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Archive for August, 2016

 

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Well it’s the back to school season, which means that a lot of “church ministries” fire back to life after their long summer naps.  Why so many Christians feel that it’s okay to take the entire summer off as a “time out” from ministry is still a mystery to me.  Nevertheless, in more traditional churches these ministries are usually called “Sunday school,” while other churches have different names for them, or they meet at different times during the week.  Whatever the name for these ministries maybe, generally speaking these educational opportunities are more interactive and relational in nature.  Theoretically speaking, they offer a context where believers can break up into smaller groups that foster a more participatory and engaging learning experience, which should mean they are maturing in their relationship with the Lord and growing in their dedication to him and his word.  Regrettably, however, it is amazing the types of teachers that find their way into these essential ministries.  First there is the “Christian Comedian.” You may have run into a few of these, they seem to have a knack for making everyone laugh and feel happy, but a couple of hours after the “show” is over you can’t remember the first thing about what you heard with respect to the Bible.  Then there is the “Therapist.” These “teachers” are basically co-dependent, which means that their entire sense of purpose is for people to need them, and they basically accomplish this by helping everyone feel that everything is alright, that they are okay, and they can make it through another week.  The odd thing about those attending these groups is that they never seem to grow beyond their dependence upon the leader, and by the end of the week they need another dose of “it’s alright and you’re okay.”  In short, they basically become a small group of enablers that are equally co-dependent on the teacher because they find their value in enabling the “teacher” to have a purpose. It’s a sick cycle to say the least.  Consequently, these are some of the unhealthiest ministries that you will ever find in a church.  They are the ones that never seem to grow or reproduce.  They are always the smallest ministries, and they are small for a reason.  Next we have the residential “Theological Guru.”  This is the kind of leader that somehow can take any biblical passage and manipulate it so that it inevitably focuses on their pet theology.  And if they happen to be good communicators, then everyone is mesmerized by their intellect and vocabulary.  The problem with this type of leader is that when their “followers” are confronted with tough questions that challenge the pet theology of their “professor” the best they can come up with are superficial answers.  And then there is the “Christian Principle.”  For people attending these groups it’s never about learning from the word of God and growing in their personal faith and relationship with the Lord, but about being able to say “I have kept the rules this week and I also went to church so that means I’m a good Christian.”  Their involvement is completely about appeasing their own consciences because their behavior conforms to the “best practices” of their “Personal Christian Hall Monitor.” For them it’s never about them personally hearing from God or understanding his word, instead it’s only about behavior modification.  And lastly there is the “Program Promoter.”  We have all meet these types of leaders.  The entire meeting is about promoting their church’s activities and programs, as well as making sure everyone attends them—whether they learn and grow in the faith of not.  Even the material taught during the meeting is part of the church’s program, and although we may be bored to death with it, we still have to endure it anyway.  Why?  Because it is part of the church’s program, and the church’s program is always about what is best for you, so just sit there and “eat your peas” like a good Christian.

Churches need fewer comedians, gurus, promoters, therapists, and principles and more teachers like Ezra.  Ezra, who in the world was he?  He was a man that we read about in the Old Testament, and his entire ministry can be summed up in one verse.  In Ezra 7.10 we read “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”  Ezra was an effective teacher for God, and it’s easy to see why; and while these steps may be easy to observe, they do require effort, sacrifice, and dedication.  The first step to being an effective teacher for God is bringing your heart to him.  It’s never about filling your mind with data, but dedicating your heart to God so that he can fill it with his revelation, his glory, and his will—all of what are found in his word.  Next, it is about knowing what to study.  Ezra studied God’s word, not what others wrote about God’s word.  More specifically, Ezra focused on what God actually commanded and inspired to be written about him and his expectations for those who claimed to believe in him. It is mind boggling to see the amount of churches that promote the studying of books written by Christians as a substitute for the one book that actually produces Christians.  The next step is applying God’s word.  Ezra wasn’t just an expert of God’s word—he was an example of it.  He was the type of teacher who made sure that whatever he learned moved from the theoretical to functional, from principle to practice, and from belief to behavior.  In other words, what Ezra read about God and his will as revealed in the scriptures dictated how Ezra lived.  This necessarily means that Ezra’s life was not compartmentalized into different segments as many Americans do with their lives today.  It probably never crossed his mind to think that in one particular social context I’m the Sunday school leader, while in another context I may be a gossiper, a porn addict, or rip off artist.  Ezra’s lifestyle means that he knew that God was not in the business of making suggestions. He learned what so many Christians today fail to comprehend, which is God expects those who claim to know and trust him actually apply his word into their daily lives.  As Howard Hendricks often said, “studying the Bible without application is an abortion of the process!”  And lastly we have the final step, which is the natural compulsion of any who have actually met God and value his word, and what is this final step?  It is the transmission of the transforming power of God’s word from your life into the life of another so that they internalize it for themselves, so much so that it becomes part of how they live wherever they find themselves.  And this is the model and goal of effective Christian education wherever it takes place, whether it’s at home, at church, or with our coworkers and friends.  It’s one thing to communicate information, it’s an entirely different thing to change the lives of others because you are teaching and authentically living out God’s word.  The burning question is are we training of men and women to live and teach like Ezra in the hope of reaching a new generation for Christ, or are we simply enabling comedians, therapists, gurus, and Christian hall monitors to sterilize others from actually growing in the relationship with the Lord by learning all that he has revealed about himself in the Bible?

