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.

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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).

 

It’s Not The Problem. I’m The Problem.

Modest Hits Tour

Fully engaged in one of the busiest points I’ve ever experienced in ministry, I’m tremendously thankful for all of the wonderful stuff the Lord has put on my plate. Unfortunately, however, that means that some other things – like blogging, which I LOVE doing – gets bumped aside for a moment. So, nearing five years and 200 posts of doing this, I thought it’d be okay to repost some of the more “modest hits” this blog has seen for newer readers and for the benefit of my friends over at breadforbeggars.com, who have been sharing my stuff for about a year now. 
For the next month or so (till things slow down a bit), I’m going to republish older posts. The criterion is that it has to be at least a year or so old and received more attention than other posts by comparison. 
Modest Hit #1 It's Not The Problem. I'm The Problem.
(Originally published on July 6, 2011)

blog - tree knowledgeWhile preparing for a sermon on Genesis 3 several weeks ago, a thought grabbed me that hadn’t really been an issue before.  The thought was this: the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t really bad fruit.  While I’d probably processed that intellectually before, I hadn’t really thought of the bigger, concrete ramifications of that.

I guess I grew up under the impression that the fruit from that tree in the center of the Garden of Eden was sort of like the poisoned apple in Snow White.  The old woman then obviously sort of steps into the role of the serpent.  But I think that’s more of Brothers Grimm theology than actual biblical truth.  In reality, I believe the fruit itself (whether apple or otherwise) was as healthy and nourishing as any other fruit in the perfect garden, possessing the same poison-free chemical composition.  And if that’s true, I’m guessing that many have had the same misunderstanding that I’ve had much of my life.

One indicator I have that many might think the fruit Adam and Eve ate was tainted was a hymn that we sang in worship the same weekend I was preparing this sermon, the hymn titled “The Tree of Life” by Stephen P. Starke.  I actually like the hymn a lot and think it does a nice job of telling the narrative of what happens in Genesis 3.  However, my guess is that when people sang “Oh, day of sadness when the breath, Of fear and darkness, doubt and death, Its awful poison first displayed, Within the world so newly made,” a good percentage of those people probably assumed that the poison spoken of here was in the apple, not the general poison of sin.  And I’m guessing many of those same people might miss the important application point I’d like to share with you here today.

To begin, we probably should determine with some certainty whether or not the fruit was indeed poisoned if we’re going to make a bigger point out of it.  Obviously, I now believe that the fruit wasn’t poisoned.  There are several reasons why.  First, we’d naturally assume that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was created on the 3rd day of Creation, part of the vegetation that God brought forth from the dry land.   When God created all of this, like all the other days, he described it as “good” – perfect, holy, and faultless in every way.  “Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.’  And it was so.  The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.” (Genesis 1:11-13)

Second, when God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he designates it as unique, he designates eating from it as “not good,” but he doesn’t designate the tree itself as inherently “not good.”  The disobedience against God’s command is what would usher in death, not likely the chemicals consumed in the fruit.  “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

Finally, when Satan tempts the woman to eat from the fruit of the tree, we’re told that she sees the food as healthy for consumption in addition to being (as Satan suggested) a way to gain knowledge that God possessed that she and Adam didn’t yet have.  In other words, her analysis of the fruit of the tree was the same analysis that God himself had made when he created it on the 3rd day, i.e. that it was “good.”  “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6)

I hope you’re now convinced that this fruit was good stuff.  Everything that God created was good stuff.  However, he did have specific intentions for how we were to use this good stuff.  And maybe now you’re also already understanding the bigger application point here.

Sometimes Christians fall into the trap of thinking that “the fruit” is the problem.  The Christian church, for instance, in history and by different branches has for many years labeled good things as “evil.”  Middle Age monasticism perceived society as evil.  Some mendicant church orders have perceived money as evil.  Occasionally Pietists, Puritans, and others have made statements implying a perception that sex is evil.  A Methodist by the name of Thomas Bramwell Welch popularized something called “grape juice” in the late 19th century because alcohol, for the most part, had been perceived by his church as evil and they wanted to continue celebrating the Lord’s Supper without consuming wine.  Many Southern Baptist communities in our country have done a pretty decent job of outlawing tobacco, dancing, and gambling and other card games because they are perceived as evil.

