Numerical Anomaly

June 27, 2008

According to the Pew Research survey released this week, 1.5% of Americans carry “Church of Christ” as a religious label. That amounts to roughly 4.5 million people.

In the latest survery of congregations, however, the total number of adherants reported was closer to 1.7 million, with “membership” around 1.3 million, give or take.

So, roughly 65% of Americans who claim to be a part of “Churches of Christ” have no connection whatsoever with any actual congregation.



How Personal Is Spirituality?

June 26, 2008

There is an interesting article over on New Wineskins about discipleship, namely, what is the role of church leaders in creating more Christ-like members? On the one hand, there is the Rick Warren, purpose-driven, station-to-station regimented model I call “No Disciple Left Behind.” Like the similarly-named education program, it provides a safety net for those who would not otherwise be very involved (or interested) in spiritual growth. Newcomers are shepherded “around the bases,” going from one experience to the next in sequence until they slide victoriously home.

The problem with that model is two-fold. One, programmed spirituality has a way of stifling the very Spirit of God the leaders are trying to cultivate. If the whole point of discipleship is to unleash the Spirit of God in transforming lives, there is something a bit arrogant about dictating to God exactly how and when and under what conditions that unleashing will take place. Two, like the similarly-named education program, it appeals to the “least common denominator.” Those who might otherwise be inclined to race ahead are held back in the name of conformity to a program.

The most-mentioned alternative to the Purpose-Driven model of spiritual growth is what is sometimes called “Self-Directed Spirituality.” In this system, rather than being givena program to complete, the new believer is given a menu, with the freedom to choose whatever is right for him. Church leaders, in turn, try to provide a wide variety of offerings to suit as many different palates — and pocketbooks — as possible.

The problem with this model is, likewise, twofold. One, Jeremiah tells us explicitly that “it is not within a man to direct his own steps.” Newcomers come to Christ specifically because what they were doing before was not working. They have tried to direct their own paths to God and have failed. Spiritual direction is what they are seeking. They need more than a menu; they need a recommendation about what’s good. Two, there is the harsh reality that if left to their own devices, many Christians will actually fall further from God rather than be drawn closer to Him. See the Parable of the Sower.

I suspect that the problem with both models of personal spiritual development is that both start from a faulty premise, namely that spiritual development is meant to be personal. When the New Testament talks about drawing closer to God, being more like Jesus, unleashing the Spirit of God in our lives, it is always in the context of “one another.” “Love one another.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Consider one another better than yourselves.”

Perhaps God never meant for “spirituality” to be experienced solely on a perosnal level. Perhaps God has always intended us to be part of a redeemed community. After all, Jesus did say “upon this rock I will build my church.” Singular. Collective. Moses did not lead 600,000 individuals or even 12 tribes out of Egypt so much as he did one nation.

Maybe, then, church leaders trying to create Christ-like disciples should focus less on individual disciple-making and more on community-building. If preachers and elders would focus people’s attention on their roles and responsibilities within the faith community, maybe individual members would have more enthusiasm about being a part of it. Come on Sunday night, Wendesday night, at Bible class time, to youth devotionals, to gospel meetings and VBS’s and camps — not because you stand to gain from them, but because the rest of us need you.

And when you need us, you’ll know where we’ll be.

(NOTE: If I’m right about this premise, the implications extend beyond whether or not people come to church on Sunday nights or Wednesdays. It will ultimately force a reconsideration of many of the things we do together and separately. Worship. Evangelism. Even eschatology. I might explore this here, or elsewhere, or not al all. Comments welcome.)

