Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Myth of High - Easter - Attendance at Church ... Why Easter Is Not Special to Those Not in Church

It seems like every year I get numerous emails and fliers encouraging our church to go all out inviting people to attend worship on Easter Sunday.  This is said to be the most sure thing there is among those who are not feeling really connected to a church.  They are said to be guaranteed to feel the need to show up on Easter at least.

For context, I live in an area made up of small suburbs of Dallas, Texas.  If you add up all of the suburbs and also the small towns, and edges of larger nearby cities in reach, such as a slice of Plano, Texas, there are 194,000 or so teens and adults according to several reliable sources near us (edge of Northeast DFW).

In 2011, 2012, 2013, and now 2014, we have "gone big" for Easter.  Several of these years we have sought out the best set of advisers and coaching available to figure out how to see people reconnect at that one particular day that everyone in the coaching world says is so "great" for reconnecting.  Other years we have still done a strong push as well, largely correctly according to most advice out there on such things.  Some of the key components include:

Leading Up to and on Easter Weekend and Sunday:

We have prayed to the Lord most importantly that many would come and be blessed in worship and lives would be changed by Jesus.

We have used resources God entrusted to us to reach out and invite many thousands to worship several different ways.

We have saved on purpose to make that happen, including it in part of our budgeting and planning.

We have mobilized our congregation to invite their friends and family and given tools to do so.

We have special banners made to let people know going by that they are invited to a great Easter service.

We have also before or on Easter had the Easter Egg Hunt events to reach kiddos.

We have tied a sermon message series to the day.

We have done everything short of the proverbial helicopter drop of Easter eggs that always seems to make the local news and Metroplex (DFW) news.

Yet and here is the amazing thing year in, year out, one method bathed in prayer, another method bathed in prayer, we have never had a rock the house Easter.

Our really good days to reach those not regularly connected to a church home are at completely other times of the calendar year.

Our Easter worship service is made up mainly of regular attenders and then 2nd/3rd time guests.  Some regulars attenders are out at relatives (grandma's, mom's, dad's church in another city), and then important to this article:  the new 1st time guests do NOT show up.  As mentioned, we have had plenty of 2nd, 3rd time guests on Easter, but never the coaching / best written advice out there that some set of proverbial 1st time guests who are just waiting for an "invite" to come to church on Easter will show up.  Where are they?  I would love to meet certain ones of them. They do not exist even for an intentional church like ours in our situation.  I have some ideas why below, but we'll get to those in a minute.

I have run this phenomenon by pastoral peers in nearby cities.  This unofficial poll includes First Baptist or Methodist Churches and more. These peers include leaders at both established churches and church plants. They too (both established church and church plant) do not see many new guests on Easter, and their attendance remains in fairly normal size.  They too have done some crucial things to be prepared to be available for whomever may come, but do not really see much impact from so much effort for Easter Sunday.  This has really stood out to me now for about two years as a red flag against the standard mantra that Easter Sunday is such a great day to get new friends to come worship Jesus with you.

So who is peddling this coaching of churches, pastors, lay leaders, that Easter is a big day for reconnecting to worship and God's people, and for others to come to know Christ Jesus?  The list is long, take my word for it.  It's enough advisers to make you dizzy, really.  But today it is pretty much any church leader advice that encourages this mentality.  Why are they peddling this?  Perhaps because there's nothing else to grasp at, to promote in their coaching at that window of time, or perhaps it is group think, everyone is saying it?

Most importantly, what are some probable reasons those who are away from church, or who have turned their back on church, but do not come on Easter, would not come on Easter in DFW?:

1.) Hardness of heart.  The Bible records God's prophets teaching consistently that the human heart just does whatever it wants.  If you add in life/marriage/work difficulty along with that, it means that they won't come for a spiritual reason on Easter.  An invite to church is not the gospel.  We still do invites to church, but an invite to church simply is NOT the gospel.  Nor is including several verses on a postcard or TV ad or flier enough.  The Bible says that all of us, everyone in the church, everyone not in the church, all people, are fallen in sin and are dead (not just injured) in our trespasses and sins.  Why would someone who is walking far from God decide to come to your church on Easter just because you invited them?  Answer:  they won't. Why?  It takes God sending them.  God sends people who do good (Jesus in John's Gospel says, James also, etc) (Satan also sends people to churches who are secretly wolves, see the New Testament for more on that, such as Jesus' teaching on the weeds among the good crop).  Maybe the Lord God doesn't like what Easter has become in American churches.  Or maybe He wants all of us churches and pastors to see that the Word of God brings change, and someone at home, without the Word intake in their life (the Bible), will not be moved to move out of their chair or lawn on Easter more than any other day.  A true Christian cannot believe that everyone is just "neutral" and "unbiased" and will come just because you invite them.

