Michael Bell on Church Attendance

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Michael Bell over at internetmonk.com on the subject of church attendance.  As you may know, church attendance is declining in a lot of places, and lots of people have strong opinions on why this is happening and what to do about it.  Bell critiques the opinion offered by Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, that church attendance is down because people are attending less frequently, and his ideas as to what to do about this.

Bell tees it up like this:  Suppose you are the owner of a neighborhood pizzeria.  You notice that sales are down, revenue is down, and your business appears to be basically going down the tubes.  So you bring in an expensive outside consultant.  Your consultant looks at the data from your frequent buyer program (buy 10 pizzas, get 1 free), and determines that the reason your business is down is that people aren’t buying your pizza as frequently.  You struggle to see what he is talking about or what it has to do with anything, but he patiently walks you through it:  You have 200 customers who are visiting your place once each week, and spending $10 each time they go.  Over four weeks, that’s $8,000 in sales.  Now, half those customers cut back to only going three out of four weeks.  So 100 of your customers are spending $4,000 over four weeks while the other 100 are now only spending $3,000, for a total of $7,000.  You haven’t lost any customers, but you’ve lost $1,000 in sales over a four week period.

Your consultant even has some ideas for what to do to address this and get your sales back up.  He offers you a detailed five-point plan:  (1)  Make sure people understand how important it is to eat your pizza.  Explain to them about the love and care that goes into making each pie, how fresh the ingredients are, and how delicious and filling your pizza is.  (2)  Make sure people understand what your frequent buyer program is all about.  Make sure they read and agree to all the terms and conditions listed in the 15-page document before they get the first punch on their card.  Membership in your frequent buyer program ought to mean something, and you should make sure your customers feel like it does.  (3)  Get the members of your frequent buyer program more involved in your business.  Have flyers on hand and readily available for them to pass out to all their friends and neighbors.  Make it as easy as possible for them to invite people to your pizzeria.  (4)  Extend your hours of operation so that your customers can come when it is convenient for them.  (5)  Keep track of who is coming, and when.  Send them a card if they haven’t come in a while.

But you begin to talk with your customers, and you soon discover that your consultant is just blowing hot air.  The economy has hit your customers hard, and many can’t afford to eat out as often as they used to.  Some have jobs that require them to travel or commute long distances, and they just can’t come very often.  Some are busy caring for ailing relatives.  Some like the offerings of other pizzerias which have different toppings and ingredients, or a different atmosphere.  And some are concerned about the healthfulness of your pizza.  Any recommendations which do not address these real issues are not going to do you a bit of good.

Rainer offers five solutions to the problem of people attending church less frequently:

  1. Raise the expectations of membership. You may be surprised how many church members don’t really think it’s that important to be an active part of the church. No one has ever told them differently.
  2. Require an entry class for membership. By doing so, the church makes a statement that membership is meaningful. The class should also be used to state the expectations of what a committed member looks like.
  3. Encourage ministry involvement. Many members become less frequent attendees because they have no ministry roles in the church. They do not feel like they are an integral part of the church.
  4. Offer more options for worship times. Our culture is now a 24/7 population. Some members have to work during the times of worship services. If possible, give them options. One businessman recently told me that he changed congregations to a church that offered a Saturday worship time because his job required him to catch a plane on Sunday morning.
  5. Monitor attendance of each member. This approach is often difficult, especially for worship attendance. That is why the traditional Sunday school approach of calling absentees was so effective. Perhaps churches can incorporate that approach in all groups. Members are less likely to be absent if they know someone misses them.

Yet these solutions fail to speak to the real reasons why many people are cutting back their church attendance:  Burnout.  People are becoming burned out because their churches are asking so much of them, and yet this guy would have those churches ask even more?  People are already deeply involved and committed and that commitment is taking a heavy toll on their lives, and now their churches are asking them to be even more committed?  For many people, these solutions are likely to have the opposite effect.  Rather than drawing them back into church, these solutions are likely to push them even further away.

Read Michael Bell:  #1 Reason Why Church Attendance Is Down – Really?

Scot McKnight: Is Eternal, Conscious Torment a Necessary Part of Christian Belief?

