Interacting with the “Tangible Kingdom”

ImageIn The Tangible Kingdom, authors Hugh Halter and Matt Smay have a simple purpose: to address the unsettling feelings of hundreds and thousands (of people) have regarding the church and her current condition (xix). In addressing those, with unsettling feelings and emotions about the church, they hope to provide a tangible picture of how the Kingdom of God can become tangible here and now. In order to accomplish this purpose and aim, they want to present and explain how the contemporary church can become more missional and incarnational, which they believe describe the ancient faith communities in the book of Acts and throughout history (xix).

In this brief section, I want to highlight the strengths of the book that add value to the missional church discussion as well as weaknesses.

Halter, who writes much of the book, has at least three strengths that add value to the missional church and those seeking to become more missional. First, Halter has a deep seeded love for all people, especially those far from God. His passion is evident throughout the book as he shares stories of being intentionally relational with people in his everyday life. By doing this, Halter paints a present day “Friend of Sinners” picture. In being missional and incarnational, it is essential that those who are farthest from God find a loving, gracious, and peaceful environment around the people of God, rather than one of judgment, condemnation, and antagonism. In creating this kind of environment, relational bridges are built that win a hearing (12). Halter has witnessed, first-hand, the gospel do amazing work in lives of many people.

Second, I believe he displays a solid understanding of the condition of the church, its ineffectiveness to reach the lost, as well as the tension present within the church. Halter understands, like many others, that the church has serious problems in North America. However, Halter addresses the fact that not much has happened over recent years to penetrate the lostness of our culture. He argues that what has taken place in the church has been transfer growth. Either the death of so many churches has created a feeder church culture, where much of the church growth has came about through member swapping, or the growth has come about by “rechurching”— those who were burned or burned out by church, but have come back. Conversional growth, according to Halter, is scarce at best.

In addition, Halter addresses a brewing tension within the church, a tension that becomes more noticeable each year. This tension is in regards of issues such as doctrine, theology, and church practice. The emerging missional sect are convinced that people need Christ’s atonement, but do not seem to feel they need to get someone to pray the prayer. They also do not put a lot of emphasis on preaching and programs. In addition, they focus less on behavior. Halter writes, “The best way to characterize this coming civil war is to see the church in two primary camps. One we’ll call ‘Jerusalem Christians’ (those who see the person of Jesus through their traditions and the literal interpretation of doctrine) and the other ‘Galilee Christians’ (those who see the Christian message through the person of Jesus and the narratives about his life.)” (18-19). I think this is a good estimation about what is happening between two evangelical camps and a tension that will likely continue to happen. Other writers have pointed out this contrast and have proposed a “third” way or “balanced” approach. (see Jim Belcher’s, Deep Church; Mark Liederbach and Alvin Reid’s, The Convergent Church;

Third, Halter provides sound advice, wisdom, and discernment for those desirous to lead an established traditional (or conventional) structured church to becoming more missional. He writes, “The key to reconstructing ‘ancient’ forms of church requires patience, savvy, wisdom, and love for everyone in the family…” (26). In addition, Halter expresses, if you try to keep everyone in the same cage, model, or system along the missional journey, you are in for a rude awakening. Navigating such water requires wise leadership and stewarding everyone well (27). Halter is fair towards the established and more traditional forms of churches. He believes they do have a role to play, although not all will be on the front lines of the mission and missional engagement. Thus, he is correct that there are and should be ways to be creative and chart “new forms” that would help more rooted traditional established churches get involved in mission even though they may not be themselves missional in their form. A caveat to his critique, or argument would be, that while many established, conventional, and traditional forms of church are missionally irrelevant, that does not mean they cannot be. Just because churches may not have the same form, structure, language, and praxis as Halter, does not mean they are not missional, incarnational, or relevant.

The strengths of Halter, his story and journey towards missional and incarnational living, are convicting, challenging, and contagious. I desire the same relationships with those who are searching and looking. In addition, I share the same sentiments with him about the dearth condition of the church and the tension that exists among the different forms and structures of various church sects. However, his overly pragmatic and principlized description and explanation of the missional and incarnational church becomes a great concern. It is a great concern because there is a lack of theological clarity. There are at least two examples of a lack of theological clarity to his argument for the missional and incarnational church.

Theological and Missiological Misunderstanding of Posture:

First, Halter in his chapter on posture (how one lives) writes the following,

The idea of posture helps us realize that truth is important, but according to scripture, truth is not the only thing or the most important thing. The most important thing is whether or not people are attracted to the truth, drawn into the truth, and able to understand and receive the truth…. What makes the gospel good news isn’t the concept, but the real-life person who has been changed by it…. In our Adullam Network (Church), we specifically ask people not to try to be ‘evangelistic.’ We suggest to them that if people aren’t asking about their lives, then we haven’t postured our faith well enough or long enough. We’re observing that every story of conversion and transformation happened without anyone being approached with a message. The message has gotten out, not as our main priority, but as our gentle response to their curiosity…. Christ’s example and his scripture show us that God is not proud when we prioritize our message over our posture. Jesus didn’t and we shouldn’t. He doesn’t need us to stick up for him; he needs us to represent him, to be like him, to look like him and to talk like him, to be with people that he would be with, and to take the side of the ‘ignorant’ instead of those in the ‘know.’. . . . For our posture to change, our heart must change. And our heart only changes as we live among the people for whom we will eventually advocate (41-42; 46).

