Stop Blaming the Church

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I realize that some posts are so theologically focused that some readers may not be interested, but hey, it’s my blog, and this was heavy on my mind these last few days…

Here goes-

It happened again this week. I sat and listened as a well-intentioned teacher told us that young people were leaving the church in record numbers. The reason according to him was that there are number of important questions that the church has failed to answer. On the screen he shared a number of the unanswered questions that he believes have contributed to the exodus. His presentation was organized, passionate and compelling.

It was also wrong.

While it is true that young people are leaving the church in record numbers, it is not because difficult questions have not been answered, and it is not the church’s fault that this is happening.

Understanding this begins with an understanding of what is meant by “the church.” There are two possible definitions. One definition of “church” is the place where people gather for religious services. A second and more biblical definition of “church” is the universal community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.

Membership in the first type of church can be held by just about anyone, as individual churches can believe and teach just about anything. There are “Christian churches” that do not believe the Bible to be true, do not believe in the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, and which are little more than social clubs. True believers would be expected to leave such a “church” in search of another. Leaving these churches, from a biblical perspective, is a good thing, not something to be mourned or lamented.

Membership in the second kind of church, a community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, is different. While members of this community may gather in buildings on a regular basis, this is not how it’s members are known.  Membership in this community is granted by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, not conferred by an organization. It is an adoption into the family of God, a gift of God born of faith, not a choice by an individual.

Membership in the second kind of church is distinct from the first in another, crucially important way. Membership in the family of God is permanent and irrevocable. True believers never leave!

Consider the words of Christ-

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” John 6:37

“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 10:29

What does it mean then when young people walk away from a community of committed followers of Christ? Why do they leave?

The Apostle John gives us the answer-

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” 1 John 2:19

Consider the implications of John’s assertion. Nearly 2000 years ago John made it clear that there will be people who at one time claim faith in Christ but who will ultimately walk away from the faith. As terrible as this is John made it clear that it is something about the person, not something about the church, that causes them to leave. That something is a lack of true, saving faith.

How do we then reconcile the reality of so many young people leaving with these truths of Scripture? Why are so many more young people walking away from the church today? What has changed?

One thing that has changed is that church attendance, and faith in general, is no longer culturally popular. In previous generations church attendance was a sign of morality and goodness. As a result, it was easier for people who did not truly believe to feel comfortable going to church. Being a “churchgoing person” was a good thing, so people would stay even if they did not believe.

We are living in a post Christian world, a world in which traditional Christian teachings are increasingly considered immoral, bigoted and close minded. Being a “church-going person” is often no longer a positive thing. In such a society, why would people stay if they did not believe?

Yes, young people are leaving the church, but it is not because of anything true believers are doing. It is because these young people don’t truly believe!

Why then, do so many young people say they are leaving the church because of unanswered questions? I suspect it is because they do not want to admit that they do not truly believe. It is easier to blame others for one’s actions than it is to admit lost faith. (As a side point, in an internet world, there are no unanswered questions. Truth seekers can always find answers somewhere!)

This is important, because there are dangerous implications to the message I heard. The teacher, perhaps unwittingly, implied that the faith of the current generation was dependent on the actions of the church instead of solely on the work of the Holy Spirit. His teaching inadvertently suggested that God is not bring enough to draw people to Himself on His own.

This is not to say that there are not questions that the church can and should answer better, or that we do not have a responsibility to better equip young people to stand against the challenges presented by the world. The point is that the salvation of our children is not dependent on us. Their membership in the family of God is granted by Him, and there is nothing we can do to change it. Try as we might, we cannot save anyone. Fail as we may, we cannot keep anyone from God.

When confronted with our failings it is important to remember that the church will always be imperfect, and those who do not want to follow Christ will always point to her imperfections as their reason for leaving. Rather than apologizing for her imperfections, a better response for the church is to point to the perfection of Christ, for it is Him those who leave are rejecting.

Bart

PS: Some who read this may have heard the same lesson I did and think. “This was not his main point!” It wasn’t and I realize there were many good things said on Sunday morning. This post is not meant to pick on a particular speaker (he is intentionally unnamed), but to address a common error made by many people I have heard speak

Like it or not, it's Easter

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He was mad, seething mad. It showed on his face, disgust and anger intertwined, all directed at me. Because I had the audacity to speak the terrible truth about his condition.

A long-time smoker, several months earlier he had been diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer, an unwanted answer to the question of unexplained weight loss. Surgery and chemotherapy had done what surgery and chemotherapy do in patients like him, lengthened his days without changing the end result. He had a terminal disease.

He had returned to work, convinced that he was winning, weeks earlier. A few weeks before this conversation he took a turn for the worse, shortness of breath was now a constant companion. A chest x-ray revealed a large build up of fluid around his lungs, laboratory analysis confirmed the fluid was cancerous. All treatments had failed, he had days to live. It was my job to deliver the bad news.

“I refuse to accept it,” had been his reply, “I am not ready to die.” His defiantly set jaw supported the passion of his declaration. He was certain that he could still beat the disease.

“Whether you choose to accept it or not, whether you are ready or not, doesn’t change the fact that you are dying.”

He repeated his refusal, his voice rising.

In an attempt to break through his denial I spoke even more bluntly than before. “You are dying, and there is not anything anyone can do about it!”

He stormed out of the office and drove to the hospital where he demanded treatment. The doctor there admitted him to the intensive care unit. It was there he died less than two weeks later, proving the point that reality does not change because you refuse to believe it. The truth of things exists independent and unchanged by our acceptance of it.

