The Institutionalization of Christianity: Good or Bad? and Why It Matters

Photo by Jeremy EnlowResearcher David Kinnaman makes the compelling argument in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith that young American adults have picked up the skepticism of Baby Boomers towards institutions. And they’ve magnified it. What might this mean for the future of the American Christian church, one of the main institutions in the history of our country?

Kinnaman points out generational shifts have changed many areas of society formerly dominated by institutions. For instance, traditional media like newspapers and the nightly news, once understood as “the fourth estate” of social force, is in a state of rapid decline. It’s not that people are less interested in the world in general, but that they’re getting their information through non-institutional means, like social media sites.

The music and film industries were formerly driven by groups like Tower RecordsVirgin Megastores, and Blockbuster. Not so anymore. And since the digitization of music and movies, your children will have no concept of such stores (or even malls, for that matter). This isn’t merely a convenience issue. It’s setting the tone of “a large content-controlling group is inferior, even bad for me” mentality, i.e. anti-institutionalism.

Even Microsoft itself, one of the most influential, well-funded technology companies on the planet had to give up their online encyclopedia Encarta because it simply could not compete with the grassroots, anti-institutional, largely volunteer force of Wikipedia.

Kinnaman concludes,

“think about which model the church most resembles – the established monolith or the grassroots network – and what that might mean for its relevance in the lives of a collaborative, can-do generation that feels alienated from hierarchical institutions.” (You Lost Me, pg. 49)

Again, our question is, what might this mean for the future of American Christianity?

To answer the question, I think we have to back up a bit and ask, how has the institutional skepticism of Baby Boomers already affected Christianity? The answer to that can probably be summarized in one word: nondenominational. Don’t be confused here, either. EVERY Christian Church has a theological tradition. I’d guess that nine out of ten or so nondenominational churches tend to lean toward traditionally Baptist theology. The newness, the uniqueness of nondenominationalism, is in their anti-institutional spirit.

Now, we could debate the merit of attempting to de-institutionalize Christianity. One scholar, Boston Univ. religious professor Stephen Prothero, argues in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t, that nondenominationalism hides many of the fundamental theological and spiritual issues under the veneer of “Christian unity.” He furthermore suggests that the inherently noncontroversial nature of nondenominationalism avoids difficult teachings of the Bible and encourages a descent into religious illiteracy in favor of promoting a general moralism. Obviously not everyone would agree with that assessment, at least not entirely. Proponents of nondenominationalism would suggest that it was/is a return to emphasizing what is most important from Scripture.

Regardless, the bottom line is that American skepticism towards institutions doesn’t stop at Christian churches. In the same way that Boomers reconstructed (or deconstructed) our perception of church bodies, Millennials, the next major segment to overtake American adulthood, one with an even more magnified cynicism and distrust of institutions, will seemingly reconstruct our perception of the local church itself. The current worship attendance trends already seem to be demonstrating this.

George Barna, who is one of the more well-respected analysts of religious trends in our country over the past forty years, suggests in Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (pg. 49) that our country is moving in the following direction:

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He’s not suggesting that this is or will be a good or bad thing, but merely that, unless something drastic occurs, this is the new reality we’ll be looking at.

Of course, as a pastor, I have a vested interest in this. But any active Christian would be impacted tremendously if these numbers come to fruition. That Christian parochial school heavily subsidized by the church would be gone. Any community mercy efforts would be cut. The ability to support national organizations like ministerial training schools would be minimized. Overseas missionary efforts would be greatly reduced as well.

The local church, a physical embodiment of “the body of Christ,” was designed by God, in part, because the impact that we create together, in many ways, is much more significant than the sum of our individual impact.

If young adults remain skeptical about the benefit of the institution of “local church,” if they fail to see the benefits and relevance of the local church, they will stop meeting together as the local church. And, as the writer to the Hebrews says about this very issue, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:25)  How might we respond? 

Can I suggest two possibilities?

1) Be flexible about the nature of what “meeting together” looks like.

Several weeks ago I overheard someone lamenting the lack of attendance of young people at our area Lutheran Reformation Service. The individual insisted that there should be a push for better attendance because, after all, this is “a good thing.” The comment was not addressed to me, so I didn’t feel like it was my place to offer correction.

We recently started up something called “Faith Night” at our church on Wednesday evenings, where we encourage families to come and have dinner together, enjoy one another’s company, and study the Bible together. We have LOTS of young families involved. Now, that probably doesn’t look exactly like what some may envision as a “church service.” Nonetheless, it does tend to look an awful lot like what I perceive an early Christian meeting to look like: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (Acts 2:42, 46-47)

While any true Christian would recognize a public worship service to Christ as a “good thing,” that truth can only be pressed so hard. For instance, if it’s a good thing, should we hold worship services every day? Every hour? Where does the “good thing” argument end? And the point is this: be careful not to be religiously rigid about ANYTHING beyond doctrinal truth (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18), because non-institutionally-minded young people are remarkably ready, able, and adept at sniffing out the hypocrisy and poor logic in blind, moralistic assertions. They will avoid it, and, I dare say, probably should avoid it.

So…be open-minded about the freedom God has given us in meeting and expressing our faith. Advancing technology and changing attitudes always has and always will modify these things a bit.

2) Present the beauty of “Institutional Church.”

It would appear obvious, but if young people are jettisoning the traditional ideas of “church” for other experiences and expressions of faith, is it possible that they have a valid point? For instance, in Revolution, Barna says that research indicates “Fewer than one out of every ten churched Christians donates at least 10 percent of their income to churches and other nonprofit organizations. (Nonetheless, more than one-third claim to do so.)” (pg. 34) I’m not suggesting anything about what a person should give. All I’m suggesting is that the walk, in comparison with the talk, tends to give a message that church people are ungenerous, dishonest, and hypocritical. Is it wrong for a young person to want to disconnect from such a group?

Churches are probably in need of reclaiming and restoring the image and beauty of what a local church was supposed to be. Perhaps over the years we’ve gotten so concerned with numbers that we’ve catered to consumerism to the point of compromise and made the Christian Church so easy it’s now unattractive. Maybe the standard is so low it’s undesirable. The next generation of Christians doesn’t appear to want easy. They seem to want their lives attached to a meaningful narrative that involves high expectations, sacrifice, and surrender. Would you expect less from a generation that was largely shaped in the movie theatre? Think about it – what was the last movie you saw (or book you read) where the main character had low expectations, always played it safe, and sacrificed nothing to advance any causes? Who would care about such a character? You wouldn’t. And that’s how a younger generation perceives many Christians today.

