Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills (Photo credit: k763)

Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Acts 2:44-47 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.

I was reading some articles about the problems that churches in the United States have. Things like lack of commitment, not teaching the Word (implies teaching a western university method with references and focused on the western academic mind), keeping the finances up with the perceived needs of the congregation, and on and on.

There actually were several articles with really good and deeply profound ideas, but I noticed that many of these articles missed what it seems to me was the core of the early church.

The early church (no matter how large or small) had at it’s core one key focus – one another. I am intrigued by the American church’s focus on either getting bigger by counting registered members or on staying small at all costs because “it is more personal”.

Both have their merits as a church that is not growing is clearly not focused on living out the great commission. A Christian church that is not reaching the unsaved and not only leading them to Christ but also discipling these new believers is hard-pressed to say it is a Christian church when it is not following the core mission it was given by Christ.

Matthew 28:18-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 18 When Jesus came near, he spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach them to do everything I have commanded you. “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.”

On the other hand a church that is so big that the people don’t know or care about one another is not showing the love that was to be the mark of the church. It simply becomes a ritualistic exercise that assumes that there is some magic power to just being in the building and performing some amount of the ritual that is done there.

John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

Both (very commonly expressed) points are valid, but I am not sure that the size of the worship or celebration service is the problem, as a matter of fact, I am convinced that these are symptoms of a bigger problem. The problem is the focus on anything but the “community of believers”.

I am not saying that there is the absence of this concept, what I am saying is that there seems to always be something else that is more important than this key focus.

In my travels, most churches have an element of discussion on building some kind of deeply interpersonal community of believers, but it is almost always overshadowed by some other focus.

In research, discussion, debate, study and so on, I can usually find reasons for various focuses that each church model or denomination had for their focuses. These were not bad things even in the models of church that seemed to be miserably failing. To be honest, many of the models that seemed to be miserably failing seemed to have a focus that was for a particular season. The season merely seemed to change and the church simply didn’t change with it. God moved and the church decided to stay.

I know I have written a lot in the past about church models and those that know me have probably had a few conversations about church models, but I do not think that even that is the real issue and I am not convinced that simply changes models will fix the struggles of the western church in the long term.

THE PROBLEM IS NOT STRICTLY ONE OF MODEL, STRUCTURE OR CONTENT, THE PROBLEM IS PUTTING FIRST THINGS FIRST!!! Look at this verse:

Revelation 2:2-4 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 2 I know what you have done—how hard you have worked and how you have endured. I also know that you cannot tolerate wicked people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not apostles. You have discovered that they are liars. 3 You have endured, suffered trouble because of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 However, I have this against you: The love you had at first is gone.

This message to the church in Ephesus has some interesting points:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity
  5. THE LOVE THEY HAD AT FIRST IS GONE!!!

I have been taught in the past that the first love they had forgotten was the Word of God. Of course this was taught as a logical progression from the idea that the first love was Jesus, by extension that means that the first love was what Jesus told them to do and so that means the fist love is the Word of God where what Jesus wants believers to do is explained. I do believe that idea to be a part of the truth, but there is a more obvious idea expressed in the context of the time.

That period of history where the New Testament was not assembled yet, Old Testament texts were rooms full of scrolls in temples and there was little chance in Ephesus of doing things the way we do them in our modern contexts so although many of these sort of interpretations fit into our context and quality exegesis of the scripture they may not fit into their context.

So although our modern interpretations are okay, what did the text mean at the time. I wasn’t there and have limited insight into the deeper details of their context, but there is something I have been pondering: The key is what the Church in Ephesus’ first love was and how that plays out in our modern lives.

I started with the obvious question of what role love is supposed to play in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The most obvious place to start:

Matthew 22:37-40 New International Version (NIV) 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I would have to say that the first love we were all told to have is in fact God with all of our hearts. In this passage, Jesus himself describes what the “by extensions” are. Loving others a part of loving God. Anything we do that is supposed to be about loving God has to be completely tied to loving others.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) –  I may speak in the languages of humans and of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. 3 I may even give away all that I have and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me.

Anything that is done without love (particularly expressions of God to other people as noted in this passage) is nothing and is definitely not truly expressing God. Now think about the church in Ephesus:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity

But, some kind of “love” was not involved that was supposed to be. I think it is obvious that love of God is supposed to be everyone’s first love and is what is being directly expressed here. It is the details of what they were or were not doing that is still a bit unclear. According to Jesus Love for God and expressing love for others are tied together. It is possible to work, endure, not tolerate wicked people, test what people teach and stand up for faith while not expressing love for others.

