Earlier this week I was asked to lead a Breakout Session at one of our state's denominational regional evangelism conference. I was asked to speak on how churches can stay engaged to reach those in their communities.
I struggled with a title for the session and was glad I was given the opportunity to explain what it was about prior to beginning. We know in the western church, especially in the United States, there is a definite trend away from being connected to a local church and attending regularly. Carey Nieuwhof recently posted on his blog an article titled "10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders are Attending Church Less Often." He touched on an issue just about every pastor I know is having to address. Those who aren't addressing it may just be living with blinders on, or could possibly be the anomaly in the church-world.
The title I ended up using for this session was "Reaching the People Near You Who Actually Exist." Honestly, I don't like the title but I couldn't fit "Be Sure You Know Your Community and Stay Up-To-Date On Changes and Open Your Eyes Every Now and Then Or You May Be Closing the Doors of Your Church In the Near Future."
This session was primarily about neighborhood mapping. Though I didn't have enough time to cover all of the info, here's the gist. Church leaders should take this to heart.
An oft-quoted question has been asked over the past few years by pastors and church leaders seeking to live missionally and direct their churches to do so as well - "If your church ceased to exist today, would your community notice?" - Pastor Rick McKinnley, Imago Dei, Portland, OR.
Relevance in ministry is sometimes scoffed upon. It’s a word that causes people to bristle and push back. Some pastors and leaders will say things like “The Gospel is always relevant” as if that justifies a poorly organized and weak strategy within the local church to fulfill the Great Commission. No one is saying that the Gospel is not relevant (at least not here) but we must come to grips with the reality that sometimes we seek to reach people who simply do not exist. If your church is not making a dent in the culture nor reaching those in the area of your footprint, the sad reality is that you, as well as those reaching many, are perfectly organized and positioned to reach those you are reaching. In other words, while the Gospel is always relevant, your strategies may not be.
In Dr. John Fuder's book Neighborhood Mapping he states "In a world that is constantly moving and changing, it is imperative that the church not only know how to interpret the Bible but also how to engage with and and adapt to those for whom the gospel message is addressed."
He speaks of the necessity to continually exegete the community where one serves. Otherwise, we become stagnant and continue to produce events, programs and mission engagement for the people who used to live there, rather than those who now do.
As has been stated in various venues, the world is coming here, to the United States. In a sense it always have, but the numbers are quite staggering in today's culture. Our neighborhoods are in a continual state of change. In many cases, the local church is overwhelmed and unable, if not unwilling to respond.
This is why mapping one's community on a regular basis is vital.
Here are some basics on mapping one's community (more details may be found in the book Tradecraft: For the Church On Mission.)
In the 1960s urban planner Kevin A. Lynch conducted an extensive study and developed the five elements of a city or community, which are still vital for mapping today. These elements are:
I'll break these down briefly here.
Paths are important because they limit an individual’s experience of the city and shape his perspective of it. If you want to relate to someone, follow his paths. People tend to only know the areas along their paths. This shapes his understanding of the community. Church leaders may travel the route from home to church often and therefore, miss the community between. Over time, the community may shift unknowingly to the established church. This is why church plants often attract people where established churches are, simply because they hit what others miss or cannot see.
The paths one travels leads people to believe a city or community is a certain way or demographic, but that may be skewed to reflect only the areas around the paths.
Alternate routes can reveal a new-ness to a community previously unseen.
These can be streets, sidewalks, trails, subways, bus routes, etc.
Nodes develop where paths cross.
These are strategic spots in a community where people may enter and allows for interaction. It is a place of intermingling, but it is not intimate and people are often guarded (holding onto their purses or belongings tightly, looking straight ahead, not communicating with others, etc.)
Nodes are important for gaining cultural insight because they provide the opportunity to observe how people interact or avoid interacting (mall watching.)
Businesses use these places – billboards are placed here, signs, people spinning signs, news stands, etc. These tend to be busy places. This is where flyers can be distributed, but normally no good one-to-one communication will occur. Prior to social networking, these were the promotional spots. These areas are not good for long conversations, but good for information distribution.
Most community dwellers develop a sense of identity around the district in which they live, play or work. Each district has a reputation in the larger community. Jacksonville is a city of districts. The surrounding bedroom communities are as well. Districts are perceived differently based on your audience.
