Stranger in a Strange Church

Philip Jenkins cites the prescience of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, whose novel Stranger in a Strange Land, written in 1961, posits a church of the future that sounds strangely prophetic:

“At a time of social chaos, seminary reject Joseph Foster proclaimed a spiritual message uniquely suited for America, a nation that had always combined public puritanism with private libertinism. But why not combine the two instincts, creating a religion that spoke the language of fervent piety, while tolerating virtually any behavior? . . . . [Read more...]

Ten myths about church growth

Have you noticed how quickly “the latest ideas” become the old-fashioned ideas?  Brian Orme is a Southern Baptist expert in church trends.  What were once the foundational assumptions of the Church Growth Movement he is now labeling as “Ten Old Wives Tales about Church Growth.”  Paul McCain usefully extracts them:

1. If You’re Not Growing, Something’s Wrong

2. The More You Grow, the Healthier You Are

3. Contemporary Music Will Save Your Church

4. Church Growth Can Be Manufactured

5. If Your Church Grows, Your Leader Is “Anointed”

6. If Your Church Doesn’t Grow, It’s a Problem with the Leader

7. Good Preaching Is the Answer to Growing Your Church

8. You Will Retain a Large Percentage of Your Visitors on Special Days

9. The More Programs You Offer, the More Your Church Will Grow

10. If You Build It, They Will Come

For Rev. Orme’s explanations of each of these points, go here.

The latest mission strategy: “Insider Movements”

We’ve blogged about those translations of the Bible for Muslims that avoid little terms like “Son of God” in order, supposedly, to attract followers of Islam.  It turns out that such Bible translations are only one strategy in a whole new approach to mission work, one that encourages Christian converts to continue as members of their old religion!  Bill Nikides explains in Modern Reformation:

The most explosive issue in global missions within the evangelical church today is something called “Insider Movements.” . . .

It has become a go-to option for all sorts of traditional evangelicals working with ostensibly reputable missions organizations such as Navigators, Frontiers, Summer Institute of Linguistics (a branch of Wycliffe), Global Partners for Development, and the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some embrace the Insider Movement label and identity; others prefer to remain low key. In many cases entire organizations—while in others, only some individual members—are committed to its core principles. Even worse, it appears that some missionaries and agencies are guilty of dissembling so as to maintain plausible deniability. . . .

Here are a couple of stock definitions to get us on our way. Insider Movements (IM) are variously defined as “popular movements to Christ that bypass both formal and explicit expressions of Christian religion” (Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements,” Internal Journal of Frontier Missiology, Winter 2004). Another definition Higgins offers is that they are “movements to Jesus that remain to varying degrees inside the social fabric of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or other people groups.” In other words, as John Ridgeway of the Navigators relates, Insider Movements advocate “becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including religious culture.”

Fundamentally, Insiders are those who profess faith in Christ but remain members of their original religious communities; Muslims remain Muslims, Hindus remain Hindus, and Buddhists remain Buddhists. In the Muslim world that means they must acknowledge one exclusive God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his final and greatest messenger. They remain members of the mosque, practice the five pillars of Islam, live openly in their cultures as Muslims, participate in Muslim sacrifices and feasts, and identify themselves as Muslims. In many cases, I’m familiar with baptized Christians who are persuaded to re-enter the mosque after renouncing their Christian identities. . . .

There are, of course, major problems with such an approach to missions and evangelism. First, Insiders make the unbiblical assumption that such biblical passages teach that true believers can have a purely inward faith that can be manifested inside any faith system, including that of other non-Christian religions.

Second, practitioners and Insider missiologists (or scholars of the theology of missions) ignore the fact that the Bible is loaded with texts, even entire books, devoted to distinguishing truth from error and true religion from false religion. In other words, doctrine matters and has to be central in our theology of missions. Unfortunately, doctrine is surprisingly absent from much Insider literature, and rarely do their proponents address the twin topics of idolatry and false religion. Instead, Insiders suppose that religions are relatively harmless cultural creations, that they are man-made and therefore disposable. Even Christian articles of faith, such as the church and the sacraments, can be said to be cultural creations that can simply be replaced with other things in Muslim cultures.

via Modern Reformation – Articles [subscription required].

Never mind about what the Bible says about syncretism, idolatry, having no other Gods, Church, etc., etc.  But this approach helps missionaries rack up bigger numbers of converts!

Here is an objective, fair and balanced Wikipedia account that  confirms that description.

This is an example of the mindset that I’m seeing more and more that is at the root of a lot of church issues today:  Christianity is just about becoming a Christian–having a conversion in which a person “accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”–whereupon, since “once saved, always saved,” the Church and the Christian life don’t matter!

HT:  Jim Rademaker

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

The latest issue of Christianity Today has a brilliant cover story that accounts for much of what we see in American churches today.  A century and more ago, many Protestant churches adjusted their worship and their ministries to accord with something that at first was quite separate:  the revival meeting.  (My historical parallel.)   Now churches have adjusted their worship and ministries to accord with another separate activity:  youth group!  But, of course, there is more to it than that.  From the article by Thomas E. Bergler [subscription required, but here is the opening]:

The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”

After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.

via When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

Bergler goes on to document how that happened, including the larger cultural trend of American adults in general becoming more like adolescents.  The cover story  (who can identify who is pictured on the cover?) includes some responses by a megachurch pastor, a researcher, and a cultural critic (David Zahl of Mockingbird.com), all of whom say that Bergler’s thesis is basically right (though Zahl, being a Lutheran fellow-traveler, issues some caveats about definitions of spiritual “maturity”).