I have been around people who seem to be like this. They do lots of Christian stuff, they can tell you whats wrong with how others live out a relationship with or talk about God. They can boldly defend their theology yat they do all of this with no real expressing of love in a way that the people they encounter can experience the love of God through them.

There is that idea that showing love is trying to force people to believe as their theology dictates and to argue with them if they do not is a great showing of love. The mere idea of loving someone by force is a strange concept in and of itself, but this idea of what the passage is describing is something we commonly see even now. Was the church at Ephesus a church of doers but not lovers?

This possible translation in mind, it would seem that the most important things that a church should be about are:

  1. Loving God
  2. Loving others (starting with each other which is the way others would know that we are God’s people)

If this does not permeate everything that a church does, the things that the church is doing is just a loud gong or clashing cymbal to God and to the world around them.

Most mainline churches have plans and programs to involve elements of loving the community or people in “missions fields” somewhere remote and poor, but are these really the love we are to show one another. That love for one another is a key outward expression of the the church that is supposed to be evident to all. Every church is supposed to exude this kind of love in a way that love for God, love for all people and definitely love for one another is what any outsider should be able to see and experience at any church.

This kind of love is something I have serious doubts about creating via a program or a six week sermon series. First off, this is a key ingredient and not some afterthought that we add later. This is even more than mindsets and theological thoughts; this is a lifestyle that should permeate the congregation create a sustained atmosphere within the church.

The question is how do we get this lifestyle throughout our churches? One thought is asking ourselves if the model we are using is the most likely model to produce this kind of love for God, one another, and the people around us or not. I may be generalizing a bit, but just finding some building and sitting through a sermon most Sundays and maybe going to a midweek service.

Many people do more like join ministry teams or groups within the church, but instead of being a portion of the church that has deeper relationships with each other and spends time together, shouldn’t it be the norm and those that don’t the exception? Shouldn’t everyone be deeply interconnected with the other people in the church? Shouldn’t everyone there quite naturally care for and about one another.

I am amazed at how many times one or two isolate incidents of members of the church caring for one another are paraded around by church members. Doesn’t the fact these are such big news imply that these sorts of things are incredibly rare.

I know I am partial to churches either having a small group component or consisting entirely of small groups, but that is because that seems to be the only way that these things can happen on a deeper level.

We have to use models that best facilitate the growth of this kind of love for God, for each other and for the people of earth on the deepest levels.

Many of the models we western churchgoers and western churches are comfortable in wouldn’t even have room to discuss but the deepest issues of an incredibly small segment of the congregation. As a matter of fact, if we tried to discuss the problems and needs of every person in the church each week, there would not only be too little time in the service to get through them all, I doubt if there would be enough time in the week. Our services are not structured for this information, so how could it be possible for the people in the church to respond to these problems and needs if they have no way of knowing them?

So yes, my suggestions on this key issue does include small groups. I simply do not see how you can get this personal and involved in every person’s life without breaking it into smaller more personal settings. Having small groups and studies/discussions designed to lead to community is still artificial, but it also much more likely to develop in these environments and the tools are just to aid something that could probably happen on it’s own.

The church described in Acts met together everywhere and did all kinds of things together as well of taking care of one another. It wasn’t some program the Apostles came up with, it was simply the lifestyle ans those that joined were really likely to do the same.

It is very common in years past to hear great speakers saying the church is the people and not the building. There is more to that. The churches job is to love God and to love the people and there is nothing stated in the New Testament about loving the building or the address.

I guess what I am proposing is a question more than an answer. Have we as the American church lost the love? I am not asking about one church or the group of deeply spiritual people at every church that do more than the general membership of the church. I am asking if the general state of the church in America is one that exudes an atmosphere of love for God, each other and people in general that it is most likely what each person experiences most with any contact with us?

It is funny that most people I know that do not believe see us as angry at the world, complaining about politics (especially complaining about democrats), we hate homosexuals, we don’t accept those who don’t believe, we hate anyone who thinks abortions are okay and on and on.

I know these things are not true and is totally the opposite of many American Christians and so on, But what all of that does not reflect is that people know us for our love. The American church is most known in my area as the people who hate this and hate that and hate these people etc. I am not saying not to have political views or to take stands on morality etc., but no matter what we are doing love has to be broadcast as the message or we are misrepresenting Christ.

