The Year (2016) in Review

This is the time to recap the year that was.

There are a number of ways to do it, many of which are interesting. You can look at a year in terms of notable deaths, viral events, political rises and falls…

But how do you really get a 12-month snapshot of a culture's zeitgeist?

I would argue for two words: Google searches.

I'm not saying that this will be what historians will mark in 10, much less 100 years… even less what is most significant. But I will say that it may be the clearest window into our current soul.

So here we go with a few peeks into our inner world, courtesy of Google itself.

Top 10 Trending Searches:

  1. Powerball
  2. Prince
  3. Hurricane Matthew
  4. Pokémon Go
  5. Sliter.io
  6. Olympics
  7. David Bowie
  8. Donald Trump
  9. Election
  10. Hillary Clinton

Top 10 "How To…?" Searches:

  1. How to play Pokémon Go?
  2. How to register to vote?
  3. How to play Powerball?
  4. How to make slime?
  5. How to move to Canada?
  6. How to battle in Pokémon Go?
  7. How to appear funny?
  8. How to catch Pokémon Go?
  9. How to vote early?
  10. How to use Snapchat filters?

Top 10 "What is…?" Questions:

  1. What is Pokémon Go?
  2. What is a Caucus?
  3. What is Brexit?
  4. What are electoral votes?
  5. What is the Electoral College?
  6. What is Aleppo?
  7. What is the mannequin challenge?
  8. What is the European Union?
  9. What is Citizens United?
  10. What is a Superdelegate?

And finally, the Top 10 People of 2016 we were interested in:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Hillary Clinton
  3. Michael Phelps
  4. Bernie Sanders
  5. Steven Avery
  6. Ryan Lochte
  7. Simone Biles
  8. Cam Newton
  9. Usain Bolt
  10. Kevin Durant

Welcome to our world.

James Emery White


Sources

See the "Year in Search in 2016" for the United States, Google, read online.

Best Toys Ever

Wired magazine ran an article on the five best toys ever. Wired is one of the most innovative, bleeding-edge publications you'll read to learn about all things technological. Which is why, at first, the list surprised me, but then I realized their angle and couldn't help but appreciate their wisdom.

Here's the list:

1. Stick

2. Box

3. String

4. Cardboard Tube

5. Dirt

Anybody want to argue with them? I doubt it.

It's an important reminder that the best things in life – and often in ministry, leadership, business and family – are the simple things.

The dilemma is how our culture seems to refuse to give simplicity a place.

But think about when it insists on intruding and the wake it leaves behind.

For example, imagine a snowstorm brings your town to a standstill. You stocked up on bread and milk and a few other things you didn't really need, so when the storm hits you settle in. The power goes out, so you light candles and gather by the fireplace for warmth. Board games that have been gathering dust for years are pulled out. You play them and have more fun than you can remember. You venture outside and actually play – throwing snowballs, making snow angels, building a snowman.

It is golden.

You will probably talk, years later, about that magic night and how you'd give almost anything to go back and relive it, and wish there was a way to recreate it in the here and now.

In a complex, always "on" world, perhaps what we need to remember is that we need to intentionally unplug every now and then.

Even if it is just to remember that the best toys in the world – like the best times – are the simplest.

And in truth, the most available.

That is my holiday wish for you. May you enjoy the simplicity and holiness that resides in the stillness between Christmas and the new year.

And maybe have some fun with a leftover box or two.

James Emery White


Sources

Jonathan Liu, "The 5 Best Toys of All Time," Wired, January 31, 2011, read online.

Editor's Note
This blog was originally published in 2011. The Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy this annual tradition once again. Merry Christmas!

Closed for Christmas

Editor's Note: This blog was last posted in December 2011, which was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. The Church & Culture Team felt it appropriate to offer again this year.

Many churches, finding that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, are choosing to scale back their services or even cancel them in light of the holiday.

"This is a consumer mentality at work: 'Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient,'" offered David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing."

Fuller Theological Seminary professor Robert K. Johnston worries that another Christmas tradition is fading: "What's going on here is a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community [faithfully] celebrating the birth of the Savior. There is a risk that we will lose one more of our Christian rituals, one that's at the heart of our faith." Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, called it a "capitulation to narcissism."

It didn't help that some of the megachurch spokespersons gave less than helpful answers as to why – such as the desire to cater to the family (which could hold true on any other Sunday as well) or simply to be "lifestyle-friendly," which positions them to charges of wholesale capitulation to culture. Even worse was the response that church services would be cared for through DVDs, which is jolting to anyone with even the barest of theological sensitivities to the doctrine of the church and its worship.

