Published December 4, 2008
While some churches are growing spiritually and numerically others are struggling. Have you stopped to consider why your church may not be prospering? Senior church members sometimes wistfully recall the days when the church was flourishing, God was moving, and the baptismal waters were being stirred on a regular basis.
Things have changed. In the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century public education in the United States had a distinctly evangelical protestant flavor. In the mid-20th century several developments helped to create a greater sensitivity to the need to remove religious advocacy from public education.
I have been a witness to this transformation. When I was in school we had chapel with preachers from the community preaching sermons. We celebrated Christmas with Christmas carols and the reading of the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. I memorized scriptures like Psalm 100 and Psalm 23 in a public school classroom.
In the ‘50s such practices posed no apparent problem for the vast majority of people because they reflected society’s attitudes, but for an increasing minority prayer and Bible reading became an affront. That minority has continued to grow in number and confidence and has raised its voice to the point that they have a powerful influence. In fact, they have affected a shift in our culture and values.
D. A. Carson, in his book “The Gagging of God,” writes, “Although it is notoriously difficult to chart simple causes and effects at the societal level, few would be so bold as to deny that one of the factors that has powerfully contributed to the changes convulsing Western culture is the decline in Judeo-Christian assumptions, allied with (but emphatically differentiable from) the shift from modernity to postmodernity.”
All of this has brought about a decline in three things I would venture to mention in this editorial.
First, there has been a decline in dogmatism. USA Today recently described religion in America as “a salad bar where people heap on beliefs they like and often leave the veggies – like strict doctrines – behind.”
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently surveyed 35,000 Americans whereby they discovered that although 92 percent of our population believe in God, there is a “stunning” lack of alignment between people’s beliefs and practices and their professed faiths.
D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist, explains, “The survey shows religion in America is, indeed 3,000 miles wide and only three inches deep. There is a growing pluralistic impulse toward tolerance and that is having theological consequences.”
Dogma is defined as “a doctrine or a corpus of doctrines relating to matters such as morality and faith, set forth in an authoritative manner by a church.” Have we gotten to the place that we are afraid to embrace and proclaim strong doctrine for fear someone will be offended?
Rather than dogmatically denounce sin have we mollified it and tempered it as nothing more than a mistake in judgment? Have we skirted the biblical doctrine of judgment and theoretically air-conditioned hell so as not to provoke the ire of a culture lying in the warm, fuzzy lairs of tolerance?
Jesus preached to thousands in John 6, but when He began to dogmatically delineate the terms of
discipleship there were some of His followers who said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?”
Jesus knew his strong message caused the disciples to murmur, so He asked, “Does this offend you?”
The sixth chapter of John shows us that you can have a crowd by giving them what they want and that dogmatic doctrine will produce a winnowing. In the final analysis what would you rather have – a vacillating multitude or a dedicated minority? If this question stumps you read Judges 7.
In a day of declining dogmatism, we must sound forth the trumpet that will never sound retreat.
Second, there is a decline of exclusivism. Exclusivism, the view that one religion has the absolute and exclusive truth, has gotten a bad name in America today. Religious pluralism is the “in” thing today, because it is politically correct and advocates the validity of all religions. According to religious pluralists Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, et. al., are equally worthy, even equally true religions.
Oprah Winfrey expressed the thoughts of many in our age of spiritual pluralism, saying, “One of the biggest mistakes humans make is to believe there is only one way. Actually, there are many diverse paths leading to what you call God.”
While this view seems kind and generously open to all faiths, the belief is as foolish as saying that every sequence of notes on a page of music results in “Amazing Grace” or any grouping of mathematical numbers equals 1,000 or all roads in Georgia lead to Ludowici.
Because the gospel and the souls of men are at stake, we must always fiercely contend that Jesus was wounded and crushed for our sins and died for us by bearing our sins on the cross as our substitute. In other words, we must remain steadfast in our conviction about the exclusivity of the gospel and that there is no possible means of salvation apart from Jesus Christ.
Third, there is a decline of institutionalism. Americans are deeply suspicious of institutional religion. Some see religion as about money, rules, and power. That is not a positive connotation for anyone.
Angus Ritchie in his article, “Do We Need Institutional Religion?” comments, “It appears that spirituality is in vogue today, but institutional religion is rather less fashionable. It is quite common to contrast the dynamic spiritual message of Jesus with the stagnant institutional church.” The gospel of God’s grace seems distant from the worship wars, the business meetings, and the power struggles in most churches.
However, we must not diminish the religious institutions, because it is through the churches (institutions) that the gospel is proclaimed, believers are nurtured, Christ’s ministry on earth is accomplished, missionary endeavors are launched, and God’s purposes are fulfilled. The slings and arrows of the church’s critics may be hurled against it, but it is the one thing on earth that Jesus promised the gates of hell would not prevail against.
Because of a secular society’s influence and the decline of dogmatism, exclusivism, and institutionalism many churches are struggling, but God is not through with the church and He is still able – able to give added momentum to a growing church, able to reverse the trend of a declining church, and even able to resurrect a dead church.
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