I believe there are many theological as well as missiological indiscretions within Halter’s discussion on posture. First, according to Halter the church’s lifestyle of the gospel is more important than the message itself. I take the position that the essence of “good news” is a message not a lifestyle. The message of Jesus—that the King has come to redeem and save people from their sin, reconciling all things to God—is the cornerstone of the church. Halter has replaced the cornerstone of the church—the gospel message—with the church’s posture or lifestyle. Oxygen is another way of thinking about what Halter is arguing. Oxygen keeps things living; it sustains life. According to Halter, the church’s posture/lifestyle is oxygen that causes things to live and breath rather than the message of the gospel. Many times the reason why believers’ posture is lacking—usually means the message has not been a reality, or at the very least, is not a priority.

Second, getting the message of the gospel out is not the main priority, but living the message is. If this was true, the gospel would still be in Jerusalem. Moreover, the Incarnation itself proves that God’s priority is telling the good news (getting the gospel out) of his redemptive kingdom. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61, where the Spirit of the Lord is upon him and has anointed him to proclaim good news… “(Luke 4:18).

Third, as Halter expressed, God is not proud of people prioritizing the message over posture. What is more important, the message that Jesus is Lord or that his pupils live right? It seems that he puts the cart (church’s posture) before the horse (the gospel message). I certainly, in my critique, have swung the pendulum back. However, I do believe there should be a balanced approach to our posture. We are called to be “witnesses,” to “make disciples.” In addition, God’s people have been called to “bless.” Therefore, believers should have a posture that is holistic, where they both verbalize (proclaim) and embody (demonstrate) the gospel. In other words, believers in their relationships should be able to give evidence, verbally, of how their postured lives are centered around their great King, King Jesus. In addition, their postured lives should enact and embody this redemption and restoration in their relationships, vocations, and in their social and cultural involvement. Therefore, I would argue that “posture” involves words and lifestyle, or better known as word and deed.

Fourth, according to Halter, truth isn’t truth, unless others are attracted to and understand it. Thus, believers need to make sure they are living right—living the good news—before telling others. He writes, “What makes the gospel good news isn’t the concept, but the real-life person who has been changed by it….” For me, this is too anthropocentric—centered on man. I would like to view the gospel in a Christo-centric fashion. What makes the gospel the gospel, is not whether or not I am faithful to Jesus, but the reality that Jesus came, lived, died, and resurrected and now invites everyone (all nations) into his good news story of redemption. As Paul exclaims, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom 1:16). On the one hand, I do believe that our lives are signs that point to the power of the gospel, as well as a fragrant aroma that spreads the triumphal fragrance of the gospel—Christ’s victory over sin and death (1 Cor 2:14-15). However, on the other hand, our lives can detract, repel, and muddy the glorious gospel. Yet, that does not mean it fails to still be the gospel, or fails to still be truth.

Fifth, our heart changes for people only when we live among them. In his whole treatise on posture, there is this anthropological focus. Halter has focused on what we do over what Jesus has done. And here, he says that our heart will change for people only when we live among them. The truth is that our heart will not change for people until the message of the gospel has changed our heart. We are inherently sinful, prone to relational strain. Unless the gospel transforms our heart we will not be propelled and compelled to go and live among people who are not like us. Thus, I believe that Halter is theologically and missiologically disordered as to the role of posture in being missional and incarnational. Posture is not something that we can conjure up on our own, but it is something that is birthed from the transforming power of the gospel and empowered by the indwelling Spirit.

Theological and Missiological Misunderstanding of the Gospel?

Halter expresses great concern over posture to the point of over-shadowing the message of the gospel. And it may very well be that the reason why the church has really failed to live out the gospel is that they don’t know, or have forgotten, or have misconstrued what it is. In fact, maybe they have not embraced it as truth. In any case, Halter continues to allow pragmatism to overshadow theological and missiological depth. This time he does so in explaining what the gospel is. He writes, “What was the gospel? What is the gospel? It is the tangible life of God flowing into every nook and cranny of our everyday life” (90).

I struggle with his definition of the gospel. The gospel does not originate from man’s life, but from the divine life. The gospel is that the King has come to save us from ourselves, to save us from our dark kingdom and invite us into his glorious kingdom (Col 1:13), which does invade every nook and cranny of our life (see the story of Zacchaeus). The gospel is the invitation to come and die to our self, our sin, our kingdom, our lives, and receive a new kingdom, a new person, and a new nature. The “tangible life of God” cannot flow from one’s life without the confession, belief, and faith that we are sinful and rebellious and that Jesus is our King, Lord, Savior, and our God. My caution, for those like Halter, would be: do not swing the pendulum so far back to the left, dumbing down the glorious gospel by watering down the sinfulness, depravity, and wickedness of man. In addition don’t swing it so far back to the point of focusing on what the gospel does to the neglect of  explaining what it is. The definition of the gospel is not predicated upon what it does, but what it is. And the truth of the gospel applied to a life leads to the transformation of that life and then to the verbal and demonstrative witness.

