Giving and the Disciple

One of the characteristics of discipleship is giving. Disciples are called to make giving a part of their spiritual lives, whether it is through the giving of their time, talents, etc.  One type of giving that continues to be a point of sensitivity and even embarrassment in the church is the giving of money.  A key reason for this is the tele-evangelism scandals of the 1980s where glitzy and over the top television evangelists made incessant and heavily emotional appeals to their viewers for money.  The appeals were often mixed with emotional tears and pleas that if they didn’t receive X amount of dollars by the end of the week, they would be forced to go off the air.  By and large these appeals worked, until two of these tele-evangelists ran into scandals with one of them sent off to jail while another was defrocked by his denomination.

The end result was shame and disgrace brought upon not only these television ministries but to the church overall.  Their practices reinforced the stereotypical view amongst skeptics and critics that churches are filled with lying, cheating hypocrites who only want people’s money to feather their own nests.  The response from Christian pastors and preachers was to duck for cover when it came to talk about money.  Pastors refrained from preaching sermons on giving as many feared it would give the impression that they were just being greedy, like those fellows on TV.  As a consequence, teaching on the spiritual discipline of giving was lost on a whole generation of Christians who grew up not knowing what it was all about.  The after effects of those dark days in the 1980s still lives on, with many Christians not making giving a priority in their spiritual lives.

Despite those horrific scandals, the teaching of scripture on giving still lives on and disciples of Jesus are still called to give to others in order to show generosity. (2 Corinthians 9:6-15).  In this essay, I’ll go over some basic principles of giving that a disciple should consider.

Be Generous and Cheerful

When it comes to giving money, the first question many disciples ask is how much?  That is an understandable question and, although the Old Testament teaching to the nation of Israel was to give a tithe of ten percent of their wealth, the New Testament teaching to the church defines no set amount.  In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus points out the rich putting their wealthy gifts into the Temple treasury while a poor widow puts in two small copper coins.  He notes that the widow put in more than all the others because they gave out of their wealth.  It was not a sacrifice to them but, to the widow, it was a great sacrifice as she gave out of her poverty and put in all she had to live on.  Although the ten percent tithe is a reasonable starting point, Jesus teaching on the subject and the rest of the New Testament should give the disciple pause and to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit. Factors such as sacrifice, generosity and cheerfulness in giving should guide the disciple in deciding how much to give.

Be Consistent

Another factor, which is even more important than the amount of giving, is being consistent in giving. Are you giving consistently, be it weekly or monthly, out of your regular income?  Consistency is key because, regardless of how much you give, you are reinforcing a habit of giving where the release of your money to others becomes a regular part of your spiritual life.  You do not hesitate about giving and you often don’t even think about it as you do it.

Consistent giving enables the recipients of your generosity to count on your giving to plan their own lives and ministries around it.  You are not simply throwing your money into the wind but giving to help those in need live their lives and conduct their ministry of aid to others.  In effect, you are partnering with them in their various enterprises and being ministers of God’s grace to them. Giving is a solemn responsibility.

Be Focused and Committed

In order to be consistent, a disciple needs to be focused on what charities to give to.  While one cannot give to every worthy cause and ministry out there, a disciple can focus on a few and give consistently and deeply to them over a long period of time.  Be committed to giving to a charity over the long term, especially if you believe in what they are doing and if you are benefiting from their efforts, such as your own local church.  Such focus and commitment by disciples will help keep charities and ministries healthy and enable them to serve others over the long haul.

Disciples of Jesus should not hesitate about giving their money. It should be an integral part of their spiritual lives, like regular Bible reading and prayer.  In the same way, pastors and teachers should not be shy in teaching about giving, from the pulpit, the classroom or the coffeeshop.  Disciples need to learn, understand and apply this spiritual discipline in order that the church of Christ is built up to do the work Jesus commands her to do.

2017 © Ed LeBlanc

 

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The Unethical Evangelist

IMG_5322Is it possible to do evangelism unethically? That question may seem hard to understand. How can you do evangelism unethically when it’s the gospel of Jesus you are sharing? What can be wrong with that?

To be clear, the gospel itself is not unethical, although I can think of a few prominent atheists who would consider it unethical and worthy of banishment from society. The gospel itself is not a problem as it is something that Jesus Himself communicated during his three-year ministry and entrusted to His apostles. The gospel is good news, a message of hope to all humanity rooted in the very person and work of Jesus Christ.

