Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why are churches dying?

Ron Sellers of Ellison Research recently released his findings on the changes people make in where they worship and why. There are many reasons why smaller churches die (aging, change in community, apathy, etc.), but some of the things we are told by agents of change are not verified by this research. Sellers said:
"There's sort of an assumption out there that traditional forms of worship are dying out and that smaller churches are really in danger of dying out," he shares. "And while that may be true of individual smaller churches, still the average church in the United States has around a hundred people attending. You've got a lot of smaller churches that are out there, that are very active, that are very involved and people are involved in them -- and there's no evidence that the smaller churches are giving up a lot of congregants to the mega-churches."

"Theologically, 53% of adults who have changed where they worship say their new place of worship is about the same as their old one. Twenty-eight percent moved to a place they feel is more theologically conservative, including 12% who say it is much more conservative, while 19% moved to one that is more theologically liberal (including 7% who feel it is much more liberal). "

Some folks actually prefer to participate in worship rather than be entertained by artists, prefer following Biblical patterns over contemporary fads, and prefer to please God rather than please themselves.

Before one decides that churches must change (to be like the big boys) or die, one should stop and think.

Churches of Christ with 500 and above in attendance only account for 243 of the nearly 13,000 congregations; that's less than two percent and not far off the national average for all religious groups in America. According to the 2006 directory published by 21st Century Christian, the largest 1000 congregations will house 35.4% of the attendance. Only ten percent of the churches will have 200 or more in attendance, but they account for 40.5 percent of the attendees (page 15).

That means that the majority (59.5 percent) of our folks still worship in churches smaller than 200.


Friday, May 23, 2008

On the Nature of Babies

Before the day is out, Jackie and I will have the pleasure of seeing our fourth grandchild, Ava Annabelle Lee Bryant. Dewayne and Christa have arrived at the hospital, and the waiting has begun.

Singing Sam McAlley wrote this song just before Haydn (the big sister) was born in 2003:

The future looks much brighter;
There's hope within the world.
Today I held within my arms
A brand new baby girl.
And though I don't yet know her
I love her just the same.
What a blessing to watch her turn
When I call out her name.

{Chorus} Fresh from heaven, such a blessin'.
God looked down on us and smiled.
Fresh from heaven, such a blessin'.
God gave this precious child.

I pray that she will grow up strong,
I pray that she is wise,
I pray that she will find success
In a world filled with lies.
But most of all I pray that she
Will come to know the Lord,
To find the joy and happiness
That heaven will afford.

{Chorus} Fresh from heaven, such a blessin'.
God looked down on us and smiled.
Fresh from heaven, such a blessin'.
God gave this precious child.

From the theological point of view, I have always regretted Augustine's wrongheaded assessment of children. He argued they must be evil, since they constantly cry and are so utterly selfish as infants. Augustine and Calvin promoted the "original sin" view of children, thinking they must be tainted somehow by coming into this sinful world. Sin is an act of will and cannot be inherited. You'd think to listen to some today that Adam & Eve ate of "the tree of the knowledge of evil and evil" instead of "good and evil."

Paul spoke clearly in Romans 7:9-11

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

The Law of God teaching Paul not to covet came inspired in the days of Moses (Romans 7:7-8), but for Paul it came when he was old and responsible enough to understand it. Before that time, as an infant and a small child, he was spiritually alive and precious to God. No sin was in his life at all. Yes, he like David was born into a world filled with sin (Psalm 51:5) and learned sin from those around him. God, however, did not make him wicked. He was alive spiritually at birth. This is why belief in "limbo" is a fantasy. When a little one dies, God takes him into heaven.

That all responsible people have weakness is altogether true. In Genesis 8:21 the Lord declared that man's intention is evil from his youth, but not at birth or from birth. Humans have to learn evil. Jesus understood that even his disciples could be weak. He said to his trained and closest friends and disciples at the Garden of Gethsemane, "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation, for the spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak" (Mt. 26:41).

Infants and small children are fresh from heaven and pure in heart. To such the kingdom of heaven already belongs (Mt. 19:14). They are alive to God, and their angels in heaven always behold the face of the Father who is in heaven (18:10). God is protecting and watching over them.

