Separation of Christian and World

PEI Vacation Day 3-1008The Christian’s relationship with the world has always been a complex and rocky one. In theory it seems straight forward and clear. In John 17:14-16 Jesus prays to the Father about His disciples:

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”

In His prayer Jesus outlines the relationship between His disciples and the world. Jesus describes his disciples as being not of the world or not of the world’s system of beliefs and views. The disciples were given a different worldview, one that is centred on Christ. The difference is so striking that Jesus acknowledges that the world has hated them because they are not of the world any more.

The divide between Jesus and His disciples and the world is strong and clear. The two are by nature so different that a gulf of animosity exists between them. Yet, Jesus prays that His disciples not be removed from the world but that they be protected from the prince of the world, Satan. Like it or not, disciples of Jesus Christ must live in the world with this tension until He comes again.

The Cover Of Christendom

Not too long ago, it was easier for Christians and the church to live in the western world since Christians had more in common with the culture in which they lived. This was mainly because the culture drew much of its own formation from Judeo-Christian teaching and tradition. Even though people would not consider themselves religious, they still had a basic respect for the church and the Bible. Basic Christian morality was widely incorporated into the laws, institutions and basic practices of society. There was a time when almost everyone went to church, when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed in public schools and stores were closed on Sundays.

The key reason why it is getting harder for Christians to live in the western world is because of the collapse of Christendom. Western Christians have had it easy over the centuries by living in the world without being openly rejected and persecuted by the world as Christendom provided the foundation for that ease.

Today, broad acceptance of Christian values has turned into indifference, dismissal or even outright hostility. Christians in the west are continuing to find themselves in an environment where they must tread carefully while trying to live out their faith in the public square. Not only has the world discarded Christian values and beliefs, it seeks to actively discredit them and to portray Christians as harmful and dangerous bigots whose religion must be kept in the closet. A growing number of secularists believe that Christianity must never have a seat in the public square again.

Many churches and Christians have reacted to this sudden shift from accommodation and respect to rejection and hostility by doing what 1 John 1:15 tells them not to do. They reverse biblical teaching and embrace the morality of the world that is in contradiction to the plain teaching of scripture in order to gain the acceptance of the world. This has taken place in the areas of the value of human life, sexual morality, the reliability of the Bible and even the nature of Christ. This has been particularly noticed in churches that were once solidly biblical for centuries but who have rapidly abandoned certain key doctrines by replacing them with the world’s key doctrines.

Such churches should look to the historical record of Christian liberalism. Its main focus over the past few centuries has been to shape Christianity into the mold of the world, thinking that this is its future and that the world will be more accepting of Christianity. However, the liberal Christian experiment has failed massively in this regard. Churches that have gone down this path have found their membership in steep decline while the world considers them more and more irrelevant anyway. Liberal churches may be escaping the axe of persecution for now but their pact with the world system is sending them down the spiral of spiritual oblivion.

Living in the World

How can orthodox churches and Christians in the west live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in an environment that ignores them and displays open hostility towards them?

The first step is to continue to be faithful to the Word of God and to Jesus no matter what happens. The western church needs to look at her brothers and sisters in Christ in many parts of the world who are being persecuted for their faith but who have not bent their knees to other gods. Jesus has made it clear that those who love him will be hated by the world (John 15:18-19). Western Christians have forgotten this because of the cover of Christendom but with that cover rapidly disappearing, they are now discovering anew what Jesus was talking about.

The second step is to live in the world by loving its people and not its system. Much has been written on this subject and it is not easy to do but it is what Jesus Himself did when He walked the earth. He interacted with and loved people who were lost and hurting while calling out the world system everyone was trapped in. He calls on His disciples to do the same by loving and serving people genuinely even if they are indifferent or hostile to Christianity, while challenging the world system they embrace. This is especially difficult in the west today as most westerners believe you must accept the belief system of a person in order to accept them. However, the gospel of Jesus teaches that humans are much more than the values they find their identity in; they are made in the image of God.

The third step is to live prophetically in the world by living the out the gospel in a manner that is pure and loving while being prophetic at the same time. Christians must declare to the people in the world that there is a better way than the false gospels of the world.

The fourth step is to remember the promise that this tension will not last forever. As James wrote:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. – James 1:12

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc


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 Disappearance of Bible Study

20160319-Bible-3The Importance of Study

Education is considered the ticket to success. If a young person finishes high school but doesn’t go on to post secondary education of some kind, most people will consider their chances of achieving career and financial success very slim. Thus, high school students are being strongly encouraged to do post secondary education and many of them do, otherwise the message is clear: if you don’t have a university degree or a college diploma you will never get a good paying job.

Even after students complete university, many of them will continue into graduate and post graduate work before starting their careers. Many who do embark on their respective career paths after their undergrad will get an masters degree in their field part time or enter into an MBA program while they are working. Depending on career aspirations, the drive to acquire more education can be almost never ending.

Getting a formal education involves many things: books to buy and read, labs to do, assignments to complete, lectures to attend and so on. One of the major activities that students will have to do as part of their education is to study. Many students hate studying, mainly because it takes a lot of time to do and requires an enormous amount of concentration that is usually accompanied by outright frustration. Students have to study because students have to write exams. One cannot pass an exam unless one has mastery over the material and that comes primarily from studying.

