As our culture turns its back on God more and more with each passing year, many religious leaders are grappling with the question: how can we keep our numbers up? Regardless of what new and exciting methods are implemented, the number of congregants steadily declines, while the average age of the remainder steadily rises.
There are many factors that contribute to this problem. To crassly borrow a term from the world of economics and business, we operate in a saturated market—that is, everyone has access to “church,” by the broadest definition, and there are more suppliers than the current level of demand can sustain. This makes it a challenge to reach new people, since pretty much everyone has heard at least the most basic form of the Gospel. Then, churches are in competition with each other for a shrinking number of churchgoers, so there’s always a seemingly greener pasture for anyone who gets annoyed, offended, or just doesn’t feel sufficiently served wherever they attend.
On top of that, there’s some level of burnout among established church members, who grow tired of feeling judged, or feeling like there’s no point, or feeling ignored, or forgotten, or overburdened, or any other of a host of emotions that reflect a deeper issue: “the love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24.12). At the same time some of these are slipping away, it seems the Gospel doesn’t “stick” with the children of even devoted members, so the up-and-coming generation is scarcely found at church. Much of this comes from the broader culture’s ever-increasing efforts to…dysangelize. That horrible term is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century pompous blowhard intellectual who made the phrase “God is dead” famous. The Gospel, the euangelion, means “good (eu-) news (angelion).” Yet many loud voices find a broad platform in today’s society for preaching very bad (dys-) news. This dysangelion is simply the mistaken notion that the physical is all that exists.
In the face of all this, what is the solution most religious leaders have dreamed up? That is neatly summed up in a recent (11/17/20) headline from The Babylon Bee, a satirical news website: “Youth Group Kids Leaving The Faith At Alarming Rates In Spite Of Unlimited Pizza and Mountain Dew.” The reason it elicits a snicker is the kernel of truth at its core. They’re jumping headlong into the category of “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Php 3.18-19).
It’s not limited to food and drink, unfortunately. Many who claim to follow Christ have turned worship into something between a rock concert and an indeterminate spiritual experience that may or may not have anything at all to do with Jesus. Then the preachers focus on offering motivational platitudes rather that truths that may be difficult to say and hear, the entire group silently agrees to ignore God’s condemnation of whatever sins society happens to be supporting this week, and the only thing that seems to guarantee keeping the organization viable is turning it into a Political Action Committee aimed at building heaven on earth by whatever means are necessary, perhaps missing the sarcasm when Paul asks in Romans 3.8, “why not do evil that good may come?” Has it worked? Clearly not.
This is all about trying to make people feel good. It’s an appeal to the flesh.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! (Ephesians 4.19-20)
It’s very sad to see Christianity—even warped as the mainstream denominations already were—shrinking and losing both membership and cultural clout. We live in the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world—a title it holds by no slim margin—partly because of vast natural resources and conveniently defensible borders, but also in part because it was founded by people whose main aim in life was to serve God, although they certainly did “stumble in many ways,” as do we all (Ja 3.2). That commitment to loving God and neighbor is what built such a strong nation, by God’s blessing. Over time, this country “grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation,” as Israel did so long ago (De 32.15). The flesh now supersedes the spirit, for many even who profess Christ. What did God tell us about this?
“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Ga 5.13), we are told. Sounds sacrificial, rather than fun. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v16) comes next. How many respected, avowed Christian leaders have been caught in fornication, drug addiction, financial corruption, or tyrannical leadership? “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v21). On the contrary, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v24), and are thus enabled not only to stay on the member rolls at church, but far more importantly, to actually be Christ’s hands and mouth in serving and teaching this miserable, hurting, and utterly lost world. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (v25).
God sent Philip the Evangelist to encounter an Ethiopian eunuch on the road, and the first thing he saw the Ethiopian doing was reading from Isaiah 53. Philip asked, “do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I, unless someone guides me?” was the eunuch’s response (Ac 8.30-31). Philip joined him in the chariot and taught him the Gospel of Christ, and the story suggests the eunuch carried the message home and so was the first to introduce Christianity to North Africa. That is the most important takeaway—the salvation of many souls—but there are other things we can learn from this interaction. This man was dutifully reading his Bible, yet he didn’t understand, and considered it out of reach. He needed a guide.
