The Main Problems with Western Christianity?

What is holding Western Christianity back?  Writing from a kiwi (NZ) perspective, I keep coming back to 3 issues that I think are at the core of what is wrong or disfunctional about Western Christianity, and why the church in the west is not ‘succeeding’, and why we don’t seem to be making much progress.

1. Intransigence

Western Christians (WCx) seem to hold to the past, and be unable to make much progress. Intransigence = “refusal to change one’s views”. Many WCx hold to old (modern, post enlightenment) ways of interpreting the scriptures, and old (early-mid 20th Centurty) interpretations.

One area in which this is prominent is the LGBQTI+ ‘debate’. While is is definitely still an issue in itself, it is also a symptom of a much deeper problem, relating to things like how the Bible is understood (scientific, rulebook), how we view our role in society (moral guardians?), how we view our history (early 20th Century views are perceived as being what Christians of all times have thought), and our inability to grapple with important issues, or allow ourselves or other people to change.  With this viewpoint, there is no ‘trajectory of scripture’, but rather WCx act as the guardians of perceived ‘permanent’ views.

The LGBQTI+ ‘debate’ is prominent in the context. It is worth guessing / predicting whether the church will change – especially whether the church of the future will accept & bless gay marriage. And based on this prediction, we can see which side of history we are on now. My prediction is that the church will change – for people in their teens and twenties today (both Cx & non-Cx), this is generally a no-brainer issue – of course gay marriage is OK. So I think the church will change – in the next 20 or 30 or 40 years. It might require a generation or two (of intransigent stalwarts) to die out. And there will be a lot of pain in the process – many conflicted gay christians are depressed, self-harming & suicidal because of the current dominant church position – this pain, hurt & death will carry on unfortunately, until the dominant church position changes.  So my prediction is that the dominant church position will change – and I want to be on the right side of history, because I believe it is correct – this change is good & right, but toooo slow.

2. Idiotic View of God

We have a stupid view of God. A friend recently posted on Facebook “I’m more loving than my God” – I knew what he meant.
The dominant WCx view of God includes
– permanent suffering in hell for the majority of the world

 

3. Inconsistency

What Are the Hell Options?

In a previous article, I discussed some of the problems with hell – that is, some problems with the traditional Christian view of hell being a place of permanent conscious punishment for those who haven’t been saved while alive on earth. This traditional view typically relies on four theses:
Punishment – the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives warrant it
No Escape – those people consigned to hell cannot escape from it
Anti-Universalism – not all people will be saved – some (or many) people will be consigned to hell
Eternal Existence – hell is a place of unending conscious existence

The ‘problem’ of hell is compounded by scriptural ambiguity regarding the afterlife. The case for the traditional view of hell is not so clear, and it is difficult to ascertain how much this traditional view has been influenced by sources other than the scriptures – sources such as historical individuals like Tertullian (200AD) & Dante (a 13th Century Italian poet), pagan traditions, teutonic mythology and other factors. In addition, supporters of divergent & contradictory views of hell all find scriptural support for their alternative beliefs.

In considering a christian concept of hell, there are a limited number of options available, with clear choices in some areas. There are also some other areas that are not crucial, but are of interest. This is best expressed in logical form.

1. Does Hell Physically Exist?
a) YES – consider Q2 & Q3
b) NO – Hell is metaphorical

2. Is Hell Permanent? ie will individuals remain in hell for all eternity?
a) YES – this is part of the traditional view of hell
b) NO – there will come a time when there is no longer anyone alive in hell. With this view, there are a few alternatives on how people will end their time in hell. (Note – there is some overlap between these alternatives)
i. Annihilation – people in hell will eventually die (be annihilated), either at different times or all at the same time. Once everyone has died, there would be no need for hell to exist.
ii. Conditional Immortality – people only remain alive because of God’s active involvement in their lives. At some stage, God will stop keeping people in hell alive and then they will cease to exist.
iii. Escape – see below
iv. Gradual Death – people in hell have, in some way, ongoing opportunities to ‘repent’ and be saved (go to heaven). Whenever people choose not to repent (ie say ‘no’ to God), part of them dies. Eventually, if they resist God’s offer (of salvation) for long enough, they will die completely (cease to exist). Hence, eventually everyone in hell will have either moved to heaven, or ceased to exist.

3. Is it Possible to Escape from Hell? ie can individuals in hell get ‘saved’ in some way and move to heaven?
a) NO – this is part of the traditional view of hell – there is no possible escape from hell (there is no ‘second chance’ after death)
b) YES – it is possible for individuals to escape, or be ‘saved’ from hell and go to heaven. There might be one ‘second chance’, or multiple ‘second chances’ for individuals, which they can use to escape from hell.

The traditional view of hell would answer ‘a’ to the 3 questions above.

The three areas above are essential aspects of any view of any comprehensive hell. (ie the 3 questions above need to be answered). In addition, there are some other areas which raise interesting questions.

A. What is the Cause & Purpose of Punishment in Heaven?
Does God cause the punishment? Or does God just allow the punishment, which is a natural consequence of distance from God or rejection of Him?
What is the purpose of the punishment, if any? Is it intended for reformation? (If so, it seems pointless if there is no chance of escape from hell). Is it just retribution? (If so, eternal punishment for temporal sin raises other questions).

B. Do Heaven Dwellers See And/Or Know of the Plight of Those in Hell?
Many historical church leaders have believed that those in heaven will see or be aware of the suffering of those in hell (eg Martin Luther, Peter Lombard, Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Watts, Jonathon Edwards). Some suggest that those in heaven will be impervious to the suffering of the damned, while others say that the blessed will enjoy heaven even more because they see the suffering in hell (eg Peter Lombard[1], Tertullian[2], Thomas Aquinas[3], Jonathon Edwards[4], Isaac Watts[5]). While this view might have been popular historically, it probably raises more questions today, particularly when it is viewed from the perspective of those suffering in hell being some of our beloved family members.

Others suggest that heaven dwellers will not be aware of the suffering of others. While this view might be more attractive these days, it raises the question of “How?” How will those in heaven be unaware of the suffering of their loved-ones in hell? Will this be through ignorance of their fate? Or though faded memories of these loved-ones? Or will there be just a lack of interest and empathy?

C. Calvinism and Predestination
I attended a church service recently where the preacher said ‘God chose you & you for faith – for salvation’. This ties in with the Calvanistic view of predestination for faith and salvation. I wondered at the response of the ‘unsaved’ in the congregation – they could have responded with “that’s not fair, why wasn’t I chosen by God”, or “I’m not a christian because God hasn’t chosen me, so don’t bother telling me anything more of the gospel”, or “Does that mean I am chosen to go to hell?”
The doctrine of predestination or pre-choosing for faith quickly raises the question of double-predestination – are some people predestined for hell? (Which many people consider unjust)

In reviewing or forming a christian view of hell, it is worth considering the possible options, and also other questions and issues are raised. If hell is the destination for many (or most) if the people who have ever lived, then surely it is important for Christians to be clear in their understanding of it. The traditional permanent-suffering-in-hell version might be correct – but if it isn’t, then it is worth making some effort now to try to understand what the correct version is….

David Allis
March 2009

[1] Peter Lombard, the Master of Sentences – “Therefore the elect shall go forth…to see the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved, but will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious .” Sent. Iv 50, ad fin
[2] Tertullian – “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”
“What a spectacle. . .when the world. . .and its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? As I see. . .illustrious monarchs. . . groaning in the lowest darkness, Philosophers. . .as fire consumes them! Poets trembling before the judgment-seat of. . .Christ! I shall hear the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; view play-actors. . .in the dissolving flame; behold wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows. . .What inquisitor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favor of seeing and exulting in such things as these? Yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination.” [De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX]
[3] Thomas Aquinas – “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. . .So that they may be urged the more to praise God. . .The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens. . .to the damned.” [Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV, “Of the Relations of the Saints Towards the Damned,” First Article, “Whether the Blessed in Heaven Will See the Sufferings of the Damned. . .”]

[4] Jonathan Edwards – “The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven.” “The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.” [“The Eternity of Hell Torments” (Sermon), April 1739 & Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738]
[5] Isaac Watts: During America ‘s “Great Awakening” the popular hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), even set Christians’ feet to tapping with this crisp little verse:
What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls,
In quenchless flames of hell

The Problem With Hell

Hell is potentially a hot topic, and I approach it with some fear & trepidation. Yet it is an incredibly important topic, as, in it’s typically accepted form, Christians anticipate that many (possibly the majority) of people who have ever lived will spend eternity suffering there. Surely the expected permanent destination for so many people is worthy of careful consideration.

Most Christians seem to believe in a ‘typical’ concept of hell, although they often haven’t thought through the details or faced some of the difficulties with their view. Hell is part of the ‘package’ of Christianity that they have accepted, but it remains on the periphery & the details haven’t been clarified in their minds. Typically, they are happy they have been ‘saved’ and hence have escaped from the clutches of hell, and they would like to help others escape from it also.