Contrast this with Christians of the early church who were tossed to the lions, took care of the sick, shared everything with the poor but shared their beds with one or none. In the ancient document, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, we read about the early Christians:

They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.

Christianity spread in the Roman Empire because the Holy Spirit was not only working through gospel proclamation, but also because he was attracting people to that message by having gospel effects visualized in the day-to-day lives of the early Christians. That was the same “Institution of Church” as we have today, but undeniably more beautiful than what we often see from churches today. No?

Final Thought

This is an extremely important time for Christianity in our country. Christianity will march on. Whether or not our country chooses to march with it remains to be seen. So far as I can tell, it depends on how well we embrace thoughts like this: Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

Midwestern Church-Going Idolatry

blog - perfect family 1In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

“There are more idols in the world than there are realties.”

In his famous observations about American life from the 1830s, recorded in Democracy in America (pg. 296), Alexis de Tocqueville wrote,

“strange melancholy haunts the inhabitants (of America)…in the midst of abundance…the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy (the human) heart.”

And perhaps most insightfully of all, the Swiss reformer, John Calvin, in The Institutes of Religion (1.11), once famously stated,

“The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols.”

Yes, it’s a little strange (and humbling) that an atheist philosopher, French politician, and non-Lutheran theologian all seem to understand this important concept of Christianity significantly better than I have for most of my life. It took me about twenty-five years and thousands of hours of reading Timothy Keller before I started to grasp the concept of idolatry. But it’s changed my life, my faith, and my understanding of the Bible.

In essence, it works like this. Satan gets us to take our eyes off of eternity and obsess with created things above our Creator God. Humanity seems to recognize that we were originally built for paradise, but whenever we experience a life that is less than paradise, we tend to obsess over some earthly thing that we think will bring heaven to earth for us. We take a good, created thing and we make it the ultimate thing in our lives, violating the First Commandment, the one that is really the umbrella under which all the others fall, the one that says, “You shall have no other gods BEFORE ME.” (Ex. 20:3) A good thing, loved in a disproportionate, misprioritized way, i.e. more than God, is destructive to both our relationship with God AND our relationship with that thing. A good thing that becomes a God thing, that’s an idol.

So, for instance, the Apostle Paul says to the Colossians, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which IS IDOLATRY.” (Col. 3:5) Paul is not at all suggesting that sex and material wealth are evil (as has sometimes unfortunately been insinuated by religious people). These are good things, wonderful things! God himself created them. Nonetheless, when they are pursued to a greater degree than God himself by a fallen human heart, our relationship with these things and with God is ruined. That’s idolatry. 

If we believe that idolatry is predominantly something practiced by ancient pagans or perhaps by uneducated people in third world countries with silly statues in their homes, we expose our ignorance on the topic…and are more susceptible to it. Whatever you or I have disproportionate love for…that’s our idol. For many modern western people, common idols seem to come in the form of better relationships, financial stability, professional success, physical attractiveness, life control, social approval, and many more.

It seems like I struck a bit of a nerve several weeks ago when I brought this up in a sermon. I mentioned that, as far as I can tell, for Midwestern, church-going people, the most common idol that I tend to see is the pursuit of the ideal family.YPE_038

In other words, we all look at the beautiful families in the stock photos from the picture frames – the family that is attractive, happy, and everyone is getting along perfectly – and we assume that this is what our family is supposed to look like. But invariably we discover that this is NOT our family.

A peaceful family is a good thing, but when we make it a “God thing,” it becomes destructive. One of the signs that you have a false god (an idol), is that you compromise the true God’s commands in order to serve your false god. So, for instance, if your false god is pleasure, you might freely break the true God’s command against sex outside of marriage. If your false god is wealth, you might break the true God’s command against stealing and dishonest business practices. If your false god is social approval, you might break the true God’s command against speaking lovelessly about others, with the goal of making yourself look better. Again, you worship your false gods by breaking the true God’s commands.

Consequently, as I’m suggesting about Midwestern church-goers in general, if your false god is indeed “the perfect family unit,” you’ll willfully break the true God’s commands in order to love, serve, and worship that false god.

What does this look like? Well, how far would you go to present a positive image of your family? Have you ever lied about how well your family is doing for the sake of appearances? That’s breaking the true God’s command for truth in order to serve the false god of family idealism.

It’s amazing to me how many people I’ve talked with at my church who are terrified about how others would perceive them if they found out the family’s deep, dark, dirty secrets. As a pastor, I’m probably more privy to this type of information than most. And while I wouldn’t expose anyone’s private information, I invariably want to tell these same people, “You have no idea what everyone else is going through. They’re going through the same stuff!” Literally, everyone I know has SOMETHING. If we were a little less concerned about presenting the image of a perfect family to others and actually took God’s command through James seriously: “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16), I’m curious how much more “healing” we’d actually have. I can nearly guarantee that, at the very least, we’d be a more tight-knit, more sympathetic group of Christians. By the way, my guess is that this particular post gets shared fewer times on Facebook than others have, in part, because the mere sharing of it might seem to insinuate that “my family is, in fact, not perfect.” One of the great dangers of Facebook and other social media has been the deception of presenting life and family that are greater, smarter, more accomplished, more beautiful, happier, and in general, more perfect than they realistically are.

blog - perfect family 3Of course, there are other evidences that family is treated as an idol. Perhaps you disregard God’s command for regular public worship for the sake of “quality family time.” Perhaps you disregard God’s command for parental discipline or spiritual accountability because it will rock the family boat too much. Whatever it may be, you know that you’ve turned family into an idol, that your allegiance to family is destructively strong, if you’ve ever sacrificed the true God’s commands in order to serve family.

So, how does a Christian family repent of the idol of family idealism? First, you acknowledge what you’ve always known but perhaps have tried very hard to hide – the fact that your family isn’t perfect. It’s appropriate to mourn the loss of perfect family – which you were created for – but it’s inappropriate to live under the delusion that your family can ever reach that status in this lifetime. Furthermore, if you manage your family like they can/should be perfect, you will establish such unrealistic expectations that members will crumble under the pressure. As a result, by making “ideal family” an idol, you will actually drive your family away from you. Your idol will curse you.

A Christian doesn’t deal with imperfection by trying harder. A Christian deals with imperfection by celebrating a perfect Savior. The resurrection perfection that this Savior gifts to us by grace is enough hope to move us past the troubled times of a sinful world, and the pain of a family that isn’t what it was created to be.

