Huge thanks as always to EricL for the link help…support him at top right.
The demise of the Church as we know it is already taking place. The release of the Public Religion Research Institute’s study America’s Changing Religious Landscape clearly shows the change that is taking place. Major findings include the fact that white evangelical Protestants are in decline, right along with white mainline Protestants and Catholics.
Additionally, the study, based upon over 101,000 respondents, shows clearly that across the board, the Church has substantially lost the rising generation, even as the “boomers” continue to fade from the scene. When this study is paired with the Pew Survey results of last year, it is a sobering picture. Across denominational lines clergy are aging and dying. Seminaries, at least those that are still operating, are not producing the numbers needed to replace the clergy who are departing the scene. Moreover, the clergy being graduated are, by a large majority, pursuing a second career in the ministry, meaning that their working life will tend to be short compared to the preceding generation of pastors and priests.
Now, we might hate the news being delivered to us by these surveys and studies but, as someone once said, “facts are stubborn things”.
As I have shared this information in articles and private correspondence, I have been fascinated by the responses that I (and others) have received from a broad cross-section of readers and friends. These readers and friends are evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and Anglicans, Lutherans and independents. I must say, I have found their responses to the surveys almost as interesting as the studies themselves. As I read through threads and emails, I began to see a pattern emerge – one that seemed familiar, although I could not name what the pattern was or exactly how it related to the varied responses. Then it came to me… these studies were heralding the demise of the Church as we know it and our reaction to the news is the same as if we heard that a beloved friend or family member had been diagnosed with what appeared to be a terminal condition. We were entering the five stages of grief as put forward by Kübler-Ross.
Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality which, of course, is not accurate and runs counter to the diagnosis. In spite of the evidence, the response is, “It’s not true”.
Anger – When the individuals recognize that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Often, they attack the messenger who has offered the diagnosis. Certain psychological responses of people undergoing this phase are: “How can this happen to us?”; or even more often, “Who is to blame?”.
Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individuals can avoid what is inevitable. Usually, the negotiation to avoid the inevitable is made in exchange for the promise of a reformed lifestyle. Sometimes it takes the form of negotiating a compromise. “If only we do this, or that, everything will be fine”.
Depression – During the fourth stage, the individuals despair at the recognition of their institution’s mortality. In this state, individuals may become silent, refuse interaction with others and spend much of the time being sullen. “It’s going to happen, so why bother with anything?”.
Acceptance – In this last stage, individuals embrace the inevitable future. This typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individuals, and a stable condition of emotions. There is a pivot point at which individuals say, “We can’t fight it; we may as well prepare for it.”
Now, I would like to suggest that we break out of the of the five stages of grief, and perhaps we have a reason to do so. Firstly, we must understand that while most institutions have an entrenched leadership who tend to be reluctant to change, the institution itself is made up of people… people like you and me. This is true of structures ranging from a Bible Study, to the smallest country church, to the largest denomination. Moreover, you have a voice and the power of action – even if that action is limited to welcoming a visitor in your church, speaking to your pastor about your concerns or even writing a letter to your denominational or association leadership. Too often we speak blithely about being “members of the Body of Christ” without recognizing that each part of the Body can perform a function which benefits all in the Body. While the current “demise of the Church as we know it” seems inevitable, we can, with prayer and faithful action, help to chart a course for the Church that will emerge as old structures and attitudes fall away.
In practical terms, let’s turn back to the grief model of Kübler-Ross and do what the Church does best… let’s talk about redemption.
Denial – Truth is of consequence to Christians, or at least it should be. Denying the facts or saying something is “fake news” because we don’t want to hear it accomplishes nothing. The facts and figures are there. The key question is, “What are we now going to do with what we know to be true”.
Anger – Being angry with the messenger, or trying to denigrate the message will accomplish nothing. Additionally, adopting a “bunker mentality” (something believers often do) or lashing out at “who’s to blame”, currently or in the past, is self-defeating. It may be of academic interest to a few, but the vast majority of believers have little interest in the battles of yesterday, especially when the future is at stake. We all have a tendency to look backward when, in reality, we should be looking forward.
Bargaining – Trying to enter into negotiations with God seldom has a happy outcome. Think of Lot, or Jacob wrestling the angel, or even the rich young ruler (“all these things have I done”). Undeserved and boundless grace leaves little room for bargaining. The renewal of the Church will not come from us being “super Christians”. It may, however, happen if we can rediscover within ourselves as individuals, and as churches, that central and vital Grace of God that will allow us to reach outside of ourselves and our prejudices to “all sorts and conditions” of men and women for whom Christ died.