Because Jesus Rose From The Dead

June 13, 2008

Because Jesus rose from the dead:
• I can live non-violently, because I am more confident in God’s ability to give me my life back than I am in the government’s ability to protect it.
• I can love unconditionally, because I know that one day God will make all of us perfect.
• I can serve diligently, because I know that if Jesus can overcome death, He can overcome anything.
• I can suffer joyfully, because I have seen that the path that begins in pain ends in glory.
• I can live purposefully, because that one simple truth gives meaning to everything else.
• I can trust implicitly, because the One who commits His Spirit into the hands of God will not be abandoned.
• I can serve confidently, because I too will one day share in the final victory over the last great enemy.
• I can serve meekly, because the King is on His throne so I don’t have to be.
• I can give sacrificially, because I know that what I leave behind is rubbish compared to what awaits.
• I can endure patiently, because the promise of eternal resurrected life is worth waiting for.
• I can mourn hopefully, because those who have gone before share in the promise of resurrection when He returns.
• I can preach truthfully, because I can simply repeat the promises God has already made and know He will keep them.
• I can live righteously, because I am no longer a slave to the passions and cares of this life.
• I can praise passionately, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the best news man has ever heard.
• I can evangelize urgently, because I want you to share the hope I have and I don’t know how long either of us has left.

The Locke Paradox

June 11, 2008

In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” John Locke wrote that “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” Writing in an era recently ravaged by all manner of religious strife, manifested most notably by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 settling the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of 17th Century England, Locke’s premise makes sense. Locke argued that rather than have a Hobbesian central authority to settle all matter of religion on behalf of a society, the best available option was for religion to be privatized. If religion is a matter for the private chamber instead of the public square, then the doctrinal persuasions of one leader or another become irrelevent to his actions as a public official. Furthermore, if I tolerate your doctrinal dissent when I’m in power, maybe you will tolerate mine when roles are reversed.

Locke’s ideas on toleration formed the basis of much of the thought on the relationship between church and state in America’s infancy. The “go along to get along” mindset was formative for men loke John Adams, who believed that virtue was the key to happiness, and that if a person were properly educated, he would see that only through the pursuit of virtue was true happiness possible. Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” was largely a reaction to the excesses of church influence in government and politics.

And given the Catholicization of the Spanish Empire under Isabella, the painful birthing of the Anglican church under Henry VIII, the whole Oliver Cromwell mess, and (oh by the way) the Thirty Years War, Locke and his disciples might have a point. Keep government and religion separate, if for no other reason than in the name of peace.

As far as that goes, I agree. For that matter, so does the Apostle Paul. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul says Christians should pray that they can lead “peacable, quiet lives” in relation to the government. Interestingly for those of us in Churches of Christ, he uses the exact same language to describe the relationship between men and women in the church.

Furthermore, the historical evidence seems to indicate that Locke may have had a point. Societies where religious disagreement is a reason to fight have been marked by constant sectarian violence or harsh repression of any dissenting views — religious, policitcal, or otherwise. By contrast, the tolerant societies have (generally) been peaceful, so long as there was nothing else to fight over.

But I would argue that Locke was not so much right as he was lucky.

Those societies which adopted his views fo tolerance and put them into practice were, at the time they became tolerant, largely Jesus-ist. The major societal disagreements Lockeian cultures have faced have not been between Jesus-ism and something else, but between one brand of Jesus-ism and another. But as Jesus has taken more and more of a back seat in those cultures, what has replaced Him has become harder and harder to tolerate.

John Locke was lucky, then, because his brand of tolerance only works in a society that leans on the crutch of the teachings of Jesus. Kick away that crutch, and tolerance becomes catastrophic.

Ironically, Christian teaching says as much. 2 Corinthians 12:20-21 says that the only possible path to virtue is by being invested in a community of faith. A religion that is purely private cannot, by definition, do anything to prevent sin or promote virtue. In fact, “private” religion does the exact oposite, providing a shield behind which all manner of vice and iniquity can hide.

For a society to truly be tolerant, there must be certain moral precepts everyone agrees to, accepts, and openly discusses in the public arena. If those precepts are violated — or even supressed — what is left is chaos.

Note:  This was originally published on Stuff I Think, For Now, my old Blogspot site.  I’ll be bringing ministry-related stuff over here in the coming weeks.  Lipscomb sports, politics, and other random stuff will stay over there.

The Palimpsest Problem

June 10, 2008

Suppose you’re playing a trivia game, and this question comes up:

“Who was the first Pope?”

Most trivia people, Catholic or not, immediately answer “Peter.” Whether they believe in the Papacy or not, most people recognize that “Peter” is the expected answer. The official list of Popes kept by the Vatican even starts with Peter.