I’m not at all trying to unload on certain faith traditions or periods in church history.  My point is that many, many Christian leaders throughout history have mislabeled good gifts from God as evil.  We really don’t have any right to label anything that God created naturally or that the Bible seems to give approval to as “evil.”  And just as damaging in all of this is that it reveals one of the real problems with mankind in a Post-Fall world, a problem that we see in Adam and Eve almost immediately after their sin: blame shifting.

It’s very important for us to be clear about what is good and what is evil.  Money is a gift from God.  Money is not sinful.  Believing that it gives me more control over this world than I actually have, however, is.  My sinful nature is perverse enough to use money in the realm of greed, pride, oppression, stinginess, hoarding, self-esteem, self-centeredness, etc.  Sex also is a gift from God.  Sex is not sinful.  Irresponsibly and selfishly using it as my unfettered pleasure toy, however, is.  Our sinful natures are weird and perverse enough that we humans get very creative in how we distort God’s design for this gift – premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, transexualism, pedophilia, masturbation, bestiality, polygamy, etc.  This is why Paul simply says to the Ephesians, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” (Ephesians 5:3).  He doesn’t list 100 violations of God’s gift of sex because he knows there’s some sick dude out there who will invent number 101 and think he’s getting away with something.  Adam and Eve also clearly understood this – that it was their sickness, not God’s good gifts that was the problem.  This is the very reason that after the fall into sin they covered their nakedness….they understood that they were now capable of taking God’s good gifts and distorting them for their own perversions.  You see, there is disobedience at the core of the sinful heart, not in God’s good gifts.

We could go on and on like this.  Alcohol isn’t evil.  It’s a gift.  It unfortunately often gets abused by sinners who are immaturely looking for artificial highs or who are self-medicating emotional wounds, both of whom are in reality only compounding their problems.  Dancing isn’t evil.  It’s a gift from God.  It unfortunately often gets abused by sinners who are desperate to validate themselves by getting some attention at the club or perhaps by some guys who are looking to take advantage of some sinners who are desperate to validate themselves by getting some attention at the club.  Society isn’t evil.  Cities need Christians injecting Christ into them, which is part of what makes the Christian exodus from urban centers, following the American dream of isolation from other people a little more disappointing.  Community is a gift from God.  Valuing community is essential to the health of a church.  Society and community are not bad things.  Society unfortunately sometimes gets abused by sinners through seemingly easier access to violence and rudeness though.  You get the point.

When we look at the world, we want to be sure that we’re making a distinction between things from God that are good and the sinners who are distorting these good creations.

The final point in this discussion is really also the climax of the Genesis 3 account.  Adam and Eve had abused God’s good gift (and yes, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was indeed a good gift.  It provided an opportunity for humans to express their love for God above their love for his creation through their obedience to his command.).  Despite our fall though, mankind’s weakness never trumps God’s strength.  Our rebellion and sin cannot overcome God’s grace.  And when Adam and Eve sinned, God came not with a heavy hand, but with more blessing – a Serpent Crushing deliverer whom we know as Jesus.

This Jesus cured Adam and Eve not by offering an antidote to the non-existent poison of the fruit, but an antidote to the poison of their disobedience.  He injected his own obedience to God’s commands.  And, like it did for Adam and Eve, Jesus’ imputed righteousness to us cures us of all of our misuses of God’s many, many good gifts of time, talent, money, sex, alcohol, gambling, card games, dice games, board games, video games, internet, Facebook,  parties, music, dancing, clothing, books, magazines, coffee, food, desserts, chocolate, cable tv, network tv, public access tv, movies, Netflix, exercise, dieting, fishing, golfing, ultimate frisbeeing, vacationing, pets, sports, children, religion, etc.  I probably missed one.  The truth is that, YES, you and I are so twisted that we can take any good gift from God and abuse it by using it in a way that doesn’t glorify God.  And we’re also so delusional that sometimes we deny that we’re capable of such travesties.  Fortunately, the most important truth is that Jesus cures us from all of it.  While the evidence suggests that I’m the problem, it also suggests that Jesus is the perfect solution.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”  (Genesis 3:15)