As I said before, it’s not about a program or just adding small groups, this is about a complete change of focus for the American church and many churchgoers.

If you want to fix your church experience, your church, or the American church as a whole this must be the starting point. Have we lost the love we are supposed to have? Do we love God and one another in such a way that love the core of who we are and everybody can see it? Do we love others so much that everyone knows us for our love? If we cannot answer yes to all of that we cannot answer yes to any of it and definitely cannot say we are loving God without a deep level of loving others.

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 2

First Church Nerd Party

(Photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 2

 

Mark 10:15 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 15 I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.”

Today was an interesting day which gave me an interesting follow up opportunity on my discussion with my son about his perception of what it would take for him to have the perfect church experience.  (The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 1)  Some of what transpired today and a new conversation on the issue have come together to shed more light on his vision of the perfect church.

When he and I had this conversation about a week ago he had some surprisingly well though out answers which led me to believe that he had thought about some aspects of this before. I also had some questions about his theories and answers that could also be answered through some experimentation on his part with a few different church models.

Lets back up and look at some of the circumstances surrounding this conversation as I believe these tidbits of fact are relevant.

My son is thirteen going on fourteen later this year.  The mega-church my family attends has several different children’s and youth ministries that group age groups together.  There is a junior high school ministry which is where he is usually put because of his age and grade on school.  He did start going to that age group a year and a half early because he is simply a big kid and was kinda bored with the younger group.

In the junior high school group there is a set service with worship, announcements, a sermon which all of the participants are required to sit in.  Then after the service the preteens/tweens are unleashed as a loud, screaming stampeded of energy to play various videogames, board games, billiards etc. or to lounge on couches and chairs to while gobbling their favorite snacks from the snack stand.

For a long time, my son loved this service then came the day when he simply decided that he didn’t want to go to that service, saying it was boring.  He started insisting that he come with us to the main sanctuary for the regular service.  He seemed to be a little bored at the main service, but tried his best to remain attentive.  He has repeatedly stated that he prefers the main service to the youth service.

Then, in the discussion he and I had last week, I got a glimpse as to why he did’t enjoy that service any more.  To sum it up before giving any detail, I would have to say that he flat-out outgrew the service both in regular maturity and in spiritual maturity.  Their goal was to build a deeper desire for the things of God and he grew that desire and ended up noticing the limitations of or holes in the service that would not build his next level of growth.  In seeing the holes in the junior high school ministry and not being old enough for the high school service he decided the youth ministry was just no longer for him.

Then when we had the whole “The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom pt. 1” conversation as well as a couple of conversations that followed, I caught a glimpse of some of the challenges he was having.

A key was that he was not a fan of the fact that a lot of what happened was things that people were forced to do (or at least felt forced to do) and was truly disingenuous and much of the interaction with God was manufactured and artificial.  Well with the middle school kids they are forced to sit through all of the service components before having the fun part (which is what many of them were apparently looking forward to as the good part). In further discussion with him and thought I would have to say, that I might find I hard to seek the deeper presence of God if I were surrounded by people who didn’t want to be there, but that wanted all of this God stuff to be done so we can all go and have fun.

He had mentioned something I was curious about, but was still pondering and so I had not included it in the previous post.  He had stated that his service would not have video games or other distractions of that sort as it takes the focus off of God and seems to make (at least the middle school kids) less likely to seek God.

Then a lot of the observations that

He made several observations that apply to the main service also that all seem to be shaped by his newfound understanding that artificial worship is not worship at all and is thus a waste of time.  The only real benefit a person gets from attending a worship service if everything that is done there is artificially done is whatever benefit a person gets because he/she sacrificed and hour or two of their time to be where he or she thinks God would like him/her to be once a week. 

Today, while we were on our way to church a couple of our relatives called him to inform him that they were going to be in the high school service and wanted him to come.  He was excited to see them and wanted to go so I told hi he should.  He didn’t know if he could get in, but he is a pretty big kid and easily looks old enough (he is still a year younger than their usual lower age limit).

One of the suspicions I had in our previous discussions was that he had “perfect world” theories (probably mixed with a wee bit of what he thought I wanted to hear) about what a church that was perfect in his view was, but had not considered if he would actually be as drawn to that as he was thinking he would be.

By the time the service was over today I cold hardly wait to ask the question again relative to the high school service.  I was also curious what technique they use to get and keep Silicon Valley high school kids in church.

I asked about the service and the structure they used and my son happily answered.