Finally, a Christian is able to recognize that our earthly family, when it is functioning correctly, is only a shadow of the family that is established in Christ. Because Jesus was forsaken by his Father on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34), all who trust in him are eternally reconciled to the family of God. This is the reason why when someone says to Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” (Matt. 12:47), Jesus replies by saying,“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48,50) Jesus is suggesting that the bond of the children of God supersedes any earthly bonds. You may have grown close to someone after 70 or 80 years here on earth, but just imagine how close you’d be after 10 billion years in heaven? 

You will have a perfect family one day. Just remember that that day isn’t today. Nonetheless, for the sake of a resurrected Savior, you will enjoy a perfect, resurrected family soon enough. That’s a lot to look forward to.

blog - perfect family 4

 

Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #6 Is It Okay to Cheer When Someone Dies? (Originally published on May 4, 2011)

blog - bin LadenAlright, so I’m probably about the last person using social media to comment on the death of Osama bin Laden.  Nonetheless, this is the type of episode that really only comes along perhaps once a generation or so, so I’m not sure we’ve fully taken in what we’ve seen unfold over recent days.  One significant example of what I’m talking about was seen within minutes of President Obama’s national announcement of bin Laden’s death – celebration in the streets.

Now someone can feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but not within my lifetime, and I don’t recall seeing any documentation from years earlier, have we actually seen Americans literally cheering, singing, dancing, and in general, rejoicing, over the death of a specific individual, as we do here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kI8EUqbWdM

Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, whom I don’t always agree with but don’t deny is unquestionably very intelligent and most often quite funny, said that because he was so close to the whole situation (covering bin Laden for years in the media, living in New York City, etc.), he probably was too close to it all to be the best person to objectively comment on bin Laden’s death.

Well, I’m not too close.  I’m not in the media.  While I’m incredibly grateful for our country’s armed forces, I really don’t have any close familial ties to the U.S. military.  I’ve only driven through NYC once.  And my take on what I saw Sunday night was: Cheering someone’s death DOES seem a little weird.  Millions of tweets and Facebook statuses immediately rejoicing in someone’s death is a bit peculiar.  This is something that, as far as I know, we haven’t seen as a culture before.  One of my favorite descriptions from an analyst was that the celebration “looked like the Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi.”  In fact, what it looked like was similar to the footage of what we saw many Middle Eastern children doing on 9/11.  It looked more like people interested in winning than people concerned for or about life.

Now, our country (and others) have cheered the end of war before.    And since bin Laden was clearly the head of a terrorist organization in Al-Qaeda that some hold responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 100,000 to a million civilian deaths, maybe ending his life is as clear of a victory as we can get in the War on Terror.  In other words, maybe it could be interpreted more as celebration of a war coming to a close rather than celebration over an individual’s death.  Nonetheless, it looked strange.  It looked more like the USA had won the Super Bowl than a war and it felt more like people were cheering the fact that “USA won” and “bin Laden’s dead” more than the fact that lives may be spared from the hands of a Sharia law Muslim madman.

Aside from hearing Geraldo Rivera on FOX reference this as the Old Testament’s injunction of an “eye for an eye,”  I’m yet to hear too many in the mainstream reference “what the Bible might say” about such things, which is a little odd in that, while bin Laden was not necessarily a Muslim leader, his beliefs were undeniably attached to his Muslim faith.  One notable individual often linked with Christian thought that weighed in was Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, whose official statement (i.e. not what he blurted out, but what he actually thought through and then wrote down as a statement to the world) much like many/most Americans, voiced more joy over bin Laden’s death than concern for bin Laden’s (or anyone else’s) soul.  He said this:

It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama Bin Laden is dead…It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, bin Laden. Let us all hope that his demise will serve notice to Islamic radicals the world over that the United States will be relentless in tracking down and terminating those who would inflict terror, mayhem and death on any of our citizens.

I guess I’d respond to his statement like this: If I am the face of American politics that is perhaps most closely associated with the Christian faith, I don’t say that.  It recalls the spirit of Peter chopping off Malchius’ ear in Gethsemane, not Jesus healing it.  And while I fully believe that God has given the government the right to take life from those who themselves have been so careless as to take life, Huckabee’s words sound more like dialogue from Bruce Willis in Die Hard, not a Christian, or even a politician.

In 2002, bin Laden wrote a public letter in which he called for Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication (sex before marriage), homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury (unjust interest collection).”  As a Christian pastor, I’m not sure he wasn’t on to something.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday (linked here: http://resrochmn.wordpress.com/), I mentioned how the United States, by most definitions, is considered the “Most Christian Country” on the planet.  And yet we have countless statistics that don’t jive with our “Christian” beliefs.  We are a country that is willing to call Jesus “God” but refuses to follow Jesus as “Lord.”  Bin Laden’s problem was that he went about trying to “fix” America’s problems in the most godless, careless, and devilish of ways.  He deserved to die for his actions.  And his death is perfectly biblically defensible.  However, the drunken, spoiled rich kids and homosexual activist groups that I saw dancing in the streets at the announcement of bin Laden’s death made clear to me that the good/evil lines aren’t drawn as clearly and neatly as the national or political boundaries.

The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a country had a chance as “THE most influential Christian country” to show the world how to properly understand this – complete and necessary justice, but sad in the loss of human life, particularly a human life that is unquestionably bound for hell in his rejection of Jesus Christ as his Savior.  Instead, I think we kind of blew it with drunken parties and official statements from supposed Christian leaders saying things like, “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”  I’m not convinced, as a people, that we’re much better than what bin Laden thought.

As with all things, there are certainly two sides to this.  While bin Laden’s death doesn’t bring back the husbands and wives of those who lost family members and friends on 9/11 or any other of al-Qaeda’s terrorist events, seeing the man killed is certainly evidence that there remains some sense of “justice” still sought on our planet.  And that, in itself, is something to take comfort in.