However you may assess the effectiveness your informal lay ministries realize this one essential reality: the primary purpose of why an infinitely holy God loves interacting with us is to save us and then transform us into all that he desires us to become, all while also using us to draw others to him in the process. This means that we are an integral part of his lesson plan. God loves using us to teach others about himself.  And, if necessary, he is happy to do it one person at a time.  His process and goal are clear, he loves using us to teach others, so that they might also learn all that God desires for them and thus become functional and reproducing followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Our goal is not to create our own personal cubby of groupies that never develop beyond a dependence upon us; instead the church is called to produce mature believers that inevitably walk with us while being similarly dependent upon the Lord.  Consequently, to some degree those we teach should not only learn the content and application God’s word for themselves, but they should also internalize a model and the motivation for reaching others with the majesty of God, the power of his life-changing word, and his love for them through the Lord Jesus Christ.

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IS AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM DYING?

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Ash trees are dying at an alarming rate all over the Midwest, the culprit – the Emerald Ash Boer.  These trees, however, aren’t dying overnight; it generally takes about 3 years for these insects to kill their host.  Nevertheless, unless some drastic intervention occurs, once they show up they not only kill the tree they infect, but they quickly proliferate and infect all the surrounding Ash trees.  The results are visually devastating; it’s an eerie thing to see an entire grove of dead trees.  Soon Ash trees will be a very rare thing in this part of the country. Regrettably, it looks like American Evangelicalism is suffering a similar fate.  However, before continuing it must be clearly stated that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not dying.  Jesus is the Lord of the universal invisible church; and as such he is continually building his church, his body, and his kingdom.  That is why the question is put as “is American Evangelicalism dying,” rather than “is the church dying.”  The Lord Jesus Christ has promised that his bride, which is the church, will enter eternity with him.  Consequently, since the Lord is trustworthy and faithful we should not think that his church is dying—it’s not.  Nevertheless, we also shouldn’t ignore the facts that not only are local churches losing influence in their communities, but that they are also disappearing all across this country.  Some think this is a good thing, and they may even be Christians.  For those with this attitude, I’m not sure how anyone can effectively advocate for a shrinking church.  I’m pretty sure Jesus wants as many to come to him as possible, regardless of the country in which they live.

That being said, the numbers do not lie, and they indicate that the American Evangelical church is in poor health.  At this point you may be wondering what exactly are the specific numbers that I am referring to.  I’m referring to the enrollment of the top 10 “Evangelical” seminaries in USA during the academic year of 2015/16 as compared to that of 1995/96.  If one combines the enrollment of “full-time” students of all these seminaries in the academic year of 1995/96 it comes to a total of 12,273 students.  Now jump 20 years ahead to last year, and the total number of full-time students attending the top 10 seminaries is a paltry 10,925, that is about an 11% decrease.  Some may think that such a decline is not a big deal.  However, in 1995 the US population was only around 266 million, while in 2015 it grew to just under 321 million, which is an increase of over 20%.  So, while the US population grew more than 20% over the last 20 years, during that very same period the enrollment of the largest Evangelical seminaries in American declined 11%.  My friends that is not a sign of health; and pretending it’s not really an issue is just whistling past the graveyard.  To put it simply, if American Evangelicalism were a stock, it would have a “sell” rating.