The typical or traditional Christian view of hell is that it is a place of permanent conscious punishment for those who haven’t been saved while alive on earth. It typically relies on four theses:
Punishment – the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives warrant it
No Escape – those people consigned to hell cannot escape from it
Anti-Universalism – not all people will be saved – some (or many) people will be consigned to hell
Eternal Existence – hell is a place of unending conscious existence

This typical concept of hell, or minor modifications of it, are the primary doctrine of hell found throughout the history of Christianity. It has been, and remains, a prominent aspect of the gospel that is presented by Christianity – the ‘good news’ is often presented as the good news of how all people face an eternity of suffering in hell, but, by the grace of God, have the opportunity to be ‘saved’ from hell and spend eternity with God in heaven.

However, there are problems with this traditional doctrine of hell (permanent, inescapable, conscious punishment) that need to be faced, and questions that deserve to be answered.

1. Is Hell Compatible with the Nature of God? – Permanent, conscious, inescapable suffering in hell seems incompatible with those aspects of God that we value – particularly that he is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful & full of grace.

2. God Desires to Save Everyone – It is apparent in the Bible that God’s desire (or hope or purpose) is to save everyone (2 Pet 3:9), or at least as many as possible. However, we should ask the question “According to an evangelical (or other) understanding of salvation, what proportion of all the people that have ever lived in the world (currently estimated at 106 billion) have been ‘saved’ and do we expect will be in heaven?” Estimates of this might vary, but I anticipate that they will typically be somewhere between 5% & 20% ‘saved’. Hence, with the traditional view of hell, we should expect 80-95% of people (about 80-95 billion) to be suffering permanently in hell. With this perspective, it could be argued that God, who desires to save as many as possible, doesn’t appear to have been very successful. Even if everyone alive today gets ‘saved’, the overall proportions in heaven & hell won’t change much. (Yes – the myth that “there more people alive today than have ever lived” is wrong)

3. Having a Party While Our Loved One’s Suffer – Author Brian McLaren paints a picture of the traditional afterlife view – where christians will be having a party with Jesus upstairs (heaven), while in the basement (hell) the un-saved (including many of our loved ones) will be suffering horribly with no hope of escape. This makes it hard for those upstairs to enjoy the party (knowing their loved ones are suffering). This version of the “Good News” actually looks quite bad. Also I hope the Jesus we follow would go downstairs to do something to help those he loves but are suffering … I might even go with him if I could give any assistance.

4. Will They Know? Will those in heaven know of those suffering in hell? If so, then this seems to reduces the blessedness of heaven – how can we enjoy heaven knowing that those we loved (& would have given our lives for while on earth) are continually suffering? If those in heaven don’t know of the suffering, how will this occur? Will it be through faded or lost memories of our loved ones? This seems to be a sad alternative – that we might live our lives sacrificially for loved ones while on earth, and then forget them when we are in heaven.

5. Hell is Inconsistent with God’s Salvation Efforts to Date – God showed total love for all individuals by sending Jesus to live & die for them. As evangelists say “Even if you were the only person in the world, Jesus loves you so much he would have died for you”. Yet with this view, when we die the salvation efforts of God suddenly change from total effort, to no effort (& no chance of rescue). It seems inconsistent that God’s love and salvation efforts apparently change so much so quickly.

6. The Scriptures Aren’t Clear – There is scriptural ambiguity regarding the afterlife – the case for the traditional view of hell is not so clear. Supporters of divergent & contradictory views all find scriptural support for their alternative beliefs.

7. What is the Purpose of Hell? – There are three common views of the purpose God has for hell – remedial, retributive punishment and issuant.
The remedial view, where God uses hell to remedy and restore individuals, doesn’t fit with the traditional view of hell, as presumably for a remedy to be effective there must be some end or escape.
The traditional views of hell are unclear or inconsistent regarding which of the alternative views they are supporting – retributive punishment or issuant.
The retributive view holds that the primary purpose of hell is to serve as a place of punishment for the unrepentant – the punishment in hell is in proportion to the scale of the crime – sin against God is sin against the most holy being and hence deserves the utmost punishment, eternal punishment. However, this raises the question of the morality of eternal punishment for sin that occurred in a temporal period – is it just to punish individuals eternally for sin that they committed in only a few short years of life?
The issuant view is that hell ‘issues’ from God’s love for His creatures – God has provided hell as a place for those persons who do not wish to be in communion with Him. God does not want to coerce individuals, and so offers them an alternative, the provision made being another manifestation of the good of exercising free will in response to God’s loving initiatives in the world.
For one to hold to a traditional view of hell, it seems necessary to understand clearly what the purpose of hell is – yet this clarity is elusive.

8. Does God’s Love Change So Quickly? – The traditional view of hell sets death as the cut-off time. Thomas Allin, author of Christ Triumphant (1890), recounts a true story ‘In a certain quarter of London, one of the many evangelists had gone forth to preach to the people. When he had concluded an eloquent address, he was thus accosted by one of his hearers: “Sir,” said the man, “may I ask you one or two questions?” “Surely,” said the preacher. “You have told us that God’s love for us is very great and very strong.” “Yes.” “And that He sent His Son to save us, and I may be saved this moment, if I will.” “Yes.” “But, if I go away without an immediate acceptance of this offer, and if, a few minutes after I were to be killed on my way home, I should find myself in hell for ever and ever.” “Yes.” “Then,” said the man, “if so, I don’t want to have anything to do with a being whose love for me can change so completely in five minutes.’ (from Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin)

9. The Problem of Religious Luck – there is a philosophical problem with ‘religious luck’ ie the extent to which an individual is a fit candidate for either damnation or salvation goes beyond the individual’s control. Whether one responds appropriately to grace will depend upon the shape of one’s character and the shape of one’s character will depend upon circumstances that are outside of one’s control. This creates a ‘problem’ as it is inherently unfair.

10. Divine Conservation is the view that individuals only remain alive through God actively sustaining their existence. Hence, without God’s activity or support, people would perish or cease to exist. If this is true, it raises moral issues about eternal punishment in hell – what sort of god would actively keep people alive so he can punish them for eternity with no hope of redemption? This god seems quite different from the benevolent loving christian god.

11. Unbalanced Contrast. We traditionally associate heaven with grace, mercy & love, and hell with justice & punishment. However, these aren’t accurate opposites – they are an unbalanced contrast.
It seems more appropriate to contrast justice with punishment (ie heaven = justice, hell = punishment), yet we believe that none will enter heaven because they justly deserve it on their own merit. Hence heaven does not equate to justice, as we don’t deserve it.
Another apparently appropriate contrast is grace, mercy & love contrasted with absence of these attributes. Yet this is also problematic, as hell does not easily equate to an absence of grace, mercy & love – how can God cease to be grace-giving, merciful & loving?

12. A Less-Than-Human Standard of Love. The traditional view of hell makes God’s love less than the expected standard for humans on earth. Great love is laying down your life for a friend (Jn 15:13). Parents are expected to lay down their lives for their children. Parents are expected to forgive, and keep forgiving & being reconciled to their children. When does it stop? The best form of parental love is expected to endure while there is life – we hope for & expect parents, at the end of their lives, still being reconciled to their children. Yet the traditional view of hell implies that god’s love & the potential reconciliation for individuals ends – that there comes a time (death) where god effectively says “That’s it – you no longer have any chance of being forgiven”. This seems less than the best human standard of love.

13. The Good News Doesn’t Look So Good – Overall, when these issues are considered, the traditional view of hell paints a picture of God, salvation & punishment that doesn’t seem like ‘good news’. Belief in eternal punishment seems a serious detriment to the entire message of salvation – it turns the “Good News” into bad news. Even when people turn to Jesus, it may not be as much to embrace His loving gift as to avoid what they believe is the only other alternative. This significantly affects the way many view the Almighty God and causes countless others to doubt the reliability of the Gospel.

Faced with these problems and questions, some other questions arise –
– Has eternal suffering in hell been the only view in historical Christianity? Or have there been strands of other views that have run through history, but have been obscured by the dominant view?
– How much has the traditional view been influenced by pagan traditions[1], teutonic mythology (In Norse mythology, Hel is the name of the Norse underworld & its ruler[2]), Tertullian (200AD), Dante (a 13th Century Italian poet)
– Are their any scripturally-valid alternatives? If so, what are they? What problems do they solve? What new problems do they raise?
– How do we resolve these questions and issues? Do we need to re-read the scriptures with fresh eyes – with as few presuppositions as possible? If there is apparent conflict between our understanding of the nature & character of God and our interpretation of some scriptures, do we resolve it, or do we leave it unanswered or in tension? Do we adjust our view of God to conform to our interpretation of some scriptures? Or do we seek to interpret those scriptures in the light of our understanding of God?
– Do we dare consider & talk about these issues? If so, how do we do so wisely and safely?