Today I wish to direct your attention to a pair of posts over at Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed.  These posts hone in on a narrow slice of Christian belief concerning the afterlife, specifically hell and whether or not eternal, conscious torment is part of it.

McKnight is working his way through a recent book entitled “Rethinking Hell”, which collects readings from well-known evangelical scholars who support a minority view known as annihilationism or conditional immortality–namely that the wicked who refuse the grace of God through Jesus Christ will cease to exist altogether upon their death.  McKnight looks at readings from John R. W. Stott and Clark Pinnock.

John Stott’s writings come from a book he wrote a couple of decades back in which he first expressed his conditionalist views.  This caused quite a backlash, despite Stott’s influence and despite his careful exegesis in support of his views, so much so that others who shared Stott’s views became extremely reluctant to express those views publicly.  McKnight lays out the crux of Stott’s argument in support of his conditionalist viewpoint; the high points include:  The idea of eternal and conscious torment is intolerable and cannot be accepted without growing numb to it or else collapsing under the burden.  Most of the biblical language concerning hell points toward destruction, meaning a complete cessation of physical and spiritual life, not a state in which physical/spiritual life is preserved so that the soul might experience conscious torment throughout all eternity.

Next McKnight looks at writings from Clark Pinnock.  Pinnock describes the idea of eternal, conscious torment as an “outrageous doctrine”.  He traces it back to Augustine, who was influenced by Platonic ideas on the immortality of the soul.  He likens it to “the person who delights in watching a cat being tortured in a microwave, and taking delight in it”.  Though some try to soften this by importing ideas of human responsibility, Augustine did no such thing.  Instead, Augustine believed that God chose who would be saved, meaning by implication that he also chose who would be damned.  Jonathan Edwards picked up that ball and ran with it.  “Surely,” says Pinnock, “a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God….Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on his own enemies for all eternity?”

My take:  This is reflective of a crazy tendency of evangelicals to get themselves bent all crazy kinds of out of sorts when anyone challenges their cherished ideas about heaven and hell.  We saw this in the ruckus over that Rob Bell book a couple of years back.

Can we please be honest enough to admit that an awful lot of what we think we know about heaven and hell doesn’t come from Scripture but instead from Dante, Milton, Michelangelo, and even Thomas Kinkade?  And why are we so wrapped up on this idea of eternal, conscious torment?  Is it something in us that just cannot be satisfied unless we know that the vast majority of mankind will face eternal torment unless they start thinking and believing like us?

I close with something Stott said:  “No one should speak of hell without tears in their eyes. If you can’t emote over this topic, spend time with God until you can, and then speak about hell.”

RHE on Modesty: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Every year at around this time of year, modesty always seems to become a hot topic in evangelical circles.  Rachel Held Evans has written a piece about modesty over at the Q Ideas blog which is probably one of the finest you will read.

In today’s culture women, and Christian women in particular, are bombarded with mixed messages regarding their bodies.  On the one hand, there is every advertisement in every magazine in every supermarket and every TV commercial on the face of the earth, which screams that women should work to please men by striving to become more sexually attractive.  On the other hand, there is every preacher in every fundamentalist church who says that women should dress modestly in order to please their brothers by keeping them from stumbling into temptation.  Between the message of pop culture and the message of the church, what women get is something like “Look cute–but not too cute!  Be modest–but not frumpy!”  It is an exhausting tightrope for women to have to walk, especially in light of constantly changing fashions and expectations.

But if you read the relevant verses pertaining to modesty, what you will find is that they don’t say anything about sexuality, i. e. how much or how little or what parts of a woman’s body she reveals.  Instead, they deal with how expensive the clothes are that a woman is wearing.  Translation:  too much bling, rather than too much skin, is the issue here.

Biblical modesty is not about women managing the sexual impulses of the men around them, either by dressing to attract or dressing to keep them on the straight and narrow.  Instead it is about men being accountable for their own sexual desires and how they act on them.  When Jesus says that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in her heart (Matthew 5:28), he does not give men the option of blaming it on the what the women were wearing.  Instead he says in the very next verse, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out! Better to enter life blind than be thrown into hell with both eyes” (my paraphrase).

Read “Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means” by Rachel Held Evans