Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Young Fundamentalism - The Apathy Problem

The more that I write, the more I realize that people feel strongly that some things should change in what we will broadly call "fundamentalism". They point to things such as an over-emphasis on the externals, an idolization of leaders, and a lack of love as examples of things that should be given serious and immediate attention. But for most folks within fundamentalism today that is where things stop...at talking and complaining. Now, discontent is the first step toward change, but at this point I don't believe that the discomfort is great enough within the average fundamentalist church to spur the kind of groundswell of change that it would take to genuinely address the roots of these concerns. The question then becomes, if such elemental things such as love and idols are at stake, why aren't people clamoring for change? What is the reason for this inaction? It can't be apathy, because people do genuinely care about these issues. Why then is there no or slow change?

It is my belief that at least four factors conspire to form a continuing culture of status quo within our churches. So, here they are in random order:

  1. The Slave and the Wanderer - The children of Israel had two major stages before they got to go into the promised land. These stages were, slave and wanderer. The first generation had been slaves. Once freed, things got hard and they suddenly wanted to go back to Egypt, their status quo. The second generation knew nothing but wandering. That was their status quo. For them, however, the pain of wandering was greater than the pain of battling for something better. If this is the course fundamentalism must take. How many years of wandering must we endure in order to shed the desire to return to our status quo? How much discomfort must we endure before we are willing to do battle (with our own desire for comfort, not with people) for something better?
  2. The Bit and Bridle - I love going to the county fair and seeing the great draft horses. They remind me that there are things in this world that are bigger than me. Having always been the tallest kid in the class, it is nice sometimes to see something that towers over and outweighs me. Anyway, I digress. Here's the point. At this juncture in fundamentalism churches are interconnected not only by a common faith, but unfortunately have been tied too tightly by something that can be much more devious, MONEY. In our modern churches money has become the bit and bridle that has been used to keep other (usually smaller) churches and missionaries "in line". The fear of losing monetary support for a particular intra-church program, institution, or missionary has worked as well as a gag order in many situations. This causes a forced status quo that is uneasy for those involved...except for those who hold the reins.
  3. The Loudest Voice - We live in a day when no one wants to speak up only to get shouted down. Our churches have a few major  leaders with big personalities and even bigger opinions. Simply put, the loudest voice seems to always win, even if they are dead wrong. Many times the loudest voice is not challenged, even kindly, because some think that it would not be "loving". However, the thought occurs to me that it is less loving to placidly stand by and do nothing. You see, the loudest voice is usually not the most balanced voice, nor the most experienced voice. Most times, the loudest voice comes by way of their personality or the perceived "success" of their ministry. (another post will be given to the topic of success) Neither of these is a good criteria by which to pick a leader. Despite this fact, fundamentalism is divided into factions each with their own "loudest voices" demanding that all follow their version of the status quo.
  4. Fear and Uncertainty - There is always fear in change. Because no one is saying these things out loud we are afraid that we might be wrong. We are afraid we will lose friends. We are afraid that in our desire to promote positive Scripturally sound change that we will fall into the "loudest voice" trap ourselves. We are afraid that no one will listen and that we are wasting our time. We are afraid the challenge of Biblically balanced reform is too insurmountable. It is our own insecurities and uncertainty of our own position that keeps those of us who do "complain" about the church as it now is from taking action and making the church closer to what it should be in reflecting Jesus and His teachings. (You will never reach perfection in the church. It is the pursuit that matters.) It is our fear of failure and our fear of man that roots us to the status quo.
In time, the church will change. God knows I pray that the changes are closer to the Word of God and further away from opinion (especially mine), tradition, and dogma. (for more on this please see my new book titled, Before the Box: Freeing the Church to Emulate First-Century Christianity ) The question then becomes whether we will come to positive change kicking and screaming, or will we be thoughtful and strategic in the planning and implementation of needed change? No, thoughtful and strategic is not the same thing as inaction. If one is to be thoughtful and strategic he will come to understand the challenge and then seek and implement a well-reasoned plan of action. May God help us to do just that. God is not looking for revolutionaries within the church, but instead He is looking for quiet and thoughtful men of well implemented action. There is a difference.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Young Fundamentalism - Tradition in Perspective

I love tradition! I firmly believe that we should eat turkeys at Thanksgiving time and hot dogs at picnics in July. I think that apple pie has to be paired with vanilla ice cream -- always. That, and every parade should have a marching band, horses, and an army tank. Traditions are great! They bind us together as a culture. Traditions give us a rallying point and a sense of corporate identity amid the bustle of our individualistic society.