As the dominant view of hell has been dominant in Christian tradition for many hundreds of years, and has been advocated by many of our traditional theological heroes, if one is to review this doctrine, it seems wise to do so carefully and prayerfully. However, in my view, the traditional doctrine of hell raises so many questions and problems, it is essential that it be reconsidered.

What is ‘essential’ for a church?

A few weeks ago, I raised the question in this email “”what are the Biblical essentials for a church?
As part of figuring out what these biblical essentials are, I suggested considering 3 levels
Biblical essentials (you must have these to have a ‘church’, & they all have sound biblical basis)
Very important things (but not essential)
Other helpful things

There wasn’t much response to this question …. I guess there are a few possible reasons for this, including –
It is obvious – all Christian leaders (& especially all ministers) know what the biblical essentials are – so the question is unnecessary?
It is difficult, & unclear – and there don’t seem to be many (or any?) essentials.
We’re busy – someone else can figure the answer to this out (a good reason)

Of these, I don’t think #1 is correct (unfortunately). The others (#2 & #3) seem to be the reason.

I’m still fascinated that there is not common agreement, or clear teaching, on what the biblical essentials for a church are. It seems bizarre that ‘we’ pour all this time, energy & $$$$$ into creating/building/growing churches, and we have thousands of highly-trained professional ministers (in NZ alone) who preach wonderful sermons every week and work really hard trying to create a great church, yet there is not clear understanding of the essential biblical ingredients for a church. And, there is no common agreement among ministers about what these biblical essentials are. Am I the only one, or do others find this strange & disturbing?

I wonder if one reason for this (maybe the main reason) is that there is a big difference between the ‘biblical essentials’, and the things ministers consider essential or very important to keep their church running & give it any hope of success. Pragmatism becomes the guide – it is easier & more expedient for a minister to teach more widely about the things they consider important for their church. Thus, in many churches you will find relatively clear specific teaching on issues that the leader thinks is important & which support what they are trying to achieve, even if these have little biblical basis. For example, this is seen in some Pentecostal (& other churches) teaching on things like tithing, covering, alignment, and ‘building the house’.

For other churches, church tradition is used to decide or reinforce what is essential in a church – hence ministers, sacraments, buildings, elders, sermons, worship etc are perceived as being essential. Unfortunately, the church isn’t what it should be or could be (either historically or currently), or what we hope it will be, and if we keep doing the same-old-thing, we will get the same-old-results. This might be sufficient for some churches to survive, or even grow slightly (when they become the popular church & christian-consumers swap churches to join them), but it isn’t enough – the church isn’t having a major impact on the world.

So what are the ‘biblical essentials’ etc for a church? Some of the responses I received are listed here –

From BM
1) Essentials: Two or more followers of Jesus who commit themselves to one another for mutual encouragement and mission.
2) Very important things: Fellowship, prayer, fasting, reading of scripture, healing, deliverance, evangelism, pastoral care, eldership, friendship, discipleship.
3) Other helpful things: Christian literature, church history, study aids, musical instruments, doctrine, theology, core values.

From DC

  • ordained ministers -Not greatly important (anyone who is called of God can lead. A church may not ordain them because they disagree with God, just like they might choose to ordain people God disagrees with)
  • weekly meetings – Reasonably important – fellowship is good.
  • Sunday meetings – Not even remotely important.
  • corporate sung worship – Nice, Biblically it was done often (well, the singing of hymns together, not necessarily “worship”), great to do. But not sure that it rates as “important”. In fact, I think many of the Biblical references are “They sung a hymn” and it’s left at that.
  • sermons – A time for people to learn and hear the word is important. Not sure that a sermon is important in itself though. A discussion can do sometimes do as much as and I expect can often do a lot more than a sermon. I could be wrong of course.
  • leadership structure – Some structure is important.
  • buildings – Only important when the weather is bad. And then, anything with a roof and walls is suitable so long as you have the right to use it. Can be someone’s garden shed……. What matters is being there together for the service of the Lord.
  • communion – Biblically important.

The overall conclusion seems to be that there are virtually no biblical essentials for a church, other than it being two or more Jesus-followers relating together in an interconnected way so they function as a body.

I read elsewhere that it changes our perspective if we switch from saying ‘the church is the body of Christ’ to say ‘the body of Christ is the church’. With this perspective, we start with the ‘body’, which is some Jesus-followers who are connected together if a functional/organic/beneficial way, and then call this body (& other similar bodies around it) the church. (rather than calling religious organizations ‘the church’)

Maybe things would be simpler if we eliminated the ‘church’ word from our vocabulary, and talked about things like being a Jesus-follower, being a functioning part of a ‘body’, how to apply the ‘one-another’ scriptures etc.
Eliminating the ‘church’ word shouldn’t be a problem – because it isn’t a specific biblical word (ie it has Latin roots, not Greek), & we use it ambiguously (I can count a dozen different ways we use this word) – but this is probably another article waiting to be written.

Blessings
David Allis

Preaching Act 3

by David Allis
Here is the 3rd ‘Act’ in the discussion (debate) about preaching which has been appearing in the NZ Baptist magazine.
Act 1 was a shortened version of my article ‘The Problem With Preaching’ which was published in the July magazine.
Act 2 was 3 responses from Baptist lecturers, plus a few critical letters in the August magazine.
Act 3 is my response to their responses, published in the September magazine hot off the press…. here is the full response – the last 2 paragraphs don’t appear in the NZ Baptist version.

Blessings
David Allis
www.edgenet.org.nz

I’m impressed by the way NZ Baptists welcome healthy discussion and debate, in order to become more effective in today’s world. My article ‘The Problem with Preaching’ prompted strong response and much discussion. Raising challenging questions about preaching is rather like waving a red rag to a sacred cow. The responses in last month’s Baptist from Ian Kemp, David Richmond & Paul Windsor were gracious and thoughtful, yet somewhat unconvincing.

In response, I need to clarify some aspects of my original article. In critiquing preaching, I focussed on the specific form of preaching commonly used in modern western churches – monologue preaching to a church congregation. Some people seem to raise this form of preaching onto a ‘pedestal’ above other forms of communication, seeing it as Biblical, essential and prescriptive for us today and presumably for all churches of all times. This perspective effectively raises this form of preaching to a level near baptism and prayer. It is regarded as a spiritual mystery beyond question.

This view seems evident in last month’s responses through phrases like “the sermon … is the voice of God to be obeyed”, “the high calling of the preacher”, “the divine encounter in the preaching” and “preaching is a spiritual gift and a God-given vocation”.

I find no convincing evidence of this form of monologue preaching to a church congregation visible in the NT – hence my statement that this form of preaching is extra-biblical (I didn’t say or imply that it is un-biblical or necessarily wrong). Even if examples of this form of preaching are perceived in the NT (eg 2 Tim 4), these examples don’t make preaching prescriptive or essential for all churches at all times.

In my original article, I attempted to differentiate the form of preaching we practice in churches today from what is seen in the NT. The key point is that there is no essential identifiable difference between the wide variety of communication forms seen in the NT, including preaching and teaching. As Paul Windsor points out with his reference to 34 different words and overlapping circles, the concepts overlap.

Unfortunately many people see the ‘preach’ words, which appear about 140 times in an English NT, and assume that this ‘preaching’ they read of is the same form as the preaching they hear in church today, and hence that the form of preaching that occurs in their church has a strong (essential) biblical basis and we have to keep doing it. They see preaching as a specific God-given form of communication, and its effectiveness shouldn’t be questioned.

As Christians, including those exercising leadership, we need to communicate the messages of Jesus and His kingdom to all people, including those outside or on the edge of the kingdom, and those within. A wide variety of forms of communication are available. Some of these forms are clearly visible in the NT, others might be implied, and others are definitely not seen in the Bible (eg emails, Denominational newspapers). These communication forms are not distinct, but rather they overlap. They include teaching (to large groups, small groups and individuals), dialogue, discussion, debate, evangelistic preaching, preaching to church congregations, and questions and answers. None of these forms is inherently on a pedestal above the others. None of these forms is ‘biblical & normative & inherently spiritual’ – ie ‘it is in the Bible and we have to do it and it is a communication form that is inherently more spiritual than other forms’. All of these communication forms can be either effective or ineffective, depending partly on how they are implemented and whether the form & content are relevant for the recipients. Sometimes these forms of communication impart some sort of spiritual life, renewal, revelation, insight, inspiration or encounter – but this is not automatically inherent in any of the forms. This spiritual impartation is more likely to occur when other factors are involved, including prayer, study, good presentation, accurate Biblical interpretation, and people having expectations. On occasions, the form chosen is inappropriate or the communication is poor, yet God chooses to ‘move’ anyway.