Well, pray for little ones to grow up and know the true and living God.

in Christian love,


Monday, May 12, 2008

Why baptize infants?

I have often appealed to the baptism of infants as an innovation, arising in Christian history many years after the New Testament Scriptures. Those who uphold infant baptism often appeal to the tradition of the church (quoting early church fathers) for their source and claiming that the traditions of the living church were derived orally but not in written form from the apostles. They make this claim of oral tradition often in spite of the written accounts of the New Testament.

The traditions of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in matters like the baptism of infants reminds me of the warning Jesus gave to the Jews who also were convinced that their oral Torah found its origin in Moses. Their traditions became so strong they began to trump the written commandments of God in Scripture (see Mark 7:1-19; Matthew 15:1-14). When human traditions are given authority, they find many ways to annul what Scripture enjoins. Such is the case with infant baptism.

The Scriptures emphatically teach that baptism follows the preaching of the gospel, confessed faith and repentance (Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 2: 38; 3:19; 8:35-38; Rom. 10:9-10). Since infants are incapable hearing the word with understanding, confessing their faith, or repenting of sin, they are not appropriate candidates for baptism.

Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38); baptism is the time when sins are washed away (Acts 22:16); baptism is that time when the old self is crucified with Christ so that the body of sin may be done away (Rom. 6:4-6) and one enters into newness of life being freed from sin; baptism is an act of faith in the working of God who forgives us of sin (Col. 2:12-13); and baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21).

When one considers that an infant is sinless and alive spiritually (Rom. 7:7-11) until that point that sin becomes alive, one sees the utter fallacy of baptizing an innocent infant for the remission of his non-existent sins.

Those who baptize infants often do so against the baby's will. Is the heart not to be involved? When the Romans obeyed a form of teaching that made them free from sin, they did so from the heart (Rom. 6:3-7; 16-18). Are we free to baptize adults against their will? If we cannot kidnap an adult and force an immersion against his will, what makes us think we can do so with an infant?

And what is the example of the first century? In Acts 5:14 the Lord was adding "men and women" (aner and gune) to their number in the church (cf. Acts 2:41, 47). Their baptisms came at the hands or under the oversight of the apostles. In Acts 8:12 Philip baptized both "men and women" (again aner and gune).

The terms men and women refer to males and females of responsible age, old enough to be married. These words are set in contrast to infants and boys and girls, who are too immature to be responsible or to marry. Now if the tradition of infant baptism holds to be a rule of faith and practice for the church, why didn't the apostles and Philip know it? Why do we not find this out until a later century? Could it be that infant baptism was never an apostolic tradition at all, but came about as an invention of later leaders?

"The first ecclesiastical command to baptize infants is contained in the fourth‑century Apostolic Constitutions VI:15." (Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, I:64)

"The early Christian feeling about the innocence of infants finds clear expression in second century authors and in the writer who makes the first explicit reference to infant baptism in Christian history, Tertullian (On Baptism 18:1‑10,12). Innocence here meant "sinlessness, or at least guiltlessness." (Ferguson, I:58)

"The earliest likely reference to infant baptism is to be found in Irenaeus" (Against Heresies II.xxii.4). (p. 59) "The first unambiguous reference is to be found in Tertullian (V. 12), and he was opposed to the practice . . .. He seems to be stating, as elsewhere in his treatise On Baptism, the common position of the church." (p. 60)

The fact is the practice of infant baptism was a human innovation, a human tradition that actually nullifies the commandments of Scripture to confess faith and repent of sins (since infants are incapable of such things). Those who hold such views fall into the same trap as the legalistic Jews of Jesus day who demanded the keeping of the traditions of the elders (the supposed oral Torah), which they swore was handed down from Moses in unwritten form.

When people trust in oral traditions supposedly from the apostles and not found in the written Scriptures, they deceive themselves in thinking what they have planted has come from God. Even the false prophets of the Old Testament thought they were speaking the oracles of God (Jeremiah 23:16-40); but they were deceiving themselves. Their words never came from God.

"Every plant which my Father has not planted shall be uprooted." This truth still applies.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Dawkins Delusion

The former atheist and scientist who turned to theism, Alister McGrath, in a short tome responds quite well to Richard Dawkins' unfortunate railing against Christianity. I'm finding more and more that the present militancy of atheism against Christianity has more to do with attitude than evidence. McGrath amply demonstrates that.

