will admit that the church has treated as sinful things that the Bible doesn’t say are.  [Gambling’s a good example.  I think gambling’s a waste of money and I see no good coming from it, but there is no where in Scripture a “thou shalt not gamble” commandment or anything that even comes close.]  We’ve also had a bad habit of engaging in things that the Bible specifically says are sins, like gossip and slander.  So I can’t get on any moral high horse and claim “we of the church are always right about this!”

Still, look back at that fourth point (with a glance at the first one).  What if Biblical scholars of the last two thousand years are correct and the behavior in question is sinful?  I’ve seen some pretty tortured reasoning to say it’s not, but let’s say that—in this case—the scholars were right and the sin is still a sin?  What should we do?

2 & 3 are spot on!  I’ve got two kids myself and both of them are sinners.  (They come by it naturally: their parents are sinners, too.)  I pray for them on a daily basis (waking time, I pray for them on an hourly basis, sometimes minutely).  I love them.  I always will.  But I won’t accept the sin in their lives.  One of the things I’ll always pray about for them is that God will convict them of their sin—GOD will convict—and they will repent out of their love for him.

What I won’t do is parade their sin in front of others.  I have no desire to either shame them, or pretend that their sin isn’t sin (which is what I believe the point of #1 is).  As to #4, our modern culture tells us that we are born with or genetically predisposed to some behaviors, therefore they are not sinful.  It’s a comforting thought, but it’s a non sequitur.  Just because you can’t help gossiping or murdering does not make you any less culpable.  And that old non-Biblical saw of “love the sinner, hate the sin” gets easier every time we downgrade a sin to “possibly a less-than-ideal idea”.

“Wait, Sam!  You mean my son Willard, who was born with a need to gossip, is going to be held accountable for that?!?  That’s not fair!”

Why not?  Willard is a human being, right?  He’s not a hound dog, unable to resist the siren call of a female in heat.  Sure, it might mean that he feels a little unfulfilled for the rest of his life because he is morally bound to not gratify his every whim, but a] that’s a small price to pay for eternity and 2] we of his family (physical and congregational) should try to lift him up and help him find fulfillment and love in non-sinful ways.  Willard might go to his grave still lusting after a juicy bit of gossip, but not getting gossip won’t kill him.  (This seems terribly unfair to our modern ears and sensibilities, where we expect every desire to be met—and quickly!  “30 minutes or it’s free”, that’s our motto.)

I’ve gotta admit: I love God’s grace, but it sure is confusing!  You mean God doesn’t want to hold any of my sins against me?  But wait, you’re saying he also doesn’t want me to continue in sin?  Wouldn’t it be easier for me to pile up the sins so he could show me more grace?  (See Romans 6 for an answer to that question!)

Our culture is going to continue to call what is sinful not.  Grace is going to continue to be watered down—who needs it if the behavior isn’t really sinful, after all?

So, as much as I love grace, I understand the appeal of legalism.  [See my blog on the topic at http://garisonfitch.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-appeal-of-legalism.html]  It’d be easier to just pronounce judgment on all sinners … except that, to paraphrase the great Andy Taylor, “If I was to throw out all sinners I’d better reach around and get a holt of my own britches!”

There’s not an easy solution here because everyone I know is a sinner, and me most of all.  It’s not my place to condemn anyone.  It’s also not my place to let the people around me continue in sin.  So every day is a tightrope walk between loving acceptance and Godly challenge … and maybe that’s the beginning of the key: instead of always chastising someone for their sin, challenge them (and me) to live upward.  Let’s don’t any of us settle for what we are, but strive to let God work us into what we should become.

*May not be an exact quote, but I’m sure I’m pretty close.

Thinkers vs. Feelers

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Thinkers and feelers who have the same end goal in mind can’t seem to get along.

I thought about that opening sentence being my headline, but I don’t like long headlines (long headlines used in the past not withstanding) because they make me think of either tabloids or The Onion.

Anyway, it’s been said that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide everyone into two categories and those who don’t.  With that in mind, I’m going to be one of those people and divide most church-going people into two (quite possibly ill-named) categories: thinkers and feelers.

Being overly-generalizing, the thinkers are those who prefer to approach all matters of spirituality, faith or the church in terms of facts and figures.  They really like apologetics, they tend to study their Bibles in an analytical and methodical fashion, and if given a choice they’re going to choose exegetical over topical every time when it comes to sermons.

Being an equal opportunity generalizer, the feelers prefer to approach the above from a standpoint of feelings.  A song or hymn, for instance, is usually appealing to them more in terms of how it “affects the spirit” than for it’s musical precision or lyrical rhyme scheme.

