Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Are Millenials Really Leaving the Church?

It’s happening again.

There’s another article going ‘round the internet—especially on Facebook—about how millenials are leaving the church in droves. I would go to all the trouble of looking it up and providing a link to it … but I’m not going to. The reality, as I’ve written before (see here), is that this article gets written at least once a year by some well-meaning person who thinks they’ve discovered something no one else has noticed or tried to address.

Quality millenial skiing at Red River, 2017
Now, to answer the question of the headline, “Yes.” Millenials are leaving the church. So are a lot of other demographics (see here). It is not a new phenomena. And no, I am not dismissing it as something that shouldn’t trouble us.

First off, I just want to make fun of all these people who think they’re the first person to write about this topic when they’re only about the millionth person (give or take) to write about it. [Insert pithy joke here.]

But secondly, I would like to address the concept in a somewhat serious way.

Remember back in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah was having his pity party following his participation in God’s incredible victory over the prophets of Baal? From Elijah’s perspective, it seemed like he was the only person faithful to God in the whole country. God tells him, though, that he (God) has 7000 people in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal, who are still faithful servants of God.

There are many lessons to be learned from this passage, but one of the ones I am frequently reminded of is that the number of people who follow God, compared to their surrounding culture, is often (maybe always) going to be pretty small. This isn’t to say we should stop evangelizing or working on faithfully tending to the people God has loaned us, but when we look around and see that many people have abandoned God, or are abandoning him right now, and that some of these people are folks who “should know better” we shouldn’t be surprised.

I’ve also read The Book, so I know for a fact that the church’s role in influencing the culture will diminish. I can wish it were not so, but I might as well wish the sun would stop setting or the politicians would stop lying.

If you go back and read one of the articles about why the millenials are leaving the church (or, go back further and read one of the ones about why Gen-X is leaving the church, or further back to why the baby boomers are leaving the church)—it doesn’t matter which article, they’re all about the same—you will find good and sometimes valid points: the music isn’t to our tastes, they aren’t taking care of the poor; there aren’t any millenials (or whoever the age group du jour is) in leadership positions, and on.

The thing is, though, for every one of the objections made that’s leading the group to exit the church en masse (I think that’s French for “a whole passel of ‘em”), with very little searching they could find a church in their town that addresses that very issue. Maybe not all of the issues on the list, but most people have one issue that’s the big, driving, force for them and—if that issue is addressed—they could put up with weaknesses in the other areas.

Just kidding.

Yes, there are other churches in their town that address those needs/wants/weaknesses, what I’m kidding about is that if they found one that addressed the most important one to them they could put up with the other areas. We’re not wired that way. When satisfied in one area, we quickly begin looking for other areas in which to be dissatisfied. Millenials appear to be more afflicted with this mentality than previous generations, but that may just be because they not only are afflicted, they want to make sure they take a selfie of themselves being afflicted.

The sad reality is that most of these millenials (and other people) who are leaving the church for whatever reason are not looking for another church that fits that bill, they’re just leaving. Some do find another church for a while, but—as stated above—they’ll soon find something that new church is doing wrong and leave it. Some will church hop for a while, and a rare one will even eventually light somewhere and stay, but most hoppers will either keep hopping or hop until they decide they’d rather just stay home. A little of this we can lay at the feet of denominationalism (“I’ve tried every Baptist church in this town and none of them met my needs!” [insert whatever denomination you want in there]), but not much.

Mostly, they’re not going to church because they just don’t want to go to church. They want to sleep in or play golf or they just don’t really see any value-added to their life by church, so they drift away and most don’t come back. (Some do. They hit middle age and realize they miss the church and they come back, which is great, but then they’re often a little depressed because their kids—who didn’t grow up in church—see no value at all in church.) And once away from the church, even if a “new” one comes to town that addresses the objections that led them to leave, they’re already in the habit of not going and aren’t coming back.