Consider that the eunuch begins by asking Philip who exactly is the subject of phrases such as, “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter” (v32). This reflects some effort already expended on his part to interpret the passage, and it’s an important question to ask about anything you read, particularly the words of God’s prophets. The eunuch is clearly trying. But he’s also clearly failing.
We may find ourselves in the same position from time to time. Often it will be when we are attempting to engage with one area or another of God’s word, especially where prophecies are concerned. Take Psalm 67—it’s short and sweet, just 15 lines of typical Hebrew poetry, and just over half of those lines are some variation on the theme, “let the peoples praise you, O God” (e.g. v3). At first glance, we’re inclined to file it under “psalms of praise” along with about 50 others, which means we’re unlikely to come back and consider it in greater detail anytime soon. Let’s look a little more closely. That term, “peoples,” which we glossed over so easily a moment ago, is more specific than we might have thought. It’s not a generic statement that people ought to praise God, but that “the peoples” ought to praise him. It means the same thing as “the nations” in verse 4, or even “all nations” in verse 2. It means the Gentiles.
The Gentiles are mentioned more than 100 times in the psalms, and in the vast majority of these cases they are pictured as enemies to God’s people, wretched sinners, targets of God’s wrath, or some combination of the three. This time, we find a prayer for the nations to “be glad and sing for joy” (Ps 67.4). This isn’t the only time such positive language is used, but it is the exception, not the rule, and in the case of this particular psalm, it’s not just a tangential point, but the core theme! From the perspective of God’s people Israel, this joy among the nations results from seeing how God blesses Israel, not the Gentiles, but that doesn’t detract from the theme. If anything, it intensifies it! God was hinting to his chosen people that not only is he the God of all the earth and not just them, but that something much bigger is on the horizon. It will start with Israel, but like ripples in a pond it will rush ever outward to “shake all nations” (Hg 2.7). This short, simple, run-of-the-mill psalm of praise, so bland and easy to lose among the 149 others surrounding it, is actually a gem, a rare and precious blessing for the entire earth, a prediction of God’s “saving power among all nations” (Ps 67.2). Just like we did at first, most Israelites clearly missed the point—even the early Christians were highly averse to preaching the Gospel to Gentiles.
Alright, what’s the big deal? It’s one chapter out of a thousand, who can blame them for losing it among all the others? Well, let’s take a quick look at the superscript: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.” When you factor in the psalm’s frequent use of the pronoun “us,” it’s clear it was intended to be sung by the congregation in worship. How many Israelites sang these words in the assembly, without really understanding them? How often do we make the same mistake?
It’s important that we pay attention to what we read, and exert the effort necessary to genuinely understand it. It’s also important to do the same when we worship. It’s good to make sure, first of all, that the words we sing are acceptable to God—with notable exceptions, they were written by fallible humans. Poetic license notwithstanding, we are prone to misinterpret and misrepresent God’s word, and he’ll hold us accountable. But further, while we generally think of our songs as merely tools of worship, they go beyond that.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3.16)
Notice that this verse focuses on the word— on teaching and admonishing each other, right alongside thanks to God in our songs. A well-written hymn is an excellent teaching tool, a 3-minute sermon set to music. If you commit it to memory, it’s a great way to “Set your minds on things that are above” (Co 3.2) throughout daily life. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, perhaps we struggle to comprehend the imagery. To wit, an original haiku:
A torrent of words
Flows past swiftly, beyond reach.
Poetry is hard.
Yet, when it involves our worship to God, it’s important! As with the Scriptures themselves, we should invest the effort to understand what we are reading, and singing both to the Lord and to each other. Sometimes, we’ll need someone to guide us. Other times, we’ll just need to contemplate for a while. At all times, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Co 3.16).
