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church empty 3

Memorial Day is just around the corner—what a tragedy!  It’s a tragedy because for many in American churches Memorial Day signals the official day when summer vacation from church begins.  I know of several churches where once Memorial Day has passed all “regular” mid-week ministries and activities go on a “break” until late August or early September (presumably after Labor Day or when school starts back again).  And I am using the term “ministry” for these mid-week ministries rather loosely, since I can’t be certain that any real training for cultural engagement with the gospel is occurring, or that anyone is maturing in their theological development, or that worship happens, or that people are coming to faith in Christ at these events.  But this “break” from church doesn’t only affect the mid-week ministries, it also affects regulars summer church attendance.  I know of several families that routinely go camping or to their lake-house every weekend during the summer months.  And when summer ends and they come back to church I never hear them talk about the exciting things that happened at their adopted churches where they spent their weekends.  Nor do I ever hear them share about how they saw several family members make decisions for Christ, or how they grew in their faith, or the mission trips they went upon in adopted vacation area.  Instead, all I hear about are suntans and how much better they are at water-skiing.

I have to say I find it very strange that people would think it perfectly acceptable to return to their “home church” in early September and begin to  worshiping one who said “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25).  I’m not sure the apostle Paul would understand such behavior either.  Some of you may remember Paul, he’s the guy who wrote “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2.3-4).  Nor do I remember the apostle Peter teaching anywhere about summer vacation from church.  But I do remember he writing “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4.1-1).  The apostle John wrote something very similar, which was “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2.15-17).  And what about the apostle James’s thoughts on summer vacation from church?  I can’t think of any, but he did write “You adulterous people don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?” That is very interesting, God himself “jealously desires” our spirits that he put within us.  He vehemently wants us to participate in serving him as we separate ourselves from the world and join with other like-minded believers in corporate worship.  But hey, during the months of June, July, and August some people think they get a “hall pass” from that whole church thing.  Interestingly enough, I even know of others who use this same mentality of “I need a break from the church thing” during football season as well.  During the fall you can’t find them in church simply because they have made tailgating into an art form.  So, if the team’s in town their not at church, and for those that have RVs, well then wherever the team goes, so do they.

The author of Hebrews said it best when he wrote “let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10.22-25).   It seems the overwhelming exhortation of the biblical writers is that authentic Christians look forward to worshiping together rather than finding reasons to avoid it.  The scriptures indicate that true Christians would think it unimaginable to take a couple months out of the year to get away from the very endeavor that Jesus is most passionate about—which is building his church (Matt 16.18).  How odd it is that people think it acceptable to take a break for weeks at a time and leave their Lord behind to work alone.  Jesus himself said to his own disciples “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt 16.24).  If you really want to know how serious you are about what you believe about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then you only need to ask “who is looking at whose back”?  If you are looking at the back of Jesus, then you are a true follower, but if Jesus is looking at your back, then you are the one walking in the wrong direction.  Nevertheless, regardless of where you are heading this summer here is one sobering thought: lost people will still die and slip into a Christ-less eternity during June, July, and August.  So how could any right-minded follower of the Jesus think it’s no big deal to take the summer off from serving the Lord and reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

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Christmas is over, and that means that New Year’s Eve is just around the corner.  I’m not really into New Year’s Eve anymore.  I used to enjoy it, but no longer.  It’s not because I’m getting older, but because it has become a holiday for promoting Secular Humanism.  It’s not the parties and drunkenness that makes New Year’s Eve a decidedly humanistic holiday.  Heaven knows that there’s always party happening somewhere—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a good time every now and then.  Instead it’s John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine” that now makes New Year’s Eve an openly humanistic celebration.   It’s become a holiday for Secular Humanism since over the last decade one of the first songs sung after midnight—if not the very first song sung—is no longer “Auld Lang Syne” (aka: “As Time Goes By”) but Lennon’s “Imagine.” And if you listen to and think about song you will also realize that if what Lennon imagined is ever achieved, then the world will become a living nightmare for devote Christians everywhere.