When I studied skeptics and atheists in graduate school in the early 80s I found a common characteristic: they tended to look at the ugly and dysfunctional rather than see the beauty, order, and design of nature. David Hume was just sure that if there were a God, he was indeed limited in power or intelligence or in love.

Hume and Dawkins see what they want to see and dismiss (in true postmodern style) everything else. The self-described "objective" and "rational" scientist, Dawkins is just sure that anyone who thinks differently than he does about God must surely be biased and ignorant. McAlister says:

"Relgion is persistently and consistently portrayed in the worst possible way, mimicking the worst features of religious fundamentalism's portrayal of atheism" (14).
Atheists can not let go of the carnival atmosphere of the Scopes trial. Ann Coulter's book, Godless, has a wonderful retelling of what really happened. It seems the whole thing was hatched up in New York, that Scopes was only a rare substitute and recruited, that the town council wanted the trial to gain attention, and the movie Inherit the Wind told the story unfairly. The devil worked hard to make religion look silly, and a small town didn't get in the way.

So many charges against Christianity as a religion cannot be leveled against Jesus Christ the Lord. Jesus never sent anyone into war. The teaching of Jesus did much to end slavery and to elevate women. The ethic He taught on the mountain has yet to be surpassed by anyone anywhere.

I ran across a website recently that spoke of the "myth" of Christ and compared him to the myths surrounding Joseph Smith and Muhammad. While I concur that neither Smith nor Muhammad were prophets, the website was misleading about Jesus. Neither Smith nor Islam have any ancient prophecies about them, but there are hundreds pointing to the Messiah Jesus. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is indisputable and overwhelming. The website dismissed this but certainly never answered it.

We live in a society that hollers loud and long about narrowness and closed-mindedness in Christianity but hardly looks at itself. The human body could not have occurred undesigned. We know that. The intricacies of our cells and our bodies demand a designer, just as the morality of our souls demand a moral governor. This designer and governor is no less than God, the God of the Bible.


Monday, May 05, 2008

The Word is All-Sufficient

So much of the disputes of our day center around Biblical authority. The questions of inspiration and inerrancy have much to do with what we think the character of Scripture is. The question of all-sufficiency, however, leads to many more issues.

It has been some time since our pulpits and lectureships have sounded out a cry that the word of God is all-sufficient. So much error stems from a belief that the Word somehow does not measure up to God's desired will for our faith and practice.

The challenge of "living church tradition" and papal decrees said that the Scriptures were not enough to teach us, that we needed church officials to give us the right and true interpretation to God's Word.

The challenge of the Apocrypha that intertestamental, Judean beliefs could be inserted into the Old Testament, in spite of the lack of recognition by the Jews, Jesus or the apostles.

The challenge of creeds and denominational dogmas was that we needed human authorities to direct us in addition to the Scriptures. We must be able to see the Scriptures through their lens.

The challenge of tongue-speaking in the 70s argued that we needed gifts beyond the teaching of the Scriptures.

The challenge of the Crossroads/Boston cult was that the word was not sufficient to mentor us in Christian living, we needed a personal leader to control our daily lives with guilt and manipulation.

The challenge of modern day prophets who speak messages beyond the teaching of the New Testament.

The challenge of postmodernism is that truth is so diverse that there are no absolutes or final revelations from God which cannot be dismissed or set aside for the current cultural dictates.

Scripture, however, claims for itself finality and sufficiency. There is no other revealed truth from God beyond the 66 books of the Bible. Jesus promised to reveal to the apostles of the first century "all truth" (John 16:12-13). The "faith" was once for all time "handed down" in the first century. No one was to abide outside the words of Jesus. There was a finality not to be transgressed. It is a salvation issue (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 John 9; Rev. 22:18-19).

We need nothing more than Scripture, and humanly-designed religious beliefs and practices beyond the Scripture are broad ways and sand theology. We need the Lord and His teaching, not the presumptuous traditions of men. We need Bible, not cultural solutions, to save us and to show us what is pleasing to God (Acts 20:32).

The Word of God is final and sufficient. That is where we go to build our houses on rock. All else is sinking sand.