The holidays are upon us once again. Perhaps you love this time of year, or perhaps you hate it. More likely, it’s a little bit of both. Most people tend to travel and see family, and to enjoy a few days off work, gathering around a table and digging into a feast with people they love. We envision these occasions as looking something like da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, but with turkey rather than matzah. The reality is often more like Christmas dinner with the Griswolds, where you’d honestly be relieved if the meal had to be cut short due to the house catching fire. We go in hoping for familial harmony, and by the end are pondering Jesus’ words:
Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation… ( in Mark 13.18-19)
Why do we expect something better? It’s because we generally subscribe to the idea of the picture perfect family. We imagine a dad, a mom, and 2.2 kids, driving their minivan to the park, while wearing matching sweaters. In our fairy tales, the prince rescues the princess, and they live happily ever after, by which we mean they get married, have kids, put a downpayment on a new castle, and never have a care in the world afterward.
The ideal family also appears in the Bible. The instructions Paul gives at the end of his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians address, in quick succession, wives, husbands, children, and parents. If everyone were to follow the instructions he gives, it would lead to exactly the kind of peaceful and harmonious family we all desire, even including several generations of extended family. In the Old Testament, the happily-ever-after story of Ruth achieves the ideal—Naomi’s family, previously damaged by uprooting, hardship, death, and abandonment, is rebuilt through her daughter-in-law Ruth, and while there’s more involved beneath the surface, the primary focus in the text is on Ruth finding a good man, getting married, and having a child. After this, the scene fades to black and the credits roll, leaving us to assume this family, restored to perfection, goes on to live in harmony for the rest of their lives.
The ideal isn’t only seen in humans, though. In Job, God portrays his harmonious heavenly family with himself as patriarch, asking Job where he was during creation, “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Jb 38.7). Getting even closer to our ideal picture, Proverbs 8 personifies Wisdom, and she says, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work” (Pr 8.22), and
“then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Proverbs 8.30-31)
It’s all symbolic, of course, but the suggestion is that Wisdom is, as it were, the wife through whom God brought forth all his creation, and begat mankind, their children. That’s an odd way for us to look at it, but it’s not really all that different from the way God portrays the great story of his redemptive plan to John: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,” wearing “a crown of twelve stars…gave birth to a male child,” who was “caught up to God and to his throne” (Re 12.1-5). The woman is the people of God, basically the nation of Israel, and their child is the Christ. The rest of the chapter details the harmonious relationship between the parents in the face of a grave external threat, and the rest of the book makes it quite clear that their Son fulfills his duties impeccably, and even finds his own perfect wife, the church, by the end. He rescues her from the clutches of the dragon (Satan) and his minions, and they settle down in the perfect city with perfect walls and perfect streets, to live happily ever after in wedded bliss. It’s the perfect family.
But does the ideal family really exist, where humans are concerned? No sooner are we introduced to the first family in Genesis 2, than they are blaming each other for their own sins, and raising sons who grow up to be the first murderer and victim. The patriarchs are polygamists and adulterers, and they treat their brothers as enemies. Aaron, Miriam, and Moses can’t get along without God stepping in—and they’re all more than 80 years old at this point, by the way, which is a depressing thought for anyone hoping their siblings or children will get along better as they mature. Even Jesus’ earthly family didn’t quite reflect the ideal—Joseph disappears from the story after the incident when they accidentally left Jesus in Jerusalem when he was 12, and as time wore on, Jesus’ brothers aren’t exactly supportive: “For not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn 7.5).
So, what do we do? First of all, expect conflict within your family. Will yours somehow be the one that magically avoids all of the pitfalls and never experiences any strife? It’s doubtful, and if you pretend that’s the case, you’re only setting yourself up for even bigger problems later on, when it all falls down. Expect to be irritated, expect to be slighted, and realize that the family members you complain about (not that you should) are probably complaining about you, too, for reasons just as good as yours.
But you don’t have to give in to the conflict. Be the glue, not the crack, and follow the example of the ones who kept their families together and helped them, regardless of how they were treated for it. Imitate people like Joseph, Judah, Jethro, Jonathan, Jehoiada, and of course Jesus himself. Apparently, it can’t hurt to give one of your kids a name that starts with a J, but these all have something else in common that’s far more important: they all focused first on God’s will, and then behaved as devoted sons of their heavenly Father, which led to good things for their earthly families, too. The heavenly family, which we touched on a few paragraphs ago, is made up of Christ and his Bride, the church, but it is also God the Father, and we, his children, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 4.6: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” That family has far less conflict, far less frustration, and matches up far better to the ideal we all seek. As Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12.50).