A problem can arise in the transmission of that gospel in the form of evangelism, which is the vehicle that communicates the gospel from the church to the world, from one person to another. Can evangelism itself be corrupted to the point of being unethical?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. A dramatic example was the great tele-evangelism scandals of the 1980s where corruption, fraud, immorality, deceit and more were used in peddling the gospel of Jesus for profit and power. It was a horrible stain on the church and made a mockery of the gospel and Christianity in the public square for years.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians do not turn personal evangelism into a means of making a quick buck. Unfortunately, it is quite possible to be the unethical evangelist and not even know it.

Evangelism as Business

One characteristic of unethical evangelism is the turning of evangelism into a straight business model that is geared mainly to generate results. Running a business is not unethical but evangelism is not a business. This philosophy turns evangelism into a series of actions where success is measured by getting people to attend events, getting them to talk about certain things and, ultimately, to make decisions for Jesus. On the surface, it all looks okay. After all, how can you argue against people making decisions for Christ? Isn’t that the whole purpose of evangelism?

It is unethical if this is the heart and soul of evangelism. Getting people to do certain things, to make certain sounds and giving the appearance that they have been born of the Spirit (making decisions in ignorance), can be horribly misleading. It can give people the impression that being a disciple of Jesus is all about learning a certain lingo, attending certain events and doing a few different things. This is not discipleship but the practice of an ancient religion known as Christendom, which gives the appearance of Christianity but does not possess the Holy Spirit within it. Evangelism is unethical if it misrepresents the gospel of Christ as the gospel of Christendom which is nothing more than a cultural form of Christianity.

Insurance Policies for Heaven

Evangelism can be unethical if it becomes a means of selling life insurance policies for heaven. In the past, certain forms of evangelism were concerned about selling people a means of getting into heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. While this is a wonderful theological truth and a terrific gift of the gospel, it is not the full gospel. In this form of evangelism, heaven and self become the ends. It is all about me and me getting into paradise. Jesus becomes strictly the means.

Jesus is the way whereby people enter into heaven. This is a marvellous biblical truth where Jesus Himself said that no one comes to the Father except through Him. (John 14:6). However, unethical evangelism misses the greater point where heaven is not the ends but Jesus is. To coin a phrase, it is all about Jesus. It isn’t all about getting to a specific place but about being with a specific Person. After all, who is in heaven and is central in heaven? An evangelism that is too heaven-centric and less Christo-centric can misrepresent what is truly important about the gospel message.

I may be too harsh to call this kind of evangelism unethical but in doing so I’m pointing to a large problem that needs to be dealt with. When the gospel places the emphasis on heaven being the good news, there is a tendency to assume that we have secured tickets for our destination (heaven) and nothing more needs to be done except to make sure our bags are packed. If evangelism emphasizes Jesus as the good news, there is a tendency to to assume that we must follow and commit our lives to Him as His disciples. This includes denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily and following Him (Luke 9:23).

People as Projects

A final form of unethical evangelism is the “people as projects”. In this form, the unethical evangelist treats people as projects to achieve their aims rather than as persons who are created in the image of God.

The unethical evangelist will pretend to be interested in and care about people only if they reciprocate by being interested in the gospel message or at least in spiritual things. If they are not interested, the unethical evangelist gives up on them and moves on to more promising prospects.

This form of evangelism is devoid of the unconditional love that the gospel conveys, where people are viewed as being made in God’s image and thus are worthy of respect and love regardless if they are interested in Jesus or not. In ethical evangelism, love, care, concern and friendship are not dependent on how people respond to the gospel but are bestowed upon people as an act of God’s grace. We love others because He first loved us (1John 4:19), not because they love us or the gospel in return. The true gospel of Jesus calls us to love the whole person and to be a source of good for that person regardless of how they respond to a particular evangelistic project.

The Ethical Evangelist

The gospel of Jesus Christ is truly good news. It is the news that God has come into the world in the Person of His Son to redeem humanity from its sinful state and be brought into communion with God. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings with it many things including peace with God, a new ability to love others unconditionally and eternal fellowship with God in heaven. But the gospel is not simply a spiritual transaction that gives us these things. It is the news of being in a relationship with Jesus and how the Christian’s life is transformed as a result.