Both of these groups—within the church, anyway—have a sincere desire to grow closer to God, to be good Christians, and to see the people around them won to Christ.  Unfortunately, we spend most of our time with infighting, thwarting all three of those goals to one extent or another but—most especially—that one of winning others to Christ.

For instance, we recently went through Lee Strobel’s video series “The Case for Christ” at our church and discovered that “the thinkers” identified best with Lee and his analytical approach to “gospel discovery”: interviews, lots of reading, listed and annotated facts; while “the feelers” tended to identify more with Lee’s wife: not disdainful of the research, but more influenced by the movement of the Holy Spirit in a way that seems, to “the thinker”, to be pretty esoteric.

We had a good discussion Sunday night, but I’ve seen it too many times that the two groups can’t come together on this—and, you can tell, think little of the “opposing side” in the discussion (when, really, we shouldn’t even be in opposition).  The feelers think the thinkers have taken all the joy and spirit out of experiencing God and, by inference, begin to doubt whether the thinkers have the Holy Spirit in their lives at all.  The thinkers, at the same time, are thinking that the feelers have overemphasized non-quantifiable feelings to the point that they are no longer thinking at all and—by inference—are probably easily swayed in their thinking because they aren’t really thinking at all.  This, of course, is seen by anyone on the outside of the discussion as just one more thing to turn them off about church and faith.

I am pretty sure I fall into the “thinking” camp, but I am frequently reminded that I need the feelers.  I can get so wrapped up in my facts and figures that, while well informed, I start to become short on things like joy and compassion (even while being more convinced than ever before of the “facts of the gospel”).  The feelers I know, I am sure they need us thinkers around, too, so that their feelings don’t get carried away and overwhelm the gospel message.

[One of the problems, though, is that we’re both so convinced that our way is the right way that we begin to think we a] don’t need the other side because 2] our way is so perfect it won’t allow us to stumble.]

We’re told that iron sharpens iron, but if you’re sharpening a blade an even better substance is flint.  Maybe we need some iron around to keep us strong, but we also need some people around us who are striving for the same goal but built fundamentally different from us.

Why “Millenials” Are Leaving the Church

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Recently, my attention was drawn, via Facebook, to two different blogs by two separate bloggers (can’t remember if I were sent them by the same person) dealing with the same problem: why the church is losing millennials.  In both cases, they were appended with notes that read something like, “Well-written article.”

And they were.  They both contained nothing but correctly spelled words, the grammar was impeccable, and the syntax was fully paid-up for the fiscal quarter.

They were also remarkably similar.

Not just with each other, but with articles that I was emailed ten years ago with a headline of “Why Generation X is leaving the church”, which greatly mirrored articles sent via snail mail from 30 years ago with titles like, “Why the baby boomers are leaving the church.”  Go back far enough, and someone was probably writing a missive on papyrus about why the Iron Age was leaving the synagogue.

Now, both of you who are still reading to this point, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that the articles are wrong, I just find it interesting that every generation has to get to the point where they think they’ve got it right.

Take these two articles I was recently made acquainted with (please).  The gist of both was that millenials (a term undefined in either article but we’ll let that slide for now) are leaving the church because they find it irrelevant.  That could be, but it’s also true that for the last few decades almost everyone leaves the church they grew up in between the ages of 18-25 and only a small percentage of them ever come back (to any church).  I do not deny the possibility that this is the church’s fault, but I also think the generation itself bears some responsibility.  And, let’s not forget, there is an Enemy who wants to keep people out of church and those years are an especially vulnerable time for everyone as we try to figure out our place in the world and where in it we go to get married, find a job, make meaningful friends, etc.

Getting to more specific charges (which were also the charges made 10, 30 and 2000 years ago), the millenials don’t want a superficial church (amen!).  They want a church that deals with real issues, like how to serve the poor (locally and globally).  They also (in both articles) want to be assured that the church will treat well their friends who are living in unrepentant sin.

That one bugs me.  It was in both articles, but neither offered a recipe or outline for what the author/blogger was hoping the church would do (just a vague fear that we would inevitably do it wrong).  As a person who fights cynicism on an almost daily basis (some days I just give in to it), what I am thinking when I read such blogs is that they want the church to welcome their friends in no matter what and ignore or rationalize the sin away.  I have a problem with half that statement (the second half).  At the church where I serve, our motto is, “Welcoming everyone, wherever you are, to be a growing follower of Jesus.”  I stand by that and we work hard to make it true.  We try to welcome everyone (and I think we do a pretty good job), but we’re not satisfied to let ourselves or anyone who worships with us stay where we are.  Is the sin in question sexual, verbal, physical, mental?  Doesn’t matter.  We want to provide a loving environment in which the Holy Spirit can help us work together not to embrace sin but to let that Spirit wash it away.  I hope this is what the Millenials want.