Depression – I tend not to embrace the so-called Benedict Option for one reason – the end result is withdrawal from a society that desperately needs to hear the message of Christ’s redemption. A symptom of clinical depression is isolation. We are far too isolated as it is. I may offend some here, but it has to be said… again and again… a blog site, posts on threads, or a Facebook group does not constitute a church. In such digital encounters we do not confess the Creeds together, sacraments are not offered, absolution is not given. Often, our life online may even increase our isolation. You cannot stay behind your screen. Like it or not, church is about other people and the forming of relationships. Some relationships will be great. Others, not so much… Regardless, that is where you will find Christ in the midst.
Acceptance – Lazarus had been dead for four days. Mary and Martha had accepted the inevitable, even though Mary was angry and looking for someone to blame – “Lord if you had been here…” Christ did not accept the inevitable, raising Lazarus from the dead to show “the Glory of God”. I truly believe that we do not have to accept the inevitable demise of the Church, but we cannot look to a renewal of faith in a proprietary manner. That is, we cannot want it to be renewed simply for our tribe, our confession, or our particular corner of the Christian world. If it is to happen, it must be for the Glory of God alone.
So, I’ve made a resolution to myself. I will be talking to a dear friend who is seeking to establish a new church and will go over the liturgy with him. I will do it every week until he is comfortable with the outlines of the service. Additionally, I am contacting certain other friends whom I know are trying to establish faith communities (not of my tribe, I might add). I will be asking them a single question, “What can I do to be of help or service?” It might be teaching. It might be counseling. It might be helping in a soup kitchen or painting a wall. It really does not matter. All that matters, is not standing at the sidelines grieving, when there is work and ministry to be done.
O Lord our God,
source of all goodness and love,
accept the fervent prayers of your people;
in the multitude of your mercies look with compassion
upon all who turn to you for help;
for you are gracious, O lover of souls,
and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.
The Passover with the Disciples
17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
- “Unleavened Bread” = The Passover = the 1st day of a 7 day festival
- This will be Maundy Thursday – ‘A new command I give you’ – John 13 after washing their feet. A new command / mandate – ‘love one another’
- In Jewish life everything stops for the Sabbath and the Festivals. It is no different here.
18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’”
- “My time is at hand” – I’m terminal guys.
- This is Jesus time – this is salvation time.
- What is this ‘my time’? The time for the Son of Man to be lifted up.
- This is so good – first the Chief Priest try to set their time – “not during the feast” v.5 – then look at Judas (v.16) ‘looking for the opportune time.’
- Everyone is trying to set their watches to their own schedule. Jesus though sets his own time – he uses the Father’s watch.
- Jesus comes on the scene and he is revealed as the Son of David (2 Sam 7), The Son of Man (Daniel), the Suffering Servant (Isaiah) – The whole OT has been pointing to this One – the Christ.
19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.
- Think about this – when you prepare the Passover, the primary thing you are doing is preparing the lamb.
- Jesus has been ‘being prepared’ for quite some time – he was just basted with oil in v.7.
20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve
- Note just the 12 – what will become communion is not open to the masses.
21 And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
- How is this for polite dinner conversation – one of you is a rat.
22 And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?”
- We often think that it is so obvious that Judas is the one, that if I had made the movie of this, I would have had all the disciples turn and look at Judas.
- But they all seem to know, as we should, that we all are capable of betraying Jesus – that we are all capable of playing the anti Christ.
23 He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me.
- The outrageousness of Judas’ betrayal is underscored here by Matthew when he points out – Judas broke the bond of table fellowship.
- Psalm 41:9 – “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”
- John 13:18 – “I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’”
24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
- Don’t miss this – here we see that Jesus is walking through prophetic history.
25 Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
- As usual, Jesus knows what is going on. Jesus is doing and suffering the Father’s will – and still he knows the who and the why.
- What Jesus is doing is for whom? – Sinners which includes Judas. He goes through this to be betrayed. But in the end, the disciples are all sinners.
- If I were running the show, I would have cleansed the whole room. I would shout out “are any of you sinners? Oh all 12 of you? Get out!!”