Evangelism is a call to invite others to receive this good news and enter into relationship and discipleship with Jesus. Anything less distorts the gospel into self-serving spirituality and misrepresents what being a disciple of Christ is all about. May God preserve His church to be truly ethical in her evangelism.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

The Decline of Bible Reading

20160310-Bible Cover

People of the Book?

According to Islamic tradition, Jews and Christians are referred to as “the people of the Book”, in this case, the Book being the Bible. Christians have been known as the people of the Book, not just because the Bible is their holy book, the book of ultimate importance to the faith, but also because they are a people who read, study, meditate, memorize and talk about the Book. Being “people of the Book” means people engaged with the Bible.

The Canadian Bible Engagement Study (CBES) conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 2013, casts some doubt if Christians in 21st century Canada can still hold on to that ancient title. The study, called Confidence, Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, conducted a survey of 4,474 Canadians on their views on how they engage the Bible in their lives. The full report can be read here.

Regular Bible reading has been on the decline in Canada for several decades and the CBES report bears this out but what the report has to say about those who self identity as Christians is of particular interest. As more Canadians don’t consider themselves Christian, it is understandable that this group pays little attention to the Bible but are Canadian Christians far behind?

Taking Christians as a whole, the report’s findings were remarkable. For those who identify themselves as Christian, six percent read the Bible daily, six percent read it a few times a week and only three percent read it once a week. Astonishingly, 70 percent of Canadian Christians seldom read or never read the Bible. This kind of survey result would seem to indicate that Christians are no longer the people of the Book and might be called the people who ignore their Book.

But is that the end of the story? The study breaks down the numbers a bit further into Christian traditions. Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians read the Bible far less than their Evangelical cousins. Mainline Protestants and Catholics who read their Bible a few times a week or weekly are in the single digits. Monthly French Catholic readers are in the single digits as well while English Catholic and Mainline Protestant monthly readers are in the double digits but just barely. Evangelicals seem to do much better with those reading their Bibles at least a few times a week at 44 percent, weekly at 51 percent and monthly at 58 percent.

Although some may see this as evidence that Evangelicals have healthy Bible reading habits, the results also tell us that the other half of Evangelicals are not reading their Bibles even on a weekly basis, let alone a monthly one. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have seen weekly Bible reading decline by more than one half since 1996 but Evangelicals have seen daily readers fall by one third in the same period. Evangelicals may be the tradition with the strongest Bible readers but a sizeable number still do not have regular reading habits and the trend in daily readership is not that encouraging.

Followers or Disciples

So why is Christian reading of the Bible falling in such dramatic numbers? The survey found two key factors that affected regular Bible reading amongst Christians: confidence in the Bible and a seriousness about their walk with Jesus.

The survey showed that those who had a strong confidence in the reliability and the authority of the Bible were found to read it once a day, week or month by a wider margin than those who had even a moderate confidence in the Bible. Those who reflected on the meaning of the Bible in their lives, who engaged in discussions about the Bible outside of church activities and who regularly attended worship services, were found to read the Bible much more frequently than those who did not.

The scriptures teach that the Bible, the Word of God, is critical to the spiritual development of Christians. As Jesus famously said to The Adversary, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes form the mouth of God”. The Bible is spiritual food to feed humanity’s spiritual soul. If this survey showed that the majority of self identifying Christians in Canada only ate physical food once a week or even once a month, there would be screams of a crisis in Canadian churches. Christians seem to be starving themselves by eating the spiritual food of the Bible very sparsely and yet few within the church seem to be concerned.

What can be done to turn the situation around? Simply telling people to read their Bibles because they need to is an exercise that will fall on deaf ears. Christians who are not reading the Bible regularly need to recognize their own spiritual malnourishment and to see the Bible as true food.

One key way to address this problem is to re-establish confidence in the reliability and power of the Bible. Many Christians have fallen victim to the secular modernist take on the Bible that in effect waters down its reliability and, by extension, its relevance to life. By marginalizing the Scriptures, Christians will turn to other writings to find spiritual fulfillment such as the latest self-help book. Christian leaders need to not only do a bit of apologetics for the Bible in the church but they also need to encourage everyone to share how the Bible has and is changing their lives. The Bible says that it is living and active. Let others share their stories of how it has been living and active in their lives and not just a repository of ancient knowledge.