While I have my concerns, albeit theological and missiological, with The Tangible Kingdom, I do believe  there are nuggets to digest as the authors call us to embody the gracious, loving, and transforming gospel of Jesus Christ as we seek those who are far away from God.

Beauty and the Beholder

Life contains things that we consider beautiful as well as those things that we consider not so beautiful. Ok—ugly. I remember growing up learning the chant—U.G.L.Y. you ain’t got no alibi, you ugly…you ugly. I know, that was not very redemptive. However, that silly little chant reveals the point, we think some things are ugly, while on the other hand, some things are beautiful. Digging a little deeper, we all long for beautiful things. How many of us want to marry an ugly person? How many of us long to see the birth of an ugly baby? When it comes to our culture, we spend billions upon billions of dollars to beautify ourselves. From the latest fashion, to the latest make-up and hairstyle, we strive to dress our lives in beauty—even if it is subjective beauty. In short, we are infatuated with beauty in a world that contains so much ugly.

Have you ever thought about why we love beauty so much? I believe that the concept of beauty is etched in our very nature. God created us in his glorious image, an image that should not reflect anything but beauty, splendor, and glory since there resides nothing in God contrary to beauty. He epitomizes beauty! Not only does he epitomize beauty, he created it. He looked upon his creation and deemed it “good.” Thus I believe that innate within the human desire rests the longing and need for beauty.

Since we have been innately designed with the need for beauty, we are therefore infatuated with beauty. The problem is, our lives as well as our world contains some pretty ugly things. Little things like blemishes, balding, and beer-bellies are small ugly things compared to that of diseases, disasters, disappointments, and deaths. Daily we combat the miniscule ugliness that invades our lives, which can be like pesky mosquitos. But it is the larger, more painful, side of ugliness that deeply affects humans. Things like cancer eroding the body, the lay-off at the company that mismanaged finances, the inability to get pregnant, the divorce that exploded like a volcano, the piling debt, the betrayal of friends or a community, the rejection from a relationship or job, or the loss of a loved-one are elevated levels of ugliness that constantly affect our lives. There are also other larger aspects of ugliness that reside within our world that we face, things like violence, murder, poverty, corruption, greed, terrorism, wars, racism, and more. So there are two questions for us living in a world tainted by ugliness, all the while longing for the beauty. First, how do we cope within this broken world? Second, where do we place our hope in this broken world?

Our coping mechanism within a broken world tainted by ugliness rests within our soteriology, or our belief in salvation. If we know our world and lives (although they contain glimmers of beauty and the beautiful) are broken, damaged and distorted, then that knowledge leads to the search for salvation—a saving or redemption from the brokenness and ugliness of our world. Take the Enlightenment for example. Knowing that the world was broken and contained much ugliness, the Enlightenment promised redemption and healing through man’s reasoning abilities. If man could identify the problem, he could reason, think, and create a way forward that potentially could usher in a state of peace and healing. The coping mechanism centered around man and what he could do and achieve.

In addition, political or governmental systems nobly attempt to rid the society of the brokenness and ugliness that resides therein. Therefore, many people look to the government to “fix” the ugliness. Again, the coping mechanism centers around humanity and what they can do to beautify the world. Furthermore, most religious systems build salvation and redemption around man. If man can labor towards moral and social good, and be good enough, then they will save themselves and to some degree make something beautiful of the world. Once again, the coping mechanism for people like this focuses on the efforts of man. Therefore salvation lies with humanity. And if we were really honest, and astute observers of history, we would be realize that trusting in man for salvation and redemption from the ugly, broken, damaged, and distortion of our lives and our world is futile. How can the one who authors and continues to author such ugliness, brokenness, and distortion be the redeemers of such?

However, I believe Scripture reveals another center, another focus, of salvation. The Bible’s grand story centers around the God-man Jesus Christ who has entered into our broken world and substituted his perfect, beautiful, unbroken, unblemished, and sinless life for our broken, damaged, distorted, and sinful lives. He exclaims that he came to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Therefore, Jesus becomes our coping mechanism, especially when we face the ugliness, brokenness, and twistedness of life. We cope, for we trust in our great God and Savior who has broken into the brokenness of our world and of our lives, and promised salvation and redemption for all those who believe. For those who believe in him, he begins the process of sanctification—the process of being made holy, or being conformed into his image. In other words, those who believe begin the process of being made whole. Thus, we face the brokenness of our world and [even] of our lives knowing that God is in the process of redeeming and reconciling all things to himself through Jesus Christ (Col 1:20).