- Judas’ betrayal is enormous, but the others are sinners in their own way of denial, their running away and not wanting to confess Jesus when the going gets tough.
- How about us?
- Look at the language of John – they all have dirty feet.
- Jesus is going to love them all – even Judas, and the proud and pompous Peter and all the rest.
- He is not only washing their feet – but with this meal, with this sacrifice, with this roasting in their place, he is washing their whole body.
Institution of the Lord’s Supper
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
- We need to understand what is happening here as Jesus is linking his Good Friday death to his supper.
- Note that as we look at the Maundy Thursday events, here in Jewish thinking Friday has already begun at sundown (our Thursday evening).
- Jesus instituted the supper on the same day as his death.
- They are eating the Passover just like Jews all over the world were that night and then Jesus pulls the big switch.
- He changes course, he changes to something different – something that was never done before at Passover.
- At other times references have been made about Jesus and bread – bread of life etc. Now what Jesus is doing is showing the disciples (and us) what it means and for what purpose – he now makes it real.
27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,
- The cup / wine does no good without drinking it. People can say it is a memorial all they want – but couldn’t it be just placing it in the center of the room and giving it honor?
- No! you must eat and drink because in it is Jesus.
- We have entered the No Pixie Dust zone.
28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
- Covenant = testament
- This act of eating and drinking is for a purpose – for the forgiveness of sins.
- This is the last will and testament of Jesus – we are the beneficiaries of this – and what has been willed to us? our forgiveness and salvation.
- Think about a will / testament – only the testator can make changes. I can’t interject over the actual words and say – “well I know what it says, I get the stamp collection, but what it really meant was that I get his baseball card collection – not George.”
- Do you see where I am going? We cannot change it and say forgiveness and salvation are not directly attached to the bread and wine.
29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
- What do we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? “Your kingdom come.”
- We are praying for Jesus to come and drink from the cup.
With the kidney stones, the gall bladder attacks, and then the surgery, I’ve been prescribed powerful painkillers.
I’ve been told to use them aggressively.
The doctors say the worst thing you can do is end up “chasing pain”.
If you wait till something hurts really bad before taking the painkillers, you will never catch up to the pain level you’re experiencing.
You will always be chasing pain.
You have to use the medications when the pain starts, then keep medicating until the episode is over.
We do the same thing with emotional pain these days…if you’re stressed, depressed, or out of sorts, there’s a pill for that.
If you don’t want a pill, there’s a drink or six (and in my neck of the woods), a pot store on every corner.
We will do whatever it takes to not feel pain.
We will not chase pain, we will crush it from the get go and do everything we can to keep it at bay.
The problem with this is that you often end up not feeling much of anything.
St. Irenaeus wrote; “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
To be fully alive means that we not only fully experience the joys of life, but it’s pain and sadness.
Pain tells us that something is wrong in body or circumstance.
It reminds us that the entire creation is groaning, but that a Redeemer has come is and is coming.
Pain involves suffering and suffering is an avenue through which we both experience and model the life of Christ.
Pain can dig deep wells of empathy and humility and love for others who suffer as well.
Pain says you’re still alive and still in need of your Savior.
My last few years have been filled with physical pain and at times, emotional despair.
I have asked many times for relief from the Lord.
He has answered my prayers with His presence and more suffering.
I know Him much better than I knew Him before.
There are times when it is wise to moderate pain….but there are also times when it is the glory of God to embrace it.
We were created to be fully alive…and share in His suffering.
About ten minutes later my phone rang.
“They lied to you. They will put your cat down”.
A few minutes later, I was on my way to bail Chester out of the pound.
I had left him there because I was told he was sick and had to be kept indoors forever…and that they would adopt him out to someone who could provide a safe home for him.
Now, my anonymous caller claimed that wasn’t the case.
My heart couldn’t take the risk that they were right.
I emptied my bank account with the cat bail bondsman and they sent someone to fetch him from his cell.
I called out his name…and you could hear him howling back all the way up the hall and into the lobby.
His Daddy had finally come…he wasn’t abandoned after all.
He was howling all the way home…a song of both thankfulness and pure relief.
Miss Kitty met him at the door, her own calling having been answered.
Chester was home.
Things aren’t the same as when he left, we have new challenges to face .
We’ll face them together.
I’m writing this for two reasons.
One, I shared my grief with you last week and you need to know my grief has been turned to joy.
Second…some of you are waiting for your Daddy to show up.
