Archive | May 2014

AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY TODAY

(183) EMERGING TRENDS IN THE CHURCH TODAY

AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY

Roger Olson recently wrote an article about American Christianity today based on a recent study carried out from 2003 – 2005 called the “National Study of Youth and Religion“.

One of the conclusions from this study stated that Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian from the perspective of historical Christian religion. It is not so much that it is being secularized but worse yet, it is degenerating into a “pathetic version of itself” – Christianity is actively being displaced by a different religious faith.

This new faith, called “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” of MTD for short.  It has five core beliefs:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fairt to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The author of the study calls these characteristics  as “the American way” with a goal in life of being nice to others as well as being successful, accumulation of goods…etc. 

Olsen asks where do these trends come from. He suggests that Oprah Winfrey explains much of it.  Winfrey is one of the most powerful and influential people in American culture.  She promotes a spirituality of self-actualization and morality of being nice under the guise of a kind of stripped-down, easy to believe and live Christianity.  He contrasts Phil Donahue as someone he preferred because he was openly hostile to traditional Christianity and he knew where he stood.

Olsen states that when he reads the New Testament and Christian history and puts them alongside contemporary American mainline “Christianity” he finds the “contrast stark and shocking”. He makes a powerfully simple statement – “The only way someone can think most of what goes on in American churches is authentically Christian is not to read the Bible, the church fathers, the reformers, and the great thinkers and evangelists of all denominations.”

This influence on Christianity today is affecting both liberal churches and to varying degrees more conservative churches – every church is being influenced in some fashion.  Importantly, the end result is subversion of the gospel by culture’s alien habits, customs, beliefs, and practices. Olsen states that he doesn’t mean contextualization but rather these other full blown results. 

However, I would disagree somewhat on that statement – Where I would add to his comments is that contextualization is just a segment of the mix that is leading to these end results.  The “EMERGING CHURCH movements and some of its offshoots such as the MISSIONAL CHURCH (each to varying degrees), have shifted many in the church (in both liberal and conservative churches) in a postmodern view of life.  A watering down of doctrine, teaching, authority of the Bible, preaching and sermon delivery, a focus on the social gospel over discipleship and evangelism (& traditional missions), the idea that truth can’t be known, a non-literal interpretation of creation aligning itself closer to the popular scientific view of the day, as well as an accommodation of contemporary cultural trends on social issues such as homosexuality,  questionable interpretations on core doctrine such as the atonement, hell (universalism)…..etc. 

Olsen sums up the end result of where Christianity in America is today  – “I am afraid that it is becoming increasingly harder to find the gospel in America. It is either wrapped so tightly in the flag as to be virtually invisible or relegated to a footnote to messages about “success in living,” being nice and including everyone.”

A comparison to other countries that have gone down this path – A German theologian said that when he goes to church he listens for the gospel but comes away thinking the gospel was what should have been said (or sung) but wasn’t. The German Christians of the 1930s certainly didn’t think they were accommodating the gospel to a culture alien to it; they thought they were discovering new dimensions of the gospel that would bring revival to their churches. How strange, we think. But when I really press my students from other cultures to say what they think of American Christianity they’re generally not very complimentary.

Is it that difficult to see this happening in America?  I don’t think so.  Take an issue such as homosexuality.  Look at how freedoms are being taken away in our country just over the last couple of years.  It is getting to the point that even disagreeing with the homosexual lifestyle by quoting Scripture ends up heaping a vast amount criticism through the media.  What church wants to take on that negative image presented by these situations?

Is H. Richard Niebuhr’s prophetic quip about liberal Protestantism fitting for even many “evangelical” churches today – “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Smith’s and Denton’s conclusion is stark and frightening and hopefully extreme. But we American Christians should heed it anyway and consider ourselves in its light.   Olsen doesn’t go on to say too much as to what we need to do.  As a start –  I think the first step is identifying the error that has crept into the church. Stop accommodating other religious beliefs into Christianity and resist the temptation to just look at numbers in the pews.  Being popular or attractive isn’t the way that Christ and the Apostles used to grow the church. A return to God’s word as authoritative is critically important to lay down a foundation that could then be built upon.  Question the plethora of new ideas on evangelism, being “missional and incarnational”…..etc. and ask yourself first and foremost what does Scripture say.  God does speak through His word – are you listening to what He is saying or are you trying new ways to read the Bible, engage society, and looking at other religions that may sound spiritual but may not be biblical?  Will it take persecution to bring back the church?