You may live in Jacksonville, but that's not descriptive enough. Where in Jacksonville? Are you in the Southside, Westside, Riverside, Beaches, Northside? If you're in a suburb, where exactly? St Johns, Fleming Island, Middleburg, Yulee, etc.?
Then within each area are sub-districts that have their own identities. This is the first place I have ever lived where people are actually very proud and identify themselves not only by city, town, or community but by sub-division. It seems strange to celebrate a builder's planned community, but you'll see license plates and bumper stickers identifying such.
These may be the most disregarded elements by churches. Edges create barriers that are not impossible to cross, but improbable. These may be any of the following. . .
Until I acknowledged this, I could not understand why people near where I live had no understanding of where my church is located and mostly, would not visit. Then, I looked at these elements and realized that there are at least three divided highways, a railroad track, a body of water and a bridge between my house and my church. Edges. Not impossible to cross, but for those with no reason to do so, improbable.
When in your town, what do you use to tell people how to get from point A to point B? What about on how to get to your church? In many cases, our verbal directions do not include all the street names and compass directions, but do include landmarks. You know, "Turn by the donut shop." and the like.
Landmarks may be anything that the community knows.
In Orange Park, where I live, it was the Dunkin’ Donuts. I’d tell people to "Turn at the Dunkin’ Donuts, drive a mile or so, go over the railroad tracks, past the park on the right and turn left by the Animal Hospital."
We all use landmarks.
Use yours to your advantage.
Spiritual mapping is vital and most important. Prior to you planting or serving in your community, God has been at work.
Follow His map and work where he has already done the heavy lifting.
With all the buzz about Bruce Jenner apparently making a public transformation from male to female, bloggers, celebrities, religious leaders and celebrity watchers are all sharing their opinions. Since the popular trend is to celebrate Bruce's decision, to declare it as anything but "beautiful" will get you categorized as a hater and an LGBT basher.
However, in the very public battle over Bruce's journey, there are most likely family members and close friends who have no doubt given statements of support and love, but may be hurting deeply on the inside because of Bruce's situation. Of course, that's only an opinion because I don't know Bruce or his family members, but based on stories of families and friends I do know that are similar, but much less public, hurt tends to be a very common emotional response.
A good friend of mine sent me the following story last week. I asked his permission to share it and with changed names, for obvious reasons, he said that I could. So, take a moment, read this story and see if you can understand, at any level, the hurt that is felt by those closest to the stories.
I woke up like any normal Saturday morning in my home and my kids and I went for a jog. The air was crisp and cool, typical for February in Florida, and the sunrise was glorious. We praised the Lord for beauty, for health, for life, and we prayed for those who do not know His limitless love. We returned home and did a devotional together and this was the message:
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble. My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. - Proverbs 4:18-23
We talked about the importance of guarding one’s heart, no matter the cost, and ended with Paul’s words to young Timothy,
Do not participate in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure. - 1 Timothy 5:22
It was a good morning.
My wife then asked me if I could go to our dog’s veterinarian and pick up some flea medicine. I entered the vet clinic and was immediately greeted by a former neighbor I had not seen in years. He was chatting with the two vet techs and another patient holding her cat while standing next to his very large pit bull mix. As I am very used to these “divine appointments” I immediately shook his hand and asked about his wife and two daughters, proud that I remembered he had a wife and two daughters. He excitedly began to tell me how the oldest was going to PA school, finishing up at a local university and then planning to enroll in medical school. He then said he had just shown the other patient something on his phone and wanted to show me. He stated something about the young lady and then something about a “Josh” so I assumed it was going to be a picture of his oldest daughter and her boyfriend/fiancé. He held up his phone and my eyes first went to a young lady I recognized who had grown up into a beautiful young woman. I remembered her as quiet, but bright and confident, and the picture showed that. Then my stomach dropped.
Next to the young woman in the picture was another face that looked vaguely familiar. My neighbor said, “Remember Amber? Now she is Josh. She is transgender.”
The room suddenly became completely quiet—even the animals. There I stood with my bright titanium cross hanging boldly on my chest and three women looking at me waiting for my reaction. I will not lie. I was stunned. I remembered the little girl riding her bike on our cul-de-sac playing with my little ones and eating snacks from my refrigerator. I suddenly saw my own young, beautiful daughter, all girl, but not afraid to get dirty. I remembered how my son and I always discuss how in every one of our favorite “guy movies” there is a beauty to fight for and how that makes all the pain of the journey and battle worth it. I looked at this man’s face and then I felt it. It was not disgust, not anger, not judgment. It was hurt. His eyes told the truth. He was trying so hard to be the proud father. What parent doesn’t pull out the pictures when someone asks about the children? However, underneath the mask I could see the truth. He hurt. So I hurt.
