Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Addressing the Decline in Church Participation


Decline in church participation is an almost universal phenomenon in the Western world, as churches find it more difficult to involve younger populations. Prosperous economies, coupled with government policies, have created a situation in which people feel less need for help from a “spiritual” or non-material source. Perhaps the most serious factor, however, is the disconnect between the world of the Bible and the world experienced by people in the twenty-first century, a world shaped by technology and by the philosophy of scientific materialism. In such a world, God is simply not on the “radar screen” of most young people.

At the same time, demographics point to an expansion of the “senior” population in proportion to other segments. Factors responsible for this include a declining birth rate, and advances in medicine. The declining birth rate has resulted from the availability of abortion, postponement of child-bearing, and reduced fertility due to environmental factors such as widespread exposure to cell phone and other wireless radiation.

Considering these factors, I am led to several conclusions. First, ministry style that is comfortable for older people does not have to mean a decline in church membership, since the percentage of older people in the community is on the increase. Tailoring the ministry style to appeal to younger people may have limited effectiveness, because that demographic group is decreasing in proportion to the whole population.

Second, renewal of the church needs to begin with the people who are already taking part in church life, and not with people who are indifferent to Christian faith. (You cannot revive the faith of someone who has no faith to begin with.) The apostle Paul indicates that unbelievers entering the Christian assembly will become worshipers if they recognize that “God is surely among you” (see 1 Corinthians 14:23-25).

This means that the first step in church renewal might be for members of existing congregations to become more spiritually sensitive and aware of the living presence of the Lord in their midst, and the effect of that living presence on the corporate life of their community. Historians of the New Testament church have concluded that the appeal of the gospel of Jesus was not so much the proclaimed message, as it was the corporate life of the body into which new believers were invited.

As a family centered on the presence of the risen Jesus, believers were committed to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Each local church was a “beachhead” of God’s new creation, which had been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The churches’ witness was undertaken as a vanguard of the fuller appearance of the kingdom of God, which is at the heart of Jesus’ own proclamation of the gospel (Mark 1:14-15). A church that functions simply as a “religious club,” without embodying this new creation in a caring and sharing family, will have little to offer to new entrants.

This does not mean, however, that the church is to become a dispenser of social services to the larger community. Of course churches need to obey the gospel imperative to help the less privileged, as a demonstration of God’s providential care for all (Matthew 5:42-45). But churches can hardly compete with tax-supported or other public agencies in providing services to those in need. It would be easy to get lost in such efforts and forget what makes the church the church. Paul wrote, “Do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and Jesus reminded his disciples, “You always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).

Finally, churches need to consider what it is that makes them different from other organizations. Other organizations reach out to people in need and assist them, but the church is the only organization that worships. Proper attention to worship, as the offering to God of the praise that is his due, should be a priority. The ordering and content of the Sunday gathering for worship, or other worship occasions, cannot be left to chance. Worship should not be conducted in a casual or haphazard manner.

Worship is the principal way in which the invisible God is made real to people — and the great need of people in Western culture is to come to the realization that God is real. Through worship, and the life of the body that flows from worship, it becomes apparent that God is not distant, but near, and that he has a plan and purpose for those made in his own image — Jesus being the full realization of that image (Colossians 1:15). The church’s witness to the resurrection of Jesus, epitomized in its worship and in its own internal quality of life, would be the most effective path for bringing to repentance (change of worldview or mindset) the person who exists “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). In this way people can be enabled to work out their potential for successful living, under the guidance of the Word of God.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

“Christian Sacred Cow” No. 5 — “We all have our cross to bear.”


We conclude our discussion of "sacred cows" — familiar things Christians sometimes say without thinking, but which on further examination don't really square with the teaching of the New Testament. In this final example, when people are experiencing difficulties in life we sometimes hear these problems described as a cross we have to bear. It could be a serious illness, or a difficult family member (such as an alcoholic spouse), or some other stressful condition. People think of Jesus’ suffering on the cross and try to compare their own situation to what Jesus was facing. But let’s take a closer look at this comparison and ask if this isn’t another one of these “sacred cows” we need to avoid.