As to the poor, I agree that most churches aren’t doing as much as we can to help the poor.  And, if you read back through Jesus’s words—as well as the rest of the Bible—you’ll find that taking care of the poor and ministering to them is a high priority.  I appreciate that these Millenials want churches that will take up that mantel, but I wonder if they realize that most of these churches that they are leaving in droves are ministering to the poor already.  Maybe it’s not in a big way, and certainly, it can be done better, but it is being done.  These churches the Millenials are looking down on and walking out on, they are participating in a soup kitchen, gathering clothes against winter for the underprivileged and taking worship services to care homes and orphanages.

I would encourage any Millenial (or anyone else) who would like to see their church minister to the poor to a] jump in with an existing ministry, 2] strengthen that ministry, so that they can c] have the standing to suggest ways the ministry can be expanded and improved upon!  It’s a lot easier, though, to either just drop out or jump to another church that already has the program together and all you have to do is plug in.

Instant gratification.  That’s what’s really desired here, by Millenials, Gen-X’ers (which is what I think I used to be—or maybe I was Generation Y, as in, “Y do we keep coming up with these stupid labels?”) and everyone else.  We want what we want now.  No 40 years in the wilderness for me!

This is the real reason people of all ages have left and are leaving the church.  It really has very little to do with style of music, outreach to the poor, or the church’s stance on whatever the sin du jour is.  By it’s nature, any church worth it’s salt is going to provoke its members/attendees/adherents/whatever to be something they aren’t.  To minister to both the poor and the rich, to look out for orphans and widows, to love and good deeds, to take up your cross, to be holy.  But in a culture where we are each told our own personal hearts are the best and final arbiter of what is right or wrong, to go into a building where some man or woman points to an ancient book and says, “Jesus is the way and this is his map” … well, that just ain’t hip, dude.

I do think the church needs to change.  There are things we do only because we have always done them—not because they work (pragmatism), because they never did.  There are things we don’t do for the same reason.  And I want to keep asking questions about these things that are, in reality, just forms, not substance.  I want to find the substance, hidden though it may seem at times.  And I don’t want to leave the church to “find something better” because—from where I sit—it seems that most who do so quickly stop looking and settle for nothing.  I want to stay in the church and try to make it better—not by my standards but by God’s.

P.S.  My spell-checker really hates the first sentence of this blog, recognizing neither “blogs”, “millenials” or “Facebook”.

Preachers In the News

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Ministers—professional preachers, anyway—have been in the news recently, both nationally and locally.  And it hasn’t been good.

That, in itself, is a shame, on many levels.

A few years ago I was sitting with a man whose father was on hospice.  I had arrived at the hospital as a hospice volunteer to sit with a man who was dying so that the family could leave the hospital—go home, maybe get a nap or a shower or just get out of the hospital for a while.  One of the man’s sons, though, kept thanking me for being there but not leaving.  He needed someone to unload on, and I was there.  (This happens a lot in hospice: people just needing to talk.  Most of them are pleasant, many are sad, I’ve only had to deal with one who was really angry.)

As the son sat there, talking about the passing of his father, I learned a couple things.  One, the man didn’t really like his father.  He loved his father in a vague way, but he didn’t like his father because—according to the monologue—his father had been hard and harsh and grumpy.  Still, he had provided for his family and taken good care of his wife (their mother), so there was at least some respect for that.

The second thing I learned from this son was that all church ministers/preachers were money-cheating crooks.  Every single one of them.  All they were in it for was the money.  Yes, he knew I was a minister but, while he never accused me to my face, it was clear he was painting me with the same broad brush.  As I thought of my one-car, one-bath existence, I listened respectfully and tried not to argue or laugh.  I did wonder where he had gotten this idea because, as the conversation (monologue) wore on, it seemed like he had only once in his life had any sort of lasting relationship with a minister or church.  I knew the building (not far from where I sit right now) and the man who had been the minister there when this son was young had been someone the son admired.  Loving, good teacher, impoverished.  Somehow, somewhere along the line the son had gotten the idea that all preachers were just in it for the money and would not be disabused of that idea.

I thought maybe he had a story—and, sadly, there are plenty of them out there—of a minister who absconded with some funds or cheated a widow out of her legacy.  If he had such a story, he never told it, to me, anyway.  Maybe he had just seen the stories on the news of mammon-obsessed preachers, but I don’t think so.  It seemed too personal.  Still, I imagine that the stories on the news only fed his preconceived notions.  The son wasn’t a moron.  He knew about local ministers who fed the poor, sat up to all hours at the hospital, visited the elderly, but he ascribed to us—one and all—bad motives.