I also think that wishing for & praying for evil or evildoers to be brought to justice is certainly in line with the Christian faith.  We see that quite clearly in what are called the “imprecatory psalms” of the Old Testament.  Major Imprecatory Psalms include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 with another dozen and a half or so also falling under the “imprecatory” (i.e. calling down curses) category.  And it’s not as though they were just seeking a form of Old Testament, old covenant, justice.  These psalms are quoted frequently in the New Testament.  For instance, Jesus quotes from them in John 2:17 and John 15:25, and the Apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 69 in Romans 11:9-10 and 15:3.  Here are a couple of examples of what imprecatory psalms look like:

  • May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.  May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.  May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.  May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. (Psalm 109:9-12)
  • May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.  Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.  (Psalm 69:23-24)
  • O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.  (Psalm 137:9-10)

Now the diary-style psalms are often raw.  There are other places in the psalms where the psalmists at times offer words that seem to show moments of weak faith/trust in God, so I’m not sure we’d want to take EVERY attitude that we see in the psalms and always hold them up as the ideal to emulate.  Nonetheless, there are plenty of other spots in the Bible where godly leaders pray for the destruction of those who oppose God’s will.   Naturally, if these enemies oppose God’s will, then it would clearly be God’s will first that they repent of their wicked ways, but finally, if they refuse, he would desire for them and their will to be destroyed.

In reference to the Lord’s Prayer, Luther once pointed out that when one prays, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then he must put all the opposition to this in one category and say: “Curses, maledictions and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom. May they be ruined and torn apart and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.”  Again, the idea is, if a person is in clear opposition to the will of our Lord, then that person is at the same time both 1) a lost soul who needs the love, kindness, and the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to touch their heart and turn their life around, but that person, if persistently unrepentant of their evil, is also 2) an enemy of God and (by extension) us.

So the other side of the debate in the question of “Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?” is that it would seem to be a cause for rejoicing whenever an open and obvious enemy of Christ is brought to justice.  But we never cheer in life lost.  We cheer that God is glorified when his enemies are subdued.  It might look like a subtle difference, but it is a profound one.  In this case it could be the difference between blood-thirsty, nationalistic vengeance and humble praise.  One is Christian.  One is not.

I want to remind you that I’m not trying to tell anyone what they’re “supposed to feel” at a time like this.  It’s an emotional and complex time for many families.  Am I proud to be an American?  Well, let me put it like this: I have no idea why I’m so incredibly fortunate that I was born into a Christian family in a country with a combination of unmatched prosperity and unparalleled religious freedom.  The odds are so small, humbling in fact.  I could just have easily been a pagan peasant child in the Soviet Union or China or a militant Muslim in the Middle East.  I’m so thankful to be an American, and incredibly grateful to our armed forces currently serving as well as to those who have done so in years past.  Regardless of how the masses or some leaders in our country have handled (or mishandled) bin Laden’s death, it doesn’t change that.

“For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” declares the Sovereign Lord. “Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)

America’s Churches are Emptying and Why that’s Not ALL Bad

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #5 America's Churches are Emptying and Why That's Not ALL Bad
(Originally published on May 19, 2011)
Do the increasingly empty pews mean the end of Christianity in our country?

Do the increasingly empty pews mean the end of Christianity in our country?

As a pastor, it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that the sanctuary is not packed for every worship service every weekend. Too much good seating is too available too often. And many churches and church bodies have been experiencing this. Mainline Protestant churches have been bleeding membership slowly for years now.  What’s the cause? Should we panic? Is this spelling the death of Christianity in America?

I mentioned something in my sermon this past weekend that I could tell got a couple of quizzical looks. Talking about the Israelites lack of trust in the LORD and failure to uphold/defend the name of the LORD as the Philistine warrior Goliath blasphemed him, I reasoned that this unfaithfulness on the part of the Israelites brought more disrespect to God’s name than anything one giant fool spouting off at the mouth could ever do. The application I made was this: Either be a Christian or don’t be a Christian, but don’t call yourself a Christian and then willfully live in an unchristian manner, because the name of the LORD just gets trashed in the process.

I actually think people in our society are starting to pick up on this – that nominal Christianity is really no Christianity at all. I think what we’re seeing in society as churches are emptying is the death of a fairly soft, uncommitted and relatively apathetic group. And I don’t know as that’s a bad thing. The statistics seem to show that what is happening is a growth in legitimately devoted Christians AND a growth in agnosticism and skepticism. This seems a little paradoxical, but really isn’t.

What we’ve had in our country for many, many years is that there were very few outright “atheists” or “unbelievers.” Just about everybody called themselves Christians but a much smaller fraction of those were really committed to the Christian message in their lives. So, you had a bunch of people who went to church occasionally or even regularly simply because “that’s what our culture does” and “that’s what I’m supposed to do.” If you’re familiar with the staple of American primetime, The Simpsons, then you know what I’m talking about. The family attends worship weekly, but can’t wait to bust free after the final “Amen.” And what the Simpson family learned in worship, if anything, ends up having very little impact on the rest of their week. Today, moving from the coasts inward, that segment of the population gradually seems to be going away and therefore some churches are emptying out. But again, is that really a bad thing? It’s bad in the sense that the only way those nominal Christians were going to grow in spiritual vitality was if they were connected to the gospel and now they don’t have that. But, it’s good in the sense that it’s clarifying in what Christianity really means. When new Christians do legitimately come into the church now, hopefully they are less likely to see bad examples of spiritual lethargy and indifference and think “Well, this is what Christianity must be.” and subsequently follow the pattern. Likewise, more time and energy can be devoted to ministering to and with those who actually desire it.

The “ultra-devoteds” are growing and the “ultra-skepticals” are growing, for a net “loss” in Christian numbers because the nominal middle is disappearing. Somewhat ironic in all of this is that many Christians are often alarmed at the lack of Christians (especially young people) in church and at the exact same time, many skeptics are sometimes alarmed at the growth of what’s called Christian fundamentalism. In reality, both assessments are accurate, and for Christianity, what that means is that we’re refining to a group that actually knows why it believes what it believes and is legitimately committed to that.

I don’t think our country is becoming less religious or anything. I think we’re more clearly defining what’s really, authentically in our hearts and being open and honest about that. That’s beneficial. Historically, whenever you have the cultural expectation to have allegiance to the true God, it hasn’t gone particularly well – e.g. O.T. Israelites, Christianized Rome, the European Church of the Middle Ages. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this, there seems to be something about the cultural expectation of faithfulness to God that seems to squelch true spiritual health. So, while I sometimes speak in pessimistic terms regarding Christianity in America, I actually think we might be moving in the right direction and I’m very excited and hopeful about that. The more clearly we define Christianity, the more clearly we define the love and truth of the one we reflect – Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. And when he is clearly seen, new and true spiritual life begins.