But somebody needs to call "time out" for a minute, because neither side is getting this one right. The critics are being too quick on the draw, and the reasoning offered by the churches cancelling their services isn't what best validates their choice.

First, evangelical churches of all kinds throughout the United States have seldom held services on Christmas Day even when it has not fallen on a Sunday (a tradition that dates back to the Puritans).

Second, marking Christmas has never been tied to a Sunday-specific celebration (as with Easter). If there is a day that has uniformly been seized by churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has been Christmas Eve, and the large churches being chastised for not having Sunday services on the 25th are planning on offering numerous services on the 24th.

Third, it is not simply the megachurches who are doing this – churches of all types are, at the very least, scaling back their service offerings for the 25th – so making this about a megachurch sellout is unfair.

Finally, some of the rhetoric criticizing churches for opting out of services on the 25th skates dangerously close to Sabbatarianism, with a fair dose of legalism to boot. To insist that we must meet on a Sunday – any Sunday – can be debated. Early church records show a preference for worship on the "Lord's Day," but only the 2nd century church manual – the Didache – directed Christians to meet at that time. No day was set aside in Gentile Christianity for worship until the time of Constantine and the institutionalization of the church, but nowhere is it directly commanded in Scripture.

So are we admonished to gather together as believers? Yes.

But not necessarily on a Sunday morning.

For many years, Christmas Eve has been the day of choice for the communal celebration among Christians of the birth of Christ. Celebrations could be held on Christmas Day, but very few would come. If one cares about leading the church to celebrate the birth of Christ, they should go with the hundreds or even thousands that can assemble on Christmas Eve against the handful they might be able to engage on Christmas Day – particularly since there is the biblical freedom to do so.

This isn't compromise, it is common sense.

But it is a moot point for most churches. The volunteer base needed for a Christmas Day service simply cannot be met. As I joked with one reporter, the critics who want to insist on a Christmas Day service have no intention of being the one sitting in the nursery watching someone else's child. They may not have any intention of attending at all. I recall a deacon in the church I pastored while in seminary insisting on a Sunday night service on Super Bowl Sunday. We had the service, and he stayed home to watch the Super Bowl.

The larger issue, of course, is how best to address the valid cultural concerns expressed by individuals such as Wells, Johnston and Witherington, who are well-intentioned and justifiably concerned about the world in which we live and what it might be doing to the church.

My contention is that they have the right description of a cultural malady – materialism, individualism and consumerism – but the wrong diagnosis (that it is demonstrated by whether you go to church on December 24 vs. December 25), and have certainly applied it to the wrong patient (the churches choosing to scale back or cancel on the 25th). This makes their prescription – that to fight the culture war we should have services on the 25th – all the more ineffective.

We will not keep Christ in Christmas through a Christmas Day service – whether on a Sunday or any other day of the week.

We will keep Christ in Christmas by working to keep His birth in the center of our hearts and celebrations, as Christmas Eve services will most certainly do.

We will keep Christ in Christmas by avoiding the materialism our culture places upon the holiday season.

We will keep Christ in Christmas, most of all, by reaching out to individuals within our culture for Christ so that one day they may celebrate His birth with us…

… whenever it is we meet to do it.

James Emery White


Sources

Rachel Zoll, "Some megachurches closing for Christmas," Associated Press, December 6, 2005, read online.

Frank E. Lockwood, "Why do churches close on Sunday?", Kentucky Herald-Leader, December 4, 2005, read online.

Manya A. Brachear, "Evangelical churches such as suburban Willow Creek will close on Christmas so members can focus on family," Chicago Tribune, December 6, 2005, read online.

Ken Garfield, "No church today; it's Christmas," The Charlotte Observer, December 7, 2005.

Laurie Goodstein, "When Christmas falls on Sunday, megachurches take the day off," The New York Times, December 9, 2005, read online.

Skye Jethani, "Leader's insight: Closed for Christmas," Christianity Today, December 12, 2005, read online.

Giving to Christ at Christmas

What is the most important thing you can do this Christmas?

There's a long list to consider, to be sure. Let's bracket off honoring the birth of Christ by attending a church service celebrating the event, as this should be a given. What else is there to consider?

For many years, I've felt that the single-most important act of the holidays is to give to Christ at Christmas.

Since 1994, those who attend Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck) have attempted to honor the gift God gave us in the Christ child through our annual Giving to Christ at Christmas offering. The idea is simple: We give gifts at Christmas in celebration and honor of the birthday of Jesus, so we should begin our gift-giving with Him.