While our understanding and belief about soteriology—that true salvation and redemption is found only in Jesus Christ—provides solace as we cope with the brokenness of our world and of our lives, our understanding and belief about eschatology, or our belief about the end times, provides great hope as we cope. Hope defined looks forward to the things yet unseen. As the author of Hebrews put it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). While we cope in Jesus—knowing that he has redeemed us from our sin and brokenness and is in the process of making us whole—we hope in Jesus knowing that he is coming a second time to fully restore the brokenness of our world and of our lives. Jesus declares that he is making all things new (Rev 21:5). The end vision that John paints contains a new remade world, one where mourning, crying, pain, and death will have passed away (Rev 21:4). So as we fix our hope on the author and perfecter of our faith, and his great promise of a new remade city, we find great hope—a hope that energizes our spirit to move forward in this life as we (have been called to) proclaim (and even tangibly demonstrate to some degree) the salvation, redemption, and future restoration of our Great God and King, Jesus.

Therefore, beauty truly describes the Beholder. In addition, beauty is in the eyes and plan of the Beholder; the one who created the heavens and the earth, the one who created man in his own image, who watched man damage, distort, and “uglify” his world, is in the process of remaking the world. He seeks to redeem, restore, and recreate his world into its pre-fall state. From his vantage point, the world is in the process of being remade into something fully beautiful, glorious, and splendorous. [Please note: I am not trying to discount the glimmers of beauty and good that exists now in the world. My attempt within this post has been to point out the brokenness that does exist in our lives and our world and where we can turn to cope and find hope.] Learning to see life and even the future from his vantage point will help us both cope and hope in this world as we face the ugliness and brokenness of sin. In addition, looking from God’s vantage point speaks to us that he truly can take that which is deemed ugly and dirty and make something beautiful. Therefore, don’t give up on God just yet. Behold him and know: he can take that which is ugly, damaged, distorted, twisted, and broken and make something beautiful, glorious, and splendorous. 

7 Deadly Sins: 7 Sins that Lead to the Unhealthiness of Churches

These seven categories are not exhaustive, but are ones that did exist within Israel, as well as New Testament believers and churches. Therefore, these provide an overview of the categories of root sins that cause the erosion and imminent demise of churches.

(1) Ethnocentrism

After the fall of man and the creation of different nations at Babel, a major thrust of Scripture is God’s heart for the nations and his heart to utilize his people to reach the nations. However, especially in the Old Testament, Israel struggled with the sin of ethnocentrism (believing in the superiority of one’s own group). Jonah was one who exemplified the ethnocentric prejudices Israel had against other nations. In the New Testament, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and Great Commission brought a major paradigm shift to God’s people. Rather than being centripetal in their mission, they were to become centrifugal. In other words, they were to go to the Gentiles. This paradigm shift unsettled and confused many Jews. Even those Jewish believers who accepted this major paradigm shift relapsed into the sin of ethnocentrism. Peter, one of the more prominent New Testament figures, relapsed into this sin, which sparked a rebuke from the apostle Paul. Paul in his letter to the Galatians shares about the time he rebuked Peter for his regression. Paul says, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel… “(Gal 2:11-14).

Peter exemplifies the sinful struggle many people have with ethnocentrism. Many who struggle with this sin cannot handle diversity and crossing racial, national, or socio-economic lines. Ethnocentrism can manifest itself as racism, and racism lacerates the heart of the gospel and thwarts the mission of God. Mark DeYmaz articulates, “Couple it [ethnocentrism] with hate, and racism is born…In either case, the problem with racism [is]…it is sin…Before we can rightly pursue-cross-cultural competence, then, we must recognize that both ethnocentrism and racism are concepts foreign to the kingdom of God….”[1] Many have even pointed out the fact that Sundays are the most segregated day during the week. With communities throughout America rapidly changing demographically (ethnically, socially, and financially), churches that fail to deal with the issue and sin of ethnocentrism will be confronted with decline and imminent death.[2]

(2) Legalism

Jesus promised rest from the labor and heavy burden of legalistic religion (Matt 11:28-29). Legalism is a toxin that can eventually choke the life out of a church as well as prevent new life from entering into a church. This became a major issue in the early church, so much so they held a conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Jesus came to alleviate religious legalism, and the early church leaders followed suit. Nevertheless, legalism still subtly makes its way into churches. Mark Dever states, “The Christian life is not a life of legalism. Neither is it a life of licentious self-indulgence. It is a Christlike life.”[3] Bob Russell in his book, When God Builds a Church, writes, “Nothing stifles a church quite like legalism.”[4] Warren Wiersbe comments regarding Romans 7:10-11, “This explains why legalistic Christians and churches do not grow and bear spiritual fruit. They are living by Law, and the Law always kills. Few things are more dead than an orthodox church that is proud of its ‘high standards’ and tries to live up to them in its own energy.”[5]

In their book, UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons write about the perceptions that those outside the church have on those inside the church. These perceptions include how the church is full of hypocritical, unkind, and legalistic people. They express that, “Embracing truth without holding grace in tension leads to harsh legalism, just as grace without truth devolves to compromise.”[6] These authors quote Jeff, a 25 year old, who perceives that, “Christians talk about hating sin and loving sinners, but the way they go about things, they might as well call it what it is. They hate the sin and the sinner.”[7] Also, Kinnaman and Lyons write, “Being judgmental pushes people away from God’s purposes, and people become repulsed by an image of Jesus that is not at all like the real things.”[8] Twenty-first century legalism can range from dress code and varying preferences of moral behavior, to strict denominational adherence and harsh judgment without grace. Harsh strict legalism in churches prevents and detours outsiders from coming into the church. If people are prohibited from coming and assimilating into church, eventually the church will die because of the repulsion of legalism.