To the church in Laodicea, God told the Apostle John to write these words: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth…19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:15-16, 19-20)

NOTE: There are a number of other factors that contribute to lowering worship attendances in many Protestant churches. One that many will point to is the rise of large Evangelical churches (often called “megachurches”), which, irrespective of doctrine, often grow simply because they do a lot of practical things very, very well and meet people’s perceived needs very well, which leads to them absorbing many of the disgruntled Protestant worshippers leaving other churches. None of that discounts what I’ve mentioned above though. It just means that there are several factors contributing to a noticeable trend.

The Medicated Christian

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #4 The Medicated Christian
(Originally published on March 29, 2012)

blog - anxiety medsThis past week I preached a sermon that addressed the relationship between pride and anxiety, and how ultimately Jesus is the cure to both. Within the sermon, I briefly broached the issue of Christians being medicated for anxiety. I knew this could be a potentially tricky topic, understanding that if my congregation is statistically “normal,” nearly a quarter to a third of them could be regularly taking some medication to help manage anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, use of antidepressant drugs has risen over 400% in the past 20 years. This is the most commonly prescribed medicine to individuals aged 18-44 today.

We live at a time when more and more life problems are attributed to brain-based dysfunction. In addition, I personally live in Rochester, MN, the home of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. The people I’ve encountered in recent years, on average, have had a higher view of the capabilities of medicine than others I’ve met. This is only natural in that they’ve seen medicine accomplish more than the average person. However, what that also potentially means is that the temptation to view medicine as god is perhaps stronger than elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, I had several people contact me with questions about the validity of Christians using psychoactive drugs after the sermon, so I assume it’s probably on the mind of many others. (If you’d like to listen to the sermon from 1 Peter 5:6-8, click  The Gospel and Anxiety.)

Why am I qualified to address the issue?

Well, for starters, I’m trained as a pastor. I therefore believe that we humans are interconnected wholes, not just sacks of chemicals. If we indeed were merely chemical bags, then I suppose we could rightly expect that adding some chemicals to us could potentially fix us. However, if we’re more than that, body and spirit combined, then we probably need a more sophisticated treatment that, in addition to the bothersome behavioral glitches, regular worries, and aggravated attitudes we have, also addresses the root of all problem in the world – sin that exists in our hearts.

Secondly, long ago I was diagnosed with a fairly common anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). My symptoms began approximately 20 years ago. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I had great Christian parents. I knew plenty about Jesus and had a good education. I was not in any way abused and had a fairly cushy upbringing by most standards. I would simply suggest that I had a problem in my heart/thought that affected my mental physiology which may or may not be, in part, attributed to a genetic predisposition.

I learned to hide my symptoms quite well. Learning to actually manage and eventually conquer them was significantly more difficult. At various points in my life I have taken some medications to help alleviate the symptoms and therefore I am very familiar with the pros and cons of psychoactive medications and try to stay on top of current info surrounding them. To date, through a lot of pain, a lot of work, a lot of grace, and a lot of spiritual growth, my life is virtually unaffected by this disorder.

On top of all this, I should probably mention that OCD is unique in that the person who actually has it, as a byproduct of having it, often has the tendency to research it relentlessly. I remember a roommate in college reading a joke off the internet about how the first indicator that you have OCD is that you’ve read over 200 books on OCD. At the moment, I happened to be writing a paper on the topic and had approximately 25 books on my desk addressing anxiety, depression, and OCD. I thought, “Yep. Got me.”

So, to the heart of the issue…

Are Medications Good OR Evil?

I’d be a terrible hypocrite to suggest that antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are evil. I think they are a tremendous gift from God and fortunately, the commonality of them today has all but erased the taboo that once surrounded them. Taking medication to relieve anxiety is no more shameful than taking an aspirin to relieve a headache. There is something chemically inside of you that isn’t right and it’s causing you a great deal of discomfort. The Apostle Paul encouraged a certain amount of physical and psychological medication when he told Timothy to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (1 Tim 5:23). Obviously Paul’s not encouraging any form of drunkenness. But he knows Timothy’s stomach is bothering him, possibly due to stress, and this is causing both physical and (probably) psychological distress.

In general, when looking upon the healing component of Jesus’ ministry, it’s no doubt that relieving suffering is a an important part of his New Kingdom agenda. So, while there have been many Christian martyrs, there is no need for Christians to have masochistic martyr complexes. Use the resources that God has made available to you. And if someone wants to suggest that taking something (like SSRI’s & antidepressants) to reduce discomfort is sinful or “weak,” then that same person also needs to address how receiving medical treatment ranging from cancer medications to corrective lenses would not be sinful. Probably not a theological ledge you want to walk out on.

HOWEVER, all that said, as a Bible-believing pastor who understands the way the sinful human heart (an absolute “idol factory”) operates, I’d also be a terrible hypocrite if I did not suggest that many Christians occasionally have pursued the silver bullet, magic pill that will eliminate all of their anxiety. They do so failing to understand that this symptom (anxiety) is part of a larger problem. They do so without regarding the possibility that perhaps the anxiety they’re experiencing is there for a good reason. For instance, perhaps the anxiety is there as a result of failing to trust God’s promises. Spiritually speaking, in that situation, is it wise to numb that discomfort? Think about it like this….if a person commits murder, they will likely feel guilty. If they could take a pill that erased their guilt, should they take it? Or, is it appropriate and even healthy for that person to experience the guilt? Or, say a person breaks their leg and is on crutches. Eventually the doctor will want them to rehab to the point where they get rid of the crutches. That will hurt for a time, but if you don’t get rid of the crutches, the leg won’t heal correctly and the muscles will atrophy.

Similarly, while many improvements/alterations have been made to psychoactive medications over the years, the vast majority of improvements have not made them more effective, but have lessened the side effects. In other words, science hasn’t gotten any closer to the silver bullet, which shouldn’t surprise Christians, because the only thing that can truly, thoroughly, and ultimately cure our hearts is our Savior Jesus.

So, you see, medications are a wonderful blessing from God. However, just like any blessing from God, they can be abused….specifically this occurs in the case of those who believe the drugs will “cure” the unrest in their heart.

The Healthy Use of Medications

There is a great deal of debate regarding what exact effects psychoactive drugs have on brain chemistry. The average understanding of most people is that psychoactive drugs correct a chemical imbalance in the brain. But this is very difficult to prove. This, in part, is because there is no real way to measure neurotransmitter levels in the brain. In other words, it’s not like taking a blood sample from a diabetic and regulating the glucose through insulin. Contrary to what some advertisements suggest, there are no guarantees with any of these medications and therefore “God-like” expectations should not be placed upon them.