“In the beginning…male and female He created them. And God blessed them.”
Enter the Father of Lies and the question that has haunted humanity ever since, “Did God really say…?” I could see the “deep darkness” in my neighbor’s eyes—and in the eyes of the young woman who now called herself a man. A woman whose identity had been stolen by a master criminal who knows exactly how to manipulate and lie to achieve his purpose. You see, our enemy wants to strike at the core of who we are.
Every young man wants to know, “Do I have what it takes?” Our enemy shouts, “NO! You throw like a girl you wimp!”
Every young woman wants to know, “Am I beautiful?” Our enemy shouts, NO! You are ugly and worthless.” The enemy has taken something so foundational, so basic—the doctor proudly states, “It’s a boy or it’s a girl”—and manipulated it into something twisted and we now believe the lie. “Did God really say…?”
As a follower of Jesus Christ I would like to say it became one of those “woman at the well” moments and I handled this moment as my Lord would. It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. But I am thankful because My Father opened His eyes and let me see what He sees when He looks upon our world. I genuinely hurt for this man and his family. I do not know his story or the story of his daughter, having moved away long ago, but I do know that our Lord and Savior is still sovereign and still in the business of redeeming a lost people. He is writing the Greatest Story Ever Told and He is calling my neighbor and his family to Himself. The cross is open for this young woman. Jesus died on it for her.
I shook his hand one more time and he opened up, “It was hard and shocking when I first found out, but now I guess I just take it one day at a time.” I told him goodbye and I got in my car and my son and I did the only thing we could do for this family under attack. We lifted them up in prayer to the only One who can save. “Jesus, thank you for being the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Your grace and mercy are awesome. Today is the day of salvation and we pray for our lost friends, family, neighbors, and enemies. We pray for this father, his wife, and his daughters. We pray you do whatever it takes to redeem them. It hurts, Jesus. Thank you for opening my eyes and letting me see what you see. You bought us with such a high price so that all may be saved. I confess I do not always handle these kinds of situations with Your grace and mercy, but this time you softened my heart and I remember that I hurt you the same with my sin. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Help me to love this lost world. I love you, Dad.”
After finishing my post about the soon to be released Fifty Shades of Grey film, another film trailer hit the internet and has been making quite a splash. Now, my intent is not to have this blog become a movie review site, but as an observer of culture and one who attempts to keep up with the latest trends, it is quite disturbing how pornography and erotica are seen as acceptable and commonplace. While some would say that this is a sign of sexual freedom, in my opinion, it's a sign of cultural degradation.
I enjoy good movies and as a pastor have used clips and illustrations from popular films (legally) at times to help make points in my messages and talks. Believing that the message of the Gospel is written on the hearts of all humanity leads me to see the value of storying and the parallels in stories or movies that speak of battle and rescue and beauty and honor. Now, in most cases, the films I speak of are not written by believers in Christ. In many instances, these are just visible, moving images that tell a story that attempts to connect with an audience, ultimately for high ratings and profit.
I believe God is the Master Storyteller, the author of the Gospel and the hero in the story. That is why I believe that our Enemy seeks to pervert and destroy all that is good and holy and turn that which was meant for good into evil in an attempt to thwart the movement of God's Spirit in the lives of people.
Some of you are saying in your head right now, "Seriously? You're talking about movies. They're just movies." I know, I know, but foundational to all of life is a story that is deeper and more important than that which is projected onto a screen, streamed on Netflix or burned onto a DVD.
Nevertheless, there is a trend that seems to be growing. It's not really new. There have been stories of violence, sexual perversion and erotica around for ages, even prior to the advent of the film industry. Yet, as each year goes by, it seems our culture is moving a little deeper within Sodom (referencing the story of Lot in Genesis - living outside Sodom, near Sodom and eventually inside the city.)
Whether comedy, drama, action or romance, overt sexuality (hetero-, homo-, bi-, trans-, etc.) has become little more than enticement for audiences who seek to justify what they view under the guise of freedom, art or just entertainment.
Last year, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 was released and subsequently was being written about, reviewed, and had YouTube trailers shared by many. The film starred some notable actors and actresses (Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Uma Thurman, and Connie Nielson, to name a few) and received reviews speaking of it's artistic integrity and depth.