The second key way to address this self-starvation of the Bible, is to show Christians that Christianity is not about showing up on Sundays and getting to use the title Christian in their spiritual resume. Christian leaders of all kinds need to show to those under their spiritual care that Christ is calling them not be mere followers of Him but to be His disciples.

The words follower and disciple seem to mean the same thing but in reality they are not. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus had plenty of followers who followed him all over the countryside. Those who followed Him did so looking for free food, free healthcare and political freedom from the Romans. But when Jesus pressed them on the cost of following Him to the point of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross in order to follow Him, many left Him. Jesus wanted disciples to deny their lives for Him, not followers who could come and go as they pleased.

Followers of Jesus will treat the Bible as an optional reading lesson. Disciples of Jesus will treat the Bible as the bread of life. Serious Christians will see the Bible as indispensable in knowing Jesus more deeply. Causal Christians will see the Bible as a dusty, boring book that has little relevance to their earthly pursuits. If the church in Canada wants to regain the title people of the Book, she must be willing to disciple her people and show them the riches and treasures contained in God’s Holy Bible.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

The Decline of Biblical Authority

St John the Baptist ShrineAuthority: The Dirty Word

In his 1974 book, The Authority of the Bible, John Stott opens his book with the following:

“Authority is a dirty word today – dirty, disliked, even detested. I doubt if any other word arouses more instant aversion among the young and the radical of all kinds. Authority smacks of establishment, of privilege, of oppression, of tyranny. And whether we like it or not, we are witnessing in our day a global revolt against all authority, whether of the family, the college, the bosses, the church, the state or God.”

With the chaos of the cultural revolution of the 1960s firmly in his rear view mirror, Stott’s opening paragraph summarizes the attitude and worldview of modern society when it comes to the general principle of authority. Over the past 40 plus years since this book was published, the dirtiness and disgust of authority has been successfully passed on from the Baby Boomers to successive generations and has been firmly rooted in the western cultural ethos of the 21st century.

As a result of that cultural revolution, esteem in the reliability, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible by the wider culture has eroded dramatically. Once upon a time, people who hardly went to church or rarely read the Bible, held the Scriptures in great esteem. This general submission to the authority of the Bible was one of the hallmarks of the cultural force of Christendom upon much of the West. With the rapid collapse of Christendom, the general belief in the authority of the Bible has collapsed as well.

Authority: Challenged since the Dawn of Time

Simply stated, biblical authority is the recognition that what the Bible says is not only true but authoritative in that it must be obeyed over the wisdom and authority of Man. The Bible is authoritative in that it is the Word of God and reveals the character, wisdom and will of God. Because God is omnipotent, omniscient and all holy, He is worthy of humanity’s worship and obedience. As a consequence, God has authority over Man. If the Bible is the divine will God communicated to Man, it too has authority over Man. The Bible itself claims authority every time it says “Thus saith the Lord God”. When God speaks, humanity is to listen and adhere.

The challenge to biblical authority is nothing new and in fact goes back to the dawn of humanity, in the Garden of Eden, where Satan’s first words to Man was “Did God really say?” Satan’s first words were a sly and subtle attempt to discredit the authority of God’s word. The consequences of Man’s rejection of the authority of God’s Word in the Garden were catastrophic.

Throughout the history of Old Testament Israel, the authority of the Word of God was constantly challenged by the Israelites who regularly flouted that authority through their disobedience. Again, the consequences of the rejection of God’s authority were disastrous for the nation.

Authority: A Collapsing Belief

Biblical authority has collapsed in mainline liberal Protestant denominations and is collapsing in evangelical churches at an alarming rate. In mainline Protestant denominations, that rejection is based on a common consensus that the Bible is a flawed and very human set of documents. The writings are errant and thus lack the full and complete inspiration of God. Because of this belief, that the Bible is more human than divine, it is subject to the judgment of Man in determining how far its authority and reliability can go. In reality, biblical authority in mainline circles no longer exists as it is always trumped by the authority of human wisdom and the need for ancient scriptures to accommodate the desires and whims of modernity.

Mainline liberal Protestants have few qualms about admitting this publicly and many believe it is necessary to dispose of such authority in order to make the Bible and Christianity more attractive to the outside world. Theologian Marcus Borg believes the church needs to adopt a post-critical naivety view of the Bible where its accounts are true but their truth doesn’t depend on facts. In his view, we all do our own picking and choosing of what is authoritative in the Bible anyway, but we must do it responsibly, prayerfully and as a community. Borg’s approach sounds reasonable and even humble but in divorcing truth from facts, he is creating a “relative” truth while still retaining Man as the chief authority over the Bible but in a more politically correct and less arrogant fashion.