2.) Church events like Vacation Bible School, and in this case Easter Egg Hunts, even if they include a gospel sharing component, seem to only attract churched people.  That is they attract those already going to church often, regularly type of people.  I cannot tell you how many times I've seen this proved, or heard it from others in large cities (an exception to the rule seems to be very small Texas towns several hours out of a large Texas metropolis).  I also do not think the old "memory" of church in one's past works with the current generations that would actually visit a new church.  Many of them had no church background, and if they did it was at a place where the good news was not fully declared (my past for instance, includes many friends and I who only heard about the resurrection of Jesus, never the cross; which in hindsight looking back at my childhood meant that church way back then didn't share the whole gospel).  For those of us who had partial gospel type mainline churches when we were young kids, we didn't even enjoy their Egg Hunts and VBS's and ski trips.  They were not gospel driven, so that generation wouldn't see the point.

3.) Megachurches.  Just like the story Billy Graham told of going incognito to a several day revival to sit in the crowd the night before he too would share the gospel the next day:  He had a heavy hat and big glasses on to hide his identity.  The call to respond to the Word of God preached went out the day before he was to speak by another evangelist.  Billy sitting in the audience was moved, and he asked someone next to him, "hey, are you going forward?"  And the man said, "no, I'm waiting until the big guns get here tomorrow with Billy Graham."  There was Billy Graham sitting right next to the man, calling the man forward, but he didn't know it!  That man's public "profession of faith" whatever it was (telling in itself about our church memberships with someone like this steering some church somewhere), was little more than a people pleasing comment about some kind of experience.  A lot of times today, American church is more about the biggest circus show in town or largest sporting event, and has little to do with Jesus.  Whoever has the most lights, fog machines, and the most spectacular 100k dollar Easter plays gets the guests.  Here in North Texas the Easter "shows" at such churches probably take in some of those who only go on Easter to church.  This seems logical, since if someone is thinking in a worldly way about what church to visit, they will just go where the world's biggest circus show is.  If we're honest, this is a word to most of us as church leaders to never make church a show.  I have actually had Lakepointe Church staff, for instance, flat out tell me when we were planning to start a church (in 2010) a few cities away from their nearest campus, that they would not help us with any initial start up costs as a missions work because we were competition and they considered that their turf too two cities away.  Well, that pretty much sums up the megachurch mentality.  Even if you live several towns away from one, they're going to put on a big enough show to get them to drive 35 minutes each way to a show.  The thing is though, and we know this too from basically the same pop church wisdom, that if you have to put on a show (like they do) for Easter, then you have to keep putting on a show -- to keep them -- there.  Since no church, no matter how large, can afford that, inevitably people who are only coming for the show only come when there is a $100k show, such as at Christmas time and Easter.  But we at our church as many others hope to see Easter as worship, and not a show.  We want the Bible to be declared and worship to touch lives for change.  So perhaps in a lot of ways, for us, we are really not at all sad that such persons just don't come on Easter.  After all, the rest of the year, Jesus' example not to be served, but to serve others, will be ignored by such a person.  This shows a misunderstanding of the gospel, no matter how many shows one attends, since the rest of Mark 10:45 says that Jesus gave his life as a ransom (payment) for our sins also as -- an example (in part) -- of the extent of his love for us -- by serving us.  This of course differs from the entertain me mentality deeply, but the gospel always has differed.

In closing, if the average person looking at the expense and effort put into Easter were to see the so-called results they would wonder why churches keep doing it.  For us, we have sort of learned our lesson, that expecting 1st time guests on Easter in a suburban US city may not be realistic advice even if all the coaches keep saying so loudly year after year.  People on the ground actually leading and planting churches are starting to see the failure of such advice.  Perhaps this will help some other church lay or full-time leaders somewhere thinking through their situation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

ERLC's Russell Moore - Houston we have a problem...

