Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Is Church Relevant?

The little churches are declining.  The big churches are, often, getting bigger.  Now, in the little churches, we often complain that we’re getting smaller because the big churches are getting bigger.

But I’ve looked at the numbers—at least in our town and other towns I’ve been in—and the statement doesn’t hold true.  Yes, the little churches are getting smaller, and the bigger churches are getting bigger, but there’s not a direct correlation.  If I were to estimate (and why not? It’s my blog, right?), I would say that for every 100 people who have left the little churches, less than 25 are being added to the big churches.

I look at the people that we, as a small church, have lost over the 7 years I have been here and I can only think of one couple that went to a bigger church.  Some died, some are chronic church-hoppers and we knew from the beginning we didn’t have them for long … and some have just stopped going to church.

This is a small town.  I still see these people around town and I talk to them.  I’m friendly, they’re friendly, and they usually tell me something like, “Yeah, I need to get back into church, but … “  For the sake of this blog, there’s no need to go into the specifics of the second half of that sentence.

See, they don’t hate the church; they would never in a million years tell me they hate God; they just don’t have room for either in their lives right now.

So, what has the church usually done to try and address this problem?  Newer, hipper music.  Video screens.  Youth programs.  Gymnasiums.  Let me stress: there is nothing wrong with any of these things.  I see no evidence that any of these things is anti-God in any way.  And sometimes, they even help (though that’s not a guarantee, either).

Travel back in time with me for a moment.  A time when Sunday morning service involved hymns, sung from hymnals, and the sermons were generally expository (and long).  What was it people used to call the Wednesday night service back then?  “Prayer meetin’.”  And you know what?  The church was a vital part of the community and the churches were growing and every denomination was planting and growing new congregations and—

Wait, this isn’t a call to go back to hymns, unpadded pews, women’s hats and men’s ties.  While I’m a big fan of expository preaching (or “ex-poz”, as we pronounce it in the biz), I don’t know that it is the answer over topical sermons.

But I’m thinking that one thing we need to stop trying to do is “be relevant”.  Because the more we try to be “relevant”, the less impact we seem to be having on our culture.  The more user-friendly we’ve tried to make the church, the less users we’ve had in the church.  We lost the culture a long time ago and I don’t think we can recapture it.

At least, not on culture’s terms.  I’m glad there’s Christian music and Christian movies and I’ve even tried to do my part to add to the library of Christian novels and all these things may have a place, but I don’t think they are the answer (because, for the most part, they are encouraging the faithful but having little effect on the unsaved).

For one thing, let’s travel back in that time machine again.  Back when the churches played a much larger part in the life of the average American, was life perfect?  Nope.  Not only did they not have satellite TV, they also had crime and poverty and all the vices we do today.  Divorce may not have been as prevalent but there were still plenty of loveless, Godless (but I repeat myself) marriages.

C.S. Lewis said that he noticed that chapel attendance at college decreased when it stopped being mandatory.  While there has never been a country-wide command to be in church here in America, there used to be some societal assumptions and pressures to get in a church when one came to a town.  At some point, though, that ethos ceased to be passed down to the next generation.  Church went from “something you better be a part of” to “something that’s a good idea to be a part of” to, now, “something I can’t understand why anyone would be a part of.”  Those of us who go to church are thought of as harsh and judgmental and uncaring and … and you know what?  The facts have no impact on this argument.

We can blame that on the media or the past transgressions of the church, but the real reason is that the god of this age has blinded people to the truth.  And then he’s convinced them that he doesn’t exist and the one, true God is either a fable or a doddering old man, a vestige of a bygone, unsophisticated age.

What do I think needs to happen?  I think we need to stop worrying about being relevant.  I don’t think the style of music matters nearly so much as what is sung* or the length of the sermon is as important as what is said.  (The Apostle Paul preached so long a dude fell asleep and died—and then, after raising the fellow—Paul went and finished the sermon!  But Jesus’s entire Sermon on the Mount can be read out loud in about 12 minutes, 20 if you’re in the south.)

Ultimately, I think what’s going to save the church is to take the focus off the church and put it on our every-day-lives.  See, I’m convinced that all those people who have drifted away from the church didn’t leave because of doctrinal issues or even the church’s stance on alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, gambling, or whatever.

I think they left because they looked at the people who stayed and didn’t see that church really made any difference.  They heard the Lord works in people but saw no evidence of it other than a few happy bromides, which they could achieve on their own by bailing out on church, sleeping late on Sunday, and getting tweets from Joyce Meyers*.