Although some evangelicals are courting the mainline liberal Protestant view on biblical authority, others are doing so in a manner that attempts to retain an appearance of submitting to its authority. Instead of saying the Bible is a flawed document that no longer merits our total submission, such evangelicals are using the tools of exegesis and hermeneutics to show that the interpretations of the “difficult” parts of the Bible are not what we originally thought they were. Thus, the evangelical is able to proclaim the authority of the Bible and acknowledge submission to it but at the same time develop an escape hatch to evade those sections that are too repulsive to be submitted to. Thus the tools of exegesis, hermeneutics, cultural studies, etc. are used to develop novel interpretations that defang the authority of the Bible in selective and convenient ways.

One can say the difficult passages of the Bible are an issue of hermeneutics and, in many cases, this is the real issue. However, it is interesting to wonder if deeper motivations are at work to use novel interpretations to dispose of the unpleasant passages. Is it any coincidence that the current re-interpretations of biblical passages on sexual morality within evangelicalism are occurring at the same time the sexual revolution is reaching its high water mark in western culture?

Cultural pressures on western evangelical churches are enormous, pressures that are influencing and forcing churches and Christians to abandon the clear teachings of Scripture and embrace the spirit of the age. But western churches can learn something from churches in parts of the world where Christianity is under great persecution. Last year, a group of young Christian men were videoed kneeling on a Libyan beach just before they were to be beheaded because of their faith in Christ. Their lives could have easily been spared. All they had to do was renounce Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. Yet, they did not. Instead, they submitted to the authority of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32-33:

“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.”

They paid for that submission to authority with their very lives. Can we in the west do any less while we bend the plain meaning of biblical texts that we don’t want to submit to and believe in?

The game of using novel forms of interpretation to dispose of unpleasant biblical passages can be addressed by a direct question. If it could be proven to the ultimate satisfaction of any rational believer that a particular passage of scripture means something that we do not like or believe in because it sounds so anti this or anti that and is offensive to our ears, would we still submit to it? If our answer is no, then there is no point in debating exegesis or hermeneutics. It simply means that we do not want to obey God in everything He desires. If this is the case, we need to question how much Jesus is really Lord of our lives and how much we are truly faithful in submitting to His Word.

The authority of the Bible is critical for the future of the church and for the world the church has been sent to with the gospel. If the church is to totally compromise in this critical area, she will become a part of the world and the hope of the good news of Jesus will flicker out.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

Reversing the Mainline Decline

Church

The Magnitude of the Problem

Protestant mainline churches have had a long and proud ecclesiastical history in North America.  Mainline denominations have made tremendous contributions to the gospel of Jesus Christ and have served society in a noble and charitable fashion for decades.   However, there can be no denying that mainline Christian denominations are on the decline.  As noted in the National Post, the United Church of Canada, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, saw a peak membership of almost 1.1 million people in the mid-1960s after a steady rise from 600,000 at its founding in the mid-1920s.  Since the mid-60s, membership has steadily declined hitting about 500,000 by 2009.  Average weekly attendance has fallen steadily from 400,000 per week in 1977, when the church started recording attendance, to dipping below 200,000 per week in 2009.

Sunday school membership, which is critical in developing children and young people in the faith, has seen even bigger declines from its peak of about 750,000 in the late 1950s to under 100,000 in 2009.  Since Sunday School typically consists of young children, there could be other factors involved such as a corresponding decline in birthrates since the peak of the Baby Boom.  However, the magnitude of the decline is far greater than the overall decline in membership over that same time period.

The numbers from the UCC  represent similar trends in the United States.  The Episcopal Church suffered a dramatic attendance decline from 2000 to 2010.  According to the Episcopal Church website, average weekly attendance fell from 856,579 in 2000 to 657,831, a 23.2 percent decline.  In 2010, Episcopal Church decline in attendance was 3.7 percent.    The Presbyterian Church (USA) was down by 3.28 percent, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America down 1.92 percent and the United Church of Christ fell 2.93 percent in 2010.