Communication is essential. I am not calling for preaching to be abandoned. Nor am I saying that any other form of communication is always better than a sermon. A monologue sermon to the congregation on Sundays is one form of communication. It should be more accurately described as ‘teaching’, ‘inspiration’, ‘thought-for-the-day’, ‘reflection’, or ‘motivational talk’, depending on its intention and characteristics. Monologue preaching might even be the best communication form in a particular situation – preaching has historically been very effective in many situations. However, we have a wide range of equally valid forms of communication available. If we understand their strengths and weaknesses, become proficient in their use, and evaluate their effectiveness, we will become better communicators.

Throughout much of church history, monologue sermons have been a predominant form of communication. There are many historical and sociological reasons for this reliance on sermons. There are also many spiritual, pragmatic and educational reasons for questioning the effectiveness of monologue preaching in our society. These include that it is often ineffective, expensive, can limit learning, discussion and debate, foster biblical illiteracy, and disempower people. Monologues silence the voice of the people. Educational studies repeatedly demonstrate that people learn more through interactive teaching and self-learning. Rather than just trying to pass on information, we should be creating life-long spiritual learners.

David Richmond suggests that if people can’t feed themselves, we need to keep feeding them. In contrast, I’m convinced that for normal healthy people, we should stop spoon feeding them, let them get hungry and then they will become motivated to learn to feed themselves. They might even learn to how to cook, plan their own menu, and begin teaching others to feed themselves.

Its no surprise to hear ministers defending preaching. Professional ministers usually love preaching and are paid to do it. Preaching is typically part of the ‘package’ of this form of church leadership. A minister questioning preaching and other aspects of professional ministry is like the proverbial person who saws off the branch they are sitting on. It is as rare as beef farmers promoting vegetarianism.

I told my children that I’ve invented a new school – it has only one class with hundreds of students aged from 5 to 18. They meet for one half-hour class each week, where a quality teacher gives an amazing non-interactive lecture to the class. Students never graduate from the class. The 18 year-olds, who have been hearing these lectures for 13 years, stay in this class with more new entrants for the rest of their lives. The only way to graduate is to become the lecturer or die. My children say this school is stupid and will never work. I agree … but it’s what we do in churches … let’s look for good alternatives.

Where Is It?

By David Allis

“Where is it? If a new thing is happening, why can’t we see it? If these new models or wineskins of church are so great, why aren’t they strong and visible now?”  A friend involved in leadership of a ‘normal’ church regularly throws these questions at me. Other leaders raise the same issue in the form of a statement “when you have a church of a thousand people and are seeing hundreds saved every year, then you can critique current church structures.”

For myself, and other proponents of alternative ways of extending God’s kingdom, including house churches, organic churches, and truly missional churches, these questions are often raised by defenders of the status quo – by leaders within structured churches, as they look outside the domain of organised Christianity at the alternative forms of ‘church’ being discussed and attempted. “If what you’re proposing is so great, where is it? Why can’t we see it? Why isn’t it growing rapidly?” 

These appear to be good questions, at least from the perspective of those who ask them. At a surface level, they are disturbing. Yet when I reflect more deeply, I can sense reasons why growth would be slow, and why the results might not be very visible. And at an even deeper level, there is a sense that they aren’t the right questions – they are questions being asked from a framework that is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the world changes.

Here are some of my reflections in response to these questions, taken from a New Zealand perspective. For ease of communication, I refer to it as ‘new models’ – however, even the concept of what is emerging being ‘models’ is language that belongs in a different paradigm – maybe it would be better for us to talk of experiments or communities.

Reasons why growth might be slow for new models

–          Slow Growth is Normal. Any new model, starting from virtually no people & resources, will be slow to grow.  Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity p6) estimates that Christianity grew at 3.4% per year for the first few centuries. Hence, anything new that starts with small numbers and grows at only a few percent per year, will take a long time to become large.

–          The Existing Models aren’t Growing. Overall, the existing structured church models aren;t growing. Although there are a few exceptions and some structured churches generate 5-10% conversion growth pa, generally changes in church numbers are just transfers between churches (like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic). Hence, even if the new models aren’t growing, that is no different from the structured model. As my wife Margaret said “Even if it doesn’t work, you can choose either the expensive version that doesn’t work (existing church), or the cheap version that doesn’t work (new models)”. We prefer the cheap version so we can use our time and money to serve the poor and wider community, rather than wasting it on church buildings, staff & programs that aren’t working. (Typical structured churches spend at least 90% of their time and money on providing services for the church members).

–          The Existing Models are the Norm. The existing church models are the norm, and people (both churched & unchurched alike) think this is the only way to do church. Hence, alternative models are only credible either with people who have thought through and question or reject the current models, or with new converts, (as long as the converts aren’t drawn into structured church models because most church-goers they meet think they are the only way).

–          The Existing Model Drains Resources. The existing institutional church is large & drains resources from the Christian community, particularly people’s time and energy. It is difficult for a new small tree to grow under the shade of a large tree, as the large tree drains the nourishment from the ground & also shades the light.

–          Exhaustion.  People who leave the organised church structure are often exhausted physically, spiritually, economically & emotionally.  Because of this, they often ‘take a break’ from church activities, and usually don’t quickly throw themselves into making alternative church models work.

Reasons why a new model might not be very visible

–          Invisible by Nature. The newer unstructured models are by nature invisible, as they don’t have professional staff, buildings, big meetings, programs and advertising. Hence, much of what happens in the new models will never be visible, or we will only get glimpses of it.

–          Kingdom not Church. The new modes are usually focussed on the kingdom, rather than on building a visible local church. Hence the activity is spread out everywhere, rather than being centred in a few visible places.

–          No Advertising.  Structured churches often get a lot of profile from relatively small things they do in the community, as part of their self-promotion. In contrast, community and kingdom activities undertaken by individuals or unstructured groups of Christians are usually not advertised, and hence are relatively invisible.

–          Different Language. The new models of church speak a different language.  Structured churches often talk in terms of numbers saved and numbers in their church. However, for people in the newer models who might, in the words of Brian McLaren, ‘count conversations rather than conversions’, the language used is different. Hence, the questions asked from a structured-church perspective are often meaningless questions in irrelevant language when viewed from an alternative paradigm.

Indicators that something is out there now

–          Christians Are Leaving the Current Church. In New Zealand, there are more Christians outside the church than in it. I used to guess that half of the people in NZ who call themselves Christians aren’t in churches. Recently, I saw some research that indicates it is much higher than this. In a Massey University survey of more than 1000 people, the results indicated that out of every 6 people, 1 was actively involved in a church (16%), 1 was linked to a church but not active, 2 had previously been in a church but were no longer part of it, & 2 had no previous church association.  This indicates that in NZ, for ever one person active in a church, there are two ex-church people (plus 1 person linked but inactive). Hence, there are more Christians outside the church, than are active within it.

–          Models Increasing.  There is an increasing variety of new models for churches, including ‘emergent’ churches & house churches. Also, an increasing number of structured churches are trying new things to try to bring new life & growth. These are indicators that people are dissatisfied with the status quo, and are looking to establish something new.

–          Things are Happening Elsewhere.  In other parts of the world, alternative models are apparently succeeding. This is seen in the house churches in China, house churches in India, house churches and organic churches in the USA etc.

Many people are trying a variety of alternative ways to ‘be church’ and extend the kingdom. Some of the experiments will be unsuccessful, and others might succeed – it is worth trying.  As a friend once said “Even if it doesn’t work, I’ll still do it”. There are good reasons for trying new ways of extending God’s kingdom, especially if they are less costly, freeing our resources to serve the wider community.

More About Preaching

An excerpt from “Reframing Paul” by Mark Strom

Following on the theme of the ‘Problem of Preaching’, & my article on preaching in July’s NZ Baptist, here is an excerpt from the book “Reframing Paul” by Mark Strom.  Mark is now the principal of BCNZ (Bible College of NZ) here in Auckland.  His book “Reframing Paul” (IVP, 2000) and is a revised form of his Ph.D. thesis.  When I wrote “The Problem With Preaching”, I didn’t know anyone else who had arrived at similar conclusions (apart from a few odd articles on the internet).  It was encouraging to come across a biblical scholar who has reached similar conclusions.

In “Reframing Paul”, Mark’s basic contention is that what Paul opposed is what we embrace – that our systems of preaching, ordination, and authority look more like the Greco-Roman world than they do like Paul and his radical communities of grace. Modern Reformed-Evangelicalism has never left Rome at this point; it is still about authority residing in structures, and validated through the preaching of the ordained or those they knight for the occasion. “This book is for those who wonder why people leave churches for alternative spiritual paths – and may even be tempted to do so themselves. More than anything, it is for those who wonder what’s gone wrong and want to learn from Paul how the church can be an attractive community of transforming grace and conversation.” (from the dust cover)   If you want to learn more, and have your thinking stretched, I recommend you get a copy to read & work through.