In the church, traditions can be just as useful. Activities that are repeated become traditions that are learned. As long as the tradition accomplishes something of Christian value, that tradition can be valuable as a teaching tool over generations.

Traditions also make people comfortable. One of the dangers that is faced by those who would like to throw out all tradition from the church is that even the unchristian person has an expectation of tradition when it comes to the church. Those who do not attend church expect that when they walk into a church auditorium that it have a certain setup and atmosphere. So, from the pulpit and pews to the annual Sunday school picnic, the traditions of the church have served a purpose through the ages. In part, they make people feel comfortable in finding what they "expect". (Not that a church should strive to meet the expectations of the lost, but we should give thought to the fact that some traditions do give an atmosphere of familiar comfort. This is why Amazing Grace is sung at nearly every funeral. It is familiar and comforting.)

In addition to all of this, shared traditions bind people groups together and give them identity. When we are talking about "how great our church's yearly harvest potluck is," that is good. It shows how we as a group see ourselves, as people that make good food. However, when traditions of belief and practice cause an identity of a superiority that looks down on those that don't have our traditions, that's just unchristian. Traditions must not be allowed to become the shibboleth for acceptance into our churches and of other Bible-driven, gospel-centered churches.

Having said all this, the church that lives on tradition (instead of intentionally using tradition as a tool) is a dying church. Living solely on tradition is kind of like eating leftovers. It reminds you of a real good meal you had sometime in the past, but you aren't that thrilled about it warmed up and fed to you over and over now.

The question of "Why?" has to come up on a more regular basis in our churches. "Why are we doing this?" "Why do we believe this?" "Why do we practice our faith in this way?" Now, the answer to the question of "Why?" is not always simple. (We have to get better at communicating complex answers instead of simply dispensing rehearsed platitudes that sound good on the surface but don't stand the test of Biblical investigation or consistency.) Sometimes the answer is as simple as: "we do it because of tradition." Even this answer, in some instances can be acceptable. If I do something out of tradition that most of my congregation enjoys and is blessed by, then that's okay as long as we all admit that what we are doing is a tradition, not Bible truth. The problem obviously arises when tradition is raised to the level of Bible truth and is proclaimed to be so.

So, if tradition is so great, why rock the boat? The answer for this is simple. In order to be useful traditions have to meet three criteria:

  1. Tradition cannot contradict, replace, or supersede Bible truth
  2. Tradition has to have an "end game" -- a goal that is accomplished by the tradition
  3. Traditions have to "work" for and be relevant to those involved - (example: There is nothing wrong with a tradition of opening up Christmas presents at 2:00 AM Christmas morning. The kids would love it! Why don't we do it? It doesn't "work" for Mom and Dad. They want sleep!)
If a tradition within the church does not meet the standard of the above criteria then it is a tradition that is either unBiblical, ineffective, or obsolete and should be reviewed and revamped, or discarded. 

The last thing we talk about with the church is the concept of competing traditions. The truth is that both millennial generation and the baby boomers (these seem to be the loudest voices in the church today) want tradition, they just want different, and at times competing traditions. Here is the deal, God intended the church to be multigenerational. (For more on this see my book, Before the Box: Freeing the Church to Emulate First-Century Christianity) Nowhere in the Bible do we find instructions on how to establish demographic specific churches. God intended great grandma to go to church with little Sally. He also intended that Christian love be displayed from both ends of the age spectrum. With real communication and the true love of a Christian family a church is enabled by God to bridge the "tradition" divide and find traditions and compromises that will work across generational lines. After all, if I love my eighty-seven year old deacon (and I do, his name is Noah Sparkes and he is awesome) I will want him to come to church and be comfortable and blessed. The reverse, of course is true. Noah wants the church services and traditions to be a help and a blessing to those of my generation. This is how a Biblical church works. No one gets their own way, it is always about others. That's the way of Jesus.

First Corinthinans 14:26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Young Fundamentalism: Change - Necessary but Balanced in Approach

Okay, let's start with the obvious: change is hard. No one likes changing the things with which they are comfortable. Of course, there are lots of things we would like to change. There are things that we don't like about our bodies, our circumstances, the weather, etc. Our gripes our endless, aren't they? But our traditions and ways of thinking are so ingrained in us that to think of changing those areas is a challenge to who we are as people at a core level. For example, I like Raisin Bran. (Shout out to Kelloggs, they can pay me later :-) The point is, don't mess with my breakfast cereal. I don't want knock off brands or Cheerios. I want my cereal; the one that I am used to eating. Change it, and I'll get cranky! When it comes to the church, people are just that simple. The basic thought process is, "I like it. I'm used to it. Don't change it or I'm going to be upset."