As a representative of thousands of churches small and large, effective and ineffective, some type of names other type of names, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission led by new president Russell Moore is tasked with speaking up on the Christian view (positive and negative).

The ERLC is tasked with speaking to many various issues we actually face in our time (not theory issues). This speaking on issues is meant to instruct churches not just to know, but also to act according to God's wisdom in standing firm in faith.  Yet, by definition, the ERLC will have certain strengths and weaknesses due to any president's ability, wisdom, and spiritual walk.

For instance, Richard Land the former president had some good views, but also in many's eyes had some weaknesses in something he said that led to his moving on, and Russell Moore's replacing him.

I know Russell Moore personally from days in graduate school at the same institution.  It was a Bible believing graduate school with a rich historic faith.  Men and women from all backgrounds attended there for advanced degrees (Masters/Doctoral) so as to represent the kingdom at large in pastorates, Christian schools, Christian missions and relief, and Christian journalism.  The vast majority of students and faculty truly have a heart to help people and also to speak truth using normal Bible study methods.

So given this historic kingdom of God role, you suspect that Russ would be supportive of Christian radio.
However, recently he has been called on to take back comments he made regarding it as a bad gospel witness for Christian faith.  See one article here on the comments, and then his 'explanation' of what he meant, at this link:  here.  This link from Christian Post shows how he attempted to walk back the comments, even though the original statement pretty clearly generalized.

In my opinion as a Christian, there are times Christian radio is very useful.  I admit there are times I definitely turn it off and listen to many other stations.

But I would not throw all Christian broadcasters under the proverbial bus in front of a delegation of Christian pastors and theologians like Russ did recently several times.  His recent radio generalizing is a risk for some North American Christian progress, since his position will be seen as abandoning their support.

It also raises the question:  how can Russ rule out good commentators and some great interviews of people like well-respected theologian Wayne Grudem on stations across North America?  What about Focus on the Family programs?  Unfortunately, what is going on with Russell's comments is a backing off of truth in part, and it is not especially a new thing with him (others have noted it on separate issues I'm not interested in in this article) (see also WSJ on Moore, and also Huff Post interviewers who say he is backing off truth in their view while listening to an interview).

The whole situation matters since Russell Moore as the president of ERLC is assigned to speak for Christian churches (and inevitably in some minor ways himself).  He is essentially influncing the next generation of Christian leaders in an area of Christian life.  During his planned out/prepped conference lessons he has used a serious logical fallacy:  a hasty generalization of many agents of God's kingdom in our time that reflects less about Christian radio and more about Russ' view on the world.

Russ basically stated he would hate Christianity if he only listened to Christian talk radio to see what it was. Wait, really?  Everyone on Christian talk radio? Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University inspired radio programs?  Even his old former mentor, Dr. Albert Mohler when he was on the radio declaring positive and negative parts of the gospel of Jesus?  This kind of statement made at a meeting of the ERLC is unfortunate because it is so easily seen as false, but it is his style to take down those who make a stand for truth, and avoid the whole message in some settings.

One important article is here on the stir explaining what Dr. Moore said that created the situation.
Another commentator is here at this link from YouTube.
A major Christian radio figure here at this link has a call for Russ Moore to take back his comments.

On those comments, a logical fallacy is the culprit.  Hasty generalizations are dangerous because they may sound nice, but they do not reflect reality.  These fallacies generalize a class of people in a way that the speaker should know otherwise is false.  For instance, saying all people who love the color red are dishonest is such a fallacy in logic. Likewise, labeling all Christian radio as counter productive to the kingdom is dangerous for a figure who is supposed to be at the forefront of cultural issues and engagement by definition. This is why he has had to walk back his comments.

It's also a hugely telling statement that Russ Moore cannot well engage on Christian radio.  He is disdainful of it.  But yet his job requires him to engage those millions.  Does he plan to circumvent them with the web? Why would he disdain them like he has several times over?  The ERLC president must reach millions upon millions so as to influence for good causes Christian people and Christian churches.  Ah well, Christian radio in his view is a joke altogether, literally.

