Not by Compromise

February 3, 2017

David Haskell notes that the mainline, liberal denominations in the US are shrinking by one million members per year. Twenty years ago, John Shelby Spong had attempted to address this decline in a book entitled Why Christianity Must Change. Spong is a bishop in the Episcopal Church. His title reflects the argument of his book. Spong no longer believes in theism, virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus or that there is any external objective standard to govern behavior for all times. He argued that Christianity must change its beliefs. His book was praised by liberal clergy at the time of publication, but twenty years later the decline continues.

Haskell himself was involved in a five-year study of churches in Canada. The results of this study concluded that liberal churches are declining and conservative churches are growing. And more importantly they found: “Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth, while liberal theology leads to decline.”

To help us understand the difference between conservative and liberal beliefs found in this study, Haskell gives examples.

Believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus and an empty tomb.
93% of conservative ministers
83% of conservative worshipers

56% of liberal ministers
67% of liberal worshipers

In addition, conservatives took seriously Jesus’ command to make disciples, while liberals tended to think it was culturally insensitive to share their faith outside their own faith group.1

Admittedly there is concern when we see those in the atheist, agnostic or disconnected category grow from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014 in the US according to a Pew Research Center poll. Much hand wringing is going to occur and ill-advised solutions proposed. I am convinced that the path to growth will always involve going back to the Bible and teaching what it says with faithfulness.

We are going to face a situation much closer to what the first century church faced. The Christian message must go into the marketplace of competing worldviews and effectively communicate our message. I believe Christianity is rational, has sufficient evidence, and provides the best explanation for human existence. But we may not be able to begin our conversations with people assuming a common background in the Bible as Christians did in the 1950s. Communicating the faith may be more difficult, but it still can be done. The first century church proves it can be done.

Growth will not come by changing our message. The growth we seek is not by compromise.

1https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/01/04/liberal-churches-are-dying-but-conservative-churches-are-thriving/?utm_term=.f969d45ff362


The Ghost in the Machine

July 26, 2013

The problem with materialism as a world view is that it reduces what it means to be human. If we are no more than a biological machine, can we trust our thoughts? Are our actions a matter of free will? Some evolutionary biologists have in fact embraced determinism. Is there a self that goes beyond the programming of the electrochemical impulses of our bodies?

Reductionism is a fine intellectual game to play, but it is very difficult to live consistently. An episode of the British crime show, Inspector Lewis, illustrates the tension. Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis is the no-nonsense policeman. His partner is Detective Sergeant James Hathaway. Hathaway is the intellectual who provides the show’s dialogue with the needed literary or classical music reference. Before becoming a detective. he had been a theology student at Cambridge. In the episode, “Fearful Symmetry,” there are two exchanges that I found intriguing.

A young Oxford student has been killed, and the detectives must visit the lab of Dr. Ezrin, a biologist.

Hathaway: What do you actually study here, Dr. Ezrin?

Dr. Ezrin:The parts of the brain relating to learning. – how data is imprinted and stored in the memory. Anything you’ve ever felt is down to microscopic variation in the electrochemical balance in here (pointing to his brain). Everything we are – love, hate, anger, jealousy, desire…

Hathaway: And the soul?

Dr. Ezrin: Sorry, there is no ghost in the machine. When the machine stops, we stop.

Later the detectives learn that after an affair Dr. Ezrin has been stalking a woman who has a connection to their murder case. He has even broken into her apartment.

Lewis: You’re aware, Dr. Ezrin, that stalking is an offense?

Dr. Ezrin: I’m not a stalker. Look I went to her place once or twice … just as a… I don’t know. I was jealous.

Hathaway: Those electrochemical impulses can be a nuisance.

Hathaway’s quip accents the problem of reductionism. None of us explain our behavior away by saying my electrochemical impulses made me do it. Especially when we are in the wrong, we give reasons why in this case, our behavior is allowable and understandable. All of us in conversation assume that there is a self that is above the electrochemical impulses going on in our brains. Historically, that self is called the soul. All of us behave as if there is a “ghost in the machine” despite what we may say intellectually.