What was the cross of Jesus? In the ancient Roman world, crucifixion was the penalty for rebellion. A person the Roman authorities deemed guilty of defying their regime could be hung on a cross, in public view, and might linger for hours or days in painful humiliation before succumbing to a merciful death. (In fact when we speak of excruciating pain we’re comparing the pain to crucifixion.) Jesus was crucified as a rebel against Rome, actually for questioning the “sacred cows” of some leaders of first-century Judaism who got the Romans to do their dirty work for them.

But it was through the cross of Jesus, and his resurrection, that God won the victory over sin and death and opened up the possibility of new life for those who unite with him. As Paul asks the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).

I suggest that to call sickness, or family problems, or some other stressful condition a “cross” we have to bear is to cheapen the cross. Jesus spoke of “taking up our cross and following him” (Mark 8:34), but in the New Testament the cross means persecution. Unless we’re being persecuted for our faith we’re not “bearing a cross.” Paul (Philippians 3:10) and Peter (1 Peter 4:13) speak of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. But didn’t Jesus suffer enough for all of us? As members of Jesus we enter into his suffering on the cross, and also his victory over sin and death in his resurrection. The stressful and difficult situations we face aren’t equivalent to the cross of Jesus.

Sometimes our favorite songs contain “sacred cows” we need to question. “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe.” No, we’re not children of sorrow and woe; we’re children of our Father and we take the name of Jesus as our shield against the foe. Or we sing, “I will cling to the cross, the old rugged cross” – no, we don’t cling to the cross; we cling to the risen Jesus who has overcome the cross and opened our pathway into God’s new creation.

In this study we’ve looked at five “sacred cows”: (1) “God is in control”; (2) “This world is not my home”; (3) “You never know what God will do”; (4) “I’m just an old sinner”; and (5) “We all have our cross to bear.” When I hear expressions like these I’m tempted to exclaim, “Holy Cow! — is that really true? Does that square with Scripture?” We need to be like the people Paul and Silas met in Berea who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Friday, June 19, 2020

“Christian Sacred Cow” No. 4 — “I’m just an old sinner, saved by grace.”


We continue our discussion of Christian “sacred cows” — ideas or sayings we accept without thinking just because they’ve been traditional. Like the sacred cows that roam unhindered in certain regions of India, we don’t question these statements because they sound pious, or holy, and are so widely accepted we never venture to examine them in the light of the full testimony of Scripture.

One of these “sacred cows”is the statement one often hears, “I’m just an old sinner, saved by grace.” People think saying this makes them sound humble and religious, because it would be prideful to claim they’re not sinners. But does this idea stand up to the Berean test, a thorough scrutiny and deep understanding of the Scriptures? That was the test applied by the people the apostle Paul met in the ancient city of Berea (Acts 17:10-12) who were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

It’s really easy to dispose of this “sacred cow,” once we remind ourselves that as believers we’re members of Jesus. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . ,” says Paul, “and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The “body,” of course, is the body of Christ, and we’re members of that body. The New Testament tells us that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). As Paul states, “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). So follow the logic here: if you’re in Jesus, and Jesus isn’t a sinner, then you can’t be a sinner either.

That doesn’t mean that, from time to time, we don’t commit sinful acts. Paul often has to remind his readers — whether in Corinth, or Ephesus, or wherever — to avoid sinful conduct of one sort or another. He warns the Corinthians, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Christians can slip up once in a while; if that weren’t the case John wouldn’t have told his readers, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

But just because we don’t always measure up to the standard of godly behavior doesn’t mean we’re supposed to brand ourselves as “just an old sinner.” We were sinners before we knew the Lord, but when we were “saved by grace” we stopped being sinners and became “the righteousness of God” in Messiah Jesus. What I do on a few occasions doesn’t mark my identity for my entire life. Sometimes I drive a car, but that doesn’t mean I’m always a motorist. Every week I go the store, but that doesn’t make me nothing but a Walmart customer. Three times a day I enjoy a meal, but I’m not just an eater all the time. So for me to say, “I’m just an old sinner, saved by grace,” is to feed another “sacred cow” I shouldn’t be feeding.