The first line of the song simply asks us to “Imagine there’s no heaven.”  Lennon wasn’t asking us to imagine that there’s no galaxy, instead he was asking us to imagine that the place where God dwells no longer exists.  In other words, he wanted everyone everywhere to stop believing in God. And instead of a place called Heaven, he wanted us to envision that above us is “only sky.” Moreover, he believed that all we really needed to do in order realize his utopia of a godless universe was to simply begin imagining that God no longer exists. It is clear that envisioning life without God is what Lennon had in mind since he also asked us to imagine that Hell wasn’t real as well. As we all know, Hell is the domain where God eternally relegates those who reject him in this life. And having imagined that God, Heaven, and Hell no longer exist, Lennon wanted us to imagine all humanity “living only for today.”  Don’t worry about what God promised would occur in the future, don’t even worry about the future, just live for the moment, that is what John Lennon hoped everyone would imagine.

Before unpacking the rest of the song, we should be reminded that the Lord Jesus Christ was committed to promoting the reality of Heaven.  His entire message could be summarized in his proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4.17).  Moreover, while training his followers on how to pray, he first wanted us to understand that Heaven is where God is, praying that “Our Father who is in Heaven, holy be your name” (Matt 6.9ff). The Lord also taught us that our hopes and prayers should always start with “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” While the Lord exhorted us to faithfully imagine and look forward to a world in complete submission to the will of our heavenly Father, Lennon wanted us to imagine God doesn’t exist, that we are by ourselves, that we are accountable to no one; consequently, we are living only for today, existing only for the moment. There is no reconciling what John Lennon wanted everyone to imagine and what Jesus stated is true now, as well as what will occur in the future. They are diametrically opposed to each other; consequently, they are mutually exclusive. You can’t have both; you can only have one at the sacrifice of the other—so much for harmonious diversity between what Lennon wanted and what Jesus will accomplish.

To make his point even more polarizing, Lennon exhorted us to imagine there is no “religion.” Now I also wish that there weren’t so many false religions throughout the world. But that is not what Lennon wished for; instead he wished that there was no religion at all. Regardless of how you feel about some religions, the vast majority of them essentially teach us one fundamental truth, which is that God exists and that we are accountable to Him. Say what you will about some of their specific teachings; nevertheless, our world is better off because of this essential truth that virtually all religions promote. And it is this foundational truth that Lennon wanted everyone to imagine doesn’t exist.

What is most disturbing about Lennon’s imagination is that he believed that humanity could live “life in peace” if everyone else would stop believing in their religions, which requires that Christians stop believing in Heaven and stop believing in God.  As a matter of fact, for Lennon it is we who believe in the kingdom of Heaven that are the ones who prevent world peace and global harmony from being achieved.  Lennon’s chorus asserts precisely this, suggesting that “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”  Did you get that?  Lennon believed that it is we who worship God and believe in Heaven that are the ones who prevent the rest of the world from living in global unity. Lennon thought that in order for world harmony to be experienced Christians are the ones that need to stop believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and what he clearly taught about God, himself, and sinful humanity. It is we, therefore, who have to abandon Jesus and join all Secular Humanists so that the world can experience global tranquility.  And Lennon extended this satanic invitation through a simply little ditty that Rolling Stone lists as the 3rd greatest song of all time.

Now that I am older I have become a light sleeper, and one of the things that easily wakes me are nightmares. I used to sleep so hard that I couldn’t remember any of my dreams—good or bad, but those days are gone, and now I am easily awaken by an occasional nightmare. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” inspires people to believe in a worldview that in reality is a hellish nightmare rather than a dream. And as more and more people uncritically embrace his vision, then the gospel will become increasingly offensive to them. Lennon’s song “Imagine” is for Secular Humanists what “Just As I AM” is for the church. This New Year’s Eve take a moment and watch how many people sing along with Lennon’s hope for the world. Then think about what the world will be like if it starts accepting and acting upon Lennon’s imagination. What if the secular world actually begins to view Christians as “bitter clingers,” as hateful people who refuse to relinquish to their archaic Bibles, their mythical religion, and their dead Jesus?  What if they begin to view us as the ones that are the real impediments to their hope for world harmony? You may find that hard to imagine, but I don’t, not for a moment. The fact that the song gets any airplay at all is a bad omen. Once more and more people start believing that Christianity is what keeps humanity from experiencing global tranquility, then devote followers in the Lord Jesus Christ will find themselves in a nightmare that is the logical endgame of Secular Humanism, which will be hell on Earth for everyone.