"The film is an intellectual high-wire act, death-defying, dangerous, entertaining, and delighting in its own inventiveness and daring." - Roger Ebert
However artistic it may appear. . .regardless how well edited and developed the film may be. . .it is little more than blatant pornography with a story attached.
No, I have not seen the film. I don't intend to do so. I have seen the trailer. . .and had to stop it due to the imagery presented.
So, Fifty Shades of Grey is not surprising. Neither are other sexually-laced and expressive new films on the way. Boundaries have been moved and Sodom has become home for many in our culture it seems.
With the sexually inclusive society now set in place, Hollywood is now overtly marketing to sub-groups and sections of the populous that will guarantee a strong opening weekend for their films. This is not new. Pixar films have been targeted toward children and parents for years. American Sniper and other war movies have been pointedly marketed toward men. Romantic comedies have a female demographic in mind. Different people enjoy different stories.
The eye-opening trailer for the male stripper film sequel Magic Mike XXL is clearly focused on two groups in our culture - gay men and "soccer moms."
When the first Magic Mike was released, the theaters were filled. Many women (wives and mothers) had movie nights with their girlfriends and packed theaters to enjoy the Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaghey and Matt Bomer film. The target marketing worked as the film finished second on opening weekend.
The other target group was gay men. I heard one gay man in our community speak about watching the film with his friends (other gay men) and how much they enjoyed it. This was no anomaly.
“It’s a fun night out with a bunch of gay friends to go see a movie about hot boys,” said Aaron Rhyne, 32, a theatrical projection designer who saw the film with about 10 friends. “We’ve been throwing the trailer around, laughing about it.” (New York Times - "Magic Mike" Is a Big Draw for Gay Men.)
It's been the mantra of Madison Avenue for decades - "sex sells." The sexual revolution and free love movement of the 1960s was little more than "moving near the gates of the city." Now, we are fully inside.
The trailer for Magic Mike XXL has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online (well over 1 million if all versions are combined.) The reviews that laud the trailer as wonderful speak openly about the sexuality and openly stated double-entendres throughout. (I presume this allows an R or PG-13 rated trailer, to be viewable in all theaters.)
Even though these are sexually explicit (i.e. pornographic) films and are more common than we'd like to admit, we must realize that these stories are little more than perversions of holiness, morphed to confuse, trap and eventually aid the enemy to "steal, kill and destroy."
What's a Christian to do?
The same we've been commissioned to do for centuries - live as salt and light, make disciples, love the unloveable and honor God.
Sexuality is holy. It is God designed and beautiful, when experienced within His guidelines. Those guidelines are clear in Scripture - heterosexual and within the covenant of biblical marriage only.
Casual sex is only another term for casual sin.
Redeem the day. Don't be taken in.
Boycott theaters? That's NOT my recommendation. Most people view Christians, and especially Baptists, as people who are "against" everything anyway. Redemption shows what we are "for."
Be for the Gospel.
Be for God's plan for marriage.
Be for God's plan for sexuality and relationships.
Be for God's plan for holiness.
Be for God.
He's for you.
The top selling book in 2012 was Fifty Shades of Grey. No doubt you have heard of this multi-million seller, but in case you haven't, here's Amazon's description:
When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.
Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.
This book is intended for mature audiences.
"Intended for mature audiences" is a subtle way to say "This is a really dirty book with a bunch of sex in it." Funny, I know some really mature people who would say this book is nothing more than mental porn.
Why do I bother writing a post about a book that I've never read? Some would say that must read it in order to give an honest account of the material. I guess that would be true if I were writing a review based on the character development, writing style or flow of the story. I am not. In those cases, the book may very well be good. I'm more concerned with what the runaway success of this and other books in the "erotica fiction" category say about our community and culture.
What truly baffles me is how women (the primary target audience of the book) who post their daily devotional thoughts, attend their weekly Beth Moore studies and serve in the body of Christians have simply added this book and others like it to their regular reading regimens.
While it is no secret that pornography has a foothold in the lives of many men, evidenced by the vast number of websites dedicated to the subject, the best-selling status of erotica fiction reveals that women are not immune to this attack.
Tim Challies shared recently on his blog about the realities that Fifty Shades unveils about our culture. He lists them as. . .