Monday, April 13, 2020

"Christian Sacred Cow" No. 3 — “You never know what God will do.”


In heavily Hindu nations like India, milk holds a central place in religious rituals. In honor of their exalted status as milk producers, cows often roam free even in large cities. Authorities in several cities have tried to remove the cows, but usually they come back. Christians have their own “sacred cows” as well — things we just assume are true, and often say without asking whether they square with the Bible. As we continue our discussion of these Christian “sacred cows,” we turn to the often-heard statement, “You never know what God will do.”

It sounds pious, or religious, to say we don’t know what God will do because we think that expresses our humility in the face of God’s sovereignty, his ability to do whatever he wants to do. In Isaiah 55 God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). And, of course, because “God’s space” is a dimension we can’t access it through our normal senses, we recognize that there are many things about the Creator we’ll never fully understand. But that doesn’t mean we “never know what God will do” — because in many cases he’s told us exactly what he will do.

There shouldn’t be any doubt that he will heal us — in fact, he has healed us — if by faith we take the healing he offers us in Jesus. There should be no doubt that God will bring justice to unjust situations, because as Psalm 103 declares, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6). There ought to be no question in our mind that God will hear our prayers, forgive our sin, and renew our living space according to his purpose — since he tells us, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

The Lord has told us that if we obey his commandments he will make us “the head and not the tail” (Deuteronomy 28:13). So we have no uncertainty about whether God will reward a life of generosity with blessings in return; Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. . . . And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7, 9). We could go on and on.

And there’s the other side to that equation: foolish actions will bring unpleasant results because that’s the way God has set up the universe. Paul, in Romans 1, calls this “the wrath of God”; but God doesn’t actually have to do anything for the consequences of disobedient and foolish actions to have their effect. As Paul explains, all God has to do is to “give people up” who refuse to acknowledge him, and the effects of their poor choices will play out in their lives because that’s the way his universe works.

So it’s not correct to suggest that God is unpredictable and we don’t know what he’s going to do. We do know, because he’s told us in his Word. God’s purposes aren’t hidden from us. Paul quotes Isaiah 40:13, “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” Then he adds, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). As members of Jesus we have insight into God’s purposes and intentions. So when people say “You never know what God will do,” that’s another “sacred cow” we can drive off, like the city authorities in India.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Christian Sacred Cow" No. 2 — "This world is not my home."


We continue our discussion of “Christian Sacred Cows,” things believers often say that have taken on the status of truisms but which lack a real biblical foundation. One of these declarations is “This world is not my home — heaven is my home, I’m only passing through.”

Discussing this “sacred cow” is bound to raise some eyebrows because we hear it all the time, especially in a some of our songs including a lot of country “gospel” music. But we have to apply the principle of the Bereans, to “examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so.” Does Scripture really teach that “heaven is our home” and this earth is only a place we pass through on our way there? Let’s take a closer look.

It may shock you to hear that “going to heaven when we die” is not the ultimate goal of the Christian life. The New Testament says little about what happens when we die. Indeed, Paul told the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). But he doesn’t elaborate on exactly what that means, or give us a picture of what it looks like. Several passages in the New Testament tell us that Jesus is seated “at the right hand of God” (Romans 8:34), so we assume that means heaven because heaven is the dwelling place of God.