For me, it all began with a simple editorial cartoon I saw while in seminary that is now reprinted every Christmas Eve in the Louisville Courier-Journalnewspaper. Or at least, it used to be annually (I hope it still is.).

It was so clear to me that this is what Giving to Christ at Christmas should be all about. So every Christmas, Meck comes together as a church to give the most generous, one-time cash gift we can – above and beyond our normal giving – as a direct gift to Christ Himself at Christmas. The money is then used strategically for the extension of His mission on earth.

Over the years, through Giving to Christ at Christmas, we have rebuilt orphanages, supplied relief to hurricane survivors in North & Central America, provided safe houses for girls rescued from human trafficking, and helped the poor and needy in our city. 

Giving to Christ at Christmas has also been used to give ongoing, strategic support to the building, development and payment of our campuses, freeing-up our annual budget to serve the daily needs of ministry and outreach to thousands of families in our community.

Every year we turn to God for leadership and discernment as to where this offering should be invested.

So once again this Christmas, I'll do all I can to encourage people to give to Christ. That means I want to encourage you, too, to do the same through whatever local church of which you are a part. I know that you are bombarded with requests to give to a number of causes over the holiday season. Many might be worthy, but most will not represent truly giving to Christ.

And that's what Christmas is all about.

James Emery White

On Mission for Christmas

Toys "R" Us wants you for Christmas.

I remember reading an article about a very targeted plan by the toy giant to "invade the mall [during the] holiday season, opening 600 'Express' stores in malls and other shopping centers around the country, more than six times [the previous] year's count, and hiring 10,000 seasonal workers."

During a time of economic downturn, then-CEO Gerald Storch saw this as a necessary "aggressive action" plan.

The company indeed went into action and the question simply became, "How big can we make this?"

Which led me to wonder, how big can we make Christmas?

Or more specifically, Christmas Eve?

Evangelical churches of all kinds throughout the United States have seldom held services on Christmas Day when it has not fallen on a Sunday (a tradition that dates back to the Puritans). In fact, marking Christmas has never been tied to a Sunday-specific celebration (as with Easter).

If there is a day that has uniformly been seized by churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has been Christmas Eve. For many years, Christmas Eve has been the day of choice for the communal celebration among Christians of the birth of Christ.

Christmas Eve services are a last bastion against the rampant materialism and secularism that threatens to overwhelm the true meaning of the season, and serve to keep the birth of Christ in the center of our hearts and celebrations.

They are also one of the most strategic ways we can reach out to individuals for Christ so that one day they may celebrate His birth with us in the fullness of the new birth He will bring to their life. Christmas Eve really is one of the best times to reach out to the unchurched in a culture that, for now at least, still draws them to attend such services.

As a result, we need to ask ourselves – as Toys "R" Us did – "How big can we make this?"

And by how big can we make this, I mean:

How many people can we reach for Christ who wouldn't darken the doorstep of a church any other time of the year?

How can we most strategically remind them of the reason for the season in a way their latest trip to the mall did not?

If they naturally turn their thoughts to church and Jesus, how can we serve those inclinations and let this Christmas Eve mark the advent of Christ in their life?

Our Christmas Eve services are planned months in advance, staff is out in full force, we employ hundreds of volunteers, we give a present to all in attendance (usually a book to serve a spiritual search or journey), and we offer a treat (like cookies and hot cocoa) after the service.

This year we will offer 18 services over six days and four campuses. A lot of effort, I know. But the way we figure it, there was a lot of effort in the incarnation, and it was for more than a Christmas card.

It was, as the angel said, to bring "good news of great joy for all the people."

So how big are we going to make it?

As big as we can.

James Emery White


Sources

Mae Anderson, "Toys 'R' Us opening 600 holiday stores in malls, hiring 10,000," USA Today, September 9, 2010, read online.

Editor's Note
This blog was originally published in 2010. The Church & Culture Team brings this blog annually as church's prepare for their Christmas Eve services.

Three Questions Every Small Group Ministry Must Answer

Most churches have some kind of small group ministry, whether a traditional Sunday School format or small groups meeting on various days and times throughout the community.

Regardless of the type of small group ministry you may have, there are three foundational questions that must be settled for maximum effectiveness and clear focus – yet seldom are. And they are foundational questions because they speak to the heart of your philosophy of ministry.

Here they are:

1. Will we be a church of small groups, or a church with small groups?

If you are a church of small groups, then you are intentionally trying to have every single person in a small group unit. If you are a church with small groups, then you have a small group ministry available to any and all interested parties.