I grew up in a town called “Normal.” When I tell people that, they usually come up with a joke to crack, and while most of these spur-of-the-moment offerings aren’t that funny, there is an obvious potential for comedy there, best exploited in a connection with another Illinois town, Oblong, in the 1970’s newspaper headline, “Oblong Man Marries Normal Woman.”
It took me until my late twenties to figure out where Normal got its name—from the “normal” college. That still might not be much help to you, but that’s what they used to call a school for training teachers. It’s still there, now called Illinois State University, and it’s still recognized for its education program. The idea behind the old label was that teachers would be trained in a model classroom complete with children, and that model would both mimic and cement the norms of education. The method gradually shifted away from this, but it’s easy to see that a set of norms are still encouraged and enforced, both in teacher training and in the schools where they instill those norms in their students.
Life in our society has not been normal for some time. With the pandemic, the race riots, the lockdowns, the backlash against lockdowns, the sudden and counterintuitive mandate to, for example, cover your face before going into the bank, and to top it all off, the ridiculous political climate, it’s safe to say that 2020 has been an abnormal year that doesn’t match the models. I heard many predictions that, after Tuesday’s election, everything would go back to normal. Does it look normal now, to you? Really, was normalcy ever a goal worth pursuing? To put it bluntly, our norms stink.
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3.10b-18)
Paul’s point here is that the Jews, who looked at Gentiles as depraved and evil, were just as bad, based on the things God said about them over the ages. He follows this up by saying, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.22b-23). That is normal. The behavior of individuals is normally contrary to God’s will, and leads to judgment.
But it’s not just at the individual level that “normal” doesn’t look so good. God gave Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, a vision of the future. Daniel, in describing the dream, tells him that he saw
a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (Daniel 2.31-35)
God also gives Daniel the interpretation of this vision, which is that Nebuchadnezzar’s great kingdom (the golden head) would be supplanted by a lesser one (the silver torso). That kingdom would later fall to a still lesser kingdom, and so on down the statue. God showed this to Nebuchadnezzar in order to remind him that, grand though he was, he was not God, and his kingdom would not last forever. In contrast, God’s own kingdom represented by the uncut stone, would be utterly invincible, and fill the whole earth. The rest of Daniel is full of similar dreams and predictions, often getting into more detail of the events to come, to the same effect: kingdoms rise and fall, but God remains in control. Although we’ve been blessed with living in a relatively uneventful time as far as military conquest, let’s not kid ourselves. What Daniel predicted wasn’t unheard of; it was normal. On the scale of lifetimes, nations rise and fall, still, with monotonous regularity.
Is normal what we really want? Of course not! When we pine for the good old days, we’re being silly, if not foolish. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ec 7.10). The good old days weren’t so good, but we miss them because we wish to undo things that have been done since, and go back to a time before the latest deceiving tongues and venomous lips, without regard for the bloodshed and ruin of those previous times. As rough as 2020 has been, let’s not pretend 2019 was perfect, or the year before. Even then, we wanted things to go back to normal, and we didn’t get quite what we wanted then, either.
What we need is not a return to normal, nor is it to roll over and accept the new normal. Instead, let’s take a cue from Paul, who said,
“one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3.13-14)
That’s all that really matters.
If you read these articles often, you may remember a recent one entitled “Modern Idolatry” (Vol. 1, No. 33, September 13). You may then ask, “what is the difference between idolatry and paganism?” They have a lot in common, but in the simplest terms, idolatry is the worship of a stand-in for God, whereas paganism is the worship of things that are not God. Often, those go hand in hand, but the first case focuses on the substitution, while in the second case worshipping some other object is the whole point.