Also on the topic of recommended books, I want to re-recommend the “A New Kind of Christian” trilogy by Brian McLaren.  These books, written as novel-like philosophical dialogue, are GREAT. We recently loaned copies of the first of these books, “A New Kind of Christian”, to two friends – both mature, intelligent Christians who have been involved in ‘professional Christian ministry’ …. They both loved the book, and found it helped fit some of the pieces of the puzzle together for them.

And a personal update – our new NZ educational games (Kiwi Quiz & Time Zone) are selling well. Kiwi Quiz has become very popular as a game, and as an educational resource – it is being used in about 400 NZ schools.

Whitcoulls has been promoting Kiwi Quiz over the last month, and have a trial of Time Zone in their top 20 stores (if you’re looking for a game or a gift for someone … get a copy of Time Zone from a Whitcoulls store …. If they sell enough, they will expand it into their other 50 stores in NZ  J ).  Paper Plus are also interested in stocking Kiwi Quiz.

I’m currently working on the Australian version of Time Zone …. Just need to find an intelligent Australian with a knowledge of Oz history to help review the 250 events I’m choosing for the game……

Here is the excerpt from “Reframing Paul”  …. happy reading.

Blessings

David Allis

www.edgenet.org.nz

 

“I once took a seminary class titled “Ministry of the Word” where we were taught the supposed biblical basis of preaching. We were given a list of Greek words for various speech acts used in the New testament. Our group task was to study preaching from these words: preaching as keryxo; preaching as euangelizomai, and so forth. We looked up the references and synthesized our findings as “A New Testament Theology of Preaching.”

It occurred to a friend and me that the exercise was flawed because we had assumed the conventions of preaching, then sought to validate these conventions with texts. But the group would hear no detraction. Apart from our failure to grasp Paul’s repudiation of sophistry among the Corinthians, it never occurred to the group that there is absolutely no evidence for anything like our conventions of preaching in the NT – no expository talks, no pulpits, no ordination, no teaching of eloquence. The evidence does not point to the centrality of a monologue in the early gatherings, let along the conventions of preaching as we have known them for two millennia.

Back in the main group, the professor defended the method. The centrepiece for his argument was the need for authority: “The Word must be ministered with authority,” and this implied the conventions of preaching. My friend and I asked if the Word is always to be delivered with authority. “Yes,” came the ready answer. “Even in Bible study groups?” we asked. “Emphatically yes,” our professor replied. “Then why don’t we insist on the same conventions on Tuesday nights as we do on Sunday mornings?” we responded. “Because Sunday is church.” the professor replied, somewhat less enthusiastically. The rejoinder was obvious, “And what in the NT leads us to distinguish Sunday mornings from Tuesday nights as though one were ‘real church’ and the other something else? If the distinction is simply our construct, why do we persist with it? If the conventions of preaching are unnecessary on Tuesdays, and if the Bible study leader still ministers the Word with authority, then why do we insist on the conventions for Sundays?”

The argument was coming full circle. The case for preaching starts and finishes by presuming preaching, ordination and church as we know them. Without them control, prestige and power lose their footing. The sermon and the service prop up the conventions of eloquence and authority. No sermon, no church service. No church service, no demarcations of authority and control. But church in the evangelical system is about order and control. Leaders must retain the ‘central’ ministries. At the very center is preaching. Therefore preaching must remain the domain of the ordained and those whom they acknowledge. Eloquence and erudition must demarcate sermon from conversation, ordained from laity, truth from mere opinion.

Two years later the conversation resumed with the same professor, this time on the second fairway. “You were right.” he admitted. “Church and preaching as we know it is very little like what happened in the NT.”

“Why then,” I asked, “do we keep teaching this stuff? Most of your students do not see the discrepancy. How will this ever change?”

His answer was as telling as it was unconvincing: “It was my generation’s work to lay out the biblical theology. It is yours to change the system.””

(p.206 – 207)

The Problem With Preaching

By David Allis   September 2006

edited by NZ Baptist editor

Preaching is a big problem. After many years of preaching, listening to sermons, studying the scriptures, participating in church leadership and studying the Western church (in New Zealand), I’m becoming convinced that preaching often does more harm than good.

Preaching as it is practised in modern churches is extra-biblical, a poor form of communication, and creates dependency.

Preaching is considered one of the essential ingredients of Christianity throughout the last 2000 years, and arguably through Old Testament times also. It is one of the bastions of church tradition. In most churches, two central and indispensable elements are preaching and worship (commonly referred to as singing/music) during Sunday church meetings.

I have numerous questions about preaching that I believe must be considered. These questions have arisen after spending years within a variety of organised churches as an observer, member, lay-leader, ordained minister and church health consultant. I have heard and preached sermons, and observed their effects in individual’s lives.

Recently, I studied the biblical passages about preaching, and was surprised at what I found – that the preaching that is referred to in the New Testament (NT) bears little resemblance to the practice of preaching in churches. I also looked through the shelves of a good Bible College library.

There were about 1000 books on how to preach a good sermon, yet I could find nothing that attempted to clearly justify why sermons should be preached. There is a plethora of books on preaching, but the vast majority of them assume and perpetuate the sermon concept, and there is rarely any investigation or justification of its legitimacy.

So what are the problems with preaching?

1. Preaching is Extra-Biblical

Preaching as it is practised in churches today (and in the past) has little biblical basis. In the New Testament, preaching was always linked to preaching of the gospel or kingdom to those who were outside or on the edge of the Kingdom.  The Greek verbs used in the NT to portray preaching are found overwhelmingly in situations which are outside church meetings and evangelistic in nature.

Most people sitting in churches today listening to sermons are Christians, and most have been there listening to sermons for many years.  Our preaching is actually teaching about Christianity to a predominantly Christian audience, week after week for the rest of their lives.

There is arguably no biblical basis for preaching in churches to people who have been Christians for many years. The sermon as traditionally practised, in which a clergy person preaches a message to a congregation, originated from Greek, not Biblical, sources. Around the period of 200-300 AD, the sermon emerged as central in Christian gatherings. The model for this practice wasn’t taken from the Bible, but from Greek culture.

 

2. Preaching is an ineffective form of communication

Preaching is a form of monologue, which is proven to be an ineffective form of communication. Passive listening is a very ineffective way of learning. Scientific studies of education show that passive listening leads only to a small percentage of retention. Few people can remember a sermon the next day, week or month (often the preacher can’t remember it either). Although modern communication methods are improving, through the use of visual aids, the monologue remains one of the least effective forms of communication.

3. Preaching limits learning, discussion and debate

Preaching usually allows no opportunity for questions or discussion. It is rare for a church to allow interaction during a sermon, or questions and discussion time afterwards. Sermons are designed to be listened to, not interacted with. Sermons and church meeting structure doesn’t allow members of the audience to add their contributions regarding the subject matter, raise issues for discussion, clarification or debate.

 

4. Preaching doesn’t usually change lives

Although effective, impassioned preaching is occasionally able to stir some hearts and bring some response, this is quite rare. Preaching rarely brings long term change in individual lives. The average church attender hears a sermon every week, amounting to about 2500 sermons over a 50 year church life, yet they typically can’t remember many of those sermons and would number on one hand those sermons which had a significant impact on their lives.

From my limited experience, the most effective long-term way to bring change to lives is not through listening to sermons, but through participative bible study in a mutually encouraging and challenging group.

From my study of ekklesia (the gathering of believers) in the NT, it is clear that the primary purpose of believers gathering together regularly is mutual edification. It could be argued that typical church Sunday meetings have been designed to hinder mutual edification. Corporate sung worship led from the front, and sermons by professional preachers, which are the central focus of most church services, are conspicuously absent from the New Testament passages relating to the purposes of believers gathering together.

I think Paul would be horrified at the way we have reduced worship from his whole of life concept to merely corporate singing once a week.

5. Preaching can foster Biblical illiteracy

Much contemporary preaching is based around themes, usually with little biblical basis. While these sermons might teach some truth, and are often done in creative ways, they don’t teach how to personally learn from the Bible. It is common for believers to come to church regularly and listen to well-crafted sermons about how to live, yet rarely read the Bible personally. It is not that people can never learn from a sermon, but that they don’t learn as effectively as they do with other methods.

6. Preaching disempowers people

People who have been in church for many years, and have often heard 50-100 sermons each year, still think they need to be “fed” by a sermon each week. They remain dependent for their spiritual nurture on getting a spiritual fix each week through corporate worship and a sermon from a professional preacher. If we want to see God’s kingdom grow quickly, or revival come (which many people pray for), we will need to be much better at quickly empowering and releasing people to ministry (not paid professional ministry), rather than fostering a dependence on the professional ministers.

7. Preachers are a problem

In each local church, most preaching is usually performed by one main trained professional minister.  This preacher is usually a Bible College graduate (except in some Pentecostal streams) who has trained for three years so they can correctly interpret the bible and preach inspiring sermons.