LECTIO DIVINA

(182) EMERGING TRENDS IN THE CHURCH TODAY

LECTIO DIVINA

A resurgence of a practice that focuses more on the experiential and downplays the study of God’s word.  Tim Challies brings up several interesting and important points to consider:

The Danger of Lectio Divina

May 21, 2014Over the past few years an old form of Bible reading and interpretation has resurfaced and made quite an impact. It is known as Lectio Divina. I appreciate David Helms’ critique of this method in in his little book Expositional Preaching. Where others have, I think, come up with novel ways of critiquing it, Helm heads straight to the Bible. Essentially, he says that Lectio Divina often leads us away from the right meaning and right application of a text instead of toward it. Let me explain.In one of the early chapters he writes about ways preachers can unfairly contextualize a biblical text. Preachers “are increasingly appealing to their subjective reading of the text as inspired. More and more, Bible teachers are being told that whatever moves their spirit in private readings of the Bible must be what God’s Spirit wants preached in public.”

He goes on to say,

One example of this kind of reading strategy has a long history. It goes by the name Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural interpretation was intended to promote communion with God and, to a lesser extent, familiarity with the Bible. It favors a view of biblical texts as “the Living Word” rather than as written words to be studied. Traditional forms of this practice include four steps for private Bible reading: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. You begin by quieting your heart with a simple reading of the text. Then you meditate, perhaps on a single word of phrase from the text, and in so doing intentionally avoid what might be considered an “analytical” approach. In essence, the goal here is to wait for the Spirit’s illumination so that you will arrive at meaning. You wait for Jesus to come calling. Once the word is given, you go on to pray. After all, prayer is dialogue with God. God speaks through his Word and the person speaks through prayer. Eventually, this prayer becomes contemplative prayer, and it gives us the ability to comprehend deeper theological truths.

As Helm says, this sounds wonderfully pious. It even appears to come with solid Scriptural support in a text like 1 Corinthians 2:10 which says, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” Stating his objection broadly first, Helm says, “Lectio Divina advocates a method that is spiritual as opposed to systematically studious. It substitutes intuition for investigation. It prefers mood and emotion to methodical and reasoned inquiry. It equates your spirit to the Holy Spirit.”

Of course many will object to that final sentence, but from Helm’s perspective, conclusions based on inner contemplation cannot be trusted in the same way as conclusions based on a close and studious reading of the text.

This method has gained popularity in recent years, first in private devotions and increasing in sermon preparation. “And even where it is not practiced by name, it is remarkably similar to the way a lot of young preachers are taught to prepare. They are told to read the Bible devotionally, quietly, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to speak. For you can be assured that what God lays upon our hearts from a text in the quiet of the moment he will use also in the lives of others. So ‘Preach it! It must be inspired.’”

What is the heart of the problem here? It is that the method leads to subjective, rather than objective, conclusions.

When we stop the hard work of understanding the words that the Spirit has given us and work exclusively in the “mind of the Spirit,” we become the final authority on meaning. We begin to lay down “truths” and “advice” that are biblically untenable or unsupportable. We may do so for good reasons, such as our sense of the moral health of our people or a genuine desire to renew the world we live in. But, nevertheless, we begin operating outside of orthodox doctrine. We confuse “thus sayeth the Lord” with “thus sayeth me.” We ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.

Let me repeat that final line: “We may ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.” That may just be the long-term consequence of this kind of preaching. Of course it has begun with the pastor allowing himself to trust himself in place of the Word.

Here is how this sometimes happens:

A lot of preachers—particularly young preachers—go to the text first for their own edification or spiritual growth. This is not an inherently bad practice, and devotional preaching is not inherently a bad thing. We all should be spiritually convicted by and conformed to the image of Christ in the text. The problem is that we are easily tempted to jump from the way the Spirit impresses the text upon us to how the Spirit must be working among our people.

In other words, if we follow Lectio Divina from personal devotions to sermon preparation, we may not preach the text, but preach our interpretation and appreciation of the text. We preach the text as it impacted us, not the text as it is.

The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly trustworthy and can, miraculously, implant his intent in us intuitively. But does this possibility absolve us from doing the hard work of exegesis? Why would he have bothered inspiring Scripture in the first place? Is it not possible that the Spirit works through both research and meditation? By pursuing such a subjective approach to interpretation as “inspired” preaching, are we not at risk of ignoring what God intended in his Word in favor of preaching our own? Are we not conforming ourselves to the spirit of the age (of which we are necessarily a part) rather than to the depth of his Word?

This, then, is a danger in Lectio Divina, that it may teach us to approach the text subjectively rather than objectively, and that in this way it leads to unstable, unsupportable conclusions. Though it appears to elevate piety, it may just train us to preach badly.