So, with all this said, why? Why aren’t they coming back? “You knucklehead!,” you say to me, “The dude just wrote an article listing 12 reasons why they’re leaving!”

Yes, but I just have my own doubts that any of those reasons are the real, the “meta reason” people are leaving.

The first one that comes to my mind is that we have an enemy who is actively pulling them away. He may use narcissism, he may use family dynamics, he might just use the allure of worshiping at St. Mattress … one of his more successful tricks lately is to convince people he doesn’t exist. Am I saying that pulling someone out of church can be equated with ruining their soul? No, but church is one of (one of!!) the tools God has established for the edification and equipping of the saints, so it’s to Satan’s advantage to separate us from it.

The second reason, which is tied on a micro-level to the first and—I believe—is the real, the meta reason, is that these people who are leaving the church have finally realized that the only church worth being a part of is one with standards and they don’t want that!! We live in a post-morality culture and here’s this group of people who gather in this old building, sing old songs (let’s face it: in our culture, any song more than a year old is an “oldie”), and proclaim that, “Yes! There is a God and yes he has standards!” The Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Pentacostals, et. al. may disagree on some of the finer points, but they/we all agree that God has established some standards that, even accounting for grace, we are behooved to try and walk in.

My third meta reason—which I know is really stretching the definition of “meta”—is that maybe one of the church’s problems with losing people—millenials, Gen-Xers, boomers, flappers, etc.—is that we have church all wrong to begin with. I’ll go into this in another blog, if I remember to, but maybe the church’s biggest problem is that we’re doing it all wrong!

Addendum: some of my earlier snarkiness aside, I think maybe the reason this article gets written every year is that every generation--and sub-generation--has to come to this idea on their/our own.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Snowflake Riot

Some of the people who are on the same political side as the rioters say things, in reference to the rioters, like, "At least they have passion."

See, because no matter what the last president did or didn't do that his opponents disliked--even vehemently--there were no parades of people destroying property, shouting vulgarities, or dressing like the losers of a junior high bet. And not all leftists agree with the tactics of these left-whining vandals, but neither are they knocking each other over to condemn the miscreants.

"They have passion, it's just ... um, misguided."

Sure, go with that.

It's as if passion somehow trumps (ha!) lawfulness, kindness, and good sense. And the left-leaning national news (but I repeat myself) treats them not as vandals but as modern day Boston Tea Partiers.

Even with the news on their side (vacuously and untruthfully though it is), I have to wonder about the motivation(s) of whoever is starting these things. The participants are just morons who want to destroy and have found protection in crowds, but somewhere behind all this there is someone with an end game, a goal.

Under normal circumstances, I would think that the driving force has an idea he/she or they are trying to convert others to. Maybe they do, but who is going to watch knuckleheads on TV turning over cars and setting fire to things and then think, "You know, those idiots make a pretty good point. I wish I could change my vote"?

In fact, the actions of the rioters seem to me to be not only destructive towards property, but towards their own agenda for the likely outcome would be to galvanize the opposition.

P.S. And have you ever noticed that even the non-riot leftist get-togethers--like the post-inaugural Women's March--always leave the grounds where they were held dirtier and more trash-filled than before the conclave, but get-togethers like the recent March for Life actually leave the area cleaner than they found it? And then the people who trashed the park try to claim they're the ones who love the environment.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Case for a Safe Space

“Safe spaces” are in the news lately. Often, outside the places where they are being held, they are derided as a method of coddling “snowflakes”, i.e. college kids who are biological adults but seem to have the emotional maturity of a stunted Chihuahua.

I have to admit: I have done my share of chuckling at and deriding of these snowflakes.

What if I told you, though (or told me, since I’m the one deriding and chuckling), that the concept of a safe space is Biblical. Not only that, but it was pretty much commanded of his followers by none other than Jesus himself?