Your friends have been calling Him too.
You think you may have been abandoned in a cage of despair and solitude.
It’s not true.
Your Father has never ceased thinking about you…your name is engraved on the palms of His hands.
He will not leave or forsake you.
It will feel like He’s done both…but feelings lie sometimes.
When the timing is right…He’ll be there to pick you up.
There will always be challenges, but you and Dad will face them together.
Then your mourning will be turned to joy.
Just ask Chester.
Be ready to howl.
Make your own application…
“Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’
And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’ ” (Mark 7:31-37)
“He has done all things well”, confessed the astonished crowd. When Jesus does things, He does them, all of them, “well,” as in – leaving nothing to be desired. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Christ’s works are indeed astonishing.
“He has done all things well.”
Jesus is our Redeemer, who does the things for our redemption well. With this account, Mark takes us back into the Book of Isaiah, in which it is prophesied: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” (Isa 35:5-6) Jesus was out fulfilling God’s promise of redemption for the world on a highway called “the Way of Holiness” (Isa 35:8). Jesus testified that He is the “Way” (John 14:6), and the earliest Church was known as “the Way” (Acts 9:2).
The “Way of Holiness” passed through the womb of a young virgin, a manger, a short ministry of preaching and works of mercy, a cross at Calvary and a sepulcher which could not hold Him. Jesus united Himself to creation in His incarnation, so that He could redeem creation as our Redeemer. On the cross Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, dying as a ransom for many. The Gospel is the proclamation of our redemption given to faith in Christ alone.
“He has done all things well.”
Jesus has compassion for the plight of humanity which is captive to sin and death: “looking up to heaven, he sighed”. Though He came to redeem the whole world, Jesus is a personal Savior who heals each one of us according to our individual needs.
Jesus heals from afar, and He heals close up. He heals in public, and Jesus heals in private. Jesus heals using His finger inserted into a deaf man’s ear, and He heals by inserting a disciple’s finger into His nail-scared hand. He heals using physical elements (e.g., mud, spittle, water, the fringe of His garment, bread and wine), and Jesus heals by His Word alone. Jesus heals at the request of faithful intercessors, and He heals according to His own initiative. Whatever the circumstances, Jesus heals each one of us according to our individual needs.
“He has done all things well.”
When God completed His original creative work, the Book of Genesis records: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) The words “well” and “good” (in the Septuagint) both come from the same Greek word. What the crowd in Mark’s gospel confessed about Jesus’ redemptive work is essentially the same declaration that God made concerning original creation. Therefore, we may have absolute confidence that Jesus’ redemptive work is every bit as beautiful, excellent and God-directed as the original creation itself. After all, the Word who said “Let there be light (Gen 1:3), also said “Ephphatha.”
“He has done all things well.”
“And they were astonished beyond measure….” This is the part of the story that might make us uncomfortable. The people who brought the deaf and speech impaired man to Jesus were astonished by the healing. They knew Jesus was a healer, but witnessing Him actually heal this particular man astonished the crowd. This historical event raises questions for us: Are the days of astonishment over? Is Jesus still at work today doing astonishing things? Or does the issue reside with our faith?
Should we not be astonished:
- that Jesus has opened the door to heaven for us and through His suffering and death has reconciled us to God out of pure grace?
- that Jesus speaks to us today in His Word as surely as He spoke to the peoples of Palestine 2,000 years ago?
- that Jesus heals our hearts with the forgiveness of sins through faith in the Gospel? “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)
- that Jesus baptizes us into His own death and resurrection, making us heirs of God and fellow heirs with Him, creating in Him one family and kingdom consisting of brothers and sisters from all nations, races and ethnic groups?
- that Jesus enables us to pray to God as Father for all our needs and in times of trouble by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, and that our prayers will be heard?
- that Jesus comes to us in a Holy Communion meal to personally bestow us with the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation?
- that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, He promises us the resurrection of our bodies?
Upon reflection, we do have many reasons to be astonished today, indeed many more than the short list above describes. Jesus has done, and continues to do all things well, for us. “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)
May our Lord and God open our ears to receive His Word of astonishing grace, and release our tongues to sing aloud of His righteousness, both now and forever. For “He has done all things well.” Amen.
“And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa 35:8-10) Amen.
“The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations. These are two of the major findings from this report, which is based on findings from PRRI’s 2016 American Values Atlas, the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted.”