Now I recognize there are some qualifiers, such as more students are attending seminaries part-time, mostly because of the high price of education and the ever increasing cost of living, which when combined mandates that they work either part-time or full-time jobs.  Technology has also made easier for students to not have to relocate in order to attend seminary, thus allowing them to remain involved in their ministries while whittling away at their programs.  And for many this is a good thing.  But having been a student at 2 different leading Evangelical seminaries, as well as teaching at a few others, I can personally vouch for the fact that there is a great benefit for students that dedicate themselves full-time to their studies while also avoiding other distractions.  If one were to survey seminary professors, most would acknowledge that being a part-time student is less than ideal.  A period of dedicated focus is not a great expense when preparing for a lifetime of ministry.  The bottom line is this, even with the advent of online education, enrollment at America’s Evangelical seminaries is not even keeping pace with the country’s population growth.  In short, we are losing ground, and that is a bad sign.  And although a few seminaries have seen some growth, they are the exception rather than the rule (FYI: only 3 of the seminaries on both the 1995/96 and 2015/16 lists saw any growth, while another 3 completely fell off the list).

So what can be done to reverse this trend, or can it even be reversed?  I think the jury is still out on these questions; but I can make a couple of suggestions.  The first is pray for more laborers (Luke 10.1-2).  Jesus said that the harvest is always present—the problem is not with the harvest, instead it’s a dearth of workers.  Consequently, Jesus commanded that those present must first pray for more laborers, and then, after having prayed, they were to go out and lead people to Christ.  The good news is that the Lord’s plan of action is not complex—and thank heaven for that!  Secondly, I would recommend that we repent of out lackadaisical approach to Christianity.  While writing this blog it struck me that it’s rare today to hear sermons calling for greater sacrifice to the cause of Christ.  The average sermon today seems more focused upon life management than on repentance and dedication to the Lord.  I know that this is only anecdotal evidence, but I don’t think it is far from the mark.  Let me put it this way, over the last several years how many sermons have you heard calling you to surrender all for the cause of Christ, his kingdom, and global missions?  Today I hear more about “Christian cruises” than about surrendering to Christ.  Lastly, I would recommend that if churches are going to start equipping and calling students to full-time Christian service, then they begin establishing grants and scholarships in order to provide significant financial aid so that students can focus more on learning and training, and less on being baristas in coffee shops.  Additionally, this also means that churches that hire seminary students stop sucking all the energy out of their “employees.” It is not uncommon for churches in seminary towns to depend far too heavily upon seminary students, which inevitably means these students have less time to focus on their studies.  Many a church has sent students off to seminaries only to find that after a year or so they have flamed out because their burned up by another church that simply used them without any consideration for why they were at seminary in the first place.

At this point there is one glaring reality that keeps slapping me across the face, which is that those who attended seminaries 20 years ago are currently leaders of the American churches today.  In other words, however you may assess the health of America’s modern church, the reality is that those responsible for it now were the products of America’s seminaries 20 years ago.  From this glaring observation one thing is objectively clear—not all seminaries are worth supporting or attending.  Not all seminaries are created equal.  More specifically, we should only send our people to seminaries that are firmly committed to the inspiration of the Scriptures, the truth of the gospel, and to the orthodox Christian Faith as received from the apostles.  Sending people to seminaries that are focused on the latest trends in ministry and church growth will only ensure the steady decline of the American church. There is one unassailable fact about “trends,” they always change.  What is considered as effective and in vogue today is old hat and passé tomorrow.  Consequently, training ministers to chase trends instead of focusing upon the Lord and his word inevitably means that their education will be obsolete after 10 years; while their understanding of the scriptures will be virtually non-existent.  While trends always change God and his ways do not.  The Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13.8); and “the word of God endures forever” (Isa. 40.8); and lastly, there is no other name given to people by which we must be saved (Acts 4.12).  These truths never change.  And although it may appear that American church is slowly disappearing like Ash trees all across the country, the Lord Jesus Christ and his church will be victorious not only in this age but also in the ages to come.  Amen.

(The stats used for this blog were generated by ATS and can be found at this following website: https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/08/01/americas-largest-seminaries/)

 

 

 

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