In Europe, the numbers appear to be worse.  In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that between 40 to 60 percent of the adult population attended church services on a weekly basis in the mid 1800s.  By 2007, that number had fallen to about 10 percent.  The rest of Europe doesn’t fare much better when it comes to weekly religious attendance.  Swedish and Finnish attendance hovers around five percent of the population while the Danes come in with a meager three percent.  France and Germany have attendance below 10 percent while the Netherlands and Luxembourg are between 10 and 15 percent.  In a 2004 survey, Malta and Poland have the highest regular weekly attendance rates of 75 and 63 percent respectively.  Ireland follows with 54 percent.   Other than these three countries, the rest of Europe has attendance rates from below 50 percent all the way down to three or four percent.

There are no magic formulas to guarantee a reversal in the decline of any church body.  However, there are some basic principles that can be applied that would at least place a church in a healthier environment that could promote new life and growth into a congregation.

Jesus Stained GlassStep One:  Answer the Question, Whose Church Is It?

The first step in reversing a decline is to recognize who is the owner of the church.  Is it the denominational leadership?  The pastoral staff?  The elders?  The congregation?  It is none of these.  Every church has to recognize that they are owned by Jesus Christ.   The Holy Scriptures are clear: Jesus is the head of the church with the church herself constituting His body on the earth.

I would say that most members of a mainline church would agree that Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the ultimate head of their denomination.  But is such an acknowledgement more of an intellectual formality or is it a firm heart and mind commitment?  If a congregation really believes that their church is not theirs but the Lord’s, are they willing to do what He wants their church to be and do, even if they don’t like it?  Or are they determined to be or do what they or someone  else wants?

This is not an academic proposal but a serious issue of faith and discipleship.  Is Jesus really the head of all mainline denominations that confess His name? If so, are they willing to do want He wants them to do, even if it is hard?  Even if it means a bit of intellectual and emotional humility?  Even if it means being made to look like fools in the eyes of the world?  Jesus did many things that were not popular with the people.  In fact, many people found His teachings too hard and decided not to follow Him any more (John 6).  Are members of mainline churches willing to follow their Head, wherever He leads them?

If the honest answer is a no or a dishonest yes by shaping Jesus into a being that conforms with one’s own desired presuppositions, then any attempt to reverse the declining fortunes of a mainline church is pointless.  If a church is not willing to follow its Head, the Head will leave it to decline into oblivion.  Without obedience to His will, blessings in the form of new life and growth will prove to be forever elusive.

A typical argument against Step 1 is how do you know what the Head wants of His church?  Such a question is typically asked with the wrong motive, namely that such a question is unanswerable.  The question is an attempt to raise the epistemological issue that no one can really know what the will of Jesus is regarding His church or about anything else for that matter.  This is a convenient means of avoiding the problem.

Let me frame it another way.  If it could be proven to you with absolute certainty that Jesus wanted your denomination to go in direction A, a direction you absolutely hated,  while you wanted to it to go in direction B, would you still go down direction B?  If the answer is truthfully yes, then the original question, how do you know, is merely a clever deception  and is really a means of trying to avoid obedience.

Step 2: Get Serious About the Bible

The next step follows from the first and answers the not so clever question of how do you know what Jesus wants of His church.  The answer is contained in the New Testament scriptures and forms the core principle of Step 2: if a mainline church is serious about reversing its decline, it must get serious about the Bible.

For many decades, if not centuries, different churches have seriously questioned the reliability and authority of the Holy Bible.  Many mainline churches and leaders have removed the Bible from its historical position of authority and truthfulness to one of subservience to the will of enlightened humanity and the seemingly infallible discipline of science and its regrettable handmaiden scientism.

Marcus Borg, a former member of the Jesus Seminar, once stated in a lecture that Christians have always picked and selected what they felt is authoritative in the Bible, while discarding other portions as being less authoritative and more metaphorical.  Borg also engaged in creating a modified version of truth where biblical accounts are true stories but their truth doesn’t depend on facts.  As he quoted someone else, the bible is true and some of it happened.

Borg tempered the audacity of cherry picking biblical authority by stating that it must be done responsibly, prayerfully and as a community.  In Borg’s view, the Bible has no complete or real authority over the church.  Instead, we interact with the text and the text interacts with us creating, as he calls it, a horizontal form of authority.