The numbers are clear.
The church in America is rapidly aging and shrinking.
The question is…what do the numbers mean and can we reverse the trends?
There is a wealth of fascinating material in this report…well worth taking the time to read.
I have been writing here for somewhere around a year and a half now. Many days I wonder how much longer I’ll keep it up as I scuffle to find something of significance to write. Some days I’m eager to write about a pressing topic while many others it’s a struggle to think of anything I think I can write about in any meaningful way.
Blog writing demands a regular filling of material, at least where there is a desire to keep an active blog of participants and readers. I honestly don’t know how Michael has done it all these years.
When I do take on a topic with some weight to it, I often find myself not landing completely on either of the frequently already developed polarized sides. I do not set out to find a neutral mushy middle, but rather to honestly evaluate the nuance and the comprehensive rightness and wrongness of the many facets of an issue. I do this far from perfectly as I do not nearly have the mental capacity or knowledge to thoroughly think through every aspect of an issue, and as much as I try to intentionally avoid biases and unnecessary filters, I am sure I still succumb to some level of my own proclivities. Yet my desire is to accomplish these ambitions the best I can.
I then attempt to communicate what I think and believe about said topic. On points that I think are pretty clearly right and wrong I will state my opinions in a stronger fashion. On other points that don’t appear as clear, I will try to communicate as such and convey that I think we should be more open to allowing for exploration and difference of opinion. Again, by no means am I perfect in making these determinations or in my manner of communicating them as I certainly am not the final authority on all truth and I am far from a master writer or communicator. But on the whole, I try to write in a manner to generate discourse and consideration of varying aspects and/or viewpoints on an issue.
I think we often have good and fruitful periods of discussion here. However, because I often do not fully land in an already existing fully entrenched camp, I end up leaving myself vulnerable….. times two. And it is usually not a fun place to be. To some, I am a disingenuous liberal who tries to disguise myself as a conservative. To others, I am a scum of the earth racist who cavorts among my other disgusting conservative friends. Both sides sometimes see me as some kind of wishy-washy prude who won’t take a stand and fulfill my Christian responsibilities, such as my duty to vote for Trump or alternatively my duty to disagree with and denounce every single thing the man does and says.
There are plenty like me who are comfortable not always having to exclusively choose one side or the other. But the louder, more aggressive, more castigating voices seemingly come more frequently from those on the ends, not the middle. These voices are not that frequently engendered at this blog, or at least are kept in check to some degree by the community. Other venues (online and offline), however, can be a different story when one voices their opinion. And when that opinion doesn’t fully satisfy either side, the charges can come painfully barreling in from opposite sides.
This will not cause me, however, to fundamentally change how I go about writing and conversing here or in other settings. I like to think through things and I like to try to help others to do the same. To give an entreaty to others to not always stay in their boxes and consider that those with whom they differ may actually be right and worthwhile on some points on occasion. Maybe even multiple occasions.
I will continue to state what I believe to be right and wrong even if it upsets opposing sides at the same time and I am told how wrong and messed up I am. But I will also try to do so as honestly and reasonably and respectfully as I can. Sometimes even in the ensuing discussion, I will come to see where I need to tweak some of my stated beliefs, if not even possibly make significant changes, and I will try to acknowledge as much. Again, I do not do these things anywhere nearly perfectly, but they are still my aims.
I try to set some kind of example in these ways as I believe God has gifted me with some ability to logically and reasonably and honestly work through issues without a strong propensity to always have to line up with a predetermined group or position. Others may think I’m misguided or just full of it. My abilities are fallible, but I hope in some sense I have helped or encouraged at least a few to think through some specific issues, or in general have helped the manner in which they approach or think through meaningful issues and circumstances. As long as I believe God is guiding me to write and converse as such, I will do so. And, of course when comes to this blog, I always have Michael who could say, “That’s hogwash”, to some article I write and choose not to run it. 🙂
I have spent much of this article writing about myself. But I don’t want to end that way because it is not and should not be about me. I don’t even like the spotlight, in the first place. I choose to write here because of this community. The Phoenix Preacher community and further still, the extended family of God. This has always been an odd and unique place. And I believe it is in some ways the “Via Media” that Dr. Arnold wrote about so well on Monday. May it continue to be a place of peculiar fellowship where we encourage, learn from, and challenge each other. All in the name of following after Christ, our mutual Savior.