First off, though, get the idea of the college safe space out of your mind. I’m not talking—nor was Jesus—about a room with coloring books, zen tangles, or a giant ball pit. These things can all be fun and may even have their place in entertainment or relaxation, but they have nothing to do with the kind of “safe space” Jesus was talking about.

OK, so what was Jesus talking about?

Matthew 6:5-7

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (English Standard Version)

Specifically, Jesus was contrasting this attitude with that of the outwardly pious person who prays loudly in public so as to draw attention to their own piety. Jesus didn’t want his followers to do that. He wanted them to get off by themselves and just be alone with God.

The King James Version has it that we should go into our “closet”. This wouldn’t work for most of us these days because our closets are full. I think the idea was/is, though, to go to a place away from worldly distractions. NO TV, no radio, no phone—I said, “NO phone!”—and just pray, and listen. Maybe take your Bible in there with you and meditate (more on that in a moment). A paper Bible, printed and bound and not one on your phone. A Bible that serves no other purpose than that of being a Bible.

Those of us making fun of the snowflakes are deriding them for pretending to be adults while being “traumatized” by an election, or the prospect of an election, or a professor who espoused an idea they “weren’t emotionally prepared to handle”. So the campuses we’re laughing at have set-up spaces where said snowflakes can go and color in books or listen to soothing music (I say we play some Pink Floyd for them, myself) and, basically, ignore whatever it was that was bothering them. Sometimes it’s said that these safe spaces are provided so that the snowflakes may “process” what’s going on—which isn’t the worst idea—but unless such processing involves giving someone the strength of character to get back out there and “get on the horse”, it’s actually just making the problem worse.

The safe space Jesus is advocating, commanding maybe, is a place where we go for petition, for redress, for the kind of spiritual warfare he engaged in in Gethsemane that led him to break out in a sweat! And remember what Jesus prayed for in that garden? OK, he prayed for several things, but one of the things that Jesus prayed for was for his father to take the cup away from him. Jesus knew what he was about to face. He wasn’t looking forward to a scourging or crucifixion any more than you or I would. And he really wasn’t looking forward to the separation between himself and his father that he knew taking on all the sins of the world would bring about.

It’s easy, then, to say that God ignored his prayer because God clearly didn’t take the cup away, right? Well, God didn’t take the cup away, but look at how he answered Jesus’s prayer:  “Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening him.” (New King James Version) God’s answer to the prayer wasn’t to take the cup away, but to give Jesus the strength to drink it.

See, that’s the kind of safe space I need to retreat to now and then. When stuff bugs me—elections, slights, attacks, bad food, etc.—I need to take to my safe space and pray. When good stuff happens—elections, praise, good food, etc.—I need to get to my safe space and pray. Sure, there is a place and necessity for saying “sentence prayers” throughout the day, for praying before or after meals or just when I wake up or right when I’m about to go to sleep.

But I also need a place—a place that’s partly physical (which helps) but is mostly mental—where I get away. I don’t just turn off the phone, I leave it somewhere else. There is no place in my life where things are completely silent—I’m always hearing cars, AC units, distant dogs—but I need to get to a place that’s as distraction-free as is reasonably possible. I need to get down on my knees (why? Because it’s uncomfortable and I’m less likely to go to sleep) and I need to talk to God. That’s my safe space. It may or may not be safe from the world—even in my back bedroom, there’s the possibility that a tree limb, a plane or a drunken politician could fall from the sky and shatter my roof and, thus, me.

In there, I will be safe with God. I can tell him anything!

Here’s where it might get rough, though: am I willing to let him tell me anything? When the apostle Paul tells us to put on the armor of God, the first item he mentions is the “belt of truth” (Ephesians 6). Most of us pride ourselves on being truth-tellers, especially if it’s difficult, but are we truth-hearers (especially when it’s difficult)? How do we react when a fellow human comes up and tells us an unpleasant truth? (“You know, getting fired was mostly your own fault.”) How will we react if God tells us an unpleasant truth? (“Yes, I can see that your marriage sucks, and I will help you with that, but will you first acknowledge that the suck starts with you?”)