Personally, I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the point of a pill that cures anxiety and depression, perhaps because they seem to be an essential  part of the human experience. From a biblical standpoint, you could make the case that God allowed many of his children, including Jeremiah, Jonah, Elijah, David, and numerous others a certain amount of anxiety and depression not only for their own spiritual benefit, but also for the benefit of others. From a personal standpoint, I could make the case that had God not allowed my anxiety and depression, I don’t know that I’d still be a Christian today.

So, if Jesus is the Ultimate Suffering Servant of God, and if it really is God’s will that we experience “the fellowship of sharing in [Jesus'] sufferings” as Paul says in Phil 3:10, then maybe some suffering is part of God’s gracious will for our lives. Michael Emlet, author of Crosstalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet says:

“…while relieving suffering is a kingdom priority, seeking mere relief without a vision for God’s transforming agenda in the midst of suffering may short-circuit all that God wants to do in the person’s life.  Another way of saying this is we should be glad for symptom relief but simultaneously look for the variegated fruit of the Spirit: perseverance in the midst of suffering, deeper trust in the Father’s love, more settled hope, love for fellow strugglers, gratitude, and more.”  (The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 26 | Number 117)

Christians are free to use psychoactive medications to relieve their symptoms.  For some, these medications function as “water wings” while we learn to swim. For others, medication might be a reality for the rest of life. That’s okay. A day comes when the Christian who struggles with anxiety and depression will know what the Apostle John saw in Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  The decisions we make regarding our use of medication are to help us grow up in Jesus and faithfully move forward to that day. When that is the goal, the Christian can gratefully receive this blessing from God and look forward to a day, whether in this life or the next, when it is no longer necessary.

I’m a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I’ll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here’s Why…

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #3 I'm a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I'll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here's Why...
(Originally published on October 4, 2012)

blog - tattoo (my second)I recently celebrated my 31st birthday by getting another tattoo. Notice I said “another”. That means there has been at least one prior. And I clearly don’t look at it/them as a mistake. I’ll explain why in a minute.

But first, I’d like to point out two negative views on tattoos which are at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I’ve had to address before on a couple of occasions.

1) “Real Christians Shouldn’t Do That”

A very kind, supportive, and faithful southern Christian gentleman asked me about tattoos a number of years ago, before I had any. His daughter had mentioned that she was interested in getting a tattoo and he wanted me to talk to her about how this would be against God’s will. I started by suggesting that since she was still a legal dependent of her father, this was an issue of respecting her God-given authorities as much as anything (4th Comm; Eph. 6:1-3). I proceeded by asking the man why he felt tattoos were against God’s will. He said something about how “Doesn’t God forbid it, in the Old Testament?” So we opened our Bibles to Leviticus 19:28, a section regarding tattoos that is often pointed to by people who recognize the authority of the Bible’s words but who don’t recognize the reality of the Bible’s setting, context, and writing style. Lev. 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Right there it was. Was he right? I asked the man, however, to read the preceding verse, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) I gently, kindly, and firmly told him that if he wants me to be a consistent and faithful Bible teacher and tell his daughter that tattoos are evil, according to his logic, I’m going to have to call him to repentance for his recent haircut.

We went on to have a good conversation about how God gave some laws to his people in the Old Testament for the purpose of guiding them away from the idolatry and wickedness of the neighboring people. We further discussed that if certain morally neutral practices of our culture were associated with the worship of false gods, that they’d generally be a good thing to stay away from as well. So, for instance, while I could put a menorah on my dinner table and suggest that I just “like the pretty candles”, it’s been so closely associated with Judaism for so long that it’s likely not wise.

Close association to the worship of false gods may, at one point, have been associated with tattoos. Fifty years ago, tattoos were most commonly associated in American society with gangs who, arguably, worshiped false gods of violence, drug use, and sexual immorality. But times have changed. In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey which found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo. They’re not all in gangs :). Furthermore, a little informal research at my local workout facility would tell you that tattoos are now seemingly the norm for most Americans under 40.

There’s no biblical mandate and little cultural taboo concerning tattoos. Therefore, self-righteous legalism against tattoos ain’t doing anything good for the church.

2) “You’re Doing That To Try To Be Cool”

The other negative view I’ve gotten against tattoos is that a pastor who gets tattoos is attempting to acquiesce to modern culture and be “cool”.

Look, my Ford Escape has a decal of a cat and a rabbit that my wife put on the back window. I think the “attempts at cool” ship sank a while back.

I get it.  Attempts by churches (or pastors) to be cool, or look cool, or talk cool, are a little stomach-turning to me too. I once saw a billboard where a church advertised “Here’s what OUR pastor wears on Sunday”, followed by a picture of a proud, heavy-set, middle-aged man dressed from head to toe in denim. I think the church was trying to suggest that they don’t have a stuffy, enforced dress code. Okay. But, if in an attempt to be edgy and counter-traditional, they honestly think that a picture of a man draped in denim would coerce me to come to their church, or go anywhere for that matter, they’re mistaken. I couldn’t care less what your pastor is wearing, as long as he’s wearing something.

Most attempts by churches (or pastors) to come off as “cool” are fairly embarrassing. Since what is defined as “cool” is so often dictated by a culture tainted by sin, a church, in many ways, may look very different from that. In other ways, it maybe can/should look similar to the culture. What’s embarrassing is when you try too hard to be overly cultural (hip & trendy) OR counter-cultural (self-righteously rigid & stodgy). In either case, you’re trying too hard at the wrong things.

If you really care about sharing the gospel, you’ll be serious about understanding your culture and intentional about meeting the people of your culture where they’re at, but you won’t treat your culture like a false god that you too must bow down to.

Gluttony for cultural relevance ain’t doing anything good for the church either.

The REAL Reason for the Tattoos

It’s simple. COMMITMENT. I think it’s necessary to regularly remind myself of the importance of commitment in a world that’s terrified by it. Tattoos, for the most part, are a visual, physical lifelong commitment.

Our culture (particularly Gen X’ers & Gen Y’ers), as mentioned earlier, is getting an unprecedented amount of tattoos. InkedMiami Ink, and LA Ink have all been very popular shows on cable TV in recent years. Why do you think this is? While there might be a number of reasons, let me propose one:

In an era that I have no doubt will be characterized, historically, by hyper-relativity which leads to an extremely noncommittal attitude toward anything and everything, I think it’s clear that young people are demonstrating their longing for commitment, through tattoos.