Why is Fifty Shades of Grey back in the news? Because on Valentine's Day the film will be released. This film will likely make millions and some are predicting it will push American Sniper out of the number one spot, which is likely since Sniper has been showing for weeks.
However, the pushback against this film is not just latest effort from Christians who like to boycott everything and preach about how much they hate everything. In this case, there is a heightened effort by groups such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE) developing campaigns against this and other like films. They state this. . .
"Hollywood is advertising the Fifty Shades story as an erotic love affair, but it is really about sexual abuse and violence against women," said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Hawkins noted that the public sees too much sexual abuse and violence against women in real life and urged Hollywood to take this into consideration when setting the entertainment agenda.
"The porn industry has poised men and women to receive the message that sexual violence is enjoyable. Fifty Shades models this porn message and Hollywood cashes the check," said Hawkins.
I know, I know, it's just a movie (or book) but the wise person will see it for its fullness.
As Michael Medved said years ago, and I paraphrase, "There are no accidental messages portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters. There's too much money involved for unintentional messages to be prominent." That means that under the guise of entertainment and artistic creativity, the bottom line is the bottom line. This is about money and Hollywood knows "erotica sells."
And, here's a reality as well. The fact that I'm even blogging about this often creates more interest than otherwise would be shown. You know the old adage - "There's no such thing as bad publicity." This happens all the time in the film industry. Just look at how trending the film The Interview was based on the North Korean threats, and from all accounts, it wasn't even a very good movie. . . but almost everyone was talking about it.
The Real Story
I'm not declaring the need for an organized boycott. I don't think there's value in Christians picketing movie theaters. I do think there is value and need for Christ-followers to be aware of how the Enemy attacks. We live in a culture that celebrates sex, as long as it's outside the bounds of biblical marriage. Even Christians struggle with overt justification of sin and fall into the lies of "It's just a movie, or book." It's much more. It's a window into a culture that has heard the lies for so long, they sound like truth.
So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Ephesians 4:14 (ESV)
On this day of remembering the life of civil rights leader and pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the nation pauses to reflect on those who suffered for years in a culture of racial inequality, remembering a march on Washington DC that changed the course of our nation and declare that Dr. King's dream is coming to fruition.
Well, at least that's the idea.
While we have come so very far, as we reflect on the news stories of the past year and see tensions grow stronger in many areas of our nation between the races, the inevitable question arises, "Have we really made much progress?"
Life is always filtered through current events and personal circumstance. In the larger picture, much progress has been done. No longer are there "Whites Only" and "Colored" water fountains in public places. There are no legally designated "black schools" and "white schools." No one can legally be denied service due to the color of their skin in our nation. That which would be categorized as unthinkable if not impossible about five decades ago has occured in our culture - a black man has been elected President.
Yes, progress has been made in some areas.
We still have so much further to go.
Sunday Is the Most Segregated Hour
Years ago, Dr. King stated that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. He was referring to the reality that church gatherings, for the most part, were far from racially diverse. While marches and protests were happening calling to allow people of differing races to go to school together, sit on busses together or even have a sandwich together in a restaurant, many were satisfied with keeping their houses of worship segregated. This is a generalization and this feeling was not held by all, at least intentionally.
Recently, LifeWay Research released data collected regarding diversity in churches. The results have been shared in numerous venues and news outlets with varying degrees of response and interpretation.
Here are some highlights of the research:
"Surprisingly, most churchgoers are content with the ethnic status quo in their churches," Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, said. "In a world where our culture is increasingly diverse, and many pastors are talking about diversity, it appears most people are happy where they are -- and with whom they are." (Read the full article at Baptist Press here.)
Are you a Black Church or a White Church?
Author, blogger and church consultant Scott Williams (Big is the New Small) shares of when he was attending college and visiting local churches. He was getting his shoes shined and preparing to go to a predominantly black church one week when he struck up a conversation with the man shining his shoes. The man began to tell him about his church to which Scott asked, "Is your church a black church or a white church?" The man's response was classic. He said, "Young man - that's the stupidest question you could ever ask. It's not a black church. It's not a white church. It's God's church."
That is the right perspective.
But, We Worship Differently
As LifeWay's data has been shared, I have read some of the reader comments provided. In most cases, there is a common theme of "Yes, we need to be God's church and let racial barriers melt." However, there are many comments that are obviously well intentioned that seem so short-sighted and wrong. In these cases the argument goes something like this. . ."Each culture and race worships differently and therefore, segregated Sunday mornings are a good thing."