(3) Traditionalism

Standing in opposition to the gospel and reaching a fluid transitioning culture is traditionalism. Although change is imminent, many people cling to what has always been rather than adapting to change. An example of this difficulty and sinful ploy to cling to tradition rather than adapting to and contextualizing the gospel, is found in the early church. Jewish believers wanted Gentile believers to be good practicing Jews as well as good Christians. They wanted them to observe Jewish traditions in their festivals and feasts (Gal 4:8-11). Traditionalism can encompass anything from observing days, erecting architecture, style of music, strict polity, ministry programs, and antiquated evangelistic methods. In other words, traditionalism typically can be people’s preferences. Stephen Hasbrouck in the early 20th Century wrote, “Now, when so few pretend to believe in dogma and to follow tradition, when creed and dogma and traditionalism in the church are fast forcing the best men out, and as a prominent theologian has well said, are fast making the church ‘an asylum for drones and imbeciles,’ what lesson has all this for a decadent Christianity which misinterprets the spirit and truth of its great founder? In an age when the rich are in the churches and nearly all the poor are outside,–when organized Christianity has no message for the common people, no vision of social justice, no faith in the healing gospel of Christ,–is it any wonder that the church is fast losing its power to maintain the allegiance of its followers”[9].

In a study conducted among unchristian 16-29 year olds, 78 percent of them viewed the church as ‘old-fashioned.[10] Typically, when churches cling to tradition, they may fail in properly contextualizing the gospel to those they are trying to and to whom they are called to reach.[11] Frank Page writes, “Much of what church had traditionally symbolized suddenly seemed quaint and confining and irrelevant…I have often said that the early church was met with persecution, while the modern-day church is met with a yawn.”[12] Page goes on to articulate, “The institutional church has taken some heavy flak in recent years…But, cultural trends and other outside forces aren’t the true villain here. Yes, the world has not been a welcoming place for the traditional church lately…These challenges give us no excuse for the fact that churches have in too many cases become lifeless, boring, and emotionally hollow. They have spiritually sputtered to the point where they have nothing left to offer…It’s no wonder that church attendance is shrinking and congregations across the country are panicked over what to do about it”[13].

Clinging to non-biblical warranted tradition is sin, whether of omission or commission.[14] As a result of this clinging, churches fail to properly and biblically contextualize the gospel. Rarely, if ever, has failure to contextualize been referred to as a sin. But it is sin, if believers fail to do their due diligence in (properly) contextualizing the gospel to the culture, society, and people they are called to reach. In order to properly contextualize the gospel, churches must exegete the culture surrounding them. They will need to become familiar to any demographic change and community change that may have taken place. Page believes that if the 1950’s came roaring back many churches today would be ready.[15] Churches failing to adapt in a contextual way to the host culture in pursuit of sharing the unchanging universal message of the gospel, fall short of the missional calling placed upon them. Without attempting to change or adapt to the culture around them, churches seal their own gloomy fate by clinging to their tradition and past.

(4) Liberal and Unsound Theology

A lack of sound, biblical, theological, Christo-centric, and gospel-centered teaching can cause churches to deteriorate, decline, and die. Hosea prophesies, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of God, I will forget your children” (Hosea 4:6). Paul, throughout his ministry, exhorts elders, leaders, and churches to guard their doctrine and teaching (Acts 20:26-32; 1 Tim 1:10-11; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; Titus 1:13; 2:1). Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians immaturity, as well as the author of Hebrews frustration with his recipients, point to the desire for a robust teaching of God’s word that results in healthy churches.

Ergun Caner and Mac Brunson in their book, Why Churches Die, espouse how spiritual bulimia and anorexia, which is a lack of biblical and theological teaching, eventually culminates in the death of a church.[16] Michael Horton asserts, “The external word of the gospel not only definitively creates but progressively disrupts, reorients, and renews the church.”[17] Embracing the Scriptures and sound doctrine prevents churches from being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). Barna, in a research project, concludes how biblical literacy for believers in the United States is neither a current reality nor goal.[18] Also, Barna notes in a 2010 group research project how the Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.[19] Barna accentuates, “The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency.”[20] The lack of theological depth today is an indictment on the lack of theological depth of yesteryear. When churches lose sight of the living, breathing, changing, convicting, and conforming word of God, they lose the bridle that controls and directs their movement. This loss becomes the epitaphs of local churches.

(5) Worldliness: Works of the Flesh

Charles Spurgeon writing over 150 years ago about the flaccid condition of the church, asserts, “One reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.”[21] Worldliness in the church manifests itself in different forms, such as, immorality, carnality, hatred, covetousness, or materialism. Paul in three different places, to three different recipients, warns the church not to partake in the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21), not to have hints of sexual immorality, impurity, crude joking, and coveting (Eph 5:3-6), and to put away the old self which included previous vices as well as anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk (Col 3:5-9). In each of these passages Paul relates how these worldly and fleshly people will not inherit the kingdom of God, but will face the wrath of God. Although Christians will not be perfect, they are called to be pure and holy. Paul warns and exhorts these believers and churches not to habitually engage in sinful behavior, which warrants God’s wrath. Therefore, churches and believers need to reject living as agents of the kingdom of darkness, and live as agents of the kingdom of God.