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Most people have never heard of Carlos Hathcock. He was Marine sniper who served during the Vietnam War. He once accepted what he regarded as a one-man suicide mission. His target: a General that was an elite military strategist. In order to accomplish the mission Hathcock had to first travel deep behind enemy lines, and then maneuver undetected the last 1100 yards over a 3-day period. It took 3 days because he had to incrementally crawl while camouflaged through an open field surrounded by the machine guns in order to get into position to take his shot, all the while also evading multiple foot patrols. That’s about 39,600 inches if you were wondering. He was literally embedded among the enemy the entire time. He stated that on several occasions he could have easily touched enemy patrolmen as they passed him. Hathcock’s mission was successful and the keys to his success can be summed up in 2 words: training and incrementalism. He was successful because he diligently trained with his weapon, and also because he stealthily and patiently crawled inch by inch towards achieving his goal.

Now that the election is over some are happy, most could care less, while others are outraged. Regardless of how you feel about the election, one thing is blatantly obvious, which is that a storm has arrived for those who are devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is the storm of intolerant secular humanism. To be sure, its clouds have been inching over the horizon for some time, but throughout this campaign and in its aftermath thunderclaps have announced is arrival for all who are paying attention. To paraphrase Jesus, “whoever has ears to hear, they better start listening.”

If you think that these secularists were defeated in this election, and that they will begin acting civil and working together for a better and unified country then you couldn’t be more wrong. Now that the election is over their new campaign will be to incrementally marginalize and disgrace all that oppose their views or do not embrace their values, and this is especially true for any who claim to be Christian. Graciously accepting defeat is nonstarter for secularists, for them failure is never a viable option. The truth is that for years they’ve been diligently training on how to reverse any political defeat that they may incur. It’s time that Evangelicals recognize that our country’s legacy of having major institutions that respect unity within political diversity is gone. Moreover, not only is such a concept now openly disdain by them, but all who also don’t fall in line with their foreign vision of a new America will be relentlessly ridiculed and ostracized. Evangelicals need to realize that our country’s Universities, the mainstream media—both news and entertainment, and many of our elected officials are now openly humanistic socialists or atheistic communists, and anti-national globalists that have adopted the anarchist tactics of Saul Alinsky. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Americans that don’t identify with these labels have been unwittingly trained to passively accept these economic theories and social perspectives.

Some may ask where is the evidence for this incredible assertion. One only needs to review our major newscasts in which “mainstream journalists” openly criticized the results of America’s free election as the products of “racism,” “xenophobia,” and “bigotry.” I’m not referring to dysfunctional social outcasts dressed in sweatpants sitting in their mom’s basement and spewing political sewage over a ham radio, I’m actually referring to mainstream journalists and news anchors of our major networks. Some are not old enough to remember how elections were covered 40 years ago, but the fact is that back then any reporter who expressed any such over-generalized and uncorroborated sentiments about the American electorate would have been fired the next day, and the networks would certainly not allowed anyone to be interviewed who would openly characterize Americans in such terms. Did America have problems in the past, certainly. Did our media help us learn about institutionalized injustices such as the racism, yes; and we are a better country for it. But today’s mainstream news media are openly participating in a new campaign motivated by an anti-American brand of group-think that does not tolerate opposition. The majority of America’s media is systemically populated by people from a mono-political mentality comprised of intolerant secularists educated in public schools and state funded universities from across the country. To put it simply, this is not your grandmother’s news media anymore. Today’s news media is no longer content with reporting about what happens in our country; instead they are dedicated to molding America into their exclusive intolerant secular vision.

Who are they intolerant of you ask? They are intolerant of anyone promoting a non-centralized government, free-market capitalism, strict constitutionalism, American sovereignty—and probably most all they are intolerant of Fundamental and Evangelical Christians. Regrettably, there are some Christians that have actually embraced this secular vision for America. Nevertheless, history has shown that once secularists achieve political ascendance and entrench themselves in power, then “open minded” Christians are the first to be ostracized. The Russians created the moniker “useful fools” to refer to individuals that promote causes and embrace tactics that are inherently contrary to their beliefs and values, and it certainly applies to these misguided people.

But if you won’t review recent newscasts, then just surf the web for instances where governmental bureaucrats demand transcripts of sermons in from local churches; where universities, that are supposed to be the bastion of diversity, bar Evangelical groups from access to campus facilities and official recognition; where academic societies in the name of “tolerance” ban Christian publishers from participating in their conferences; where Evangelical entertainers and actors are dropped for exercising their freedom of speech and association; where Christian businesses have been forced into bankruptcy or made to fund ungodly policies; where athletic tournaments have been withdrawn from cities for upholding laws that protect families and traditional values; and finally, where Evangelicals are being prohibited from consideration for political appointments—all of which was literally unimaginable in my grandfather’s day.