Marcus Borg’s view of the reliability and authority of scripture is based on a post modern view of truth which is relative and, as he claims, horizontal with man.  To say that picking and choosing parts of the Bible we agree with must be done respectively, prayerfully and as a community sounds noble but in reality it is sophistry.  Despite all the respect one can muster, humans will always trump the scriptures if it tells them to do things they don’t want to do.  Borg’s philosophy of the bible only serves to make the conscience less guilty as it bends the bible into a humanistic shoe horn.

Unfortunately, Borg’s philosophy has been eagerly embraced by many mainline denominations.  The result has been the appearance of holy respect for the scriptures while at the same time hollowing out its authority and in turn its transformative power.

Treating the Bible as a kind of equal partner with human rationality is a sure sign of spiritual decline.  As mainline churches continue to move the bible lower down the ladder of importance and authority,  the more people continue to leave the mainline ranks.  By removing the Bible’s authority and not letting it speak for itself, mainline churches have robbed themselves of the life changing power of the Scriptures.  Humanity doesn’t need the Bible as its buddy, friend or equal partner.  People need the Bible to discover its spiritual power, its truth and its ability to bring them nearer to God.  People need the Bible to warn them of their sins and to tell them things they don’t want to hear but need to hear.  The Bible washes the church of her impurities but only if the church submits to its cleansing power.

To many mainline churches, the Bible has become a quaint artifact of its historical past.  Kind of like the senile old uncle who sits in the corner whom we are to be kind and respectful to but never take what he says seriously.  Mainline churches need to get serious about the Bible by stop treating it as a so-called equal and start listening and obeying what it has to say.

Step 3: Quit Following the World

The decline in membership and attendance of mainline churches corresponds to an increase in their mimicking the values, morals, actions and attitudes of the contemporary world.  In the race to become relevant to society, mainline churches have adopted worldly values and priorities into their core life and mission.  The result has been churches that look and act like political or social action groups except for the religious garb.

Mainline denominations need to take heed of Jesus’ prayer in John 17,  “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”  His apostle John echoes this in 1 John 4, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.”  The New Testament is clear: quit following the world.

The trap for the church is to follow the ways of the world in order to reach out to the world and become relevant with it.  Although some of the principles of contemporary culture are noble, many run counter to biblical principles and to the teachings of Jesus.  The good news of Christ is not just about liberating oppressed peoples or taking care of creation.  It is more about submitting to His authority and His will in all areas of our life, including telling the oppressed that Jesus is their Saviour, something that some mainline churches now consider abhorrent.

Churches following the world wind up appealing to the latest moralities and fads.  In today’s world this means being politically correct, post-modernly relativistic and beholden to special interest groups.  The contemporary church becomes indistinguishable from any other secular organization that is striving for the same goals.  The church’s mission is to be counter-cultural and to stand against worldly principles that run contrary to the will of her Master.  Instead of currying favour with the world, the church must recall what Jesus said, “ If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”  (John 15:19).  If the church is behaving in such a way that the world is simply in love with her, that is a warning sign that something is wrong with the church.

People in the church who see the church as no different from the world become disappointed and leave.  They are looking for the transcendent meaning that the gospel of Christ offers.  They seek meaning and a deeper connection with God as the foundation for their lives and all they do.  A church that is only concerned with temporal things is a church that becomes more and more irrelevant.  They can no longer offer the deep spiritual meat the common person craves.

As National Post columnist George Jonas once wrote in a column about the upcoming papal conclave:

I’m not religious. If I were, however, I think I’d have something more important to worry about than God’s relevance to me. I’d worry about my relevance to God. And in the unlikely event that the cardinals asked me, I’d say that worrying about what’s relevant instead of what’s right is the quickest way to irrelevance.

Hope in Renewal

Mainline churches are not in decline because they are mainline in their heritage or historical background.  The causes of their decline could be practiced by any church, knowingly or unknowingly.  All churches need to humbly examine themselves to make sure they are really making Jesus their head, that they submit themselves to the authority of the Holy Scriptures and that they quit following the ways of the world.  Unfortunately, many mainline church denominations have departed from these fundamentals.

There is hope in that many individual mainline churches have refused to follow the contemporary lead of their denominations.  Many have founded renewal movements within their denominations and have vowed to remain to work towards renewal, such as theologian Thomas Oden.  The work is not easy but for the sake of Christ’s body, it is a work worth doing.  As Oden wrote,

The faithful are called to be prepared to stay and continue the ministry of rectifying what has gone astray. That is what shepherds and sheep do amid danger. They stay with the flock. They do not flee.