The departure of many of the millennial generation from the churches of today begs the questions of if we should change, what we should change, and how and when.  For the purpose of today's discussion, I am not going to deal with if we should change things (because it is apparent to me that change is necessary), nor am I going to deal with what should be changed (that is the department of the individual local church). I do think, however, that it is important for both the traditionalists and those who are calling for a new tack in our way of thinking to understand some things regarding change.

Change is Inevitable

Change is simply a part of life. We call them stages, cycles, or phases, but in the end, it all is summed up in the word "change". The thing we lack in the church is the study of history. If we understood our own history in relation to the history of society at large, we would see that the church has gone through cycles,stages, and phases throughout the centuries in direct relation to (and sometimes reaction to) what was happening in the culture of the day. God is the only one who doesn't change. However, He has several times throughout history reconfigured how He dealt with mankind based upon the circumstance (rebellion or obedience) of man. This is best understood in what we call "dispensations". For example, God dealt with Adam before the fall differently than He dealt with Israel, or later, the church. If God can adjust His sails to best approach the needs and attitude of society, we should as well. Why? Because change is inevitable.

Change can be a good thing!

You want your baby to change. If that infant stayed the same he/she would never grow up, never learn to speak, read, write, drive a car, or get a job. You want your Christian life to change. You want to sin less, love Jesus more, and follow His Word more closely. You want your marriage to change. You want to grow more in love with your husband or wife. Why is it then that in the church we have the idea that change is bad and that we must meet change at the door of the church with swords drawn for battle? Do you like the pews you sit in? They are a change! Jesus didn't have pews; He had the hillside of Galilee. But ironically, if we told our churches that we were meeting at the seashore from now on they would decry this "newfangled change". Change is a part of the human existence, and change in the right direction is very healthy.

So, how do we deal with change in the church?

First: Understand the Who of Change

The talk about keeping or regaining the millennials in the church or of how to reach contemporary society with the gospel has put the emphasis for change in the wrong place. We do not change in order to keep people coming to church. Why? Church isn't about us (our wants and desires); it is about God and His wants and desires. We do not change in order to reach the lost. Why? It is not about the lost; it is about God. Change always has to be about what God wants not about what we want our church "experience" to be like or about what we think will be effective in reaching contemporary culture. (Having said this, it is my contention that if we get back to the Bible in an authentic way, we will find both the latitude that God allows for us to minister to one another in the church and a plan that is effective in reaching out to the lost regardless of culture. This is discussed further in my recent book Before the Box: Freeing the Church to Emulate First-Century Christianity.) So, change cannot be human focused, it must be God centered, focused, and directed. We must want the changes that God wants. In order to do this, we must get closer to Him and further from our own reactionary desires. In doing so, we are saved from the natural knee jerk reactions and dramatic pendulum swing effect that we see in so many churches today.

Second: Understand Why Things Are the Way They Are

To cry out for change without first understanding why things are the way they are and how they came to be is immature and harmful. A friend of mine the other day was complaining about a rock in his backyard that he had to keep mowing around. He griped about the fact that the guy that owned the place before him hadn't moved the rock. So, armed with a shovel, pick, and pry bar he decided he was going to move it. Come to find out it wasn't a rock but the top of a BOULDER. It wasn't moving. The reason the former owner didn't move it is because it couldn't be moved. There are some things like this in the church. There are some aspects of church that cannot and should not be moved. However, there are other things that more closely resemble the stacks of books that I pile around the house. My wife is right. They can and should be moved. So when we think about change we must consider not only the what, but the why. A favourite Wiersbe quotation of mine is, "Don't take down a fence until you know why they put it up." It is good advice.

Third: Understand Who Change Affects and How

It is easy to call out for change. It seems to be the "in thing" to do at the moment. But if one is going to call for change, they cannot do so with a complete disregard for those whom the desired change affects. In the church there must be a love and mutual submission that guides any implementation of change. That does not mean that we avoid change, but it does mean that change should be enacted with some finesse, tact, diplomacy, and love. This implementation with understanding will cause us to think carefully especially about the feelings of others and timelines for introduction of change in the church. Very often we have to plant the seeds of the idea of change and let others come to the same conclusions that we have in their own time. Sometimes it has to be "their idea" in order for a smooth transition to a new stage or phase in the church.