Some may object and argue that they haven’t heard of such things. You may have not heard of it, but you would have to be blind to have not witnessed it. Evangelicals are barred from political appointments not because they call themselves Christians. No, that would be way too obvious, that would be blatant bigotry! Instead, opportunities are withheld from Christians because they hold to biblical beliefs on social or political issues that secularists find intolerable. We can call ourselves Christians but we better not publicly affirm biblical positions that are contrary to their secular values. Whether some want to recognize it or not, the secular purge of Christian participation in the public square has already started. There is now a real cost to publicly affirming Christian beliefs. In other words, if we are going to be allowed to participate in America’s new social and political arena, then we have to be the “right kind” of Christians. We have to be non-thinking and uncritically accepting of the ever-growing sea of secularism in the ever-expanding humanistic World.

So what should Evangelicals do about this growing reality? I’m not sure anything can be done about it—although nothing is impossible for God. Nevertheless, I personally believe that a critical tipping point has occurred. Very few people understand what historians commonly know, which is that it doesn’t take a majority to cause a sea change in history, it only takes a dedicated minority. I believe that a sufficient critical mass that embraces secular humanism has been achieved. Consequently, I believe Evangelicals need to prepare for the intensification of this storm. Specifically, we need to train our congregations to be ready to suffer for the cause of Christ. Peter wrote “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose” (I Pet 4.1). Paul likewise stated that “In fact, everyone who desires to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3.12). The fact is that it is the norm rather than the exception that those who live for Christ also suffer for him. The truth is that throughout history few believers have ever dreamed about the freedoms that American Christians have enjoyed during the past few centuries.

I can’t confirm it, but I believe that a significant reason for the decreasing membership in American churches is occurring simply because many attendees don’t know how to deal with growing disparity between the world’s view of Christians and how God views the secular anti-Christ world. And as this disparity increases so also is the tension between Evangelicals and secularists. And as this tension grows so to is the hatred that secular humanists have for authentic Christianity. And as this hatred increases so also is the cost for publicly living for Christ and proclaiming his gospel. This tension will someday explode, and each day we are inching ever so closely towards that explosion. Like continental tectonic plates storing up energy for the next great earthquake, so also is the tension between biblical Christianity and secular humanism. The crucial question is are we preparing and training believers to faithfully stand for Christ against the storm of persecution heading our way, or are we just passively merging with ease into the mainstream traffic of today’s humanistic world.

 

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We recently bought a used car and it has been a problem ever since.  It wasn’t the car that we originally wanted to buy, however.  When we got to the dealership and asked about a car they had on their website, they told us that it was already sold, and that they hadn’t updated their website yet.  We were almost out of the door when they told us about another car, which is the one we now own.  About a month later we suddenly needed another car for our son to take to college.  When we started shopping on the web again we were stunned to discover that the same car that we were originally interested in was still on the dealership’s website.  That’s right, we had fallen victim to the old “bait and switch” routine.  Well, as the old saying goes, let the buyer beware.

There’s a lot of bait and switch going on in Evangelicalism, and tragically it is being passed off as an “effective” strategy of “successful” ministry among leaders in the “emerging church” movement.  It seems that a lot of “leading” pastors of these “fashionable” churches are of the impression that referring to the Bible is not a good thing, while others even suggest that it should be avoided.  It’s funny how a little success can make you believe foolish things.  Regardless of what may be promoted as effective ministry strategies, this approach raises 2 important questions: first, what was the model for ministry given by Jesus and his follows; and secondly, what will be the lasting impact of these modern ministries.