He said they had two or three worship songs, one announcement and a sermon done by the youth pastor (who I went to bible college with and have a deep respect for).  He said this so happily so I thought through what we had discussed previously and remembered that he had specifically wanted a shorter service, with few if any announcements and basically just the worship and the sermon. 

I loved that the service structure was what he had basically wanted from God, but was puzzled by one thing:  Isn’t this similar to the structure that the younger group had that was so artificial.

When I asked him if people were forced to participate etc. he answered with a very excited “No!”  He stated that participation in the worship and sermon etc. was purely voluntary and if you did not want to participate you could just go and play video games etc.

This was interesting to me because it is probably that most of these teens that were there were forced to go to church by their parents, but once they arrived at the service they were given an option to ignore the “God thing” altogether.  In my mind, high school teens when offered a choice between listening to a bunch of this “God stuff” and singing mushy Jesus songs would almost unanimously choose video games and “kickin-it” with their friends.

So I asked, “Did a lot of people choose not to participate?”  He said an emphatic; “No!  Almost everybody sat in the service.”  I was intrigued by this.  The fact is they were not forced at all seemed to have the opposite effect on the high school age kids.  They seemed to be more involved because they didn’t really have to be.

I wondered if they took an offering.  My son said they did, but it was different.  Instead of the passing the bucket, which he said put inordinate pressure on people, during the service they matter-of-factly said that if anyone had an offering they wanted to make they should come up front and drop it in the bucket. 

I immediately thought back to our previous conversation about the pressures of the bucket passing and though everyone going up front but me would be way more pressure then sitting in my seat and just passing the bucket past me.  So I specifically asked my son if he felt pressured by the offering and he answered, “Not really.”  So there was a level of pressure applied, but it was done in a way that didn’t force you to experience much guilt if you didn’t give, didn’t want to give or couldn’t give.

I asked him if people brought Bibles.  He stated that a few people did but most people didn’t; “But, they projected the verses on screens for everyone and they used way shorter verses than in the main service.”

All and all he seemed very happy with this service which did at least somewhat satisfy much of what he thought a service should be like to be relevant to him.

So then I started to wonder about the things I have been pondering over the past couple of years like:

  • Do people even remember what is taught when in a traditional service (my personal asking of people and discussions in the days following a service has demonstrated that they usually remember little tidbits but not the large majority of what is said)
  • How deep of a personal experience with God each individual gets at a traditional service as opposed to smaller settings where you are kinda forced to connect with God and each other.
  • Do people think about how they should change because of what they have learned and make plans/goals to make those changes (another area where my own discussions with various people indicates there is some level of this normally, but it is very limited)

So I asked the questions:

Do you remember what the message was?  “He said yes and was able to regurgitate with some detail and even summarize the point of the message which was that “…even when there seems to be no hope God is there.”

Then I asked him:  “Do you feel like you felt or experienced God in the service?” 

He stopped with a puzzled look and then responded with a slightly less excited “No.”  He did explain that a few people seemed to experience God, he just didn’t.  I was intrigued with the tone of his response.  He seemed slightly troubled by the idea that this might be the wrong answer, but the tone also suggested that since it was such a good service experiencing God personally might not be as important.

I suppose he did encounter God in the fact that he worshipped him and learned from his word, but there are two things that are worth more consideration and possibly concern.

  1. If he does not know if he encountered God or not how can a gathering where we seek God be considered a success.  I do not say this as any attack on my son or his spirituality; I say this because it is a common mindset that I am constantly puzzled by.  The question in my mind is:  “If we are gathering in God’s name and we do not encounter him at that gathering, what exactly are we doing?”
  2. The similar idea that we do all of that stuff (sing, listen to the scripture etc.) and there is not further need to connect with God in that context.  If that is the case the amount of “God” in that context is limited at best.  The context is one of getting stuff about God without really getting God.  I guess this mindset (which is one I encounter pretty regularly) is one that has dominated our information driven American culture where information is king.  (The problem is that the people who had the most information about how God does things and about Jesus when Jesus actually came were the same people always fighting with Him and who ended up killing Him – Information about God is not the same as knowing God)

Then I asked him if there was something that he was going to do differently because of what he heard and experienced in the service.  He thought for a minute and said:  “No.  not really.”

This is another norm that I am always troubled by:  The idea that learning about what God wants is key and that doing anything about what is revealed to you is optional or something you just put off until it comes up as some major problem.

I see how in this context those conversations might just seem like a bunch of pressure or hyper-religious stuff, but these things are key.  This is where I have to agree with my son that having some kind of smaller group setting either in conjunction with this kind of service or in place of such a service is the best context for some of the more personal connections with God and with other believers.