Some of these safe places in our culture include meditation. Some public schools are teaching meditation to children. Before someone can assume that I am going to have a negative knee-jerk reaction to public school meditation, let me assure that meditation is Biblical.

Most of the meditation being taught in schools (and some churches), however, is not.

Biblical meditation is, most often, a concentration on the written word of God. (See Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; and 119) Otherwise, it is a meditation on the character of God (Psalm 63:6, 77:3) and the works of God (Psalm 77:12, 143:5). This is not a process of emptying oneself so that “something” may come in, but of emptying oneself and then actively allowing God to fill you back up with himself. It is concentrating on a Scripture passage, a single verse or concept. Turning it back and forth in your mind and inside out. Looking at it from every side and maybe even memorizing the verse. It’s getting to know the character and power of God through the ways he has revealed himself to us.

Sometimes, this is calming. Sometimes, these closets of prayer will help you to sleep better or have a more productive day at work or give you the fortitude to withstand something harsh or unpleasant.

Sometimes, though, this safe space with God will leave you wrung out, exhausted, or agitated. Sometimes with righteous indignation, and sometimes with hard-fought chastisement. Some days, I crawl from my safe space into my bed and sleep like a log, but other days? I crawl from my safe place into bed desiring sleep, only to find it won’t come because the verse, the passage, the concept or the challenge still has a hold on me and I won’t be able to rest until I have turned it over to God (and, I’m convinced, sometimes he doesn’t let me turn it over to him until he’s sure I’ve finally grasped whatever it is he’s trying to tell me). On days like that (usually nights) the safe place can feel like the most dangerous place in the world and make you wish you had never entered.

Just back up a few paragraphs and remind yourself that the safety is with God, which is the only safety that really matters, anyway. His plan may not be to take the cup from you, but to give you the strength to drink it.

Don’t worry: it’s safe.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Swing of the Pendulum

Why are we so prone to pendulum swings and over-correction?

For instance, you’re driving down the highway and maybe you’re listening to the game or distracted by the warning light on the dash (I’m going to give you credit for not being one of those moronic miscreants who texts while driving) and you suddenly realize you have drifted a little too far to the left or right. Most of us don’t drift back to correction at the same speed; we jerk the wheel to get back there as quick as we can, thereby doing something almost as dangerous as the drift we intended to correct.

And what about those pendulum swings? I’m not saying that the “middle ground” is always the preferable ground, but often the best tack is the one that falls between the extremes. We think we’re too fat, so rather than eat sensibly we starve ourselves.  We get disgusted with some show on TV, so we ban TVs from the house.

I think the reasons are two-fold: one, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction; and B, it’s easy. It’s a lot easier to just cut out all sugar than go to the trouble of smart-shopping, reading labels, balancing my meals, etc.

To walk on that middle path, I’m going to have to do some thinking. It’s a lot easier to just be “all in” whether “all in” is something worth being or not.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Let's All Go to the Movies ... or Not