I think—nay, I’m convinced—that the only way to save the church is to take the emphasis off the church and have Christians living—every day, out in the world—as Christians.

* For those people who are always going on about how much better the old hymns are because of the lyrical intricacies and harmonies and such, I think some of the worship choruses surpass the hymns for the simple reason that they are just scripture set to music.  While I, personally, am not big on all the repetition some of the new songs slip into, over all I would have to say that a direct quote from the Apostle Paul trumps the poetry of Isaac Watts (but that’s just me).

* No offence to Joyce Meyers.  She sends out good tweets, which is why she was the first one to come to mind.  There are also great tweets from CS Lewis, Billy Graham, Max Lucado, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler and many more.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Will Our Pets Be in Heaven?

A friend of mine here in town, we’ll call him Ted, doesn’t go to church anymore.  He never went often, but he was going sporadically there for a little while.  Then—for some reason and I have no idea how it even came up in conversation—the preacher at the church where Ted was going told him that his dog absolutely would not be in heaven.

It wasn’t that the preacher hated Ted’s dog.  The preacher was just certain that no one’s pets would be in heaven.  None of them.  No pets in heaven.  It was a certainty!

Now, some people are going to object on the basis that saying so was insensitive since it clearly drove someone away from the church.  On that score, if the preacher truly believes there will be no pets in heaven, then I don’t mind him saying so.

What I mind is that, having read the Bible through many times, I am confident that Scripture says absolutely nothing about the topic in any way*.  I would never tell anyone their pets won’t be in heaven … nor would I tell anyone their pets will be in heaven.  If you can find anywhere in Scripture that addresses the topic at all, please leave a comment below because I think the Bible says even less about pets than it says about whether space aliens will receive salvation (

Why does the preacher believe that no pets will be in heaven?  Because, he says, to get into heaven one must love God and pets do not have the capacity or ability to love.

To which I respond that either this man has never had a pet of his own or he defines love only as a feeling and not—as I believe it should be—as an action.

If I tell you I love you (over and over, even) but, when opportunities to actually show you love come up and I neglect to do so, you are well within your rights to doubt my love.  Love, I am convinced (from Scripture), is an action word.  God showed his love for man by sending his son (among other actions).  David showed his love for Jonathan through action.  Jesus showed his love for people (including us!) by coming, living, preaching, dying on the cross, resurrecting, and more.

By that metric, I would define pets as extremely loving.  If you have a pet, you know whether it likes you or not.  Especially a dog.  The wagging tail when you get home (after being gone for all of five minutes), the desire to snuggle, the way he trots up with his newest toy (or dead, disgusting thing he found in the yard) that he wants to share with you.  The way he camps right outside the bathroom door as you throw up.  I have a golden retriever who ain’t, as my father-in-law liked to describe him, “Eat up with brains”, but he certainly seems to be full of love.  Even my cat shows love for us (more for my wife, even though I’m the one who wanted him!).

Now, does my dog love God?  That I couldn’t tell you.  I don’t know that he has the capacity.  However, it sure seems to me like he performs well the function(s) God created him for.  I can’t say the same about me!

Will I see my pets through the years in heaven one day?  I can’t, from Scripture, say yes.  I’d like to think so.  But I also can’t say, from Scripture, that I won’t.  It’s a topic of pure conjecture and my only issue is going to be with anyone who claims to have arrived at a definitive answer.  Unless they can show me something in Scripture I’ve never seen before, I’m going to think they’ve let a wish become their belief.

*Yes, in heaven Jesus gets a horse.  Whether the rest of us will get one, I don’t know.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Evolutionary Sin

The citizens of Springfield overwhelmingly voted to allow gambling in their city, but before the vote could be final, everyone in the hall turned to Marge because she seemed the person most likely to throw a wet blanket on the idea.  Marge stood up and said, “Once society declares something to be OK, it’s no longer a sin.”*  Everyone cheered and gambling was OK’d for Springfield.

It is said that the best humor is founded in the truth, but is there truth in what Marge said?  Not really.  It is true that society acts that way—even the society within the church—but there’s no indication in Scripture that God acts that way.

Do we want him to?  At first blush, the answer could seem like “yes”.  See, I want God to evolve where my sins are concerned, but not where yours are.  Well, if you’re a good friend of mine, I’ll be magnanimous and let your sins slide, but let’s be careful ‘cause there’s that guy over there who I can’t stand and I’m kinda hoping God will hold his sin against him!