There was a season a few years back when some who espoused the "of" philosophy did so with a bit of spiritual arrogance. Groups, and being in one, was seen as a test of orthodoxy. The truth is that however much you might believe in the efficacy of being part of a small group, it is not a biblical directive. There is no "Thou shalt be grouped" in the Bible. Instead, you have reference to the "one anothers" – a series of directives that are meant to be played out in the church's community. Small groups are one way of doing it, but only one. Small groups are a methodology; a means to an end. The key is the "one anothers," not whether you have, or are in, a small group.

I think the reason I hear less of the "of" mantra of late is because while it sounded good, it was not realistic. I do not know of a single church outside of, say, South Korea (where the idea was first popularized to the Western church) where it has been achieved. The "meta model," as it has often been called, just didn't translate to American culture.

Further, many leaders have discovered a simple but important truth: Small groups are needed by people who need small groups. In other words, they aren't for everyone. Those who like them and are served by them, swear by them.

Those that aren't swear at them.

Many leaders are finding that what does reach the vast majority of attenders are serving teams. These are groups built around volunteer ministries that take time to connect with each other, and serve each other, as part of the serving experience. So a group of individuals preparing to serve on a Guest Services team would have a "huddle" on the front end, share prayer requests, introduce new members or celebrate new births.

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), we've made the decision to be a church with small groups. We find that there are many who find them immensely beneficial. Many more are served by a short-term, 6-week small group experience that equips them with friendships. Others are most comfortable with a serving team. But regardless, all are challenged to practice the "one anothers" in the context of community.

2. Will our small groups be primarily for discipleship or community?

At first, you might disagree with the question, seeing it as a false dichotomy. But after many years in ministry, I am more convinced than ever that it is very difficult for a small group to optimally pursue both. They are simply two very different animals. And as I've talked with other seasoned leaders, most would agree.

If a group is primarily about discipleship, it is very curriculum driven. It is all about the study, the material, the depth. If the group is primarily about community, it is about relationships, spans of care and assimilation. The curriculum, while usually present, is more of a means to that end.

At Meck, while there is a discipleship component to all of our small groups, we view them primarily as community groups – a way for people to make friends, practice the "one anothers," give and receive support, and give and receive spiritual encouragement.

And for those who ask, "So where/when do you do focused discipleship?", that's through our Meck Institute, which offers a wide range of classes, seminars and experiences completely designed for optimal growth in life and knowledge, from learning how to pray or read the Bible, all the way up to seminary-level courses on systematic theology.

3. Will our small groups be "closed" or "open"?

A "closed" small group is just that – closed. No new members are allowed. The idea is for that small group to stay as that group, go long and deep, build trust and share intimately. And there can be little doubt that there is a comfort level in that, and no doubt some good.

An "open" group is one that has the philosophy of always welcoming someone new. Sometimes called the "empty chair" philosophy, there is always a spot for someone to come for the first time. As the group inevitably grows, it develops new leaders and launches new groups. The key is that small groups become integral to the assimilation of new attenders to the church, and the multiplication of new groups to accommodate ongoing growth.

Meck is an "open" group church. If we sense a resistance within a small group to add new members or, even if they want to stay together, if there is an unwillingness to develop new leaders from a group in order to launch new groups, we will have pastoral conversations with the small group leader(s) to ensure that every group holds to this philosophy. "Open" groups keep the mission in focus and can lead to healthier growth within the small groups ministry.

So there are your three questions. And in case you haven't noticed, there is a thread that connects all three questions. If your groups are about discipleship, you will probably lean toward having them be closed. And if that's the basket where you are putting your discipleship apples, you will probably want to lean as much as possible to the "of" instead of the "with" approach.

Likewise, if you have a multi-faceted approach to discipleship, or have it concentrated in another area, then you will seize the power of small groups and serving teams for assimilation and community, which is in many ways a small group's sweet spot. This will make you a "with" small group church and, obviously, an open one.

The point is not to embrace Meck's philosophy on these three questions – it is to have a philosophy that you have thoughtfully and intentionally embraced. Without such a settled philosophy, your small groups will blow with the wind, and each one will take it upon itself to constitute its identity and intent.

That is not good leadership and will blunt the full potential of groups in your church.

James Emery White

Five Christmas Movies to Watch

This particular blog will be short and sweet.

At Christmas time you are going to watch Christmas movies, so be sure to watch the right ones. Meaning, ones that honor Christmas and talk about Jesus in the way He deserves.

So while Elf is great… as are Miracle on 34th Street, Frosty the Snowman, and my personal favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard,

... there's no Jesus anywhere in them.