The article is adapted from Bergler’s new book on the subject: The Juvenilization of American Christianity.  It is a ground-breaking analysis, one of those explanations that accounts for virtually all of the phenomena and  that seems so obvious, once you hear it, though you had never thought of it before.

 

Islamic-friendly Bibles

Many missionary groups in Islamic countries are using Bible translations that avoid offending Muslim sensibilities, getting rid of phrases such as “the Son of God” and “God the Father.”   All in the name of church growth.  And yet Christians in these countries, beleagured as they are, are strenuously objecting to these translations.  Mindy Belz of World Magazine reports:

A team of translators with Frontiers helped produce the disputed translation of Matthew in Turkish, and SIL said some of its consultants helped at certain points in the process. Sabeel Media, a partner organization of SIL, published the translation in August 2011, printing it in book form and posting it online. In the Turkish Matthew, the “alternative form” for “Son of God” is something along the lines of “representative of God,” according to Turkish speakers, and “God the Father” has become “great protector.” A footnote explains the alternate terms: “According to the Jews, ‘God’s Son’ means ‘God’s beloved ruler’ and is equivalent with the title ‘Messiah.’”. . .

The translators emphasize their desire to promote evangelism. Bob Blincoe, the U.S. director of Frontiers, cited in an email lack of growth as one reason for the translation: “The big problem is that church planting among the tens of millions of religious Muslims in Turkey has not been successful; it has not even begun.” Turkey is 99.8 percent Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook. Turks estimate that their country has about 5,000 Christians now, but when Bocek became a Christian in 1988, he was one of a total of 80 Protestants in the country. “One significant barrier may be the existing translation of the Bible,” Blincoe wrote in an email: “These are paraphrases that help a conservative Sunni Muslim audience know what the Bible really says.” . . .

Thomas Cosmades, a Turkish Christian who translated the New Testament into Turkish from the original Greek, mailed a letter to Frontiers at the end of 2007 after he saw a copy of the Turkish Matthew. (Several hundred were printed before the official publication in 2011). Cosmades died in 2010, at age 86, just after he published a new edition of his New Testament. In his letter he wrote that he was “highly disquieted” by the paraphrased Matthew and proceeded to analyze the debatable phrases in detail.

“This translation is not seeking to emphasize the value of the incarnation,” he wrote. “Should the trend continue, who knows where it will lead the coming generation? If Athanasius of old would have encountered such departure from biblical Christology he would have placed these redactors far below the Arians.” . . .

The Pakistan church at large may not know about the debate, but the Pakistan Bible Society (PBS) does. After 20 years of work together, the Bible society and SIL are parting ways over the issue, which is a blow to SIL because now it must operate without the imprimatur of the premier local publisher. SIL said in a statement that the decision not to work together on one project was mutual, the result of “translation style differences,” not just the debate on divine familial terms.

But the general secretary of the Pakistan Bible Society, Anthony Lamuel, wrote in a letter on Jan. 26 that the issue of altering terms for target audiences was central in the decision, and added that such translations have resulted in the “water downing” of Christian concepts: “We the Pakistan Bible Society will not promote experiments with the translation at the cost of hurting the church.”

A woman working on another translation project in Central Asia, who asked for anonymity for the sake of her work, said the debate on the “Son of God” issue in her translation team has deadlocked their project and stirred confusion among local believers who don’t have a Bible in their own language as a reference: “It has eroded their faith in the authority of the Word of God and in us as foreigners who are supposed to be the ‘teachers’ but can’t seem to agree on some basic truths of who Christ said he was. … Sadly it raises doubts and endless discussion, wasting a lot of time.”

Anwar Hussain, the head of the Bangladesh Bible Society, has been at the forefront of efforts in his country the last few years to repel Bible translations from various groups that change divine familial terms. Hussain grew up Muslim, and when he professed Christ as a young man, his family cut ties with him. Edward Ayub, another Christian of Muslim background, is the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh and—alongside Hussain—has vigorously opposed the translations. “I want to die for the Bible,” not a misleading translation, Ayub said. “The harm they are doing now for the church will be long-lasting.”

via WORLDmag.com | Translation battle | Emily Belz | Feb 25, 12.  (Subscription required to read full text.

What connections do you see between this particular tactic on the mission field and the church growth movement here?

The megachurch bubble?

There was the dot.com bubble and, more recently, the real estate bubble, markets that grew and grew until they they burst.  Some experts are saying that we may be in for a megachurch bubble:

In the 1970s, only a handful of churches drew more than 2,000 people on Sundays. Now they number in the thousands.

But the collapse of the Crystal Cathedral near Los Angeles, which is being sold to pay off more than $40 million in debt, has prompted fears that the megachurch bubble may be about to burst.

Most megachurches — which earn that label around the 2,000-attendance level — are led by baby boomer pastors who soon will hit retirement age and without suitable replacements in the pipeline. And some fear the big-box worship centers with lots of individual programs no longer appeal to younger generations.

Skye Jethani, a senior editor of Leadership, a prominent evangelical magazine for pastors, compared megachurches to the real estate market of a few years ago.

“If you asked people back in 2007 if the housing market was doing well, people would have said yes,” he said.

Jethani said megachurches have become so big that their economics are unsustainable. They often have multimillion-dollar mortgages and hundreds of staff members. That works while a church is growing.

But churches often shrink when a longtime minister leaves, Jethani said.

“If you are a church of 400 people and you lose 200 people, you can still keep going,” he said. “If you are a church of 10,000 and you go down to 5,000, you may not be able to survive.”

via Some fear megachurch bubble may soon burst | The Tennessean | tennessean.com.

The article goes on to quote other people who deny that megachurches are creating a bubble ready to pop.  What do you think?

HT: Tim Challies


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