Speaking of decline, fewer people are going to the movies than in years past. Some people blame this on the quality of movies produced (“Nothing but sequels and remakes! Doesn’t Hollywood have any original ideas?”). This may be a factor, but if you look back at Hollywood’s glory years, you’ll find that they produced some pretty lousy movies back then, too.
And they still produce some good ones now. I don’t usually agree with the Awards voters, but the fact that those voters selected this movie and I preferred that movie just tells me there are still movies out there that appeal to people.
A large part of Hollywood’s problem is just culture. Those pictures they love to show us of a movie theater crowd from the 1940s where all the men are in suits and ties and all the women in dresses and the theater is full, what else did those people have to do on a Saturday or Sunday night after it got dark? No TV, maybe some high school sports or a dance, or sit at home and listen to the radio. Plus, there weren’t that many theaters in town, so everyone who wanted to go to the movies was crammed into one or two theaters instead of being distributed over two 16 theater multiplexes (making it easier to take a picture of a crowded theater).
Personally, though, I think Hollywood’s biggest problem with declining theater attendance is all about TV.
And I don’t mean the quality of the TV programming. If the movies Hollywood turns out are a swamp (and I don’t think it is; as stated earlier I think there are still some good movies coming out), TV is the stagnant, vermin-infested cesspool the swamp drains into. 200 channels and, at any given time, it’s nigh-impossible to find something you want to watch.
No, the problem Hollywood is having with TV is with the units themselves. I have a family of four, so if we want to go to a movie—even a matinee—we’re out at least $25. Evening movie it’s almost $40, and if we want to see something in IMAX or some other fancy format like that, we’re talking $60 before popcorn. Throw in popcorn and a drink, and we’re closing in on $100.
Or …
We can wait three months (sometimes less) and check out the BluRay copy of the movie for less than three dollars, watch it from our comfortable couch on a large, HD-TV, and we don’t have to worry about unclean restrooms or (you may have seen this news story in your town) bed bugs. Now, personally, I hate pausing movies for a restroom or snack break, but sometimes I give in to popular demand and do so, in which case we can pick up right where we left off. At the theater, if you gotta go, you gotta miss something.
Don’t get me wrong: I love going to the movie theater. It’s an event. A two-story screen has advantages over even a 62 inch HD-UD-UpYours-Whatever, but the cost has led me (and my family) to ask of every movie that comes out that we are at all intrigued by, “Will this lose anything on the ‘small’ screen?” And the truth is, even with the movies I have really enjoyed, the large screen spectacle is rarely enough to make me feel like a $25 outlay is worth it for something I’ll see in a couple months for $3.

Why the NFL's Ratings Are Declining

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on because the NFL’s TV ratings are declining. Some want to blame it on that 2nd string QB (maybe 1st string this week, who can tell?) who won’t stand for the national anthem, but while I think that turned a few people off, I think it was just one piece of the puzzle—one more straw, if you will—in an overall picture of decline.

Why is it happening?

Could it be that the NFL did this to themselves?

Well, not them alone. Part of it’s our culture, and I’m not just referring to the fact that the NFL now has to compete with so many other offerings (movies, other sports, etc.).

Walk yourself through the last football game you watched. What did you do when it went to commercial break? If you’re like most people, you went either to the kitchen or the bathroom. (Maybe not on the first commercial break, but for later ones.)

There was a time, when there weren’t quite so many commercial breaks. During a change of possession, for instance, rather than going to a commercial break, we might hear the announcers talk about … whatever it is that announcers talk about, but presumably it was something about the game or its players that made us want to listen. Except during the Super Bowl, no one wants to watch the commercials, so we leave the room to either go take care of important matters or just because we’ve been conditioned to get up when the commercial starts.

But now, they’ve added commercials where they didn’t used to have them (or didn’t used to have so many of them). We get a commercial break during every change of possession, time out, injury on the field or—it seems—every time someone falls to the ground.

As proud Americans, we have trained ourselves to zone out through most commercials so … see what’s happening here? The NFL has trained us to zone out more often and then seems surprised when we don’t come back.

Really, I think that’s the crux of what has happened with the NFL: they trained us to step away and then it occurred to us over time that if we could leave that easily there wasn’t really a strong reason to return.

So we went to the restroom or the kitchen or just another channel and eventually we stayed there. Combine this with the cost of the tickets to see the game live, the poor quality of officiating (leading to the perception that the “sport” is no more real than professional wrestling), the spectacle of someone who makes 10x what most of us will make in a lifetime for one season of playing a game complaining about some injustice and the surprise to me isn’t that the NFL’s ratings are declining these days but wonder that it didn’t happen sooner.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why Didn't God Save that Guy?!?! He COULD Have You Know. Blah blah blah

The truck just fell out of the sky and crushed that man. One minute, he’s walking along, no thoughts to his imminent demise, the next he’s a body on the way to the morgue.