In this context a small group discussion over a bagel and an iced tea or soda might be the best place to personally connect with God and to personalize what has just transpired. 

Thos groups would have to be with the people you are already comfortable with or at least the kind of people you can be comfortable with at that level.  After all that seems to be how the larger services are broken up at the church (the age groups and the reason my son connected better with this group that the younger group). 

For the purpose of this discussion we will describe these groups as affinity groups.  The tighter the affinity group (and possibly the smaller up to a point) the more opportunity to get deeper into what the verse means to you, what you will do about it and to get deeper into relating to God.

All-in-all, I think my son’s observations have proven to be correct observations.  The real test is the test of time.  After weeks and weeks of this how does he feel? As he goes through hormonal, mindset and perception of coolness changes does he still find all of this as relevant?

The real questions at hand are: How does any of this apply to his age group as a whole and how does any of this apply to the church as a whole.

These do agree with some of the research that I discussed in my previous post (What is Happening To The Church), but there are some aspects that could not be covered in the large group setting that my son is in now.  There would have to be a smaller context, possibly voluntary (that may exist and I simply don’t know about yet) where these tougher discussions and deeper connections would happen.

I hope these observations and discussions between my son and I are helpful to you and lead to further discussion in your context.  I can say that they have deepened my curiosity about what God is doing next in the church and what I have been doing (or not doing) to facilitate that.

I have been pondering how I receive God and what he reveals in much the same way that my son does.  How much of what he likes and dislikes is the same as what I like and dislike even though for vastly different reasons.  I have spent a lot of time recently wondering if I would grow better in the environments he has described and if I would greatly deepen my personal relationship with God in such a context.  I also wonder how much of what he is observing and thinking applies to much of our culture and possibly the whole world.  How much learning to receive the kingdom in the way that my son does needs to be sought after by me and by others.

I think in all of this I have seen some awesome potential solutions to the challenges the church as a whole is suffering from and have seen some gaping holes that could be paralyzing the church as a whole (or at least the American church).

A key focus that I was given as a new Christian by one of my mentors when I had noticed some contradictions in what I thought should have been going on and what was actually taking place. 

She stated that:  “God doesn’t show you things that are wrong just so you can complain or gossip about it.  God shows you something that is wrong because He intends for you to be a part of the solution.”

That needs to be what I and possibly everyone reading this needs to take away from these conversations.  The question “What part am I supposed to play in solving the problems God reveals to me?”

One more thought to ponder is the focus given to me via fortune cookie the other day:

ENGAGE IN GROUP ACTIVITIES THAT FURTHER TRANSFORMATION!

 

Be blessed in group activities that further your transformation,

 

W. Lawrence Hess

What is Happening To The Church

Abandoned Church

What is Happening To The Church

Matthew 22:36-40  GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in Moses’ Teachings?”  37 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and most important commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ 40 All of Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”

A recent poll named “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” is stating that atheism is on the rise and religiosity is on the decline.  There has been similar research in the past few years and there seems to be more and more evidence to support all of this.

First off, before going any further in the discussion I think it important to note a flaw that I saw in survey.  The question that led to the statistic that showed that religiosity is on the decline might have produced incorrect results due to the wording and a shift that is occurring in some circles surrounding the word “religious”. 

In many of the Christian circles I run in, the word “religious” has come to represent a prideful, Bible thumping, legalist that is seen as the example of what not to be as a Christian.  If asked twelve years ago if I was religious I would have quickly said yes.  However, if asked now, if I am religious, I am most likely to quickly say no, I am spiritual.  In other words, I am a no on that question and I am a churchgoing man of faith who is devoting my life to working with others and according to this study, I would be one of the proofs that people are leaving the faith in droves. 

In other words, I believe the study is flawed, but not totally untrue due to other research I have seen.

Now, on to the topic at hand, people leaving the church in droves.  I remember repeatedly hearing one saying when I was a youth pastor and was encountering messages and trainings for youth ministry:  HE WHO CONTROLS THE YOUTH CONTROLS THE FUTURE!  I am not so sure the word control is the best word to use, but I get the point.  So, if the church of to day is to look at the future, it has to look at what is going on in the youth.