However, among Restorationist Christians (of which I am one), this question is a theological minefield. You see, we don’t believe in “apostolic succession.” That is, we believe that the authority bestowed on Peter and the other apostles by Jesus is transmitted to our day and time not by the succession of men appointed to authority, but by the collection of their very words in the text of the New Testament. In short, we believe that Christianity has always been — and should continue to be — a “rule of law” if you will, as opposed to a “rule of men.”

What difference does this make? For one, it means that there was no “papacy” in Peter’s day, so he couldn’t have been one. What’s more, if we’re right, even if someone had tried to make Peter into what we commonly think of as a “pope,” he would have refused. Furthermore, we see the very concept of a papacy as a Constantian corruption of the true religion of Jesus.

So, for me to say that “Peter is the first pope” (or, in like manner, that Roman Catholicism was the first Christian church) for the sake of a grade in school or points in a trivia contest is gut-wrenching. It goes against the very foundation of my religious existence, which if you know me at all you know is a big deal.

That’s my palimpsest — my button under the surface that triggers in me an ethical dilemma every time I face the “first pope” trivia question. Sadly, I cannot claim that I have always disdained the points to make the point. On this I (far too often) have to throw myself at God’s mercy for a hypocracy I still don’t have the strength to defeat every time.

But that said, we Restorationists are few and far between. There are “official lists” of Popes that include Peter, and if you aren’t a Restorationist, it’s unfair of me to expect you to doubt them.

As we become more and more sensitive to one another’s palimpsests, we must be equally gracious with other people’s ignorance of ours.

When It’s Just Too Much

June 6, 2008

Elijah was depressed.

Even coming off the greatest victory of his prophetic career – the defeat of the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel, Elijah’s life was once again in danger.  Incensed at her lopsided defeat, Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah threatening to kill him.  Elijah, knowing what Jezebel was capable of, left his servant behind in Beersheba and ran for his life into the wilderness.  Alone, hungry, and afraid, Elijah found a tree, sat down in its shade, and prayed for death.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he cried.  “I’ve done all I can.  I’m no better than any of the prophets who have come before me.  Take me now, Lord.  I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

Elijah closed his eyes.  When he opened them, an angel was touching him.  The angel had come with food, water, and a message.

“Arise and eat,” the angel said, “For the journey is too great for you.”

After eating, drinking, and resting, Elijah arose and “on the strength of that food traveled forty days and forty nights.” [2 Kings 19:8]

For me, the beauty of this story is the assurance that just because a task or journey or challenge is too great for me – and even when those limitations in my life become painfully, yes depressingly, obvious – God provides.  God does not condemn the weak; He strengthens.  God does not discard the broken; He heals.  And when I do find the strength to stand, I can go forward, knowing that by the power of God, He will get me where I need to be, even if I fall down along the way.

When life gets to be too much, we may be overwhelmed.  We may even be depressed.  But one thing we will never be is alone.

Almost Bible?

June 5, 2008

As one who fancies himself an amateur Jeopardy writer, I often find myself watching the show for the writing as much as for the game itself.  Last night, there was a clue asking, in essence, how many books of the Old Testament are named for specific women.  Putting the “Lamentations” wisecracks aside, the response they were going for was 2 — Ruth and Esther.

But wait a minute.  If you use the New American Bible — the translation authorized by the U. S. Council of Catholic Bishops for use in Catholic liturgy — your Table of Contents lists three, Ruth, Esther, and Judith.

So what’s a trivia writer to do?

The hardest part of writing Bible trivia for a large audience is that there is such a diversity of opinion out there as to what constitutes “Bible” and what doesn’t.  Never mind asking what the Bible actually says; trivia nation can’t even agree on which books are in or out, and in some cases whether one book is really two or more.

This conflict undermines one of the foundational principles of trivia writing.  For a trivia question to be “fair game,” there must be a consensus among all players involved as to the facts in question.  Notice that Jeopardy has no problem asking who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, but has never asked who killed JFK.  Anytime there is a lack of consensus, the writer must either specify his source or write something else.

But which source is a broad-based, widely-watched game show like Jeopardy going to pick?  And who decides whether that or any other choice is valid?

Way to go, postmodernity.  You’ve done it again.