We live in a society with very little reverence. All around the country, and bleeding into other parts of the world, statues have been torn down at an alarming rate recently. Most of these are historical in nature, but some have also been religious. Whether many of them should ever have been constructed in the first place, is a different matter, but the standards being applied now are laughable. For example, destroying a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he held slaves, certainly holds emotional appeal, and the same goes for George Washington. But when one delves into the laws of the times, and the actions of those men both in general and with regard to the their slaves, their destruction becomes less satisfying. It’s even less clear why statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass should be torn down, supposedly in the service of the same cause. None of us is perfect, and your worst sins definitely preclude anyone from making a statue in your honor, don’t they? But the statues were never intended as a blanket stamp of approval, to say these individuals were perfectly righteous. If that were the case, no statue could remain, except those representing the one who was perfectly righteous, Jesus.
Oh look, they’re tearing down statues of Jesus, too. One was at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami in July, another at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in El Paso in September. Even under the Law of Moses, God made it very clear that he hates idols, even ones intended to represent him, saying, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (De 12.4). That hasn’t changed, and we shouldn’t be putting statues of Jesus in a place of worship. But it’s unlikely that was the motivation behind either of these being toppled.
The past few months in this country are hardly the only time statues and monuments were destroyed in the name of righteousness. It’s common enough that we have a technical term for it, iconoclasm. ISIS destroyed ancient relics at Palmyra, Iraqis destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, the Russian Revolution destroyed both religious and royal statues, and the Romans destroyed images of the emperor Commodus after he was assassinated, and it happened many other times.
We even see it in the Bible! Moses destroyed the golden calf (Ex 32), Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal (Jdg 6), God himself destroyed the image of Dagon (1Sa 5), Jehu destroyed the temple of Baal (2Ki 10), and Josiah destroyed all the idolatrous images to be found in Judah at the time (2Ki 23). Clearly, sometimes it’s good to destroy the images and statues men have made. Other times, it’s bad—God punished the Babylonians for destroying his temple and its implements.
When people do this, they’re generally trying to tear down an opposing religion. In the cases from the Bible, this is pretty clear, but when we consider the way it’s been done today and through history, we’ll see it’s all the same. There is a legend, myth, and cult around the founding of our nation. Not everyone who likes this country has turned it into a religion, but some have. Others have turned the Confederacy into an object of worship. Still others have devoted their souls to a particular racial identity, or a political ideology, or even an individual, in much the same way that the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Roman emperors were venerated as living gods (right up until they were assassinated, that is).
Everyone worships something. It may not be overt, but everyone has at least one god. Paul makes this point in Romans 6.16:
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
God has narrowed it down to two choices for us: serve him, or serve sin. But within sin are many different options. God specifically warns against some of these. Chapter 13 of Revelation portrays a great, evil beast, who is worshipped by the people of the earth. It’s not a perfect one-to-one matchup, but the beast basically represents the Roman state. It is an idol, and while Rome is long gone as a world power, the beast is alive and well, seen in government and politics around the world today, with strong hints that most of its worshippers are in it for their own personal gain.
He also warns us, “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1Ti 6.20-21). The pursuit of knowledge is good; the worship of knowledge is not. The absurd aspect of this religion is the jump from is to ought. Those who worship science have decided that they can extract morals from their understanding of nature, which is already wrong. But worse, they don’t seem to notice or care that their fundamental understanding of nature keeps changing! The moral demands must be coming from somewhere though, and it seems to be from within the worshippers’ own selfish desires. This, too, has replaced God in the hearts of many today, to the extent that we’ve heard serious suggestions from mainstream voices, that hurricanes, wildfires, and pandemics are Mother Earth’s way of punishing us for our sins against her. Funnily enough, the prophets’ prescriptions for averting Gaia’s wrath look strikingly similar to the prophets’ own Christmas wish lists.
There are more, unfortunately, but what they all have in common are the same things the ancient pagan cults had in common: sacrifice, adherence to a code of conduct, and an elaborate ritual that obscures the idol in the center. But when you look past all of the distractions and get a good look at the idol, and especially if you remove its outer shell, you’ll find that the image hidden within it looks an awful lot like you! Paganism boils down to self-worship, self-service. Yet, “it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (Lk 4.8).