(This, I am convinced, is how most prejudices work.  They may begin with a legitimate gripe against one person, but the Enemy creeps in and—through news stories and the anecdotes of “friends”—convinces us that our one-time experience is the norm.  Jim-Bob Smith has had one bad experience with a member of a certain ethnic group—against many many good experiences, for instance—but he has allowed himself to be convinced that the bad experience speaks for everyone of that ethnic group and the myriad good experiences were all aberrations.)

So anyway, nationally we have a popular and well-known minister being asked to step down from the pulpit for a time because—at the very least—he seems to have let his fame go to his head and—at the worst—he has become a spiritual and emotional bully.  Locally, we’ve had a couple ministers asked to resign their positions for, shall we say, “indiscretions”?  Like everyone else, I’m wondering, “What happened?  Surely these guys had to know they were going to get caught!  Why throw everything they had worked for away?”  I have been praying for their families and the churches they formerly served.

But what is especially bugging me is that, as a minister of the gospel myself, I know these “ministers” have just helped fuel the thoughts of people like the son previously mentioned who will look at all of us—Christians in general and ministers in particular—and think, “Yep, that’s what they’re all like.”

[P.S.  I mean that my house only has one bathtub, not that I only take one bath a year.]

A Murder, Eternal Assurance and Something About Cold Hands

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The police ruled it a murder-suicide.  Not like a “usual” one, though, where an agitated party murders a loved one, then turns the gun on themselves.  Often sparked by an assumption of infidelity.

No, the perpetrator in this case felt aggrieved over something (does it really matter what?), so he went out and found a complete stranger to murder.  Then, as the song says, “He turned his own cold hand.”

A mess, a tragedy, a crime, a venal sin.  Call it what you want, it was hard to think of any good associated with it.

Unless you were the preacher at the funeral for the perpetrator of this heinous act.  “He was a loving father,” said the preacher and “He’s in a better place now.”  In case that were too ambiguous, the preacher went on to specify that the “better place” was heaven, in the arms of his (the perp’s) Lord.

It was just a few weeks after another troubled person in our town had taken her own life.  A teenager with no known conflicts, no note left behind to explain things, decided death was better than life and brought about her own end one afternoon while everyone was out of the house.

At that funeral, too, the preacher—a different preacher from the other funeral—assured the audience that the dead girl was “in a better place.”  You know what?  Maybe she was.  The Bible speaks of an unforgivable sin, but it’s not suicide.  It’s the blasphemy (or rejection) of the Holy Spirit.  Now, suicide might well be a sign of such a rejection.  I tend to think that, most often, it is.  That, for whatever reason or factors, a person has decided that their life is not worth living and—by inference—God has abandoned them.

I don’t believe God has abandoned them, but once a person gets to that point in their thought processes, turning the ship around is not an easy task.  I also don’t think that suicide is an absolute guarantee that the person has rejected the overtures of God through his Holy Spirit.  Maybe they just forgot for a time, or acted in haste.  (Which, if that’s unforgivable then everything I have ever done because I momentarily forgot or got cocky is going to be held against me, too.)  Maybe it’s the result of a chemical imbalance.  That doesn’t make suicide right—and it certainly isn’t “right” for anyone left behind—and, more than anything, this is in the purview of God. But since he didn’t say, “Suicide is the unforgivable sin” I’m sure not going to say it is.

On the other hand, I have a hard time with declaring someone who has decided their gift from God wasn’t worth keeping as automatically sitting in his mansion.  (Again, it’s not up to me, [praise God!] but) I think about the auditorium of high school kids at that second-mentioned funeral who came away with the idea that, if life sucks, just end it and let God take you to heaven.  If that were the way it worked, why didn’t God tell us all to off ourselves as soon as we came up out of the baptismal waters?

Now, I have great sympathy for those preachers.  They were asked to preside over a funeral—which is an event for the living; specifically, the family—and bring comfort at a time when comfort seems impossible.  The family is already sitting there wondering, “What signs did I miss?  Is there something I could have done?”  Still, to tell everyone that everything’s fine, now, doesn’t seem like the path of honesty, either.

Not too long after these two events, a car filled with teenagers caught our attention.  An inexperienced driver, with a car full of hung-over, under-aged drinkers, plunged to the death of everyone inside.  Horrible, horrible, thing.  Lives lost, other lives shattered.  But once again, we were told they were all in a better place.  In this case, because they had all attended church while children.  No one in the car had been in church in some time, there was no visible fruit of living for God in their lives, but because they once attended Sunday School without actively setting fire to the sacraments, they’re in heaven.