I don't discount that different groups have unique worship styles and practices. Our missionaries are educated in this as they serve in international locations in order to keep from leading those in other cultures to "do church the American way."
While there are numerous churches in my community with varying styles of worship, music and instrumentation, teaching styles, and meeting times, to say that we are satisfied being identified as a "white church" or "black church" or some other shade of melanin is to say that division is godly.
I have a dream, too. Mine is that the color designators of church will one day fade into history and that we will become wise as a shoe shine man and with our diversity, uniqueness and varying backgrounds settle only for being part of God's church.
I shared some info this morning at church that struck a nerve with some of the people in attendance. This wasn't a controversial topic or something from Scripture that necessarily elicits debate. It was a reference to a segment of people in our culture who used to be faithful, active and engaged in their churches, but now are done.
That's right, they're DONE.
As a parallel to the popular NONE grouping that researchers have identified among the American population (those who designate "NONE" as their religion of choice) the DONES truly exist and most of us who serve in church or have been a part of a local church for any length of time can attest, we know them.
Here's the information I presented from Thom Schultz's blog "Holy Soup":
At Group’s recent Future of the Church conference, sociologist Josh Packard shared some of his groundbreaking research on the Dones. He explained these de-churched were among the most dedicated and active people in their congregations. To an increasing degree, the church is losing its best.
For the church, this phenomenon sets up a growing danger. The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support, are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews.
Why are the Dones done? Packard describes several factors in his upcoming book, Church Refugees (Group). Among the reasons: After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all. One of Packard’s interviewees said, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”
The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.
Will the Dones return? Not likely, according to the research. They’re done. Packard says it would be more fruitful if churches would focus on not losing these people in the first place. Preventing an exodus is far easier than attempting to convince refugees to return.
Of course, as I mentioned this morning, there is a danger in shirking the Gospel for the sake of keeping attendees in church. Sometimes, those within the fellowship who are disheartened and frustrated are so due to personal sin, perhaps, or lack of understanding God's vision for the church. Of course, there is also the real possibility that the church leadership is missing the message of the Gospel as well and moving forward with no thought to the church membership at all.
Nevertheless, in the church where the Gospel is preached, Gos is worshipped in spirit and truth and the pastor and leaders are seeking the face of God and leading humbly, there are still some within the body who have served, declare their love for God and yet, find themselves done with it all.
And this truly is a problem.
While it’s easy for an expert to proclaim what to do at a conference (no disrespect intended - I appreciate the data,) the reality is that without a movement of God among His church, a willingness for his church to listen to Him, and ultimately do as He is guiding and live for Him, we will not “gain the land” so to speak and when a generation forfeits this simple plan, the “nones” are born and a generation is lost.
I, for one, am not willing to forfeit the calling.
There have been numerous books, and even movie adaptations, focusing on heaven experiences over the past few years. It seems that the infatuation with angels that many in our culture had in the 1980s and 1990s has been replaced with stories of "touring heaven." These stories of people dying, going to heaven, encountering dead loved ones, strange animals, Oz-like venues and even hanging out with Jesus personally have become best-sellers.
I would say that most of the lure of these stories has little to do with God and Jesus and much more to do with the seeking of hope and answers regarding the eternity and whereabouts of loved ones who have died. As I have had the honor and privilege of preaching at numerous funeral services, the grieving families and friends are often grasping to know if they'll ever see their loved ones again.
I believe that is the pull of such stories as Todd & Colton Burpo's book Heaven is For Real.
For some time, even though many Christian bookstores and sales outlets have carried the "Heaven Tourism" genre of books, many believers have warned of the dangers of such books, declaring them unbiblical.
Heaven tourism is in the news again this week due to the revealing letter written by Kevin Malarkey, author of one of the first popular books in this genre titled The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (since pulled by the publisher and removed from most bookstores.) Here's the content of his letter to LifeWay and other booksellers:
An Open Letter to Lifeway and Other Sellers, Buyers, and Marketers of Heaven Tourism, by the Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven.
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.
I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.
It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.
Alex is a quadriplegic as a result of the accident that prompted his heaven story and the subsequent book. The letter is brief, but to the point and is affirmed by his mother, who began sharing of Alex's recounting of his story as far back as 2012.
Some would say that Alex's statements do not disavow the entire genre of stories and ultimately, that would be true. However, it should be noted that the sufficiency of Scripture is paramount here. No extra-biblical accounts are truly needed if we believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of God's Word.