But what is “heaven”? Obviously it’s not someplace that’s literally “up” above the surface of the earth, because the earth is a ball floating in space. So heaven could be “down” as well as “up.” It’s better to say that heaven is “God’s space,” as contrasted with our space. It’s not “up there” but it’s all around us in a dimension beyond the four dimensions we normally experience. Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If we’re in Jesus, who has been raised from death, then we’ve already been raised and are already “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) — we already participate in God’s space.

The aim of being “saved,” or delivered from the false values of the prevailing culture (see Galatians 1:4) through membership in Jesus, is not so we can “go to heaven when we die.” The aim of our membership in Jesus is to live the resurrection life now, as we anticipate the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan for us.

But what is that plan, as Jesus and the New Testament writers teach it? God’s plan is to merge “his space” with “our space” in the new creation. Often we quote Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, to say that when a person comes into Christ he becomes a “new creature.” But the Greek puts it a little differently: ei tis en Christo, kaine ktisis – “If anyone in the Messiah, a new creation.” There isn’t any “he is” in this sentence. What Paul is saying is that when a person become a member of Jesus, a new creation exists for him, a new way of life in which everything has changed. As members of the risen Jesus we experience a foretaste of our ultimate destiny in the new creation, which is described in the Bible’s final chapters.

The picture many people have of heaven, with the “golden streets” and all that, is actually drawn from the Bible’s picture of the new creation in Revelation 21, the “new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). But if it’s coming from heaven then it’s not heaven but the renewed earth, which is to be like the earth God originally made, where God dwells with his people as our space merges with his space. So if we say, “Heaven is my home, I’m only passing through,” we have it exactly backwards. Earth is my home, and heaven is where I pass through on the way to my real home in the renewed earth. Heaven is a “holding pattern” until, with Jesus, we “come in for a landing” in our ultimate destination in God’s new creation, here on this earth. We don’t stay in heaven forever. “This world is not my home” is another “sacred cow” we need to put out to pasture.

Friday, December 13, 2019

“Christian Sacred Cow” No. 1 — “God is in control.”


The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a “sacred cow” as “someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question.” However, as Christian believers we need to follow the example of the people the apostle Paul met in ancient Berea (Acts 17:10-12) who were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Sometimes we just repeat certain “sacred cows” that sound religious or pious without asking whether they’re really true in the light of Scripture. This is the first of several Christian “sacred cows” we’ll be taking a closer look at.

A favorite saying of Christians is that “God is in control.” When we say this, we usually mean that in spite of some kind of bad news, of whatever sort, God is working through it to achieve his purpose. It’s easy to extend this thought to the idea that everything that happens occurs because it’s God’s will that it should happen — even bad things we don’t like because they’re harmful. We think that if God is God, then nothing can happen that isn’t his will.

Actually, that’s not a Christian teaching; it’s a Muslim teaching. In Islam, Allah has total control of everything; his will overrides every other influence or purpose. In fact, “Islam” means “submission” — total submission to the will of Allah.

As Christian believers we understand that God has created all things by his Word, and his Word underlies and sustains the universe. That’s clear from the Bible’s opening chapters in the Book of Genesis. Hebrews reminds us that through Jesus God is “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3). But does that mean God controls everything? We need to look at the whole story.

Consider Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” In other words, the Creator has turned control of this earth over to people who are made in his image.

People are the Creator’s representatives or agents in the management of the world. If something goes wrong that’s not God’s fault; it’s usually because people have made sinful decisions contrary to his purpose. God has made all things, but he’s turned the management of those things over to us. As Psalm 115:16 says, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”

So claiming that “God is in control” is a “sacred cow” we need to question over against the full teaching of Scripture. When it comes to problems we deal with in life, for example, God isn’t responsible for them. Jesus declared that, as the Son of God, he came to give us abundant life, not problems and difficulties.

When something goes wrong, then, that’s not God’s doing; it’s the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) who is responsible; and we have the authority to oppose him because God has put us in charge and given us dominion. As James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). We don’t need to ask God to change something he has given us the ability to change. As Gloria Copeland puts it, “If you need a change, make a change.” Don’t just wait for God to change things.