We don’t want to think bad of the dead, and there’s probably no way I can honestly end this blog without coming out harsh to modern sensibilities … but what if all or some of the people from the above-mentioned incidences are not in a better place?  There’s nothing we can do about it now—for their sakes, anyway—but what about ours?  I firmly believe in grace as an undeserved and unearnable gift, but what if how we live after having received grace—what if the fruit we produce, as Jesus put it—really does matter?  What if life—even a hard life—is a gift from God that shouldn’t be thrown away?

Do We Have Something Better to Do With Our Time Than Worry About the Aliens?

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I receive an email letter each week from a prominent Christian ministry with whom I generally agree.  (I say generally even though, to date, I can’t think of a specific stance of theirs I disagreed with—though I have not read every issue assiduously so there may have been other points with which I would have differed.)  Within each email, there is a question—ostensibly sent in by a reader—and then an answer provided by the ministry.

The question last week was, “Did Jesus die for aliens, too?”

Let me print the first paragraph of the ministry’s two-paragraph response:  “An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam. Do an Internet search and you will find many examples over the years of both Christians and non-Christians who have made comments similar to this. In essence we are saying that Bible-believing Christians would have a problem with a belief in aliens because Jesus died for the human race, and thus only humans in this universe can be saved. Thus Bible-believing Christians don’t (or can’t) accept the belief there are aliens on other planets.”

Now, as someone who has read the Bible from cover to cover several times I take issue with this conclusion in that I don’t think the Bible says a single word—for or against—the idea of life on other planets.  Not one.  (For instance, I believe the angels mentioned are really angels and not “visitors from another planet”.)

I do agree that salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone.  I’m going to surprise some people here and put in a “however”.

Salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone, however, what if there’s a planet out there with people on it who never sinned?  Who (a la CS Lewis’s “Paralandra”) when Satan tried to tempt their Adam and Eve, stood up to him and trusted in God?  If they never fell, they would have no need for Christ’s redemption.  In fact, they would be walking with God in their garden still.

If they never sinned, were never cursed with death, what would they be like?  Assuming (as I do) that God created all of the universe at the same time, then from the beginning of the universe until now—using fully-functional brains that were not stunted by sin and led by scientists who didn’t die and continued to work on their own ideas—they would be so far ahead of us technologically that, even if they came to earth, we would probably appear to them as something just above a hamster in the intelligence department.

Of course, without sin, maybe they wouldn’t have even seen the need to leave their garden in the first place.  Let’s say they did, though.  What if God did put life on other planets but he only put one life-bearing planet in each galaxy?  What are the odds that we would ever find each other?  Our galaxy’s pretty big, and we’re on a planet in the western spiral arm, so what if the nearest planet with life is in another arm?  Even with incredibly advanced technology, would they ever find us?  Even if we find each other—through radio waves or something—how long ‘til we can actually make contact?

Louis L’Amour (yes, the western author) once wrote that he couldn’t understand the people who want us to be visited by aliens.  Because, he wrote, we would need to hope they were nothing like us as our history is one of conquering or destroying any society we deem inferior to our own.

What if, though, there are aliens out there, aliens who never fell into sin, and they come here one day.  I think of the people who want aliens to come and teach us the “mysteries of the universe” mainly in the hope they’ll prove to us that there is no God.  I’m chuckling as I picture those people’s reactions if the aliens were to show up and start talking about Yahweh God!

But what if, on another planet somewhere, the inhabitants fell into sin just as we did?  Then I trust in God to provide them with salvation.  Would Jesus have to die for them, too?  It seems clear from Scripture that he only had to die once.  So, I go back to my earlier thought that, if there are aliens on other planets, a] they were put there by God and 2] they are sin-free and, thus, do not need to be saved.

Let me return to one of the things I said earlier, though: I find no warrant in Scripture for either the existence or non-existence of life on other planets.  I just don’t think the Bible addresses the subject in any way, shape or form.  Now, when I get to heaven, if God tells me there were people on other planets (and introduces some of them to me) I won’t be surprised.  If I get there and he tells me that Earth was the only planet where he ever put sentient life, I will only be a little surprised (because the universe is such a big place so why not put life on some of the other planets?).

Still, aside from this blog and a novel I will probably never get around to writing, I don’t see a lot of sense in spending much time pondering the matter when there’s so much to be done on the one planet we are convinced contains intelligent life.

 
{I have great respect for the organization, but in the interest of not being accused of plagiarism, I have to tell you that the above quoted paragraph is from “Answers in Genesis”.}