Well, according to the Barna Group three out of every five kids (59%) that are in church now will leave the church later  (see Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church).  They did eight national studies and came up with six themes that seem to be the most prevalent reasons:

Theme 1 = Churches seem overprotective

  • “Their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse”
  • “Christians demonize everything outside of the church”
  • “Church ignoring the problems of the real world”

Theme 2 = Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow

  • “church is boring”
  • “faith is not relevant to my career or interests”
  • “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough”
  • “God seems missing from my experience of church”

Theme 3 = Churches come across as antagonistic to science

  • “Christians are too confident they know all the answers”
  • “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in”
  • “Christianity is anti-science”
  • “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.”

Theme 4 = Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental

  • ‘they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.”’
  • “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Theme 5 = They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

  • “church is like a country club, only for insiders”
  • “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.”
  • “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths”

Theme 6 = The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

  • ‘not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church”’
  • ‘their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience’

I think the most pressing issue is the idea that they are experiencing Christianity as shallow and specifically the idea that they are not experiencing God in the church service.  I have to wonder:  If they are not experiencing God in the service, what are they getting in the service?  Clearly, nothing worth staying for!

It is easy to get all hyper-religious and say it is them and they must be way too self-centered and in great sin etc.  I do not have that luxury, because I have stated similar ideas in previous posts. 

Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter

What is Wrong With the American Church? Better Exegesis?

I am not saying it is impossible for a person to experience personal interaction with God in the average church service, but it is clear that whatever we are doing currently in most of our churches is not LIKELY to lead the youth that are in these churches now to that experience.  Without the experience of God, there is no experience.  It is just a room full of religious mumbo jumbo (consider everything else observed in the study).

Add to the ideas of:  Not being able to ask the pressing questions, that in the middle of all this church mumbo jumbo the church experience is incapable of solving real problems (like depression), the feeling that once you have sinned the church will never forgive you (in spite of what Jesus says he does) etc. the standard experience of the generation to come is not one that represents a deep personal love for God or a love for one another.

If we are not bringing the youth to a personal exchange of love with the Father and our example is not one where it is clear that we love one another (the fact they do not feel free to ask the deep questions, and feel openness means being frowned upon by the church  proves this) means we having trouble representing Christ adequately to the next generation.

John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

If large groups in various places and in various churches/denominations are experiencing a lack of love, then it is probable that something we are doing may have communicates love to previous generations, but not to the ones to come.

We can blame them and ignore it until they become the dominant generation and it is too late or we can assume God is moving into a new season for our church models and move with Him.

Perhaps, if a new generation is coming through that thinks and experiences things in a vastly different way, the church should do some changing to match some of these changes (within the confines of what is biblical). 

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 Although I’m free from all people, I have made myself a slave for all people to win more of them. 20 I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings. 21 I became like a person who does not have Moses’ Teachings for those who don’t have those teachings. I did this to win them even though I have God’s teachings. I’m really subject to Christ’s teachings. 22 I became like a person weak in faith to win those who are weak in faith. I have become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Good News in order to share what it offers.

Some of these things are relatively easy to change some would require massive shifts.  I do think a HUGE starting point is to be more open and candid and take a massive step away from the angry and inflammatory rhetoric that has become the public face of American Christianity.  We have to stop the overly vigorous debate about whose theology is better because it will not matter if you win the debate and get to preach the supposed best theology to and empty room.

What we need to do is open our minds to what is best representing God to this new wave of thought that He has allowed to rise up.  It is not that what we have built in concept has not been an awesome solution to the problems that were confronted during the years these models became en-vogue.  Those problems are no longer the focus because the model was successful so new problems arose that have to be met with different solutions.

From a more personal perspective (supported by some empirical evidence) I do think that some kind of small group experience, which can be tied to a larger worship service or could also not be, would seem a better venue to deal with many of these issues.

The more personal experience and the more close knit culture of small groups can be more conducive to a more open and caring experience.  There is more room to discuss the harder questions and although the answers may not be perfect the idea that God is interested and personal interaction with God and other believers is a better foundation than attaining of mere information. 

After all, the people who had attained the most Bible information in Jesus’ day had all the information to know Him better than anyone else and yet they fought and resisted Him at every turn, persecuted Him, ridiculed His work, and eventually had Him killed.  It is no good to know the Book of God if you still end up not knowing the God of the book.

There was a study and the resulting article from the Barna group from 2007 that suggests my focus on the small group models might be at least a good step towards looking in the right direction.  House Churches Are More Satisfying to Attenders Than Are Conventional Churches suggests that a far greater amount of attendees at house church models were satisfied with the leadership, the faith commitment of the people involved in their gathering, the level of community and personal connectedness they experience, the spiritual depth they experience in their house church setting.  This was a study of all age groups, but look at how many of the same areas surveyed are tied to or at least related to the reasons teens stated they were drawing away from the traditional church.