For Christians, a key component of their spiritual development and training is Bible study. The Bible is so indispensable for Christian growth and development that it is impossible for any disciple of Jesus to walk with Him without a generous and continuous intake from His Word. As Paul wrote to Timothy,

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – 2 Timothy 3:16

By study, I mean study, not reading. Studying the Bible is very different from reading the Bible. High school and university students know the difference. They know that reading their textbooks and their lecture notes once or twice is insufficient to gain mastery over the material and do well in their exams. Even if they had a photographic memory they would know the data cold but to really know a subject goes beyond committing the simple facts to memory. It means understanding what those facts mean, how they interrelate with other facts and how they can be applied in different situations. Students know that they need to study the material over and over again. Through studying, a student knows the nuances and particulars of the subject. Their exams test them on the understanding not the memorization.

The same applies to the Christian who wants to experience significant growth and communion with God. Simple readings of the Bible, while good and important, cannot take a person into a deeper understanding of the Word and of God. The Bible must be studied.

What is Bible Study?

So what is meant by studying the Bible? It can mean many things but it basically comes down to three actions: observing what the text says, interpreting what the text says and applying what the text says. Into these areas come all the tools and techniques that are used in doing a proper study of the Bible such as the use of concordances, Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, general Bible dictionaries and surveys and even commentaries. It also means taking the time to look at the text, ask questions of it, find answers and writing down your findings. The details on proper Bible study are beyond the scope of this essay but the point is there is more to it than just reading. Once you move beyond mere reading, the great treasures contained in the Scriptures will be found that would be easily missed.

The Bible Study Challenge

Most Christians do not have personal Bible study as part of their spiritual routine. Many struggle with Bible reading and prayer and to add personal study on top of that seems to be even more difficult. Yet, every Christian must ask themselves if they are already devoting time in the study of other things. What about those who are studying for their MBA part time while juggling the demands of a job? What about those taking golf lessons and practicing on the driving range on a regular basis? What about those who are taking guitar lessons and practicing on a daily basis? If Christians are finding time for these kinds of study in order to advance their career or to pursue personal interests, why is time not being taken for the timeless Word of God? If we really have a desire to accomplish something, we will take the time and effort to study in order to achieve it. Do we have the desire to pursue Christ through the Bible that radically?

My challenge to all disciples of Christ is to take up a personal project in doing a study of one book of the Bible, something short and achievable such as the the book of James or 2 Timothy. Spend at least an hour a week studying a book verse by verse, chapter by chapter and seek to find the treasures buried within. Use whatever tools you have on hand and record what the text is saying, the questions you asked, the answers you found and the gems you discovered. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed and that, over time, your walk with the Lord will deepen.

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

Hell Revisited: A Book Review of Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

erasing hell - Google SearchFrancis Chan’s book on hell is a no nonsense treatment of a very difficult subject. Chan pulls no punches and addresses the subject of hell in a direct and very thorough manner. His examination of hell is rooted in the scriptures and Chan goes book by book, verse by verse to carefully see what the Bible says. It is not a theological text but it is also not a puff piece that lacks intellectual rigour.

Chan doesn’t study hell from an academic ivory tower. Throughout the book, he agonizes over it. At the start, he recalls witnessing the death of his grandmother who was not a Christian:

Even as I write that paragraph, I feel sick. I would love to erase hell from the pages of Scripture.

Does he?

Chan begins by reviewing the writings of contemporary Christians, such as Rob Bell, who deny hell’s existence or who don’t believe God sends anyone there. He wrestles with their arguments and examines them against what the Bible says. Ultimately, he finds their arguments unconvincing and their justifications falling short of what biblical text is saying.

He then proceeds to examine what the entire Bible says about the subject, starting with the Old Testament, what Jesus had to say about hell and what the rest of the New Testament writers wrote. He even goes into great detail on what the Jewish nation in the first century thought about hell in order to give context to Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

Chan’s grand sweep of the Bible leads him to an unmistakeable conclusion: hell is for real and people are there and headed there. Chan’s analysis reveals that almost every book in the New Testament speaks about hell or God’s judgment on those who refuse to believe.  Hell and God’s wrath against sin is not relegated to a single obscure verse but crops up throughout the scriptures.

Chan is not happy with this conclusion but he knows it has to be faced and acknowledged. He warns us:

Expect then that Scripture will say things that don’t agree with your natural way of thinking.

This is a theme he keeps emphasizing in his book: even though there are things in the Bible that we may not agree with or like, doesn’t mean they are not true. Nor does it give a Christian an automatic exemption from believing it and obeying it. I noted this also in my essay A Few Burning Thoughts on Hell.  As Chan says towards the end of the book:

I don’t feel like believing in hell. And yet I do.

Chan submits himself to the authority of scripture, even if he doesn’t feel like it. In treating the subject manner in this way, he provides a major service to the church in his book. The Bible is not a set of options that we can pick and chose from. It is the very authority of God that is to be submitted to. As he writes,

It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace.

Chan’s approach not only applies to how we view hell but everything else the Bible talks about. He also writes:

The more important question is not whether or not you want to, but could you believe these things, if in fact God says they are true?

In the current age where evangelical ambivalence towards biblical authority seems to be more common place, Chan’s exhortation on the matter is a refreshing change.

Chan wrestles with the question of the duration of hell. Do people experience its punishment forever or only for a time until they are annihilated? He concludes that he leans on the side that says it is everlasting but that he is not ready to claim it with complete certainty. Although he points to scriptures that seem to imply a limited duration, he shows much greater scriptural evidence that it is everlasting. It leaves a bit of a curious question on why there is some uncertainty when Chan has already shown overwhelming evidence.

Erasing Hell is a sobering book but a very important one. It should give every Christian pause as to what it means in how they live their lives and how important the gospel really is to their lives. As Chan says:

When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong. This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders and move on. Too much is at stake. Too many people are at stake. And the Bible has too much to say.

Four and a half out of five stars.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc


Reversing the Mainline Decline


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.