Glory Days

autopsyThere are a lot of dying churches out there. Some of them deserve to die, because their pastors are charlatans, or inept, or incompetent, or unregenerate, or hateful – maybe all of the above. But, some of these churches are dying because they’re living in the past.

These churches are filled with older members (the younger ones fled long ago). These good folks remember the glory days, usually back when Nixon, Ford or Reagan (or perhaps Bush #1) was in office. The pews were filled, children ran in the aisles, Vacation Bible School was a big event, and things were happening!

Now . . . well, things are different.

Everybody in the congregation has white or gray hair. Many of those children are gone. Some have remained, now in their fifties and above – forlorn and melancholy about what once was. The pews are empty. The sermons grow more and more pitiful and desperate with each passing Sunday. Everybody knows the church is dying. An air of sadness pervades the congregation, an aura of inevitable doom. Rooms are closed off; nobody has used them in years. The last time you had a visitor was that one Thanksgiving . . . was it last year, or the year before?

These churches often live in the past. They revel in it. If only they could recapture those glory days. Springsteen could have been singing about them. Maybe he was.

Churches like this will probably die. It’s common in churchy circles to double down on failure, to spiritualize it and claim you’re “suffering for the Lord.” But of course you are. Nobody can whitewash failure quite like a Christian.

Thom Rainer, in his outstanding book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, wrote about this kind of dying church:

The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.” And they did.

Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2014; Kindle ed. ), KL 161-164.

Real Christian Life . . . and the Government (Part 1)

It’s easy to lose your perspective. We live in a very self-absorbed, historically ignorant culture. We know, intellectually at least, that we can learn from people who have come before us. We get it. But, functionally, we don’t get it. We often act as though what’s happening right now is momentous, unprecedented, and unparalleled. That’s often not the case at all.

We live in a very politically charged atmosphere. Old mores are being toppled, the “shackles” of a Puritan-esque Christian ethic (though, to be sure, our society left Puritanism behind a long time ago, but never mind the facts) and are being cast off with glee. Our society has formerly transformed from a false “Christian Americana,” to outright secularism. To be sure, America has been secular for quite a while, but now she feels free to revel in it, without the rusty, embarrassing remnants of a Christian ethical compass to hold her back.

The historian George Marsden wrote about this bygone age in American culture, which he believes was at its height in the later quarter of the 19th century. He described it well; very well. Those who grew up in the old “Bible Belt” will understand exactly what Marsden was getting at. He wrote:

A veneer of evangelical Sunday-school piety covered almost everything in the culture, but no longer did the rhetoric of idealism and virtue seem to touch the core of the materialism of the political and business interests. It was a dime store millennium.[1]

This dimestore millennium endured for a while. I believe we saw its last gasp this past decade. Now, it’s gone. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader and minister a generation older than me, wrote this about his Boy Scout troop and the cultural Christianity of his childhood in the South:

The “God and Country” badge wasn’t really about conforming us to the gospel, or to the Bible, to any confessional Christian tradition, or even, for that matter, to the “mere Christianity” of the ancient creeds and councils. This project didn’t want to immerse us (or even sprinkle us) into the strange world of the Bible, with its fiery spirits and burning bushes and empty tombs. We were here for the right kind of Christianity, the sort that was a means to an end. We were to have enough Christianity to fight the Communists and save the Republic, as long as we didn’t take it all too seriously.[2]

That version of America is gone, and it’ll never come back.

So, Christians in America are in a quandary. How should we live, work and minister in a culture which is so adamantly pagan and secular? The Apostle Peter tells us how. And (to return to my point about perspective), Peter is a guy who wrote and ministered in a much more secular time than we live in today, in the West.

Not long after Peter died for his faith (likely on the orders of the Roman Emperor, Nero), Christians were periodically ordered to declare their allegiance to the Emperor by offering incense to him, and worshipping him. Now, that’s a quandary. Do you think our political climate is unprecedented? Peter faced Nero. You face MSNBC. Children, please . . .