If you look at what the results show is taking place at these groups, you can also see how the individuals participants in the group have more potential for personal experience with God and each other that in the traditional setting of any size.

  • 93% have spoken prayer during their meetings
  • 90% read from the Bible
  • 89% spend time serving people outside of their group
  • 87% devote time to sharing personal needs or experiences
  • 85% spend time eating and talking before or after the meeting
  • 83% discuss the teaching provided
  • 76% have a formal teaching time
  • 70% incorporate music or singing
  • 58% have a prophecy or special word delivered
  • 52% take an offering from participants that is given to ministries
  • 51% share communion
  • 41% watch a video presentation as part of the learning experience

I am always astonished at the resistance that ideas like this get from traditional church is the only way people who have made an assumption that a building with a seminary trained pastor and a big cross on the front is the only way God will reach people properly and effectively in our culture. 

Well, first off, statistically that is simply not true.  Think through all we have discussed here.

Second off, there is no example of a church of that kind in the new testament.  There is the idea of a pastor and teaching etc. but the only clear models were in homes and the Jewish believers in Israel still went to the temple as a cultural norm.  The non-Jewish converts met in homes.

I am not saying to put the wrecking ball to your building and abandon traditional ministry.  I am just saying that to say the house church or small group people are somehow unbiblical or somehow less Biblical is an outright lie.  They are from a literal perspective doing a better job of following the example of scripture than those of us (I myself still attend a traditional church with my family) that still attend a traditional service.

Philemon 1:1-7 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  1 From Paul, who is a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.  To our dear coworker Philemon, 2 our sister Apphia, our fellow soldier Archippus, and the church that meets in your house.  3 Good will[a] and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are yours!  4 Philemon, I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers because 5 I hear about your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. 6 As you share the faith you have in common with others, I pray that you may come to have a complete knowledge of every blessing we have in Christ. 7 Your love for God’s people gives me a lot of joy and encouragement. You, brother, have comforted God’s people.

Consider the statistics above and the observations of Paul about Philemon and the “church” that met in his home.  It was successful and Paul himself, inspired by God (as anything that appears in the Bible is inspired by God) calls the meeting in Philemon’s home a “church”.

We are so busy looking at keeping things the way we think is best (the way we as individuals are comfortable with) that we fail to seek what will work best for the next wave God is bringing into dominance throughout the planet.  It is a failure to love God as it is a failure to love what He is loving how he is loving it.

So do I believe droves of people are leaving the church?  Absolutely!  Do I think we can stop the bleeding?  Absolutely!  Before the problem started I believe God had already laid the foundations of the solution.  I just suspect that some of us Jonah’s are resistant to the kind of work God is calling us to next. 

 

Spit up on the beach and ready to minister as God wishes,

W. Lawrence Hess

What is Wrong With the American Church? Better Exegesis?

Worshipers at Phoenix First Assembly of God, a...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is Wrong With the American Church?  Better Exegesis?

Acts 2:44-45 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it.

I was listening to a prominent radio preacher this week and he was talking about the problems of the current state of the American church.  It was interesting what his idea of the main problem of the church is.  He felt that the main problem of the church was that there was not enough exegetical teaching.  In thought I found myself disagreeing with this statement.

At first I was in agreement, but then when I thought about it I was struck by the thought that breaking down the Bible line by line and word for word may not be the best learning method for every person.  

When playing out what he was saying to it’s logical end, the man was really saying was that there are not enough buildings with Bible college or university educated leadership (highly educated leadership) that can sit down weekly (or bi-weekly) to study and draw out a deep and relevant message and deliver the message with skill and in a way that will keep the crowd interested.

Thinking this through, the first problem is that having a highly trained professional that can exegete passages word by word is not likely to motivate large numbers of listeners to study in the same way or to study at all.  In many cases like this the reliance is on such a person to do the studying and more importantly the connecting with God for you and less individual study and individual connection with God.  The reliance is often on that person and if that person leaves, dies, falls in some kind of sin etc. the congregation are often lost and limited in the ability to do this on their own.