His generalization against Christian talk radio was what well known commentator Janet Mefferd has called 'firing' on our own people.  I'm not a huge huh rah Janet Mefferd fan, but she has built me up with useful info on the Christian news, and I'm sure built up others in Christ spiritually before in some programs.  Russ has this sensationalist angle to him though.  It will likely happen again soon.

I agree Russell Moore's comments went too far, if, he is claiming to represent churches rather than himself by and large.  Churches, you see, must walk the fine line of being the heralds of truth, positively (amen), and also negatively too (probably what Moore sees as the main problem, the negative).  Christian radio commentators contrary (180 degrees) from what Dr. Moore said, do in fact often share the gospel message of how to be saved during their programs.  They express God's mercy.  Maybe some could do this better, but to write them all of is not right.

Jesus saving someone is a self-realization from God that we are both sinners (negative) and yet declared free and guilt removed in the Cross of Calvary (positive).

Since being redeemed (aka bought by the blood of Jesus) we know personally as well as affirming objectively that the gospel is both a positive and negative message.

Therefore, knowing this as a belief and then also reflectively, a wise Christian lay person/leader should not agree with Russell Moore about Christian radio being largely useless.  Christian radio even if it were largely a problem then would need to be updated, repaired, changed, or improved (which in some ways I agree with).

In this situation, contrary to Dr. Moore, I agree with well known commentator Janet Mefferd that the front lines of the gospel are often these days on Christian radio so that there are some aspects of sin that have to be brought up.  This may simply be so that believers know what is going on.  Many people are very busy and disconnected from current events.  Major news networks do not carry this news on purpose.  So Christian radio fills a knowledge gap in the gospel awareness, how it applies in our time. Why does it have to do this?  I agree, many of our church pulpits and discipleship groups have grown silent on half of the gospel.  We need an ERLC president who understands this critical role that Christian radio plays while people are on the move, in their cars, commuting, taking kids to soccer practice, and so on.  Real life stuff.

The truth is some radio programs are useful.  I cannot imagine writing off most or all of the marriage advice and tips from Focus talk.  There are great teachings from Criswell College radio on ethics for Christians on tricky questions, like end of life, etc....  There is useful financial help to people for free to help them retire with dignity and honor God by not becoming debtors.  These talk programs help people and they point to Jesus' work on the whole (I agree it needs to more, in that part of Russ' critique).

At the end of the day, Russ Moore probably is - not - the right person for the ERLC.  This is not because what he says is always untrue or off most of the time (besides the recent comments).  He should leave the ERLC because he has a history of not speaking parts of the gospel (such as God's judgment) in public settings.  He is now attacking Christian radio for doing exactly what he ought to be doing himself, thus confirming his pattern of this.

He may write about something on his blog, but what about when he is in the spotlight on a television program, on a production piece for mass appeal, Russ hides back from pushing back darkness in culture, even if he does in fact tell Christians what they should speak to more.  Then amazingly, Russ throws people under false hasty generalizations that disagree with his modus operandi.  If he won't speak up part of the gospel (Romans 5) too often saying it is embarrassing or negative, then at least he can leave those who do when they are at the mic or on tv free from harassment, right?  This goes beyond the recent flap he is in hot water over, and that's why I'm writing this beyond that one flap...

Russell Moore has a hesitancy to declare God's truth in its fullness on some issues of note:

1.) In my experience at the same graduate school with him though a different program, Russ was scared to speak up on gospel issues in the state of Kentucky.  I know this because I helped tipped the balance along with another student in favor of biblical teaching and leadership at the state church association level.  Kentucky had for decades a gospel rejecting entrenched leadership team.  This was not a small matter, it was over a large state convention of churches and they were doing harm to gospel teaching.  Things needed to change.  Cultural and ethical issues were absolutely in play.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in education and help assets were in play as well.  People knew this, but a few of us finally after a long time of people having given up, acted on it.  There were many who were satisfied with doing nothing out of fear, lack of knowledge, or what not.  This particular church convention needed change, and yet could be changed easily. Despite this, Russell Moore told me in front of others verbally, he was afraid of "getting in trouble" by allowing believers (such as pastors in classes) know what was going on in the gospel meets culture near him in that convention.  This was said on the job while he worked for SBTS, a very large and influential Christian seminary.