Fourth: Understand the Process of Change

Change is a process. You didn't become an adult overnight; it took time and many thousands of minute changes to bring such a dramatic change. We have to understand the process. Change begins with a catalyst, a need for change. Most times it is some sort of crisis. In this case the crisis is the departure of the millennials from the church and the difficulty that the church is facing in introducing those of contemporary culture to the gospel. Having a catalyst, however, is only the beginning. From this point, the stages of the process are as follows:

  • Identification of the problem
  • Idea for a solution
  • Resistance to the idea
  • Enough pain or difficulty to try the idea
  • Implementation of the idea
  • Time
  • Tweaking the through trial and error
  • New Status Quo

Fifth: Understand Resistance

One must be careful in pushing for change that they understand why people are resistant to change. This can only be accomplished through loving and respectful dialogue, and time spent together. The truth is that regardless of your thoughts on change, we are all in this together. So then, time spent sniping and griping at those who "won't change" or "want change" is wasted time. It is important for us not only to understand the position and truly hear out the passion of those who are resistant to change but to also dig into the reasons for their resistance. It is those underlying reasons that will either convict us not to change or convince us of the legitimacy of change.

Sixth: Be Biblically Sound and Culturally Savvy

In our day, we have two extremes of action; action that is based on feeling, and action that is based on tradition. We must avoid these extremes. While both feeling and tradition are essential parts of the human experience and church life, they cannot be in the driver's seat. Thinking (Biblical thinking) must win out. We must be people who contextually interpret and consistently apply the Word of God with a keen understanding of those to whom we are ministering (church people) and understanding of those whom we wish to reach with the gospel (contemporary lost). Jesus told His followers to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). This was Jesus telling them how to approach those people in culture of their day. Jesus was culturally astute and adapted His approach to the mindset of others. But is not just about culture. If it was, we could easily advocate license to sin in order to reach the lost. On the other hand, Biblically sound theology without real world application to contemporary society is truth that is hidden under a bushel basket. Light that the lost see as irrelevant, unloving, or unhelpful is light that is hidden. There was a time when society was enough like the church (morally speaking) that we could just assume that if an approach was relevant for the Christian, it would be relevant to the lost man. Times have changed, and in a Biblically sound and culturally savvy way, so must we.

For more on the topic see: www.beforethebox.org

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Young Fundamentalism -- Evangelism in Contemporary Culture

The other day, a good friend who is part of an older generation of fundamental preachers asked this question, "Does anyone have any new ideas for evangelism that will impact the current generation?" As I thought about his question, I realized that no new "idea" or "program" was going to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. For those of my generation, there is a growing frustration with the idea that if we just plug a "modern" idea or two into our current ministry models that they will be effective in reaching the lost of contemporary society. This is not the case.

Unfortunately, society took a dramatic turn while much of fundamentalism was sleeping, soundly still encased in a mindset that stemmed from the success of the evangelistic methods of the last half of the twentieth century. Now, fundamentalist leaders are scrambling trying to find new plug and play ideas that will impact their city without changing the operating system of their ministry, their understanding, and philosophy. It really is like trying to figure out where the Ipod plugs into your Commodore 64 (remember those?). Humbly, the obvious truth is that it is a faulty philosophy that has put fundamentalism in a place where it can no longer effectively evangelize. It is not a new idea that is needed but rather a Biblical rethink of how and why we do things. So what then does evangelism look like in contemporary culture?

First: Realize that no one wants your church, and that is okay! 

God never told the lost man to go to the church building to listen to the paid professional tell him how to get to Heaven. God told the saved fellow in the pew to go to the lost man on his turf and tell him about Jesus. God didn't send a flyer in the mail to get us all to come to Heaven to tell us why Heaven was so great, and why we should stay. He sent Jesus to where we lived and into our lives. We need to follow the example of Jesus and be a going church more than an inviting church.

Church advertising over the past years has been, "Come to our church! It is better than the one down the street!" Now, you will still get a few church hoppers (we politely call them transfers) from advertising such as this, but they will be fewer still as society as a whole moves away from going to church. Contemporary evangelism has to put the emphasis back where it should have been all along; on Jesus and His gospel. The truth is that the lost man really doesn't care about how wonderful your church is (at best, he sees it as a community social/service club) or how great you think your pastor is.

The emphasis has to be on the gospel not the church. The gospel has to be communicated up front instead of being loaded at the back of the long process of advertising, personal invitation to attend, evangelistic preaching service, and public invitation to respond to the gospel.

You see, this current model is based on people a) wanting (or at least willing) to go to church with you and b) accepting your church before they hear and respond to the gospel. With society moving away from church attendance and having a highly cynical mindset toward church and clergy, this approach will not work well moving forward.