First let’s address the second question.  If we intentionally display an aversion to referring to the Bible while attempting to reach the lost, what will be the impact upon those who actually trust Christ?  In other words, after avoiding displaying any knowledge of and confidence in the Bible in order to make seekers more comfortable, should we really expect those that come to faith to suddenly start trusting the Bible?  Moreover, how long will it take them to unlearn what we have so thoroughly modeled to them?  I remember listening to a youth minister explain that the “purpose” of his ministry was to make visitors “comfortable.”  Immediately I thought to myself, “Great but how do you think they will feel once you start telling them they are sinners bound for eternal Hell if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord?”  Making sinners comfortable in order to tell them an inherently offense message (Gal 5.11; 1 Peter 2.4-8) is nothing more than a bait and switch tactic; furthermore, comfort should never be the “purpose” of our ministries.  We can only grow what we plant, and we usually reap a greater amount of what we have sown.  So I ask you, what does the church need more, biblical illiterate church attendees, or biblically mature disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Rarely can those we disciple overcome our weaknesses; and regrettably they may even exaggerate them.  Consequently, if we think that we are doing unbelievers and young Christians a favor by not promoting the Bible as the foundation of the Christian faith, then we are sorely mistaken.

And this leads me to the first question that I asked: which is what was the method of ministry that the Jesus and his apostles modeled? Regardless of our justifications for how we minister, if we model an aversion the scriptures then we are certainly not following the example set forth by Jesus and his apostles. Before discussing how the original followers of Jesus did ministry, it is necessary to briefly describe their historical context.  The first-century world was overwhelmingly pagan, polytheistic, mystical, worldly, immoral, and skeptical of the Jewish scriptures.  To put it simply, the pagan world of Peter and Paul’s day was antagonistic towards the Jewish worldview as revealed in the Old Testament; consequently, it was openly antagonistic and derogatory towards the Jews and their scriptures—that sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it? The reality is that the ministry context of the first-century world was no less hostile, sophisticated, and complex as ours is today, and it is simply arrogant to suggest that it was not.  In fact, the first-century world was considerably more hostile towards the Christian faith then it is today, the Middle East and North Korea notwithstanding.  Nevertheless, when the apostles wrote letters to churches they expected them to be read out loud to everyone in attendance, gatherings in which they knew that seekers would also be present.  And in these letters the apostles regularly quoted and referred to the “scriptures,” and treated them as the basis of authority for the true Faith that God had once and for all delivered the church.

To prepare for this blog I did a quick word search for the term “scripture” in the epistles of the New Testament, from which I found 17 different references.  This doesn’t even begin to include passages that contain phrases such as “God said,” “it is written,” and “the Lord spoke.”  Now at this point I need to make an important observation about to the word “Bible.” When using the word “Bible” everyone knows that it is synonymous with the term “scriptures” (possible exceptions may be orthodox Jews or Muslims, and even these are questionable).  The point is that the overwhelming majority of audiences don’t make a distinction between these words; to them they mean the same thing.  Consequently, on this issue we should follow the example set by the apostles who were not the least bit hesitant to refer to the scriptures.  They showed no aversion to quoting them because they knew that if they faithfully communicated the scriptures that God would speak to both saints and sinners alike.  The bottom line is that they weren’t shy about referring to the scriptures; consequently, we should be no less shy about referring to the Bible as God’s word.

Nevertheless, many in the emerging church movement, as justification for their approach, point to Paul’s example of evangelism at Mars Hill in Acts 17, a defense in which Paul made no direct reference to the scriptures.  The problem with their justification from this observation is that it is based upon a category mistake.  Mars Hill wasn’t a Christian worship setting; instead it was a completely pagan gathering.  When I was ministering at secular universities we regularly used this example during our own evangelistic efforts on campus.  But Mars Hill wasn’t a gathering of believers; moreover, Paul never suggested that his method of engaging pagan philosophers should be embraced while also ministering in Christian worship gatherings whose primary purpose is the edification of believers.  Consequently, it is indefensible to suggest that Paul’s approach at Mars Hill is the most effective ministry model for today’s post-modern generation.  Moreover, with respect to ministering to the church, Paul directly exhorted Timothy to be committed to “the public reading of the Scriptures. . .” (1 Timothy 4.13).

And this leads to another point touching on this issue.  Some argue that we can’t claim that our Bibles are “inspired” or “inerrant” because they are not the original autographs.  To this assertion I would only point out that when we read the New Testament we find no hesitation in its authors who interpreted and quoted translations of the Old Testament as they wrote.  That’s right, virtually every quote of the Old Testament found within the New Testament is a quote of the LXX, which is nothing less then a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and yet the apostles showed complete confidence in it; and they did so irrespective of the attitudes of their audiences.  Moreover, they expected their audiences to believe, study, and receive the translations of their day as God’s holy word.  In other words, the fact that they only had copies and translations of the autographs of the Old Testament didn’t deter the apostles from referring to them as the trustworthy, truthful, and most importantly as the very word of God.