Also, some churches may have the unsettling experience of their leadership or membership who succumbed to sexual promiscuity, immorality, or worldliness, which leads to splits, dissensions, and divisions. Churches which have experienced fights, disputes, divisions, and dissensions have been tainted with the paralyzing affects of sin. Many times these paralyzing affects of sin have also involved and been coupled with the sins of slander, malice, bitterness, anger, resentment, and hatred. Unresolved sins of carnality and immorality can erode the health and vitality of a church. Dever notes in his work, Twelve Challenges Churches Face, that Paul, in reference to the situation of 1 Corinthians 5, was highlighting that the entire church community is endangered by continued unrepentant sin.[22] Constantly examining the internal leadership and membership of the church is tantamount, because it will confront unbridled and unconfessed sins of immorality and carnality. These sins are cancers that eat away at the effectiveness, fruitfulness, and vibrancy of congregations to the point they become empty white-washed tombs.

(6) Loss of Passion for the Gospel and Lost

The loss of fervor and zeal for Christ, his gospel, and people are also sins that will eventually deteriorate a church to the point they become unfruitful, leading to decline and possible death. There are a few reasons why churches lose their missional and evangelistic zeal and fervor. First, when a church possesses the attitude ‘us four and no more’ the gospel and lost people fade into the background. Outsiders who attend a church with this mentality feel uncomfortable, as do the members. Churches seeking to retain sweet fellowship neglect assimilating new people into the body of the church.[23]

Another reason why churches lose their zeal and fervor for the gospel and unbelievers is their rejection of the culture outside the church. Once converted and immersed into the church, many tend to gravitate towards a Christian subculture. John Stott argues against Christian immersion into a subculture, even though some view conversion to Christianity as a removal from the culture, never to enter again for fear of contamination.[24] This antagonist perception of culture prohibits churches from contextualizing the gospel and engaging culture for community transformation.[25] In order to engage people with the gospel, churches must become centrifugal in their mission rather than solely centripetal. This will require more of a missionary posture rather than a Christendom one.[26]

Third, internal maintenance and focus of a church attributes to a loss of evangelistic zeal. Churches have the tendency to regress into functioning as a stale institution rather than a living organism meant to reproduce. Barna states,

Many of the declining congregations were virtually unknown within their community. Because they had committed all of their resources to internal service, people outside the walls of the church were unaware that the church existed. The prospects for numerical growth, much less spiritual growth, are virtually nil in such a climate of self-contemplation and selfishness.”[27]

Barna also explains, “In declining churches, you find a lack of passion for ministry. Ministry becomes a job or a series of routine activities that are to be performed at the prescribed time by the usual cast of characters like a Broadway play.”[28] The mundane of ministry maintenance dissipates passion in people, leading to spiritual lethargy, which robs churches of the joy of serving, ministry, and mission.

Fourth, churches lose fervor for Christ, the gospel, and his mission when they have a loss of affection for the gospel and how it once impacted their life. In other words, they lose gospel centrality. Jerry Bridges in his book, The Discipline of Grace, encourages believers to preach the gospel everyday to themselves.[29] Not only should believers constantly remind themselves of the gospel, but churches should as well. Churches that are severely in decline and near death must have the propensity to recapture the power and centrality of the gospel, as well as a passion for Christ’s mission if they are to make a turnaround.[30] Thom Rainer commented, “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying.”[31] Dying and decaying churches need a rebirth of evangelistic fervor and missional zeal.

(7) Idolatry

Eclipsing the preeminence of Christ in the life of a church and believer is ultimately idolatry. Idolatry occurs when we turn our backs on God and turn our whole selves toward sin.[32] Many of the other root sins described result from idolatry, which originates in the heart. The church today, especially in the West, faces the same addiction to idolatry as the nation of Israel. God commanded Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). God demanded utter preeminence in the nation of Israel; nothing was to take his place of unadulterated worship. Although God demanded sole allegiance and worship of him, Israel struggled throughout its history to obey this command. Idolatry and syncretistic worship led to the end of Israel’s hegemony.

Also expulsion and exile from the land were consequences Israel faced as a result of their idolatry. G.K. Beale commented regarding Israel’s idolatry stating, “When they failed to function as divine image-bearers in this way, they, like Adam and Eve, were exiled from their garden-like land and from God’s special revelatory presence.”[33] Although idolatry seems to take on different forms from the Old Testament to the New[34], it still existed and had the same potential to gravely affect the new covenanted community. This is the reason why New Testament authors warned about idolatry (Acts 15:20; 1 Cor 10:1-14; Col 3:5; 1 John 5:21).