It’s really not much different from how, despite attempts by recent generations to make our lives increasingly private, this generation of young Americans have launched head first into social networking. You simply can’t hinder relationship when, biblically speaking, you were built for relationship. Likewise, the increasing societal presence of tattoos on young people is demonstrating that you simply can’t hinder commitment when, biblically speaking, you were built for commitment.

The Bible has a great deal to say about commitment (or “covenants”). For instance, the Bible promotes a commitment in marriage that our culture simply doesn’t know. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say something to the effect of “Why do we need a piece of paper (i.e. marriage certificate) to prove that we love each other?”  What they won’t say, but really mean, is, “We love each other but we don’t want to completely close off all of our other options yet.” So, I’ll say, “Well if you have true marital love, that means that you want to be together for the rest of your lives. What damage then is there in getting a piece of paper?” If you refuse to get that piece of paper, you’re simply and clearly declaring that you’re just not THAT committed to the other person. This would logically mean that you don’t truly love them to the degree that you could, because the essence of true love, according to the Bible, is sacrificial commitment to the good of another. By and large, our culture doesn’t see much of that and doesn’t really get that, but still craves that, because we were designed for that.

Finally, only in Jesus can we understand true commitment. Jesus was utterly committed to us, sacrificing his entire life. And he seeks, in us, that same sort of commitment.  He said to another man, “Follow me…..No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59, 62) God didn’t give you a spirit of timidity or relativity or non-commitment. He gave you his Spirit. So in the name of Jesus, according to the will of Jesus, guided by the Word of Jesus….“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” (Psalm 37:5-6). 

My Recent Tattoo

By the way, if you’re wondering, the tattoo featured in the picture above are the words, in Greek, from the end of 1 Peter 1:12, “Even the angels long to look into these things.” In short, these words suggest that the gospel of Jesus is so magnificent and beautiful that the angels can’t even take their eyes off of it. And if that’s the case (and those angels are that much smarter than me), how could I possibly ever think of tiring of the gospel’s beauty.

So Many Denominations, but THIS Is Why I’m WELS Lutheran…

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #2 So Many Denominations, But THIS is Why I'm WELS Lutheran...
(Originally published on November 29, 2012)

blog - Wesleyan QuadrilateralSeveral years back, the United Methodist Church launched a multimillion dollar advertising campaign, targeting young Americans, with the slogan “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.”  I was reminded of this as my wife mentioned to me she heard a UMC promotional ad run while listening to Spotify Radio the other day.  If you don’t know, Spotify is a music listening tool aimed primarily at young Facebook users – precisely the demographic the UMC is now attempting to reach.

The Methodist Church has dropped approximately 3 million members in the past 40 years or so (from 11 to 8 million members).  Thus, the massive advertising efforts.

Some would look at the “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.” motto and suggest that it’s a beautiful depiction of God’s unconditional and inviting love.  They would even point to various national awards the slogan has won as validation that it is a good tagline.  Others, cynics, might say that this motto was simply abbreviated from the longer slogan which included “Open Closets, Open Biblical Interpretation, and Open to Multiple Pathways to Salvation.”

To be fair, in official documentation, in their Book of Discipline, the UMC has repeatedly reaffirmed “homosexual practice” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” consistently since 1972.  But in practice, the UMC has more often than not simply tried to avoid such taboo cultural questions.  And when official votes have been taken on such issues, the results have been, by no means, overwhelming.

Having now read a number of documents and blogs by Methodist members, it’s clear to me that those within the Methodist Church perceive it, to a degree, as a church without an identity, a body that doesn’t know what it stands for anymore.  This is all a little strange to me since I personally feel that one of the main reasons why I’m a pastor in the church body that I’m in today is because of the brilliant teaching of the man often credited as the theological father of the Methodist Church – John Wesley.

So how did studying John Wesley affirm my Confessional Lutheran beliefs?  In my second year of systematic theology at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Prof. Rich Gurgel exposed me to something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  Fortunately for me, as I’d taken no math courses since high school, this quadrilateral had nothing to do with geometry, but theology.  The term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was actually coined by Albert Outler, but was based on Wesley’s teaching.

In simple terms, John Wesley stated that the reason why we all arrive at the theological conclusions that we do is based on what we emphasize as authoritative while we’re forming our doctrinal beliefs.  There are four pillars that every Christian (and Christian denomination) use to filter their beliefs – 1) the Bible, 2) Tradition/Church History, 3) Reason, and 4) Personal Experience.  Every single Christian church or church body emphasizes these to differing degrees when they establish their beliefs.  This understanding of biblical interpretation is THE reason why you see so many different denominations out there.

I learned this Wesleyan Quadrilateral thing at about the same time that I’d started dating a girl named Adrian (now my wife) who’d had an Assembly of God background, furthering my curiosity about other denominations.  When I figured out that you could use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to graph churches and what they emphasize in doctrine relative to other churches, I did.  I started looking very carefully at different denominations’ theological backgrounds and confessions of faith and charted them.

Let me give you a brief glance at what I’m talking about, with some explanation.  Now bear in mind, EVERY Christian denomination, by definition of them being Christian, is going to use the Bible.  Therefore, it is not sufficient to say that “we use the Bible to form our beliefs.”  Don’t be fooled when people say that.  The question is whether or not any additional factors strongly influence your doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Church certainly accepts the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  Nonetheless, church leadership is perceived to have the right to repeatedly reinterpret what Scripture says.  The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility would suggest that church leadership has the same weight and authority as the Bible itself does.  The problem with that, of course, is that everyone, including the RCC would freely admit that humans are flawed and sinful, and therefore even humans in important and influential positions can and do make mistakes.  The RCC has openly acknowledged mistakes in church history by church leadership (e.g. Sale of indulgences; Spanish Inquisition).  If you truly believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, but that humans make mistakes, wouldn’t that naturally suggest that it is a dangerous position to take in suggesting that the pope holds the same type of authority that the Bible itself does?  For the two to be on equal levels of authority, then the pope must be perfect (which he is not) or the Bible must be imperfect (which it attests it is not – 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21).  Since all humans, even church leaders past and present, are flawed, they must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