Hence, sermons are usually built around the “person of God”, who has had the in-depth theological training, and has heard from God and is now disseminating the word of God to the people in eloquent discourse.  Some of the unfortunate implications of centreing preaching on one trained professional religious person are:

• It implies that one person hears from God and mediates to everyone else.

• It creates a dependence on being fed by the necessary combination of professional ordained ministers plus theological training plus eloquent preaching.

• The Christian message is filtered through one person, the preacher, and his one set of experiences, one personality, one mind, and one limited life experience.

• The preacher typically lives a different life, in a different world to his/her audience. Many don’t have “normal” jobs, and are treated differently in society because they are ministers.

• It devalues the experiences, insight and revelation of other members of the church, as they are relegated to only being listeners and often never being preachers.

• By centering our gatherings on one person and their sermon, we are, in practice, reversing the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:14 and suggesting that the body is not many members, but one (often the same person, usually a man, who preaches most weeks).

 

8. Preaching has misleading implications

The current church practice of members attending a weekly church meeting centered on corporate-led-sung-worship and a sermon has some misleading implications:

• It implies that God is effectively saying the same thing to everyone – which is contained in the sermon.

• It implies that church members will always need to hear more sermons. If sermons are intended to train people for mission, the implication is that they will never be fully trained and will always need more. In this sense, sermons are more like motivational seminars to hype people up again, rather than being teaching sessions.

• It implies that the purpose for Christians to gather together is corporate worship and listening to sermons, rather than for the primary purpose of mutual edification (1 Cor 14:26).

9. Preaching is expensive

Sermons are expensive. A professional paid minister typically spends 1-2 days/week studying and preparing for their weekly sermon. Taking New Zealand with its 3500 churches as an example: If each had a minister being paid 1.5 days/week to preach at, say, $200/day – this costs $1m per week, or $50m per year.

This might seem a small amount compared with what is spent on other aspects of organised church life, or compared with the billions tied up in church properties, but in a world where people are starving to death and Jesus spoke about personal judgement relating to how we treat the poor, it seems that we have misplaced values.

10. We are preaching to different people

The Christian situation has changed. At the time of the NT events, the NT wasn’t available to people. Also, the apostles were teaching new doctrine (in contrast, the Bible plus great study tools are now readily available to all western Christians).

Through to the 1800s, the majority of church attendees were illiterate, just as the majority of people in most societies were illiterate. Hence, there was a need for educated people to be able to read the Bible and teach others. Sermons were one effective way for this to occur. Also, Bibles were less available and tools to help study the Bible were typically only available in libraries and seminaries.

Today, most church attendees are literate. In the English speaking western world, Bibles are cheap and most church attendees own one or many versions of the Bible. Bible study tools are cheap and easily available, both in written form and via computers and the internet.

11. We are preaching in a different context

Society has changed. At previous times in history churches have been the social centre for a community and hence drew in a wide variety of people in various stages of belief or disbelief. In these situations, sermons were potentially an evangelistic tool, as they were during the time of Acts.

However, in current western society, the majority of people in churches are believers – hence preaching in these churches has virtually no evangelistic value.

There have also been other major cultural shifts which affect preaching – Stuart Murray Williams identifies three:

1. A cultural shift away from passive instruction to participatory learning, from paternalism to partnership, from monologue to dialogue, from instruction to interaction.

2.  A societal shift away from an integrated world to a world where networks overlap, a shift away from simplicity to complexity. Many preachers seem unable to relate the Bible and theology to the world of work or to issues in public life – these are areas of profound weakness in most churches. Perhaps we need the help of those in the congregation who have expertise and experience in areas where we do not.

3. A media shift away from linear to non-linear methods of conveying information, from logical argument to pick ‘n’ mix learning. Communication now frequently involves the use of images as well as words, short contributions from diverse points of view, and open-ended presentation that allows freedom to choose your own conclusion. For preachers, this implies not only the use of visual communication as well as verbal communication but hard challenges about the style and purpose of preaching.

Preachers might try to respond to cultural shifts and lack of congregational interest by improving their preaching, and using more stories and visual aids. While this might help somewhat, it doesn’t address the deeper issues.

 

Why don’t other people question preaching?

If the problems described above are accurate, you might ask why there aren’t lots of other people questioning the value of preaching. My best guesses are:

• We’ve been conditioned to believe that preaching is an essential part of “church”.

• Preaching is part of the dependency structure created within churches. Church members have been conditioned to be fed a sermon each week. They have been taught that this is an essential aspect of being a Christian, and that they will be weak or ineffective if they aren’t fed in this way. Even if sermons are boring and unproductive, they are still safe and undemanding.

• Preaching has been part of Christian tradition throughout the ages – so why would anyone question it?

• Preaching is perceived to have a biblical mandate and is seen as sacred. The biblical, historical and cultural aspects of sermons are not clearly considered.

• Ministers need to preach – it’s part of their job, ministry and purpose in life. They have been trained to preach, love preaching and usually do it well. It is difficult for a minister to question an essential part of the job they are employed to do.

• Ministers like to preach sermons. They feel safe, fulfilled and anointed. Ministers feel responsible for their congregations, and believe that good quality sermons are an effective way to disciple their congregation.

What is the alternative?

A better and more scriptural alternative is personal and corporate Bible study, listening to God, discussion, and working together in mutually-accountable community to help each other apply biblical truths in our lives, community and world.

Although there are some potential dangers in removing preaching, it is worth the risk.  They are:

1. Dependent people might not learn to feed themselves.  If we take away the church structures that nurture dependency, what will happen? My guess is that many churches and church attendees would collapse, including many that have been in church for many years. This is a good example of how current organised church methods have created dependency. However, unless a change like this is made, we will continue to create dependency.

2. People might only read/study what they like, and avoid some of the harder or more important issues – at least preaching may/can address some of the harder issues we might want to avoid. However, mutual accountability groups can also address this issue, and ensure that the full breadth of important scripture and doctrine is covered.

Conclusion

Redefining sermons as “teaching” might appear to be a solution, but much more change is required. This change in definition only really helps with the first of the 11 problems listed above. To completely change away from preaching to teaching would require major change including

1. Changing our language by getting rid of the preaching, preacher and sermon words, and replacing them with words relating to teaching

2. Changing our methods. A monologue-sermon (or teaching) from primarily one person is an ineffective way to each. A change to teaching would typically include changing from –

• monologue to dialogue

• one preacher to multiple teachers, discussion groups, peer-to-peer learning

• fixed time-frame to variable timeframes

• large groups listening to one sermon to smaller groups at different levels studying different topics

• no-questioning to many-questions

• a silent audience to a verbally involved class

3. Changing our content. An important question is whether the content people need to learn is infinite, and hence people need sermons/teaching for the rest of their lives, or finite, which implies they don’t need never-ending teaching. Modern Western Christians already know far more about their faith than the majority of Christians for the past 2000 years.  If anything, the modern problem is lack of obedience rather than lack of knowledge.

Basically what needs to be taught (or learnt) is how to understand and obediently apply the Biblical truths in modern Christian lives. This can be done through a mix of specific teaching and discussion in mutually accountable groups. Some of the necessary changes to content include –

• from one-sermon-for-all to different teaching for different levels of discipleship

• from one-topic-for-all to different topics for different groups

• from inspired topics to planned teaching

• from people need a sermon each week for the rest of their lives to people can “graduate”, having learnt the essential things (they might still have occasional in-service training)

 

David Allis has a theology degree, and was involved in full-time Christian work for 16 years, including missions work in Calcutta, and running a Bible College in Auckland. Two years ago, he transitioned from leadership in a large city church, to joining with wife Margaret in developing a missional church in their home and attempting to extend the kingdom in their community. They network with other house churches in New Zealand (www.edgenet.org.nz).

The Church has Had its Day

Shorter version from NZ Baptist Magazine

David Allis, a member of the Apostolic Church movement, was a guest speaker at last November’s Baptist Assembly in Nelson. He was invited to argue the affirmative in a moot entitled, The Church Has Had its Day. The following is an edited version of a paper he made available to Assembly delegates after the debate…

It is obvious that at a higher level this moot can never be true.  The universal church, consisting of the redeemed from all ages, both alive and dead, certainly can never have “had its day.” The New Testament describes the Church as the body of Christ with Christ as its head. It would be dangerous to argue that Christ has been unsuccessful with his own body.

But if we narrow the discussion to the Church that we are part of, and are investing our time, energy, prayers, money and lives into then perhaps we have the basis for some debate.

Our part of the New Zealand Church is an evangelical, Bible-believing, modern, Western, organised, institutional church visible through its buildings, ministers and services based on preaching and worship. So before I launch into any critique I want to affirm the hard working godly and committed members and ministers. Any critique of our Church is not because of their lack of dedication, hard work, commitment and prayer.