So when we say “God is in control” we’ve forgotten that he has entrusted to us the control of many aspects of our life and experience. Don’t let that religious-sounding expression be an excuse for accepting or tolerating situations or conditions you have the ability to deal with, as a creature made in God’s image.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Logical Fallacy of “Endangered Species”


The efforts to prevent certain “endangered species” from extinction are well known. One has only to recall the 1973 “snail darter controversy,” in which construction of a Tennessee dam was halted because of the threat to the habitat of a tiny mud fish. Since then such incidents have multiplied with an impact on agriculture, fishing and other industries, and recently on the use of river water in California to combat forest fires. For that matter, the proliferation of fires is itself the result of restrictions on forest management, supposedly in the interests of preserving botanical habitats.

Of course, the most “endangered species” is the human race, whose young are liable to be deprived of life while still in the womb — or even newly emerged from the womb. Human young, in the United States, enjoy less protection than the pre-hatched young of the bald eagle. But that’s another story.

The purpose of this essay is to point out the logical fallacy of protecting “endangered species.” We’re not opposed to such efforts. We only wish to expose the irony in the philosophical position of people who push for the protection of all species, whatever the cost to human industry and property rights.

It’s highly likely that proponents of protecting all species believe in the theory of unguided evolution — that life has arisen, and life forms have evolved and changed, without the intervention of a directing Intelligence, namely, God. In popular culture today there’s no room for the activity of a non-natural force in the emergence and development of life in its various forms. I surmise it would be rare to find anyone concerned about “endangered species” who’s not a believer in unguided evolution.

And this is where the logical fallacy we’re pointing out begins to appear. One of the principles of evolutionary theory is that life forms less equipped to survive in their environment are superseded, and eventually wiped out, by more successful life forms. The crass formula “survival of the fittest” (which really means only “survival of the survivors”) is a generally accepted maxim of the evolutionary viewpoint. Species exist today because they’ve successfully adapted to a particular environment and haven’t been driven out by another, more successful, species which has passed on its genetic information to succeeding generations.

Humanity, according to the evolutionary point of view, is simply another form of biological life having no inherent superiority over other species. Indeed, to regard human life as somehow having more worth than that of, say, the snail darter is to merit the epithet of “speciesism,” an accusation equivalent to “racism.” Logically, then, for human beings to drive out another species less able to cope with its environment is a perfect example of the evolutionary principle in operation. Someone with an evolutionary worldview, if looking rationally at the issue, should have no problem with extinction of the snail darter, bald eagle, or any other species when the human species proves more powerful, more “successful” in coping with its environment. That’s how evolution is supposed to work.

So the outcry for “animal rights” to take precedence over “human rights” is a logical fallacy, because any species has the evolutionary “right” to supersede another, less viable, species. To regard human life as simply another example of a zoological species means that when human activity adversely affects another species this is simply evolution talking its natural course.

There’s a better approach to the protection of “endangered species,” and that’s to abandon the religious faith of unguided evolution. That is a “faith” without evidence in natural history, for it ignores the presence of sequential information in the genetic code of living creatures — information which could have originated only in the mind of an Information-Giver. In other words, an Intelligence has been at work in fashioning each species, and that’s what gives them their worth.

There’s only one species that cares about the welfare of other species. That is people who, according to the Book of Genesis, are charged with managing and protecting the rest of the biological ecology (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). No one ever met a wolf, or a shark, concerned with “people rights.” The sea otter that people rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil slick, when cleaned up at a cost of $80,000 and released into the ocean, was immediately attacked by a killer whale. But there’s something unique about people, a trait that goes beyond what can be explained by the unfolding of blind, impersonal processes. People care about other living creatures in a way that’s unique to them, and can’t be explained by unguided evolution. Protecting supposedly endangered species is an activity appropriate only for people who believe, with the writer of Genesis, that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).