Lastly and most importantly, the Bible is a powerful resource for creating faith in the hearts of those listening.  Paul wrote in Romans 15.4 that the scriptures were written for the express purpose of producing both endurance and hope within us.  And again in Romans 16.25-26 he stated that God “commanded” the composition of the “prophetic writings” “so that the nations might believe and obey Him.”  So to put it plainly, when we arrogantly show aversion to quoting the Bible in our attempts to reach people for Christ, then we are actually undermining our own ministries.  Furthermore, when we avoid referring to the Bible in our evangelistic efforts then we are intentionally neglecting a powerful resource that God has commanded us to use, while at the same time we are also abandoning the very method of ministry that the Lord and his immediate followers modeled for us. It sounds both ironic and tragic that we would actually reject the Lord’s ordained method for ministry while attempting to reach others for him.  That type of ministry sounds more like a foolish attempt at a bait and switch tactic; the kicker is, however, is that it doesn’t even include any real bait at all.

 

learning 2

 

 

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.

dying church 5

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/)

 

 

 

SPRINGSTEEN

Every now and then you hear a sound bite that was intended for one context that oddly enough has immense applications to other areas as well, and this recently happened to me. I was listening to Bono, the lead singer for U2, talk about some advice he got early in his career. The advice came from Bruce Springsteen and loosely quoted it went something like this: “Don’t ever allow yourself to be put in a situation where people have the option of turning the volume down on you.” Wow, now that is some great advice—especially for how we deliver our sermons. Some of you may be asking “How in the world does that have anything to do with preaching?” Well let me share with you some observations that I have gained over the last year or two. During this period my wife and I have been between churches. We currently don’t have a church home, but regardless we still faithfully attend a variety of churches on Sundays, and this is true whether we are in town or not. And although it has been spiritually taxing, nevertheless, we know that participating in corporate worship is necessary for our spiritual growth and vitality. Our situation, however, has given me an opportunity to observe how different pastors deliver their sermons. It has especially given me the opportunity to learn how they often lose their congregations, sometimes even within the first several minutes of their messages. This often has dire consequences for those listening simply because once someone gets distracted from what we are saying, then regrettably there is no guarantee that we will be able to get them to re-engage with us. Consequently, I wish to provide a few surefire mistakes that often causes us to unintentionally lose our audiences.

Deaf by Review: Some pastors spend the first 10 minutes of their message introducing their sermon series. This is one of the best ways to get your congregation to stop listening to you and begin focusing about other things, and tragically this is completely unnecessary. First of all the majority your congregation were in church last week; consequently, they already know what you said so why tell it to them again? Secondly, for the minority who weren’t in church last week (more specifically, your regular church members), you can’t really effectively relate to them everything you taught last week anyway, so why spend almost 20 to 30% of your time trying to re-teach it to them. Besides, many churches have their sermons online now, so if they wanted to catch up on what you preached about last week, then they would have already done so. And lastly, for most seekers and those who are visiting your church they generally don’t care about what happened last week as well. They don’t care precisely because they currently aren’t involved in your church, so why spend valuable time reviewing what they don’t really know a lot about to begin with, doing so only gives them the opportunity to get confused about what you intend to say to them this week. The basic point is this, last week is old news, so don’t sacrifice your congregation’s precious time rehashing it. If you really feel the need to introduce your series, then you can effectively do so within 15 seconds and then move on to proclaiming the actual message that the Lord has given to you for those who are present this week.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Giving announcements before you start preaching is by far the easiest way to quickly lose your congregation’s attention. Announcements about upcoming events, generally speaking, are really only important to a minority of those listening to you, and if it is really important to them then they probably already know about it and will seek out the relevant information for themselves—regardless of what you feel the need to add while in the pulpit. I actually know a pastor that often gives announcements about particular ministries and events in the middle or near the end of his sermons—this is a profoundly ineffective practice. For example, if in the middle of your sermon you spend 5 minutes talking about some events involving the single adult ministry, then just consider all of the people who will begin thinking “this doesn’t relate to me.” Once that thought crosses their minds most of them will begin to tune you out, which means the majority of the youth, the young married couples, the married couples with children, and the retired married adults are no longer listening to you simply because you really aren’t talking to or about them. In other words the majority of your congregation will simply begin to stop listening to you. Consequently, going over specific announcements before or during your sermons is only adding a lot of white noise to your message, which also provides many in your audience opportunities to tune you out.