Neither am I a critic throwing rocks from the outside. I am personally committed to extending God’s Kingdom and helping establish the Church as He would have it in New Zealand today.

It is also important for individual Christians to be a part of a Christian community so as to encourage each other, build accountable relationships and gather together for mutual encouragement. For the sake of God’s Kingdom it’s important for Christians to be connected with other parts of the “body.”

But, as we do with any enterprise that absorbs huge amounts of time and money, we need to honestly review the effectiveness of the  “organised Church.”  Is our Church working as well as it could or should be?

I want to argue three reasons why the modern New Zealand evangelical, organised, minister and Sunday service-centred Church is past its best.

1. It isn’t working.

2. It isn’t Biblical.

3. It is actually harmful.

1. Our Church is not working/effective

a). Our Church is not growing:

• A few are growing rapidly at 5%, 10% or 20% a year but most struggle to remain static and many are in decline.

• The successful “mega-churches” are few and far between, usually dependent on a unique leader, and can’t easily be duplicated.

• For every successful mega church there are hundreds of less successful wannabe mega-churches which would love to grow, but don’t.

• Many churches that appear to be growing are doing so through transfer growth – at the expense of other churches.

• New immigrants are creating an artificial impression that the Church is not declining

• Overall, census data shows the proportion of New Zealand’s population in the main denominations has decreased steadily over the past 50 years, and they now have only 45-90% of the proportion of New Zealand’s population they had in 1956.

• The Apostolic Church movement, of which I am part, grew in the late 1980s and mid 1990s but has since declined to the same number of members as it had in 1993.

• The Baptist denomination’s numbers are static and when adjusted to allow for New Zealand’s population growth since 1956, are in slight decline.

• In a typical year both the Apostolic and Baptist Churches see a third of their churches grow and the other two thirds remain static or decline

• By contrast, Buddhist, Hindu and Moslem religions have shown considerable growth in New Zealand since 1971.

• Many denominations have a huge backdoor. Baptist churches, for example, are baptising the equivalent of nearly 10% of adult church members each year, yet there is little overall growth in the denomination.

b). Our Church isn’t what we hope/dream it should be.

We dream of churches with lots of people getting saved, growing and being discipled, of queues at the door on Sundays, overflowing offering bags and so many volunteers ministries have waiting lists.

The reality is that the local church of 70 adults 10 years ago is still the local church of about 70 adults. In 10 years of hard work, prayer, programmes, and planning there has been little overall change.

But it could be worse. We are happy our church hasn’t closed, or is in rapid decline. It might not be growing but at least it’s not falling apart!

c). Our church isn’t producing obedient disciples.

Overall, Christians are little different from their neighbours.

Statistics from American sources show the divorce rate among church attendees in the United States is much the same as among non-attendees while the rate of pre-marital and extra-marital sex is about the same in both groups. New Zealand church-goers may be different in some of these areas, but are we different enough to stand out?

One area of difference is the “Christian Vote.” About 20% of the New Zealand population attends church monthly, yet Christians are ignored politically while much smaller groups have greater political influence. Politicians believe there is no unified Christian vote in New Zealand and that Christians typically vote the same way as the rest of society.

d). There is a leadership crisis in our Church

There is an overall shortage of ministers in most New Zealand denominations, along with a high level of burn-out and disillusionment. Statistics in the United States show 80% of American pastors and their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role; 80% of Bible School and seminary graduates who enter ministry will leave within five years; 70% of pastors battle with depression; 50% are so discouraged they would leave the profession if they could but have no other way of making a living; 80% of pastors’ spouses feel their spouse is overworked and wish they could choose another profession.

The situation in New Zealand may not be as extreme, but we probably face similar problems.

e). There is a membership crisis in our Church

In New Zealand there is a big gap between the number of people who call themselves Christian and the number that are committed to local churches. In December 2004 a NZ Herald poll of 1000 New Zealanders showed that 67.7% of those polled said they believed in God but only 20.6% said they often attended a church. The 2001 Census shows just under 60% of New Zealanders claiming to be Christian.

Of the 60% who call themselves Christians, less than one third are regular church attendees while the rest are outside the normal church. A Massey University ISSP study of 1244 people in 2005 shows that only 37% of New Zealanders have never belonged to a church and that while 16.5% of New Zealanders are active church members, almost three times as many (44.8%) have current or previous church links but now aren’t actively involved.

f). Society is changing and our Church is being left behind.

Historically, the Church has taken the lead in areas such as the value of human life, education, and the abolition of slavery. Now we are behind in other important areas we should be leading, such as gender equality, ecology and the “green” movement, world justice and the elimination of poverty.

We find it difficult to distinguish the modernist aspects of our current church values and culture from those that are an essential part of Christianity.

g). Our Church is not impacting society, either in the local community or wider society.

Most (but certainly not all) churches are isolated from their local community and have very little effect on that community. Most communities wouldn’t notice if the church closed. Some are valued as venues for weddings and funerals but are otherwise not seen as important.

Yet, the Church should not just be different from society, it should be way out in front.

2. Our Church isn’t biblical

Our church has some theology, values, structures and practices that don’t reflect New Testament priorities.

a). We don’t love the poor.

The Bible is clear that we have a responsibility to help the poor, yet rich Western Christians and churches control trillions of dollars in assets and income, while 850 million people, including 200 million Christians, are currently starving.

UN studies show $US70-80 billion a year would provide essential health care and education for all the world’s poor. If Western Christians gave just 5% of their income towards this, it would solve the problem totally.

We rich Christians say we love people, and that the Church is the body of Christ, yet we do very little for the poor.  It is sobering to reflect on how much we would do to save our own child’s life, and how little we do to save the life of other children.

b). We don’t really care about world mission.

Despite Christ’s command to evangelise, two thirds of all people from AD30 to the present day have never heard of his name.

Christians spend only a relatively small amount each year on mission to the non-Christian, non-evangelised world – $250 million annually is spent on these 38 countries and 1.6 billion people. By contrast, Western churches spend $810 million a year on  annual audits of churches and agencies, $16 billion of church funds is embezzled each year with only about 5% of those responsible being caught, $8 billion a year is spent by Christians worldwide travelling to over 500 conferences to talk about missions, the combined personal income of church members is $15 trillion a year while each member spends on average  $7.80 a year on foreign missions or about one one-thousandth of their income.

We are unfocused and ineffective with world mission, with the total cost of Christian outreach averaging $330,000 for each and every newly baptised person.

c). We have built a church model centred on the extra-biblical – particularly professional ministers and Sunday meetings focused on corporate-sung-worship and sermons.

Preaching in the Bible is always in the context of evangelism, whereas we typically preach to the converted (week after week for the rest of their lives). The preaching in Western churches is extra-biblical and is typically either teaching or a pep talk.

One of the main reasons we gather on a Sunday is for corporate worship, yet corporate sung worship led from the front is conspicuously absent from the New Testament.

We say we believe in the “priesthood of all believers” but typically centre our churches on a paid (or volunteer) professional minister or leader.

Many churches say they are “purpose driven” yet in practice they are usually quite programme orientated.

d). We offer theology that is over-simplified and doesn’t accurately reflect Biblical values.

We offer “cheap” salvation which results in untransformed lives. This salvation appears like a “get into heaven free” opportunity, rather than an encounter with the living God who calls us to radical discipleship.

We focus on narrow areas of sin such as those relating to sexuality and honesty but neglect other important ones such as pride, gluttony, greed and materialism

3. Our church is harmful for the Kingdom

The Church is often focused on building itself, rather than building the Kingdom.

a). We value our local church more than the Kingdom.

Where does the first of our money get spent? It typically goes towards operating a Sunday service, including the costs of buildings, ministers, sermon preparation and music equipment. Only a small proportion of the income is spent on Kingdom activities outside the local church.

Our model of church is expensive with a huge financial cost involved in operating organised churches in the Western world. For New Zealand Baptists the cost per church attendee is about $750 income a year, plus $10,000 capital per attendee.

As well as financial cost, there is a huge cost in volunteer time in operating the normal organised church in New Zealand. Millions of hours are given to running the church and its programmes each year.

We waste our resources on maintaining church for Christian consumers.

Church volunteers’ time is also used predominantly for activities associated with operating the local church, rather than wider Kingdom activities. I estimate that, typically, 90% of a church’s time, energy and finances are spent on maintaining the church for its members.

Society has a poor perception of Christians and the Church and we are known for the wrong issues. For example, in New Zealand we’re more known as the people who are pro-smacking, than we are known as people who love the poor.

b). Our church is harmful for Christians.

It insulates and inoculates Christians, usually keeping them dependent on sermons and church programmes, and leaving them biblically and theologically illiterate or immature.

Our church drains people’s time, energy, vision, finance, enthusiasm, initiative and responsibility. It generally suits “yes” people who fit in and help maintain the status quo.