I don’t know what kind of guy he was. Maybe he was a wonderful, church-going, wife-loving, kid-hugging saint. Maybe he was a jerk. The kind of guy you want to drop a truck on. Maybe he was somewhere in the middle.

For the sake of this blog, here’s the question: why didn’t God stop that truck?

I’m not here to debate predestination, free will, or anything like that. I’m just thinking of the time when I was asked, along with an elder in the church where I served as minister, to pray over a woman who had cancer. She’d already been diagnosed with it and it was bad. She was to see the oncologist the next day and find out how much time she had left, presumed to be something along the lines of “a few weeks”. So we anointed her head with oil, prayed over her, and the next day she went to the doctor and the doctor couldn’t find any sign of cancer. Not a one. The woman lived several more years.

I can think of another time when the story is almost identical but the believer in question went to the doc the next day and found that their cancer had spread. A week later, they were in a coma and a week after that they were dead. Maybe a month later. I don’t remember exactly, I just remember that—in spite of the whole church family gathering at the church building and holding a prayer vigil, the beloved believer died.

Someone might say the first person had more faith, or that the second one didn’t really believe. What about the people who laid on hands? Were that elder and I somehow more pure than the elders and I from the second story? Not that I could tell.

This question has caused a lot of people to abandon their faith: why didn’t God ___________ ? [fill in the blank] “Heal my son?” “Get my cousin out of that war?” “Stop [fill in another blank]?”

I’ve asked this question myself. Sometimes about people I have known, and sometimes just about that stranger I heard about on the news who had a truck fall on him. Why didn’t God stop it? He could have, right? So why didn’t he?

Besides not knowing the whole picture (to say that God is working even when the circumstances seem evil to us is true, but it doesn’t ameliorate the fact that what happened was still just flat-out evil). Why didn’t God stop it?!?!

OK, I said earlier this wasn’t going to be about free will, but I guess now it is, because the question that keeps coming up in my mind is, “How much could God do about this situation and still leave us with free will?” [If you don’t believe in free will, you might as well stop reading now because I take both free-will and predestination as givens.]

Here’s what I mean: a lot of factors went into that truck falling on that guy. The man’s choice to be walking down that sidewalk at that moment, for instance. The truck-driver’s choices—which may have included such things as texting while driving, drinking while driving, driving while upset, a surprise flat tire, etc.

So, saving that guy from that truck is more than just God catching the truck like Superman and depositing it somewhere else; it’s negating a lot of choices that free-willed people make/made. Even if we take the case of, say, a five year old girl with an incurable disease, why doesn’t God heal her? Sometimes he does! but not every time, right? Why not?

I don’t have a complete answer for that, maybe not even a partial one, but I’m still back to my question of, “How much can God do in these situations and still leave us with free will?” So God heals the little girl today, praise God!, does that mean she will never die? Does God also step in and protect her from cancer 30 years hence and heart disease 40 years after that?

“But I’m not asking for that! I know we all gotta go sometime, but why can’t my grandma just have five more years now? Five good years, I mean. Not five sucky years in the care home. Why can’t grandma have five—even four! more good years?”

Maybe my heart’s in the right place when I ask for healing for that little girl. Good motives and all that. Except that maybe, way deep down inside, the real issue is not just that I don’t want to let her go. I’m praying that she’ll get better because I don’t want to lose her. Maybe I’m even throwing in, “And God, heal all these other kids in the children’s wing, too,” so I’ll look magnanimous and pious, but deep down inside I may not really care about them. I may not even care about her as much as I care about getting things my way.

I’m not saying this is unnatural, or that praying for our children’s health is unrighteous. I’m just saying that we’re looking at one tiny piece of a million-piece puzzle and thinking we are qualified to tell the puzzle-maker what it all looks like. Maybe we’re even trying to tell the puzzle-maker what it should have looked like.