What may be considered idol worship in churches today, which may lead to their deterioration, decline, and death? Traditions, buildings, land, programs, local church historical relics, and personal preferences are all things that could potentially become idols to a church. Clinging to tradition, buildings, land, programs, relics, and preferences become factors that prohibit churches from changing, contextualizing the gospel, and making disciples. David Wells believes the evangelical church today is captivated by the idolatry of self and this idolatry is “as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament.”[35] Idolatry greatly affects the heart and identity of churches where they no longer cling to and identify with Christ, the gospel, and the Great Commission, but rather they cling to and identify with materials, traditions, locations, programs, people, and relics.[36] Identifying and attaching to anything other than Christ and his gospel erodes a heart for the gospel, dismantles the preeminence of Christ, and paralyzes churches from participating in the Great Commission.


[1] Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments, and Practices of a Diverse Congregation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 102.

[2] The population of America is projected to drastically increase as well as become more diverse by race and Hispanic origin. This information can be found at: http://www.census.gov/population/www/pop-profile/natproj.html.

[3] Mark Dever, Twelve Challenges Churches Face (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2008), 98.

[4] Bob Russell, When God Builds a Church: 10 Principles for Growing a Dynamic Church (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co, 2000), 83.

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, ed. , (Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, 1989), 536.

[6] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 36.

[7] Ibid, 181.

[8] Ibid, 184.

[9] Stephen Hasbrouck, Altar Fires Relighted: A Study From a Non-Partisan Standpoint of Movements and Tendencies at Work in the Religious Life of To-Day (New York: Burnett Publishing Co, 1912), 65.

[10] Kinnaman, UnChristian, 28. Also, in this study 1/3 of Christians believe their faith is old-fashioned and out of touch with reality; and one-quarter of young Christians believe their faith is boring and insensitive to others (UnChristian, 34).

[11] Contextualization, according to David Hesslegrave, “Has to do with making a message (such as the biblical gospel) meaningful to people who are ‘foreign’ in the ethno-cultural sense or to those who subscribe to a ‘foreign’ worldview” (Paradigms in Conflict, 245-46). Also, Hesslegrave and Edward Rommen in their co-authored book, Contextualization: Meaning, Methods, and Models, writes, “Undergirding this book is a simple thesis: namely, contextualization is more than a neologism, it is a necessity…Third, if the gospel is to be understood, contextualization must be true to the complete authority and unadulterated message of the Bible on the one hand, and it must be related to the cultural, linguistic, and religious background of the respondents on the other” (Contextualization, xi).

[12] Frank Page, The Incredible Shrinking Church, 1.

[13] Frank Page, The Incredible Shrinking Church, 3.

[14] Paul Hiebert in his essay in the book, MissionShift, notes, “Jesus was incarnated in a cultural context, and modern missionaries must communicate the gospel in a particular cultural context” (MissionShift, 101). Also Hiebert states how early pioneer missionaries practiced minimal contextualization, which led to Westernized forms of theology, worship, and church polity (MissionShift, 100). And a lack of contextualization for some churches in the West has led to their domain of decay and imminent death.

[15] Page, The Incredible Shrinking Church, 8.

[16] Mac Brunson and Ergun Caner, Why Churches Die: Diagnosing Lethal Poisons in the Body of Christ (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2005), 171-83.

[17] Michael S. Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 192.

[18] George Barna, “Barna Studies the Research, Offers A Year-in-review Perspective,” Barna Group, 2009, http://wwwbarna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/325-barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective?q=lack+theological+depth/ (accessed February 15, 2011).

[19] George Barna, “Six Megathemes Emerge From Barna Group 2010,” Barna Group, December 13, 2010, http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/462-six-megathemes-emerge-from-2010/ (accessed February 15, 2011).

[20] Ibid. Also, Michael Horton in his book, Christless Christianity, exposes the unhealthy focus churches in the West have on deeds, not creeds. According to Horton, this teaching can become unbiblical because Christ and his gospel becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

[21] C.J. Mahaney, Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, ed. C.J. Mahaney (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008), 23.

[22] Mark Dever, Twelve Challenges Church Face, 53.

[23] Stetzer and Dodson, Comeback Churches, 21.

[24] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 1975), 181.

[25] Those who are antagonistic against culture fit within the first model (Christ against Culture) proposed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book, Christ and Culture.

[26] This is a concept Alan Hirsch argues the church must take if it will engage the unchurched and lost of today’s Western Culture. In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Hirsch distinguishes between the church’s perception of the world in a Christendom model to that of an emerging missional model.

[27] Barna, Turn-Around Churches, 37.

[28] Barna, Turn-Around Churches, 38.

[29] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 25-27.

[30] Barna, Turn-Around Churches, 40.

[31] This was posted by Thom Rainer’s twitter account on January 28, 2011 at 5:00p.m. EST.

[32] Darrin Patrick and Mark Driscoll, Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010), 168.

[33] G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2008), 51.

[34] Beale, We Become What we Worship, 162.

[35] David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 203-04.

[36] John Frame in his book, Apologetics to the Glory of God, writes regarding idolatry, “Idolatry is an escape from responsibility to the true God. It seeks freedom and autonomy. Unfortunately, the natural result of it is slavery–bondage to the idol” (196). For many churches suffering from decline and ecclesiastical death, they have clung to something other than Christ and his gospel.