Because of our structures and practices we disempower and create dependence on Sunday meetings, sung worship, sermons, professional ministers, programmes and buildings.

Church styles foster a brand of consumerism, as we create and adjust programmes to cater for the needs of our members and those we are trying to attract.

Typical church members aren’t discipled, and their lives aren’t radically transformed. We typically “write off” any Christians outside the organised church and think that people only leave because they are “back-sliding” or have unresolved issues. Yet in reality people leave for a wide variety or reasons including spiritual survival and a realisation their church doesn’t accurately reflect biblical priorities.

The New Zealand Church has major problems, yet many church leaders are unable to see these, or are reluctant to face them directly, or are unsure what to do about them. Many church members see these problems and have become uninvolved, problematic, or even left the church.

But pointing out the problems is always easy. Doing something about them is much harder. The challenge facing all of us is how to transform our imperfect church into a church that we and Jesus can be proud of. This can’t be achieved by minor adjustments, or designing new programmes. Major reformation is needed – the sort that would make Martin Luther proud – a reformation of the core values, purpose and methods of the church.

There will not be just one answer, or any on way of “doing” or “being” church in New Zealand. Rather, we need a variety of experiments, models and attempts to be relevant in this changing society.

Some of these will work and others will fail but we need to be committed to honestly evaluating what we are doing, communicating and working together to find relevant solutions, so the Kingdom of God will grow.

• Unabridged copies of this article are available at http://www.edgenet.org.nz/ideasfromedge/thechurchhashaditsday.htm

 

David Allis is married to Margaret and they have six children. He has a theology degree, and was involved in full-time Christian work for 16 years, including missions work in Calcutta, and running a Bible College in Auckland. Two years ago, he transitioned from leadership in a large city church, to joining with Margaret in developing a missional church in their home and attempting to extend the kingdom in their community. They network with other house churches in New Zealand (www.edgenet.org.nz ), and have started some businesses “to pay the bills and feed our hungry children!”

We can change the world … if we want to

I’ve been reflecting on some things over the past couple of months relating to poverty in the world … every day 35,000 people die from starvation – they will die today, and another 35,000 will die tomorrow, & so on … until some people do something about it …..

A few days before Christmas (last year), I suggested in ‘ideas from the edge’ that Christmas was a great time to remember Jesus, friends & family, & the POOR.

I had been reading “Exiles” by Michael Frost (I still haven’t finished it – I get distracted by books like “When Bad Christians Happen To Good People” J .. a book worth looking at just for the title).

Mike Frost in Exiles says that every culture has ‘gods’, whether they are overt or hidden. He suggests (I agree) that one of the main ‘gods’ in the west is materialism (& selfishness) … he says we need to confront / challenge this ‘god’ … particularly by living counter-culturally. We ‘rich’ Christians are typically as rich & materialistic as the ‘not-yet-christians’ around us … or at least there aren’t overt, highly visible differences between us ….

Could you spot who are the Christians in NZ / US / UK society by only looking at their use of $, spending on themselves, the poor etc???? … I suggest that this would be very difficult … as typically ‘we’ aren’t much different (apart from possibly giving $ to our organised church, which spends typically 90% on providing wonderful ‘services’ for our own use – a bit like golfers paying to be part of the golf club etc) … we’re not radically counter-cultural enough to draw the world’s attention to our different allegiance & values …

So … just before Christmas I offered a challenge (for us all) “…. for christians who are called to love the poor, give to the needy who can’t repay etc etc …. Can you / we / I … spend as much on helping the poor this Christmas as we spend on giving to the rich (our selves, friends & family) …. OR … if you / we / I don’t have enough $ to do it that way around, what about trying to only spend as much on the rich as we’ve already spent on the poor ….. (ie give to the poor first …)

A friend came back to me re this & said … ‘thank you very much – a good challenge – but it would be better if it came with more warning/time, rather than just a few days before Christmas .. as they had already spent their Christmas $. He had a good point … so I thought I’d issue the challenge again, with a bit more warning, for Christmas …. (10 months warning … remember its only 310 days to Christmas … J )

Is it possible for us to care for the poor as much as we do for the rich? Is it possible for us to spend as much on the poor at Christmas as we do on the rich? Personally, we’ve been trying to move further that way … our children & relatives are getting used to being given goats & pigs & toilets & orchards for Christmas … through the gifts for the poor programs of World Vision & Tear Fund … a couple of years ago my mother-in-law said the goat she was given was the best present she received (she got a photo of a goat which was given to a poor family somewhere) – she now looks forward to something similar each year

In January, Margaret (my wonderful wife) said ‘so how did we personally do’? We sat down & did the sums, & figured we needed to give a bit more money away … & then we had managed to meet the challenge. Maybe the challenge needs to be extended beyond Christmas … is it possible this year to spend as much on the poor as we do on the rich? (on the unnecessary luxury things)

I took 3 of our kids + lots of unicycles to Parachute Music Festival in January (a large Christian music festival). At Parachute, there was a debate on world poverty – I didn’t get to the debate, but recognized one of the debators as a former bible college student I had taught. I bumped into him later & asked how it went, & whether there were any conclusions. He said that one of the conclusions was that poverty couldn’t be stopped in our lifetime. I was surprises, & I’m sure a lot more good things were said in the debate … but I’ve been thinking about this statement ‘poverty can’t be stopped in our lifetime’, & have decided I disagree.

Poverty could be stopped in a year or 2 if everyone in the world decided they would do everything they can to eliminate poverty (including the unjust rulers, billionaires, criminals, ordinary people etc). But if it was only the Christians who focused on it, poverty could easily be eliminated in our lifetime … if all, or lots, of rich Christians decided it was a priority.

But we know it won’t happen (& maybe this is what the debate concluded). WHY – because all christians won’t do it …. Why not – probably for a variety of reasons including selfishness, materialism, lack of understanding of the biblical mandate, different priorities, dualism (ie wrongly thinking that the spiritual & material can be separated, & that the spiritual realm is more important) etc etc

BUT – we can still each, personally, do lots (& lots more) to help the poor.

I had a conversation with another friend who is a minister – we’ve talked lots over the years about the $ spent on churches vs the $ going to help the poor. He argues that if all Christians gave generously to their churches (rather than only the 20% of people who tithe to their church), then there would be plenty of $ left over to help the poor. I disagree … it seems to me that most churches are very good at spending all (or most) of what they get … if the income to a typical local church doubled, it would probably quickly find ways to spend that extra income (on new programs, better equipment, buildings, staff etc etc) … rather than on the poor. As Tom Sine says “Let’s quit kidding ourselves; we even tithe to ourselves. Everthing we put into our churches we take back. We are not, as Bonhoeffer said, ‘the church for others’; we are the church for ourselves.” (as an aside – I am convinced that tithing as it is taught in many churches is biblically inaccurate & wrong)

So .. if a church really cared for the poor, maybe it could give the first part of its income to the poor …. Or what about a church which gave ½ of all income to the poor? Surely actions like this would indicate that the church (church leaders & members) placed priority on the poor.

I met another old friend at Parachute. Following a comment I made about how I love house churches because they are financially cheap to run & hence can potentially free $ for other things (like helping the poor), he said ‘our church is cheap to run – it has a building with no mortgage, & a budget of about $100k pa for 250 people’. Reflecting on this later … I figured that the building is probably worth $1m, & hence could generate about $100k pa income … so the total cost of running the church is about $200k pa (+ volunteer time) … $200k each year could save a lot of lives – I dusted off my calculator & worked out that its enough to start 20 micro-enterprise banks each year, which each make about 350 loans every 3 years, & affect 3000+ lives, & carry on long-term. So my friends church, over 10 years, could potentially spend $2m on itself – or start 200 micro-enterprise banks, making 128,000 loans, affecting 1,100,000 lives … & this would carry on long-term.

We also heard Tony Campolo speak last week – he was great (I’ve only seen him on video before). Part of what he said, as he gave impassioned encouragement to sponsor children, was that its not about generosity, its about justice. We Christians (& others) do generosity well (eg the response to The Tsunami & Hurricane Katrina was great), but we aren’t good at long-term justice issues (eg the 35,000 dying every day). We live in an unjust world, where we are fortunate enough to be the rich ones, and we supposedly serve a God who clearly commands us to give generously to the poor & to work to right injustice.

Tony spoke well, encouraging everyone to sponsor a child. I think he could have pushed people a bit further … if you sponsor one child, why not stretch & take a second one, or if you have 2, why not stretch a bit & sponsor a third. I know of university students on very tight budgets sponsoring 2 children, & high school students earning $6/hr for casual work sponsoring one child … quite a challenge for those of us who earn real wages.

To quote NZ singer Brooke Fraser in her song ‘Albertine’, “Now that I have seen, I am responsible. Faith without deeds is dead”. We have seen – we are responsible – what will we do about it?

Blessings

David Allis