While more stories and personal accounts will undoubtedly rise up, more movies will be made (there's a "90 Minutes in Heaven" one in the works, apparently) and more books published, I would encourage people to skip these stories of false comfort and go to the source itself.
In my previous post regarding this subject, I shared Dr. David Platt's (President of the International Mission Board, SBC) addresses this. His clarity is refreshing. I re-share that video here for you to view:
Our church has been advocating church planting and partnering with church planters throughout nation and Canada. Some of our planting partners are in urban cores, others in college towns and still others in the suburbs.
Each church is unique and each planter/pastor is seeking God's lead in how the church will honor Him and reach the people in their respective communities.
Some of these churches are planting in community centers. Others borrow space from local businesses or even other churches. Still others are renting out public school facilities on the weekends.
There is a new church beginning soon in our county. I have met with the planter and his wife and even participated in his assessment through our network. We seek to help them in any way we can to engage the community where they are planting.
This new church will begin with a "kick off" service on February 8. They have secured a cafeteria/auditorium in the local elementary school and have already sought to truly bless and encourage the teachers and administrators in the school.
Recently, they posted on Facebook about their kick off service and had their first taste of push back from the community (or at least one person in the community.)
The argument is not new. It's been used before.
How is it OK to have a church that operates out of a state and federally funded elementary school? Is this not in conflict with the separation of church and state? And then to have the audacity to advertise to the local community of taxpayers...
Whenever a church, especially in our nation and in our community, rents a public school facility for meeting, there are those who seek to stop them from doing so on the grounds of "separation of church and state." Instances in Brooklyn over the past months have pushed this to the forefront once again, but as has been stated, even by the organizations that pride themselves on being anti-church (under the guise of civil liberties) have admitted these churches are not breaking any laws by meeting in schools.
Here's a brief statement regarding these issues from the Freedom From Religion organization's website:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation often receives queries from shocked members of the public who receive flyers at their home inviting them to attend “church” at their local public school. Or citizens notice prominent signs at public school entrances on Sundays advertising church meetings. “Public schools can’t host church meetings, can they?” we are asked.
Unfortunately, two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court provide for the use of public school buildings by churches, religious and political groups on a viewpoint-neutral basis, if the public school districts are already renting their facilities after hours to other community groups. The subsidy involved in use of public schools by religious organizations, however, continues to create concern, confusion, and litigation. The law on the limits of church use is not completely settled. While schools are not permitted to discriminate against religious groups because they are religious, schools can create regulations that impact church use of school buildings (see Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Educ. of City of New York). One appellate court, the 2nd Circuit, ruled in 2011 that a school board’s prohibition of hosting a particular type of activity, religious worship services, was constitutional.
Since public school districts often have the least expensive rental rates available in a community, rental to churches often involves what many of us consider taxpayer subsidy of congregations. Start-up churches often take advantage of low school rental to establish themselves. They obtain a prominent site for a new church, collect church donations on public property, and use their savings to eventually buy their own tax-free buildings. No wonder many taxpayers are concerned! (Full text here.)
I disagree wholeheartedly with this organization's motives and purpose. Yet, even in their concerted effort to shut down churches meeting in such venues, most often through threats of litigation and even verbal bullying, the facts of the matter, even as stated on their own site, is that churches have the legal rights to meet in public school buildings.
When I saw the response on my friend's announcement post, I messaged him. He admitted feeling some shock and wondered what should be done. Should he seek legal counsel? Should he respond? What's the best?
I counseled him as best I could and reassured him that these battles are not new and the fact they're showing up for him now can be viewed as affirmation that the church God's planting through him is needed at this time and in this area. The Enemy doesn't like this new plant already and the battle lines are being drawn. I encouraged him to press on, seek God's face continually and be strategic in his blessing strategy and serving plans for the school and community.
Christ will be proclaimed in this church. God will be honored (He already has been) and the real battle will be won, resulting in life change for many.
This pastor said to me "It's really made this whole process leading up to Launch a more 'real' thing - that it's not just the attractional side, but the spiritual side as well. We haven't forgotten that, but we have been focusing on decor, and music, and kids and other necessary things and a simple attack is helpful in remembering that our goal is to show God's grace to all people, not provide a comfy thing to do on Sundays."
It's getting real now.
(And it's going to be worth it.)