Where Did All the Time Go? Finding Help in our Time Management:

Achieving excellence is impossible, in any sphere of life, without proper discipline. For many Christians and Christian leaders, the pursuit of excellence is drowned in the sea of busyness, the acceptance of good, and the demands of the urgent. In the short pamphlet, Tyranny of the Urgent, Charles Hummel explains how to live in the tension between the urgent and the important (5), in order to accomplish the work of God. In such a simple, yet pithy way, Hummel provides practical advice for believers desiring to live out the work and call of God in their life. He does so by providing: biblical examples (particularly in the life of Christ), a four-step process to becoming more productive, and the need to evaluate and plan.

First, Hummel expresses some interesting points in the life of Christ regarding accomplishing the work of God. Hummel notes that when Jesus completed his short three-year ministry, there were still lots of ministry to do. “For every ten withered muscles that had flexed into health, a hundred remained impotent” (7). This is a remarkable point, and one that is so true and sobering. Jesus was able to say with confidence that he had accomplished the work God sent him to do, although much ministry still existed. In a Christian subculture that believes busyness is the work of God and one that also allows busyness to control actions, Jesus displays a disciplined life that works hard, yet is in control of what he does.

Another important note Hummel makes regarding Jesus accomplishing the work of God, involves the discipline of prayerfully waiting on the Father’s instructions (9). This simple principle expresses that Jesus submitted to the demands and instructions of his Father, not people. In other words, the Father controlled him, not people. Even in light of people’s disappointment, Jesus still choose to listen to the Father’s instructions. One such example included healing Lazarus. Refusing to drop everything and go heal a sick Lazarus, Jesus waited in order to accomplish the perfect plan of God in raising a dead Lazarus. As Hummel notes, “The urgent need was to prevent the death of the beloved brother. But the important thing from God’s point of view was to raise Lazarus from the dead” (11). 

Last, Jesus provides the example of being completely dependent on God. This point follows close on the heels of prayer. Prayer is the beginning point of dependence, whereas follow-through is the action declaring one’s dependence on God. Hummel describes dependence on God as liberating. Hummel goes on to write, “We are never so fully personal—free to become our true selves—as when we are living in complete dependence on God” (14). The point Hummel make is valid. Man is shaped by his dependency. Many fall prey to allowing the daily urgent needs of people, situations, emails, and phone calls to kill their effectiveness for what God desires them to accomplish. What happens is that people, situations, emails, phone calls, etc become the very thing that man depends on for their self-worth and value. By doing these [good] things, many feel they are pleasing God and accomplishing good. However, it is with Jesus one learns that he was not dependent on the daily urgent things that came his way, but on the daily listening, interaction, and instructions of his Father.

Second, Hummel provides four basic steps that will help one be more productive with their time. Deciding what is important is the first step to becoming more productive with one’s time. Many things on a daily basis compete for one’s time, whether family, friends, jobs, recreation, church activities, or personal desires. With so many people and things vying for one’s time, Hummel suggests to, “Take time to write down a goal for each important activity, and estimate the time it will take during the next several months” (19). 

After deciding what is important, step two, for Hummel, requires one to discover where their times goes. In other words, Hummel suggests taking a time inventory. Taking a time inventory will provide the big picture of where one spends their time, revealing whether one is effective or ineffective with their time. Step three involves budgeting. Having taken inventory, one is ready to budget their time. Hummel suggests having a large monthly calendar to block out required activities. He counsels to begin slow and incrementally, experiencing small wins in budgeting time (23). Without explicitly stating it, Hummel would suggest people be realistic when budgeting their time. 

The last step Hummel provides for effective time management is follow-through. Following-through implements the plan that one has put in place. Without follow-through, deciding what is important, taking inventory and budgeting time becomes nil. Here, Hummel’s advice is simple, yet profound:

“Beware the tyranny of the telephone! From time to time an urgent call brings you a request for which you have no budgeted hours. The pleading voice assures you of the importance of this impending task…It may be difficult to decline…But no matter how clear the calendar looks, tell the person that you want to think it over. Surprisingly, the engagement often appears less important after the pleading voice has become silent. If you withstand the urgency of the moment, you can weight the cost and discern whether the task is God’s will for you.”

These four steps provide very practical counsel for how one can be effective and efficient, but most importantly, godly and excellent, in using their time to fulfill God’s work.

Third, Hummel provides the simple practice of evaluation and planning to effectively fulfill God’s work in one’s life. Having understood Jesus’ example of fulfilling the work of God and then planning to do the same, Hummel concludes with the need to evaluate and continue planning. He highlights three particular insights regarding constant evaluation and planning. They are: make daily time for waiting on God, take weekly inventory, and practice monthly planning. Hummel concludes by pointing out there are two opposite ways people use their time; one person goes through the day responding to life, while the other has a plan and sets priorities and prayerfully makes decisions. While Hummel admits these are two extremes, most people live somewhere in between (29).

Nevertheless, evaluation and planning helps people to make progress in striving towards fulfilling the work of God in their life. What Hummel prescribes is a way believers can pursue excellence by allowing God to control their time and what they do, rather than allowing the tyranny of the urgency of others to control their time.