While I’m certainly speaking in general terms here, churches that strongly emphasize the spiritual gifts of individuals often have a tendency to overemphasize individuals at the expense of the individual (Jesus).  They additionally tend to come out of an Arminian theological background which places a great deal of importance on free will and personal decisions.  Most Arminians will be able to tell you the date on which “I made my decision for Jesus”, a teaching that would fly in the face of what the Apostle Paul says about us all being spiritually dead by nature (Eph. 2:1-10).  Charismatics value feeling the power of Christ in your life.  But the reality is that we all know our feelings have led us down dangerous paths before, and therefore, we cannot trust them wholeheartedly.  Some days I might feel like the greatest Christian on the planet.  Other days I might feel like the worst heathen there is.  But my perception of self counts little towards my eternal welfare.  In other words, my status before God is not ultimately based upon what I feel.  It’s based upon God’s verdict of me through Jesus (Rom. 8:1).  Since feelings are part of the flawed and fallen human state, they must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

Reformed churches generally practice the theology of John Calvin, one of the major players in the Protestant Reformation.  Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer and his humanist leanings are often reflected in his theology.  For instance, Calvin believed that the thing which separates us humans from animals, aside from our souls, is our intellect, our rational capacity.  Therefore, he also tended to believe that God would not present anything in the Bible that was beyond the realm of man’s logic.  This led Calvin to such teachings as his famous “Double Predestination” – the idea that God predetermined the eternal destiny of every human being, choosing some to eternal life through Christ, and others to everlasting punishment for their sin.  The troublesome implication here is that this understanding of God’s foreknowledge turns God into an ogre who capriciously and arbitrarily sentences some to heaven and some to hell.  The even bigger problem is that while double predestination sounds somewhat logical (since the Bible does certainly speak of predestination – Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5; 1 Peter 1:1-2), it is NOT biblical.  You will find no part of the Bible that talks about God foreordaining anyone to go to hell.  In fact, you’ll find the opposite, that God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).  This is clear evidence that Reformed theology relies too heavily upon reason in the formation of doctrine.  Since reason is part of the flawed and fallen human state, it must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

I won’t spend too much time here, but Mainline Protestant denominations have been bleeding a slow death in membership for many years now, in part, because they don’t know what they stand for anymore.  When you compromise the Bible as even one of your true authorities, you lose yourself as a church.  As liberal theology crept into Mainline Protestantism in the 20th century, teachings like the Creation Account, the Global Flood, Predictive Prophecy, and really anything of a miraculous nature, including belief in Jesus’ actual physical resurrection, was lost almost entirely in many churches.

As I mentioned earlier, the irony behind this for Methodists is that they still promote the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  See for yourself.  The dilemma, however, is that Wesley himself was not suggesting that all four pillars (Bible, Tradition, Reason, Experience) should contribute equally to your formation of doctrine, only that they do contribute to every church’s doctrine.  The more Methodist literature you read today though, the more you get the impression that, as with many Mainline Protestant churches, all four of these pillars contribute rather equally to what they believe.

This is why I’m WELS Lutheran.  The church I belong to and pastor in learns from the faith of the saints who have gone before us (Heb. 13:7), but also recognizes that these leaders were great not because of their perfect faithfulness, but because of their profession of Christ’s faithfulness.  Therefore, traditions, customs, and rituals developed by leaders of previous generations, while helpful, are not mandated by God nor should they be elevated to the status and authority of God’s Word.  Additionally, the church I belong to and pastor in values reason as a blessing from God for applying his Word to our lives (James 1:22) and for subduing his creation (Gen. 1:28), but also recognizes that it would be inappropriate to subjugate the Bible to flawed human reason, especially since there are undeniably “hidden” components of God’s Holy Will (Isaiah 45:15).  And finally, the church I belong to and pastor in values personal experience.  We regularly encourage Christians to tell of the great things that God has done for us (Deut. 3:24) and to use the resources the gospel gives us for humility and confidence and perspective and optimism (Rom. 8:28).  But my church also recognizes that a sinner, even a believing one, living in a sinful world, is going to experience highs and lows and that whether I feel God in my life or not, I can know he’s there (Matt. 28:20).

As I was studying to become a pastor, I became very sensitive to this question: Was I becoming a Confessional Lutheran minister simply because this is the faith I was raised in and spoon fed?  Was this merely the path of least resistance?  Through comparative denominational study, I became convinced that what I have here in this particular church body is a very unique, very healthy approach to biblical interpretation.  It’s an approach that acknowledges both the inerrancy of the Bible and the potential pitfalls of Church Tradition, Human Reason, and Personal Experience, and thereby identifies the Bible as the clear and supreme authority by which we formulate our beliefs.  I’m certainly not suggesting that this would be the only church body in which you’d find true believers; wherever the gospel is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is working and winning hearts (Rom. 10:17).  But if God is known most decidedly through his inspired Word, then it only makes sense that I’d want to be in a church that had the safest, healthiest approach to interpreting that Word.

People choose the church they belong to for a variety of reasons – family background, friendship ties, a specific ministry, style of worship, appeal of a pastor, proximity to the church, etc.  But if “church” is the design of God to help bring believers closer to him and to one another (Eph. 2:19-22), it seems fairly obvious that the main reason for choosing the church that we do would be sound Biblical teaching – the thing that the Bible itself says is the way to know Jesus (John 5:39), and therefore know salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).

In all honesty, if I was selecting a church simply based on external preferences, I don’t know that I’d choose the WELS.  I’m not positive that the general worship style resonates with me.  I don’t know that the general church programs best connect with either the talents or needs of the average person in the 21st century.  I don’t know that the general church governance and administration that is used is the most efficient way to organize hundreds or thousands of God’s people.  But I’m a very big fan of our approach to biblical interpretation.  In other words, I drive this car not for its style, nor for its comfort, nor for its efficiency, but primarily for its safety features (i.e. correct understanding of the Means of Grace – the gospel in Word and Sacraments).

Some might say that my assessment of other denominations or of my own church body is unfair and exaggerated.  That’s fine.  I’d simply encourage you to investigate for yourselves.  Try not to be too anecdotal in your research – e.g. “I knew a Baptist once who…..”  Rather, try to look at the documented teachings of the church bodies themselves, perhaps through their own official websites.

Let me know if you come to the same conclusion that I do.

 

ONE FINAL NOTE: In a society that I’m convinced is now officially post-Christian, I generally try not to come across as overly denominational, simply Christian.  It becomes very confusing for those 75% or so of people not regularly attending church when you start pitting one church body against another.  That said, there are occasions when it’s a worthwhile exercise to clarify the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian (the example pointed to in the above post being the acceptance of the Bible as ultimately authoritative).