And the History Teachers Says “Anyone? Anyone?”: I’m amazed at how many pastors believe that their congregations think that those who have been dead for hundreds of years are some how relevant to their every day modern lives. I know the adage that those who ignore the history are doomed to repeat it. I’m not talking about ignoring seminal movements and events of history. Instead what I’m referring to is the constant use of testimonies and events involving people who have been dead for centuries as examples real life modern illustrations. Most of the people in our audiences are not history buffs, they are more concerned with what Katy Perry, Lebron James, Anderson Cooper, Oprah, and Limbaugh are saying and doing. Take it from me, the moment you start talking about Calvin, Wesley, Luther, Augustine, or Aquinas some in your congregation start to get glazed eyes. And the more and more you talk about your dead heroes, then the more and more they start looking for their iphones. This is not to say that you can’t ever talk about them or quote them, but if your sermon illustrations only involve historical figures that have long since passed on, then you are for the most part boring people who spend their lives living in the 21st century. Many in your congregation don’t even know who some of them are or how they became famous in the first place. Moreover, most of those that actually do know them don’t think that they are all that relevant to today’s modern world. Consequently, many are wondering why you are even talking about them at all. Take it from me, I am a New Testament and church historian by training and profession, and even I sometimes get bored with hearing about them, so you can just imagine what Joe the plumber, Suzy housewife, and Tina the teenager are thinking about as we blather on about those who that lived hundreds of years ago. Let me put it to you another way, who do you think your audience has most likely read from or listened to during the week—Ellen Degeneres, Jimmy Fallon, or Charles Spurgeon? I know that the truth is tragic; nevertheless, it is the reality of our modern world.

Only 747’s Need Long Runways for Takeoffs: Believe it or not I’ve witnessed pastors spend nearly 15 minutes introducing their sermon, by which time even I’m looking for some scrap paper for doodling. This is probably the easiest habit to fix since most of us either write out or practice our sermons before giving them. So, if this is your habit and you find that you are taking more than 5 minutes with your introduction, then you need to find a new “hook” for getting your congregation’s attention. Generally speaking, the longer your introduction is, then the greater the possibility of confusion and distraction, it’s just a fact; it’s probably even one of the laws of thermodynamics.

From Candy Land to Quantum Physics: This is a habit that especially drives me the crazy. I have even observed that it from several popular pastors and I regularly get it from the students in my classes. I can’t tell you how often I hear a pastor take a rather clear and simple dialogue found in a biblical narrative and turn it into some complex systematic theological statement or completely unrelated political diatribe. And in order to do so these pastors and students exhibit some of the most amazingly inane hermeneutical maneuvers that in the end leave the average person in the pew completely confused, dazed, and saying under their breath “what in the world?” A few pastors think they are impressing some in their congregation—and regrettably they are. However, most that are listening are getting lost in the proverbial fog, which inevitably leads them to stop listening and wander off into their favorite daydream or begin wondering what’s for lunch. What is most ironic about this practice is that I’ve watched pastors pass over some otherwise obviously relevant and meaningful applications for their modern audiences in order to race off to their pet theologies or political positions. Pastors who preach in this manner inevitably begin to sound like Charlie Brown’s 3rd grade teacher rather than vibrant channels through which God regularly speaks to their congregations. And the more pastors do this type of eisegesis then the more they condition their congregation to just tune them out.

Well, these are some common mistakes we sometimes make that can be easily avoided. Regrettably, many congregations have been conditioned to tune out whoever enters the pulpit. I can’t tell you how many times I entered a pulpit and saw someone already asleep with their head back and the mouth wide open. I never took it personally since it was obvious that they never gave me a chance to begin with; but who knows, maybe my reputation preceded me. Nevertheless, the truth is that we are the ones that have conditioned many in our churches to tune us out simply because we have either unintentionally sidetracked them before we actually started preaching, or because we have gotten into the habit of not being faithful to God’s word in the first place. It’s we who have conditioned those in our ministries to turn down the volume on us, and now many are completely tone deaf to our poor and irrelevant musings. Consequently, the only thing that has the ability to renew their hearing and cut deeply into their hearts are the scriptures. We only have 30 to 45 minutes once a week to be used by God to impact to them for the cause of Christ, so for crying out loud let’s jettison all the distracting white noise and get them into God’s life changing word.