Our text for next few week is very practical; it speaks to real life, in the real world, and how Christians should think about and deal with the government (really, all people in authority).

1 Peter 2 (13-17)

  • Who are you supposed to submit yourself to?
  • What does it mean to “submit yourself?”
  • How should this inform how you interact with government officials, or refer to them in private conversations, public conversations, and your posts on social media?

Take a listen to the audio (below), and let’s see what Peter has to say about all this. It will take us several weeks to discuss this passage, and some of its implications. The teaching notes for the passage are here. All audio and teaching notes for the 1 & 2 Peter series so far are here. Feel free to contact me with any questions, or to comment below.

Notes

[1] George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 10.

[2]  Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 11-12.

Micah 5:3 – Mary or Israel?

Micah_prophetIs the prophet Micah referring to Mary (Jesus’ mother in the incarnation), or to Israel? Here is the text (Micah 5:1-4):

1 Now you are walled about with a wall;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike upon the cheek
the ruler of Israel.

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
      when she who is in travail has brought forth;
then the rest of his brethren shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

A very brief survey of the text

Micah has circled back from encouragement to dire warnings. The time will come when Jerusalem will be surrounded, besieged, and its king abused. The bit about the “king” is likely a prophetic prediction of Zedekiah’s fate (2 Kings 25:1-7), although Christ could be in view, too. The perpetrators are the Babylonians.

But, in contrast to this gloomy future, the time will come when God will raise up a true king for Himself. This king will come from the little town of Bethlehem, a small city in Judah. The Jews understood this was a Messianic prophesy (see Matthew 2:1-6). This ruler will “come forth from me,” meaning He will be uniquely sent from God. This man’s origin is from the distant past, from ancient days. Whoever He is, He isn’t an ordinary ruler.

Therefore, God will give the Israelites up until this time comes. He’ll abandon them to their enemies, to suffer the covenant curses He warned them about in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 28-29).

Who is it?

So . . . who is the woman who is in travail, who will bring forth this ruler? Is it a prophesy of Mary, the favored Jewish girl whom God chose to bear His incarnate Son? Or, is Micah referring to Israel as a woman who “brings forth” Jesus?

Can Johnny Preach?

johnnyT. David Gordon doesn’t think so:

Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor. But I have come to recognize that many, many individuals today have never been under a steady diet of competent preaching. As a consequence, they are satisfied with what they hear because they have nothing better with which to compare it.

Therefore, for many individuals, the kettle in which they live has always been at the boiling point, and they’ve simply adjusted to it. As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel of spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there. So let me provide just some of the lines of evidence that have persuaded me that preaching today is in substantial disarray.

I candidly admit that one line of evidence is subjective and anecdotal. For twenty-five years or more, I routinely have found myself asking my wife, “What was that sermon about?”—to which she has responded: “I’m not really sure.” And when we have both been able to discern what the sermon was about, I have then asked: “Do you think it was responsibly based on the text read?” and the answer has ordinarily been negative (matching my own opinion that the point of the message was entirely unsatisfactory).

I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say, “The sermon was about X.” Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read. That is, no competent effort was made to persuade the hearer that God’s Word required a particular thing; it was simply asserted.

Such sermons are religiously useless.

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009; Kindle ed.), KL 105 – 118.

Dereliction of Duty?

deverMost Christians don’t ever share the Gospel. If you’re a Christian, you should start planning to stop this failure. You should decide to do something about that, to change it. But, I really mean that you should plan to stop. Don’t plan for this the same way you “plan” to start a new workout program. We all know how that last time went, don’t we?

Mark Dever, in his wonderful little book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, offers some advice on how to plan to start doing evangelism in your daily life:

Pray. I think many times we don’t evangelize because we undertake everything in our own power. We attempt to leave God out of it. We forget that it is His will and pleasure for His gospel to be known. He wants sinners to be saved. Simply put, we don’t pray for opportunities to share the gospel, so how surprised should we be when they don’t come? If you’re not evangelizing because you think you lack opportunities, pray and be amazed as God answers your prayers.

Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 24.