As far as the model of having a building and a trained expert to teach the group weekly from a pulpit, that model is not really the example of the churches planted in the New Testament.  The churches of the New Testament had varying levels of teaching from trained leaders (many of them had it for a period to start and the church planter –like Paul- would then leave) but the focuses seem to be on deep interpersonal fellowship, taking care of one another, prayer, and worship and the scripture was in their discussion or in the context of the Jewish converts in Israel they did all of this, as well as listening to the various teachings and teaching styles of the Apostles and went to the temple also.

The New Testament model including teaching:

Acts 2:42-47 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  42 The disciples were devoted to the teachings of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. 43 A feeling of fear came over everyone as many amazing things and miraculous signs happened through the apostles. 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.

Most of the models described throughout the New Testament have little access to such teaching (and to Bibles – particularly since the New Testament had not been written yet as evidenced by the fact they are in the stories) so they focused on getting together to seek God and to show live to one another in various ways.  Loving God through things like worship and prayer and loving each other through caring about one another and for on another seemed to be the main focus.

Matthew 22:34-40 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 One of them, an expert in Moses’ Teachings, tested Jesus by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in Moses’ Teachings?”

37 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and most important commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ 40 All of Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”

If these are the greatest commandments, then whatever model of church that most demonstrates and creates these is the best model.  Along those same lines, if you are looking for the problems in a church or the churches of a nation then the biggest problem would have to be anything that hinders or limits these things in any way.

I have my feelings on people taking it upon themselves to say that only one way of teaching is the way it must be done when that is not the example we get from Jesus who used many teaching styles to reach various audiences, but that is not the biggest challenge here.

The first problem to look at is the model itself before the discussion of teaching styles.  Has the model of having a building with a cross on it, a pulpit and a highly trained expert teaching (whatever the teaching style) produces an environment completely focused on the exchange of love with God and the exchange of love with others to the point of all believers selling their valuables etc. to make sure nobody has a need.

It would seem that in our churches in the United States the biggest problem might not be teaching method, it may be more of a problem of church method.  The house to house gathering together to eat, fellowship and focusing on exchanging love with God is absolutely absent in many of our churches.  

In many of our major cities, people rarely sit down together at home to eat dinner with their spouses and children much less other believers.  The focus seems to be every man, woman and child for themselves.  There are often programs in these churches which are designed to focus on loving others usually involving something like giving money to foreign missionaries, going to parks where the homeless congregate and giving out sandwiches, going to downtown areas to give out Bible tracts to start the conversation to talk people into the kingdom, etc., but these (while good things) seem to be a sort of beginners level to the kind of loving one another described in the Biblical examples of church.

Before focusing on teaching style the question needs to be if you alter the teaching style in this same context (same church model) will that alone suddenly make it more likely that each participant will develop a deep personal love for God (including studying the Bible and hearing from God in that study as individuals) and a deep interpersonal relationship throughout all of the members of congregation.  These are the greatest commandments according to Jesus and everything else hinges on these.  

My personal observations have been that church models that focus on studies that are “expertless” and small group based (often also based on multiple families meeting together).  These groups tend to, by nature be built on each individuals seeking of God, study of the Bible and better build deep interpersonal relationship with the other believers involved.  I have seen these groups as stand alone churches and I have seen these as key parts of a larger church that has a more traditional Sunday service also.

With the traditional Sunday service and small group together models there is that more traditional teaching involved but the building of obedience to the two greatest commandments is more naturally built in the small group settings and the worship service has a teaching and more corporate worship component.

I have traditionally been pretty comfortable going to a building and listening to deep, engaging teaching with little likelihood of carrying that out through the week.  The thing is, I have to ask myself, if having a model that has a much greater likelihood of building me and those around me into believers that study for ourselves and from that study hear from and are led by God while also building much deeper, interpersonal relationships with the body of believers as well as my family is really a model that I would better benefit from.  It might also be a model that I enjoy more personal interaction with God and others as well as building a group of people that really care about and for me as well as caring for and about the other believers.  In other words I think I would be more likely to grow in the are of deeply loving God and deeply loving others in such a model.

The real challenge with the statements I heard on the radio about what is wrong with the American Church can only be seen as wrong when you realize that question has to be the second question asked.  You can only ask what is wrong after you clearly define what a right church is.  Using something as simple as the likelihood that each member will rapidly grow in obedience to what Jesus stated as the two greatest commandments, suddenly a whole bunch of ideas that once seemed logical become just more of the same “holding pattern” style of church that is losing membership in droves over the past few years.

The problem really seems to be that we are asking the wrong questions so we are getting the wrong answers.

 

Thoughts by faith and in His service,

W. Lawrence Hess