I was recently pointed to a blog by a pastor who was setting out in four easy steps what he would do if his child were found to be overcome by a sinful lifestyle.  The four steps were:

1]  You’ll know it.  i.e. he wouldn’t hide his child’s sinfulness from the world, but broadcast it for all to see.  In other words, he wouldn’t pretend that his child wasn’t sinful.

2]  I’ll pray for them.  Because this is what a loving parent does.  (Can I get an “amen”?)

3]  I’ll love them.  See the last numbered point.

4]  Most likely, I already have sinful children.  It is the pastor/blogger’s opinion that his child was born with the sin already a marked part of his/her personality and there’s nothing that can be done to change that.

OK, I have to admit here that I have fudged the facts of the dude’s blog just a little.  He never referred to the behavior in question as a sin.  Either he—like Marge—has decided that since society has deemed it OK it’s not a sin anymore, or, maybe it is still a sin but God’s not going to be as uptight about such things as he used to be.

Either way, that’s a mighty big leap.  Now, I will admit that the church has treated as sinful things that the Bible doesn’t say are.  [Gambling’s a good example.  I think gambling’s a waste of money and I see no good coming from it, but there is no where in Scripture a “thou shalt not gamble” commandment or anything that even comes close.]  We’ve also had a bad habit of engaging in things that the Bible specifically says are sins, like gossip and slander.  So I can’t get on any moral high horse and claim “we of the church are always right about this!”

Still, look back at that fourth point (with a glance at the first one).  What if Biblical scholars of the last two thousand years are correct and the behavior in question is sinful?  I’ve seen some pretty tortured reasoning to say it’s not, but let’s say that—in this case—the scholars were right and the sin is still a sin?  What should we do?

2 & 3 are spot on!  I’ve got two kids myself and both of them are sinners.  (They come by it naturally: their parents are sinners, too.)  I pray for them on a daily basis (waking time, I pray for them on an hourly basis, sometimes minutely).  I love them.  I always will.  But I won’t accept the sin in their lives.  One of the things I’ll always pray about for them is that God will convict them of their sin—GOD will convict—and they will repent out of their love for him.

What I won’t do is parade their sin in front of others.  I have no desire to either shame them, or pretend that their sin isn’t sin (which is what I believe the point of #1 is).  As to #4, our modern culture tells us that we are born with or genetically predisposed to some behaviors, therefore they are not sinful.  It’s a comforting thought, but it’s a non sequitur.  Just because you can’t help gossiping or murdering does not make you any less culpable.  And that old non-Biblical saw of “love the sinner, hate the sin” gets easier every time we downgrade a sin to “possibly a less-than-ideal idea”.

“Wait, Sam!  You mean my son Willard, who was born with a need to gossip, is going to be held accountable for that?!?  That’s not fair!”

Why not?  Willard is a human being, right?  He’s not a hound dog, unable to resist the siren call of a female in heat.  Sure, it might mean that he feels a little unfulfilled for the rest of his life because he is morally bound to not gratify his every whim, but a] that’s a small price to pay for eternity and 2] we of his family (physical and congregational) should try to lift him up and help him find fulfillment and love in non-sinful ways.  Willard might go to his grave still lusting after a juicy bit of gossip, but not getting gossip won’t kill him.  (This seems terribly unfair to our modern ears and sensibilities, where we expect every desire to be met—and quickly!  “30 minutes or it’s free”, that’s our motto.)

I’ve gotta admit: I love God’s grace, but it sure is confusing!  You mean God doesn’t want to hold any of my sins against me?  But wait, you’re saying he also doesn’t want me to continue in sin?  Wouldn’t it be easier for me to pile up the sins so he could show me more grace?  (See Romans 6 for an answer to that question!)

Our culture is going to continue to call what is sinful not.  Grace is going to continue to be watered down—who needs it if the behavior isn’t really sinful, after all?

So, as much as I love grace, I understand the appeal of legalism.  [See my blog on the topic at]  It’d be easier to just pronounce judgment on all sinners … except that, to paraphrase the great Andy Taylor, “If I was to throw out all sinners I’d better reach around and get a holt of my own britches!”

There’s not an easy solution here because everyone I know is a sinner, and me most of all.  It’s not my place to condemn anyone.  It’s also not my place to let the people around me continue in sin.  So every day is a tightrope walk between loving acceptance and Godly challenge … and maybe that’s the beginning of the key: instead of always chastising someone for their sin, challenge them (and me) to live upward.  Let’s don’t any of us settle for what we are, but strive to let God work us into what we should become.

*May not be an exact quote, but I’m sure I’m pretty close.