His story and attitude came to mind this morning as I pondered the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus. For over two millennia, followers of the Christian faith have gathered to celebrate a remarkable, unbelievable story. On a Friday, a Jewish man named Jesus was executed by crucifixion, his battered and lifeless body placed into a cave-like tomb. The following Sunday, the “third day”, the tomb was empty, and hundreds of his followers claimed to have seen Him alive. He had risen.

His resurrection signified to them that Jesus was more than just a man, that he was God in the flesh. It affirmed his teachings and his life, which had proclaimed the way for men to have relationship with God.

The message of Easter, as with all messages, is either true or it isn’t. As is always the case with truth, the veracity of the story is not dependent on our willingness to believe it or desire to deny it. Jesus either rose from the dead, with all of the associated ramifications, or he didn’t, with those associated ramifications.

Either Christians are fools, victims of a cruel hoax or childish fantasy, or they are not. It behooves all men, those with and without faith, to explore the truth about Easter, to formulate answers and reach conclusions based on the facts of history and the available evidence. Neither blind faith nor blind rejection are appropriate responses.

Bart

Thanks for reading and sharing. If you have honest questions about the Easter Story, or any questions of faith, I can be reached through the contacts page on this website.

The Things I didn't see in Tennessee

Just one of the amazing wildflowers in the Smokies!

Just one of the amazing wildflowers in the Smokies!

A little over an hour ago we arrived back home after 8 days at our cabin in Tennessee. It was a wonderful trip, our minds filled to overflowing with memories of wildflowers, wild animals, beautiful rivers, classic cars, dogwood blossoms, scenic back roads, and pancakes. There is so much to see and do there that it will take many trips before we even begin to feel we have seen it all.

But today, it is the realization of some things I didn’t see or hear that gives me cause to reflect. I didn’t see a single Mercedes Benz or BMW, nary a Tesla or a Prius. There were pickup trucks everywhere, and the truck-less typically drove basic sedans. It was as if cars were about function, not about status.

The women didn’t carry designer bags, and if they colored their hair, it seemed it was done at home and not in a fancy salon. I didn’t see designer clothes (it was mostly jeans and t-shirts). I didn’t see a single health club, a single liquor store, or overhear a single argument. I can’t recall hearing anyone use the F-word.

I heard a lot of people say thank you, a good number say “I appreciate it”, and was on the receiving end of a lot of smiles. It was as if instead of trying not to be angry people were instead going out of their way to be nice.

An old grist mill in the Smoky Mountains

An old grist mill in the Smoky Mountains

I wonder if the reason for the cultural differences we experienced was something else we saw. We saw churches, lots of churches. Churches in Tennessee are like Chase banks in Southern California. You can’t drive a mile without seeing one. Faith is a big part of Tennessee life. Almost all of the stores and gift shops sell faith-based products, from bibles to inspirational signs to Christian hats and t-shirts. A furniture store we shopped at even hosts a gospel concert every Monday evening. (The recliner section of the store serves as the seating area!)

Tennessee does not have the material wealth of Southern California, but it seems they have some things money can’t buy. Maybe the hillbillies aren’t as backwards as we think.

Bart



In Assessing Patients, There’s No Place Like Home

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“Why would he want to live like this?”

It was his first visit to the office, yet I was taken aback at the extent of his suffering. Wheelchair bound after a stroke, unable to speak or walk, it seemed to me his was miserable existence. Even worse he had a chronic bone infection that could not be cured, a continually seeping wound that caused persistent pain. And then there were the bedsores, I wondered why he hadn’t yet given up.

In spite of this his wife assured me that he had a good quality of life. She told me that he enjoyed his kids and grandkids and took great joy in his time with them. I wondered how this could be true. At that visit (and the several that followed) he seemed subdued, almost depressed. At each visit his interaction with me was minimal, only an occasional nod or mouthed word. I never saw a smile or heard a laugh. My heart broke for him.

A year later I made a visit to his home. It was difficult for his wife to bring him to the office and I had offered to come to the home to check on a wound for which he was receiving treatment. It was the least I could do.

His wife met me at the door and escorted me down the hall to their bedroom. He was propped up in bed, leaning against several pillows. He looked up when I entered the room with a response that was shocking to me. To my great surprise, a huge smile spread across his face and he enthusiastically extended his hand in greeting. He was happy to see me! An involuntary smile came over my face as I took his and shook it. I told him it was good to see him, and it truly was.

As I shook his hand I took a moment to survey my surroundings. On the walls of his room I were many framed photographs of him in dune buggies and go karts. He was a car nut! Every vehicle pictured was one he had built himself. I had no idea of the man he had once been. It was clear that he had lived a very active life. I commented on the pictures and asked a question about his interest. My surprise increased when he replied. he gave a one word answer but the word he spoke was clear and appropriate. I cracked a joke, and his laugh was full and genuine, his smile infectious..

His wife told me the stories behind some of the photos, at times turning to him to verify she was getting each tale right.. With nods and occasional words, he agreed with most of her descriptions and made it clear when he didn’t. As she talked and he responded I realized something- he was truly happy. He was able to communicate with the woman he loved, and the family he adored. He participated in the conversation, and even made me laugh. His life was better than I could ever have imagined.

It was a humbling experience for me. My initial impressions and conclusions about his life and functional abilities had been totally wrong. The judgments I had made in the office, arrogantly made over the course of brief interactions, were completely inaccurate. I realized that if I had not visited his home I would never have known him or understood him.

I left his home a different doctor than was when I entered it. I entered certain of my ability to make assessments regarding the quality of a patient’s life. I left realizing my foolishness, newly aware of the importance of seeing a patient’s quality of life first hand before reaching conclusions. It was a visit I will never forget.

There really is no place like home.

  • Bart