That kind of reclusive attitude against taking action, in favor of just talk, is exactly what the ERLC has taken up recently in interviews and in training guidance. You can boldly-prophetically lecture Christians in Russ' view, but if it comes to taking a stand in the culture on the news or at large or doing something, you just have to retreat backwards allowing darkness to fill in the gaps on the front line.  This is not appropriate to the ERLC historically or in its calling.  It needs to lead in what we do as well, as Richard Land did historically in his tenure.

Ultimately the president of a group dedicated to standing firm in the culture with the gospel has to have a president willing to do that, not just to state views and do nothing but talk.  At least some of the Christian radio commentators are calling people to action while they share the gospel too.

2.)  In his interview on C-Span as the newly appointed ERLC president, he avoided declaring what God is against.  At the time, I thought to myself, 'Ok..., just wait and see what he does in the future,' but I was uneasy just to myself.  I decided at that time (a while back now) to just wait and see in the future, after all, that was just one long interview and the future may differ.  This uneasiness because his stand was not strong on what we believe God is also against remained but was silent on my part.  When it came to what was not morally correct there was a limited stand by Russ, and thus he only stated half the gospel in an interview setting.

Only half of the message in public is a risk.  Both New Testament and Old Testament preaching include a positive and negative element which we must have.  Moreover, recently, famous and well respected evangelists like Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Ravi Zacharias, James White, and others teach us that we also call out sin enough to connect with people where they are so as to call people out of it.  We do not labor on it but we do mention it deliberately as they have.  We go on immediately to the cross, but we do not hesitate to speak to what is wrong as well.

Indeed, the founding of Christianity Today and Dr. Carl F.H. Henry the partner in much of this would not hold back part of the message in public settings like Moore has.  In God, Revelation and Authority, Dr. Henry refused to speak only what he did believe, but also shared at length (talk show-ishly really, in great irony) what he saw was sin against God.

Russ Moore at the ERLC is a problem largely because Christian ethics being sold out to Jesus also includes stating then what God is against.  That's not all we are about, but it is a part of the message, and has been historically in God's church throughout the ages.

3.)  In addition, another situation that was very public is worth mention.  When it came to light that Starbucks was openly advocating with finances for homosexual marriage in several areas as the CEO was making radical statements, Russell Moore publicly rejected calls for Christians to dine and shop elsewhere.  This was despite the call being very successful without Dr. Moore (itself insightful).  In the US, Starbucks noticed this press back big time through their bottom line.  Since then they have backed off of much of the rhetoric.  Time will tell what they do again, but the - only - reason Starbucks paused was because sales were hit in part of the US at a noticeable level.  But no thanks to the ERLC under Russell Moore who would have us just pay people to bash our churches and our views.  If we are honest, that is what their CEO was doing and if we do not make a choice about where to shop for a set time and a set place, we tacitly allow the evil to continue. This element of social action taken by key figures in Christian life before is very much missing from Dr. Moore's ERLC.  There is in its place a lot of talk, a lot of generalization, and a lot of change at the ERLC that seems to yet have an effect.

4.)  Another situation highlights the problems:  In Louisville, KY, there are two large churches, Ninth and O Baptist Church and Highview Baptist Church.  Highview is much larger than Ninth and O.  Russell Moore was a member and Sunday school teacher at Ninth and O Baptist Church for years.  He baptized people there and helped with some things.  When it became clear that it was politically advantageous to switch churches and speak at Highview Baptist Church, he went for it.  This was clearly a popularity move.  This tendency to jump ship with what is popular should be seen as indicative of the kind of direction the ERLC may want to go at his direction.  Whatever is popular will win out.  This is a real risk for churches like ours paying for the ERLC to help them in turbulent times know what to research and how to move forward on the Bible's terms instead of just what is popular (if the two cross paths, so be it).

5.)  Beyond this, Christ following churches should be wary of what Russell Moore, a former Democratic political figure in the South, might want to do to biblical church's voice given his national opportunity at the moment.  Perhaps his tendency is to take up positions that may or may not fit the biblical mandate, due to his committed background.  It is not clear to the churches exactly what Dr. Moore will do as a result.  This last one is not as yet clear, but it is worth noting.