Second: Realize that your church events aren't attractive to contemporary individuals, and that is okay!

The past sixty years of fundamentalism have built up much expectation around events. "If you build it, they will come," seems to have become the rationale for all sorts of gimmicks of promotion. But because the lost man has no desire for (and no longer has a cultural reason for) church, he also does not care about your church's anniversary, picnic, missions conference, special meetings, revival, etc... He sees this all as a part of your "religious club" that's "good for you" but not for him.

So, what does attract the lost man to the gospel (the GOOD news) in this contemporary culture? Simply put, good news attracts them! People are tired of bad news and the feeling of being manipulated. They want good news.

Love is good news! John 13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Simply put, love is attractive. Truly caring about each other and meeting each other's needs is attractive. In this overly connected society what people are really looking for is genuine loving community. When this is displayed, it opens up doors to talk about Jesus.

Doing good for others is good news! Titus 2:14 Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

God instituted good works in the first century (which ours is resembling more and more) as a key to open up hearts to the gospel, the good news of Jesus. As congregations once again get serious about meeting physical, mental, and emotional needs (felt needs), opportunities will open up to approach and deal with spiritual / eternal needs.

Third: Realize that church attendance is not the goal of the gospel, and that is okay!

God did not save people to go to church. He saved them to reconcile them unto Himself. (Colossians 1:20) Now, obviously part of being an obedient Christian is membership, attendance, and participation in a local church.

The modern problem is that money comes from those who actually show up to the services and give at offering time. Most churches with dwindling congregations or large churches with big buildings and bigger bills are unfortunately motivated by this. Therefore, much is made of church attendance. The apostle told us not to quit "assembling" - not to quit meeting as the people of God. (Hebrews 10:25) This, of course did not mean, "be there every time something is going on." It meant just what it said; don't quit gathering. And so, we meet on the Lord's day and will not quit, and properly so.

However, beyond the example of first-century Christians meeting on Sunday (we follow that example), God gives us latitude in choosing a schedule that works for the people within our congregations and our evangelism efforts. In fundamentalism, the traditional church schedule has become a god and a test of fellowship between churches. Unfortunately, no one has taken time to step back and think, "What if we trained our folks to go into the community with the gospel and then freed up their time from the church building to do just that?" In every book club, service organization, volunteer group, and baseball team across your town, there are lost people that need a missionary in their midst. Unfortunately, the schedules that most fundamental churches keep precludes their folks from being community missionaries and locks them into a sub-culture where they interact only with the people at work and Christians at church.

Fourth: Realize that no lost person cares about intramural squabbles between churches, and that is good!

So many are still advertising why their church is better than the one down the road. This focuses on our differences instead of the commonality of Jesus. No lost person in their right mind wants to hear about Bible versions, music, personal dress standards, etc... Disagreement with other churches ought not be the front door into our church. Jesus did not send us to tell others about these things, He sent us to tell them about His gospel. Yes, we have differences with the church down the road, and yes in some cases it is proper to separate over those differences, but making a big deal about those differences in evangelism draws attention away from the real big thing: Jesus. If we spend time explaining (or worse advertising or arguing) why we are better, we take time and attention away from the gospel. We make converts to ourselves and our perspectives/convictions but not to Jesus.

Fifth: Realize that the lost man loves his family more than he loves your church, and that is good!

Over and over in the Bible we find people getting saved then bringing their families to Christ. The difficulty in our individualistic society is that the church has backed away from treating people as part of a family unit and have tried to assimilate them (as individuals) into the church as a sort of substitute family. (Now, having said this, I realize that there are those without families who need this kind of belonging and support.) In the field of evangelism if we treat individuals as separate from their families, we will win individuals but not families.

For example, a fellow gets saved. We tell him, "Quit going to the places you used to go. Quit hanging out with sinners. Start coming to every activity/event at the church." All relatively good advice for him, but disastrous advice if we are trying to reach his family with the gospel. Why? His family will naturally come to resent the church for taking him away from family time and functions. This is where accusations of "cult" start to come into the family's conversation. Long before a family comes to love a church congregation, the congregation must go out of their way to love a family. We cannot see the lost family as a competitor for the love, time, and attention of a new convert. If we do, we will lose. We must equip, encourage, and release the convert to be a missionary in his family. That means that there will be times when we will miss him at a service or activity. That's okay. Love shown to the family will reinforce in their minds that they have not lost their loved one to "that church" and this, over time, will be a benefit in reaching them with the gospel.