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.


Come and See!

August 21, 2015

John the Baptist came to bear witness about the Light. He claimed to be the voice crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord. After baptizing Jesus, John testified that he saw the Spirit descend like a dove from heaven and remain on Jesus. This was to indicate that Jesus was the one coming after John.

John didn’t fail to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. He even pointed his own disciples to Jesus. John upon seeing Jesus said: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV). The next day, John repeats the words “Look, the Lamb of God” to two of his disciples, and they follow Jesus and spend time with him.

One of these is Andrew. He immediately finds his brother Simon and tells him: “We have found the Messiah!” One of the great spiritual accomplishments of Andrew’s life is summed up in simple words about his sharing with Simon: “He brought him to Jesus.”

Jesus also finds Philip and commands him: “Follow me.” Philip goes out immediately and finds Nathanael. Philip announces: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45 ESV). Now this encounter with Nathanael is instructive for us. Nathanael objects: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV)

I don’t think Nathanael means that Nazareth was a bad place. Nazareth was a village of about two thousand in population. I suspect it is similar to when we describe a place as being a Podunk. We mean it is small and insignificant. But I love Philip’s response to Nathanael: “Come and see!”

Grand thoughts are found in this section of the Gospel of John. Jesus is the lamb that takes away the sins of the world. The saying prefigures Jesus’ atoning death. Andrew calls Jesus the Messiah, which means he is a king in David’s line. But I suspect that none of them understand the kingdom very well. Jesus alludes to Jacob’s ladder in his statement to Nathanael: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51 ESV) Jesus will bridge heaven and earth, but I doubt whether any of these early disciples grasped all of this.

They know they have good news, and they are excited to share it. They don’t necessarily have all of the answers, but they are willing to seek. May we capture a bit of their boldness, so that we too can say to others: “Come and see!”

What We Learned from Jerry

October 4, 2013

Jerry Tallman has conducted thousands of evangelistic Bible studies through the years. He shared what he has learned with us in his workshop. What have we learned form Jerry?

Despite having conducted thousands of Bible studies, Jerry has never converted anyone. It is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). The power to convert is in the message not the messenger.

We often worry about being rejected or messing up, but if the person is lost (separated from God because of sin), their situation is not going to be worse because we have attempted to share the good news. The person who is lost is in danger of being eternally lost unless he or she is rescued by the good news.

Jerry asked each night whether we had learned anything new, and the answer each night was no. What he talked about were things that we already knew. Our problem is not needing to know more, but to actually use what we already know.

All of us should be able to tell someone what God has done for us.

When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, he turned a conversation about physical things into a conversation about spiritual things. We need to think of ways of introducing the spiritual into our conversations as well. It may be in simply offering to pray for someone’s needs.

People need to see us as good news. It may be in service. It may be in the quality of our life seen as being different from the world. As Edgar Guest’s poem says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Seeing us as good news may be the preparation for them to hear the good news.

We don’t have to have all the answers. It is fair to say, “That’s a good question, let me write that one down.” Questions can then become studies. You can research what the Bible says and get back to the person for a further study.

Studying with a person is letting them read what the Bible has to say for themselves. It is not us telling them what we think. We just help them to find the passages. If they object to what the Bible says, then their argument is with God not us.

We need to meet the lost, reach them, and keep them. We all need to think of ways of meeting the people in our lives and getting them to think about spiritual things. Not all of us will be the ones to reach them, that is, actually do a one-on-one study with them. But we all have a part in meeting people and introducing the gospel to them and being the bridge between them and people who can study with them. We also need to keep them. The whole body of Christ plays a part in maturing the new Christian. All of us have things that we can do to make this an evangelistic church.

Jerry reminded us that spiritual swords are sharpened to be used.

Unwrap the Gift

December 21, 2012

The mall is crowded. People scurry about finding parking places and searching for that perfect gift. It’s a time of wrapping paper and tape, ribbons and bows. It’s a time of standing in line to ship packages to loved ones. It’s the season of gift giving and receiving.

I reflect over all the gifts I have received. I’ve been truly blessed. One of the dangers of abundance is that it may dull our sense of gratitude. Gratitude needs to be cultivated. It is the proper response to gifts. So it is important to say thank you and acknowledge the giver. It is also important to say thank you to God, the ultimate giver.

I don’t know how many packages will be under our Christmas tree. I do know that none will be left unwrapped. We may even feel some childlike excitement as we wonder about a particular gift. (I have to watch Kathy to make certain that she doesn’t shake too many of her packages.) The anticipation may build until the appointed time to open gifts, but no one says, “Let’s wait until next week or next month.” A gift is meant to be opened.

The greatest gift of all time is reflected in the most memorable of Bible verses:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16, ESV

Yet, many people leave this gift unwrapped.

The benefits of this gift are not automatically applied. There’s no divine direct deposit set up for each of us. Instead, the gift requires of us a decision to accept it or reject it. There’s no middle ground.

Since sin is the reason for the gift in the first place, it is natural that faith or trust is required. Sin is the opposite of trusting God. Sin is trusting ourselves and going our own way in opposition to God.

It is also natural that it requires repentance. Since sin is the problem that the gift is intended to cure, renouncing sin – having a change of heart about sin is a prerequisite (Luke 13:3).

Baptism is also an expression of this trust. From the vantage point of sight, baptism looks like someone just getting wet. But we walk by faith not sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). In the eyes of faith, baptism is the place where God has promised to meet us and apply this great gift to our lives: forgiveness (Acts 2:38), regeneration (Acts 2:38, Titus 3:5, 1 Corinthians 12:13), and union with Christ (Galatians 3:27, Romans 6:3).

Have you unwrapped the gift?

The Good Mystery

November 30, 2012

When you hear the word mystery, what comes to mind? Do you think of something esoteric and incomprehensible, or do you think of a whodunit crime novel? For Paul in Ephesians 3, mystery means something that God had not previously made known or made clear, but has now revealed. We could not arrive at this mystery by reason or observation alone. The good mystery was revealed by God.

God’s plan was progressively revealed. We see a hint of it in the curse on the Serpent in Genesis 3:15 and in the promises to Abraham and David. The prophecies of the Old Testament point to it. But the mystery was not fully revealed until it was revealed to the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5). Yes, the mystery when revealed was a bit of a shock to some Jews. But Paul assures us: the good mystery was revealed to the apostles and prophets.

What is this good mystery? It is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). God’s plan was to create a new humanity in Jesus “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Everyone can share in the inheritance. Everyone can be a part of the body. Everyone can partake of the promise. The good mystery is that the gospel is for all.

That means the good mystery is preached. Paul became a minister of the gospel “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:8-9). Paul makes clear that the church is an integral part of the plan.

… so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord … (Ephesians 3:10–11, ESV)

I suspect that we struggle a bit thinking about spiritual beings observing the church to see the wisdom of God. But what they should see is a new humanity in Christ Jesus. They should see is both Jew and Gentile formed into one family of God. They should see people, regardless of nationality, race, culture or language, being united in Christ and transformed into Christ’s likeness.

The good mystery is revealed by God. It has been revealed to the apostles and prophets. We read about it in our New Testaments. The mystery that Paul preached is that the gospel is for all.