For these and moore reasons, we should expect more leadership on ethics issues.  Even the name ERLC partly stands for ethics, and distinctively Christian ones at that, and ethics that don't do anything do not matter at all in the end.

For the weaknesses of Richard Land, we may be much worse off now with Russell Moore.  If Russ is backing off key Christian issues of engagement in favor of 'talking to the choir,' and also attacking Christians like Christian Radio commentators and interviewees who have been on that radio who are trying to help people in guidance and encouragement, then we have an issue long-term with him.

Short-term he will have no noticeable impact.  Unless there is a change of direction, it is very clear that the wrong choice in a gospel of engagement was made in appointing him as head of the ERLC.

In writing about this, I do have a measure of hesitancy.  It is not fun to describe these things, and it would be better if I could say other pastors were already doing this.  This kind of topic is not what I like to spend time on, yet it does trickle down to churches practically in time.  Someone has to point the problem emerging out and say we need a restoration or change at the ERLC.

If no one says anything, the horizon of what is possible in the wrong direction may increase way beyond what is repairable.  This has been the case in the past with many denominations, and it starts with not being cautious who is at the top.  In the end, I'd rather see churches helped and also Christian radio improved rather than rejecting part of our North American witness in these areas slowly but surely.

Monday, May 12, 2014

...with Illiberty, Injustice for half the country... HGTV values

HGTV has some great programming.  I have really enjoyed watching it over the years.  True, the shows do get old sometimes, as they air repeats quite a bit, but as a young family house hunting from time to time, we have enjoyed it for ideas.  Sort of a tv version of Architectural Digest for ideas.  Recently I have had to cancel HGTV though.  It's not that I have no use for it. Actually I'd prefer to keep HGTV, but I cannot as an American or as a Christ follower.  HGTV has become intolerant of democratic values and also of Christ following values from the New Testament.

The issue for an audience at large is HGTV does not believe in democratic values.  They believe in selective justice.  The recent cancellation of a pair of brothers, who to me are no one, people I have never met personally nor know, is a real issue for true Americans and also true Christians.  This is why I have cancelled HGTV.  Democratic values include liberty and justice for all.

Recently, however, HGTV has taken the new trend which is to give liberty and justice only to certain subsets of American culture.  So they cancelled the show of David and Jason Benham.  These were not for on air or on the job comments.  The cancellation of a show was due to personal comments they made in their past.

Despite how I would not personally do or go where they have been in expressing their views, I have to support their right to free speech.  Any true American or true Christ follower should in my view do the same, and I recommend it.  By continuing to support HGTV, you are endorsing the removal of a pair of brothers with #1 a right as Americans to also have a personal life when they are off the clock.  One day when you are off the clock and speak to something you believe in, that millenia of human history's democratic valuing societies (not per se democracies though) has believed in, and then you lose your job for it, who will be there for you then?  Likewise, as a believer if you state that one sin or another should be repented of, and then you lose your job, who will be there for you?

The truth is a large minority of the USA is being put on notice, agree with us or your job will be lost.  This is reverse bigotry and reverse intolerance.  If you ignore it now, someday one of your opinions that is widely held may cause you to lose your job too.

You can start by letting HGTV know that you disagree with their cancellation of the Benham's tv show.

If they don't respond that they'll give liberty and justice for all and reinstate the Benham's then take your money elsewhere and cancel the HGTV channel, or drop cable altogether and go with internet tv which is better anyways.  You'll end up saving money anyhow in the switch to internet tv.

Why care about this?  Values matter.  Every person regardless of their religion or supposed irreligion has values.  In the US, values are supposed to be something we can discuss, hence the reason for the 1st amendment.  You shouldn't have to lose your job due to comments that nearly 50% of the US agrees with, which in itself is the very discrimination at work that supposedly tolerant employers are to avoid using on people.  In this case it is intolerance of their religion and HGTV can be sued for discrimination if they persist in going against employment laws.  Also as a believer, you want to provide for your family a living peaceably. Given that these Benham brothers seem to be expressing one small part of the gospel's total message, would you be comfortable for being fired in the future for believing part of the gospel of Jesus?  This makes clear you can be, unless you stand up and say that is not ok now, before it happens even more broadly.