Tag Archives: Postmodernism

The Questions of Declining Churches

Empty ChurchAround the country, Churches of Christ continue to decline in numbers of local churches and individual members. You can read this article from the Christian Chronicle that provides and explains the data. Such decline raises the anxiety among elders and ministers along with raising questions about the reason for such decline. However, sometimes it seems like some people just want to keep asking the same questions that lead to the same answers.

I haven’t seen a copy of the Spiritual Sword in almost ten years but that changed when someone sent me a copy of the April 2018 issue (Vol. 49, No. 3). Dedicated to the legacy of N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, the editor Alan E. Highers concludes with an editorial titled “What Can We Learn?” Speaking of the Churches of Christ, which in his sectarian view constitutes “the body of Christ”, Highers writes:

Why have some young people forsaken the body of Christ and moved into a denomination, a community church, or back into the world? In all likelihood they have not heard the preaching on the sin of religious division and the identity of Christ’s church, perhaps in their lifetime. Why have some among us minimized the authority of the scriptures and concluded that instrumental music is marginal and unimportant? (p. 47).

The answers he provides to his own questions are unfounded assumptions. That is, there isn’t any evidence cited to support such answers. In fact, I doubt very much that a thorough social analysis on why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and regard opposition to the use of instruments in Christian worship as unimportant would ever yield the conclusions that Higher’s asserts.

Alan Higher’s and his associates are free to regard as important whatever set of beliefs they want to hold on any issue they like. However, the conclusions that Highers assumes reveal just how out of touch with reality some Christians and Churches of Christ are in this postmodern and post-Christendom American society we live among. There are likely several reasons why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and why people, myself included, don’t regard the use of instruments in Christian worship as sin. I can only speak for myself but whatever the reasons are, apart from the person who has just abandoned following Jesus entirely, they have nothing to do with a lack of preaching/teaching on church unity and a minimizing the authority of scripture. I have read the Bible from cover to cover and have a high-view regarding the authority of scripture. I’ve even preached on the subject of Christian unity and on the authority of scripture, it’s just that I’ve reached a different conclusion about what the scriptures teach on the issue of Christian unity and singing in worship.

However, I’m going to push further and say that by drawing the conclusions which Higher’s does is more a means of scapegoating than anything else. Such conclusions allow local churches to blame those who have left or no longer adhere to the traditional Churches of Christ dogma for their decline. By scapegoating these issues, local Churches of Christ by means of their leaders can then ignore the deeper questions about their church and mission. These are questions that might open their gospel imaginations regarding their own contextual theological praxis, resulting in new ways of embodying the gospel as participants in the mission of God. This may be the biggest challenge facing Churches of Christ: Do local Churches of Christ have the faith to ask different questions that would lead them in a new direction as participants in the mission of God? Alan Highers is only one voice but his voice says “No!” and that is lamentable.

If a local church just keeps asking the same questions and imposing the same answers on those same questions, they’ll end up with the same results. In psychological terms, that’s called insanity. Drawing on a biblical metaphor, it is to remain safely in the water even though Jesus is calling the church out into the water. Until local churches by means of their leaders have the courage to step out into the water, which requires faith rather than dogmatic certainty, continued decline will happen as participating in the mission of God gets lost from the safety of the boat.

So let me suggest that rediscovering how God is calling a local church to participate in his mission requires us to ask better questions that anticipate different answers. Ergo, instead of asking “why someone has become a part of a local community church?”, how about asking instead “how is our church doing in the practice of hospitality and charity towards one another?” That question might lead to inquiring about whether the people in the nearby neighborhoods find a welcoming and friendly environment among us (which can only be answered by asking the people in the neighborhoods). Such questions open space for learning and rediscovering ways as well as opportunities for how the local church might embody the gospel among the neighborhoods and begin extending the kingdom of God into the neighborhoods rather than just continuing in decline.

This is something to think about. However, by all means, let’s quit scapegoating the reasons for why Churches of Christ are declining.

Encountering Truth in a Post-Truth Society

As of last year, the word post-truth officially entered into the American vocabulary. Ergo the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the following headline: “Post-Truth” named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The article then went on to say, “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.”

So this, among other things, is what we’ve come to as society. Truth has become whatever we, as our individual selves, want to believe. It’s not just the politicians or the journalists, it’s us. That’s why there is all the influx of fake news stories about this or that we’ve passed along as truth in various social-media outlets. Most of the time, we don’t even care enough to even see if what we’re sharing is true or not. Why? Because the fake news story agrees with what we wish to be true. As my friend Sean Palmer remarked on Facebook, “We [don’t] see things as they are. We see things as we are. The lies are a symptom, the ego and false self are the disease!”

The question we must as is where do we go from here? Where might we find truth in order that we see life as God wills life to be?

Let’s begin with how our western society has understood truth and the birth of modernism in the 17th century, particularly with a couple of philosophers named René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. They led us to believe that the human mind and our ability to objectively reason was the foundational basis of what could be known and how we could resolve moral issues. Truth was reduced to whatever could be scientifically proven and the western world began to operate as though human reason could solve all of our problems. Though it wasn’t the intention of Descartes and Kant, this resulted in a grandiose view of humanity and what could be achieved through human ingenuity.

The human mind and objective reasoning might all sound good but then came the 20th century with depression and world wars, gas chambers and nuclear bombs, and humanitarian crises such as famine and the rise in urban blight. This is what the human mind, with its capacity to objectively reason, produced? It became rather obvious that science and human reason wasn’t solving every problem. Enter into the conversation two more philosophers named Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They helped us see that we’re not as objective in our reasoning as we wish since we all think from a location shaped by our experiences; and sometimes our motives are less than pure. Thus, modernism bequeathed postmodernism.

“Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now I am far from well-read in the field of continental philosophy. However, from what I have read, it seems that postmodernism offered a good corrective to the arrogance of modernism which placed such high confidence in human reason. However, the downside of postmodernism is a trajectory that has led us into a post-truth reality where our only source of truth is our individual selves. Obviously, we have a problem when the only source of truth is ourselves. While we are all shaped by our own biases, experiences, and motives, is there any truth beyond ourselves? I believe so and if you’re a Christian, so then should you. Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further believe the Bible is a truthful, and therefore trustworthy, witness of Jesus Christ, his gospel, and teaching.

We know this truth in the passing of tradition among the church. What I am speaking of is what Roberto S. Goizueta describes as “a truth that emerges from the interaction between two particular persons and that, therefore, transcends each of them” (Caminemos Con Jesús, p. 158). In our case the two particular people is ourselves and the local church which is always part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church whom Christ is present among. Among the local church is the tradition of what the first witnesses of the crucified and resurrected Jesus saw and began telling others who then told others and so forth. They we’re simply telling what they saw first-hand and subsequently experienced vicariously through their encounter of the gospel among the church. So the gospel story of Jesus and his teaching became the tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the ways we encounter this tradition even as we share in it in order that we might know the truth is through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist where we remember Jesus Christ. In the partaking of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter the truth of what the world really is coming to be as God wills. We anticipate the future of history in the present (prolepsis) as we remember the past by sharing in the Lord’s Supper together as we sing hymns and pray as well as read scripture and hear the word of God proclaimed. Gathered together for this Eucharistic meal is where we then learn how to live into this future as a witness of the truth so that others, in a post-truth society, will encounter the truth of Jesus Christ.