 

Communication Breakdown?

unchurched next doorIn 1969, the band Led Zeppelin released its first album. On that album, there was a little song entitled “Communication Breakdown.” It’s about a man who likes a girl, but can’t bring himself to actually speak to her. Now, as every married man knows, if you’re too terrified to ever speak to a pretty girl, then you have a potentially fatal problem . . .

For Christians, there is another kind of communication breakdown happening. Most Christians have never done anything concrete to give somebody the Gospel, at all. Now, I don’t intend to shame you into anything – there’s been enough of that over the years. Instead, I want to encourage you.

Thom Rainer is a Southern Baptist minister currently President of LifeWay Christian Resources. Not long ago, he did a remarkable amount of research and published a book entitled The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith. Consider this, from the book:

82 percent of the unchurched are at least “somewhat likely” to attend church if they are invited. Perhaps we need to pause on this response. Perhaps we need to restate it: More than eight out of ten of the unchurched said they would come to church if they were invited. If you take anything from this book, please remember this point.

What constitutes an invitation? For many of the unchurched, it was a simple statement of invitation to come to one’s church. For others, it was an invitation that included the offer to meet someone at church to show them around. In either case, the process was pretty basic. If we invite them, they will come.

The next obvious question is: Are Christians inviting non-Christians to church? The heartbreaking answer is no. Only 21 percent of active churchgoers invite anyone to church in the course of a year. But only 2 percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church.

Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008; Kindle ed.). KL 298 – 301.

Why don’t you invite a friend, family member or co-worker to church this Sunday? Give it a shot.

Farmers, Not Salesmen

workplace graceIf you’re a Christian, I predict one of these two scenarios probably describes your experience with evangelism:

Scenario #1: You’ve never been taught evangelism at all. Your Pastor talks about it sometimes, you know it’s important, but nobody in church leadership has ever taught you how to do it, what it’s about, what it entails, what it means, and what “success” actually is.

Scenario #2: You’ve been taught a pre-scripted, rote, memorized way to share the Gospel. You know, deep down, that you sound like a cheesy salesman, so you don’t usually bother to do it.

Scenario #1 is unacceptable, and your church leadership should put some energy and effort into fixing this – now. Scenario #2 is unhelpful, and very bad. Pre-scripted approaches are unhelpful because you cannot script a conversation. It’s more important you actually understand doctrine, so you can better explain it to people with the time you have. For more on this, see my lesson entitled “Teaching the Gospel to Kids” (audio and handout are at the link).

The truth is, Christians are not salesmen – we’re farmers. I’ll let a good book explain the rest:

Many Christians learned a mechanical, aggressive approach to evangelism. We attended workshops and read books based on techniques developed by people who have the gift of evangelism. That is the problem. When those of us who are not gifted evangelists muster up the courage to try these techniques, the results are usually disappointing— which makes us feel guilty and often offends others. We begin to think of ourselves as substandard disciples who are simply not able to share our faith. Although we want to see friends and colleagues come to Christ, we stop trying out of fear and frustration.

According to a 2009 Barna Group survey, since 1995, the proportion of born again adults claiming the gift of evangelism dropped from four percent to one percent. The problem is one of perspective, not inability. We tend to think of evangelism as an event, a point in time when we explain the gospel message and individuals put their faith in Jesus on the spot. Done!

However, according to the Bible, evangelism is an organic process, more like farming than selling. A person’s decision to trust Christ is the climactic step, following a series of smaller steps God orchestrates to draw a person to Himself. He typically enlists a number of people with a variety of gifts. Each person plays a different but vital role to help a nonbeliever take one step closer to Jesus.

Bill Kraftson of Search Ministries observes that each Christian in a nonbeliever’s journey to faith is like a link in a chain. “It’s great to be the last link in the chain,” Kraftson says, “but it’s not more important than any other link. We just need to make sure we’re not the missing link.”

Walt Larimore and Bill Peel, Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work (Longview, TX: LeTourneau Press, 2014; Kindle ed.), KL 203 – 224.