Well, the word "Jesus" comes up a lot in Die Hard, just not in the way I need my grandchildren to hear.

So here are five great movies to watch that, if you are not already aware of, will mean this blog has served its purpose:

It's A Wonderful Life
This movie really does capture the Christian Christmas spirit and includes many spiritual and biblical references.

A Christmas Carol
And specifically the one starring George C. Scott. I feel this version is best because it is authentic to the Dickens original, which is deeply Christian.

Jesus of Nazareth
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli and released in 1977, this film has a wonderful and biblical representation of the Christmas story. While you can see this in the first 30-40 minutes of it, I recommend watching till the end.

The Homecoming
This film is what started the Waltons series, which I didn't particularly follow, but the tele-movie was classic and very deep in its Christian background story.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Surprisingly, this is the most blatantly Christian Christmas special ever.

Enjoy.

James Emery White

Peering into 2017

One of the more interesting cultural research groups is Sparks & Honey. They recently released their A-Z Cultural Glossary 2017, subtitled "The trends you need to know to be relevant."

The glossary contains 100 "must-know terms and concepts" to serve as "cultural crib sheet" to carry students of culture into the coming year. Arranged in five categories – aesthetics, media, tech and science, humanity, and ideology – there were nine words/terms that stood out to me to prepare for the cultural zeitgeist to come:

"Agendered Iconography"
The shift away from using the shape of a physical body as signage and symbols. To remove any gender stereotyping, restrooms may begin to shift away from the familiar symbols of a man and a woman figure on doors to designate which restroom is which.

"AI Morality"
Reflects the moral and ethical compass that stems from programming AI to make our decisions. When self-driving cars recognize a life-and-death situation, who lives and who dies? A recent article by NPR was titled "Scholars Delve Deeper into the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence." A law firm recently allocated $10 million to Carnegie Mellon University to explore the ethics of artificial intelligence. One of the biggest questions they raised was, "What happens when you make robots that are smart, independent thinkers – and then try to limit their autonomy?" Good question.

"Broadcast Social Media"
2017 will see a merging of TV and social media, as more formats are adapted to mobile streaming. Long gone are the days of rushing home to catch your favorite sitcom on NBC, starting at exactly 8 p.m., for fear that you'll miss the opening moments. From Facebook Live to the NFL broadcasting the 2016 NFL season on Twitter, more and more the world of television is realizing that to keep people engaged they are going to have to adapt to all forms of social media.

"Campus Rage"
Controversy around political correctness is fueling free speech debates on campuses, mostly around racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic language. While on the list for 2017, we've certainly already seen evidence of this following our recent election cycle. Last year, I wrote a blog about what I believe has led to this cultural trend borrowing the title from the article in The Atlantic that prompted the blog. Titled "The Coddling of the American Mind," the authors explored how in the name of "emotional well-being" college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don't like, and seeking punishment of those who give accidental offense. This has led to increased tensions in colleges and universities across the country.

"Empathy Tech"
Technologies such as VR (virtual reality) evoke both visceral emotional responses and allow us to see the world from a different perspective. From helping people to empathize with the refugee crisis to treating those recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the possibilities that the growth of VR technology will lead to are endless. I recently read an article in Christianity Today titled "The Surprising Theological Possibilities of Virtual Reality" that challenged Christians on how to react to this new medium. As the author writes, "With VR, we have the opportunity to give up our own power and agency and embody the experiences of another person, to suffer with them… and under the right circumstances, [these experiences] can help us become more Christlike."

"Millennial Fatigue"
Constant speculation about millennial quirks and follies will begin to wane as mass media exhausts its ability to cover the generation. But beyond this, culture will begin to take notice of the rise of Generation Z who currently constitute more than 25% of the entire U.S. population, surpassing Millennials, Gen X and even the Baby Boomers. And the methods of how we communicate with them are going to need to change dramatically. Shameless plug: my latest book, to be released in January 2017, is titled Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World and is now available for preorder on Amazon. Because the truth about Gen Z is that this generation is poised to challenge every church to rethink its role in a radically changing culture.

"Polyamory"
Society is only beginning to understand the spectrum of sexuality and gender, and we're also spotlighting alternative forms of connection whether based on romance, sex-only, or community and friendship. This should come as no surprise given the slippery slope we've been on for… well, quite some time. The challenge the church will face in light of this growing cultural trend will be to hold to its beliefs about things as foundational as sexual morality, marriage and family. And hold to them we must.

"Technosexuals"
Technosexuals have love and erotic affairs with fictional digital characters on Loverwatch, the most popular dating sims. Like I said, a slippery slope. In fact, I wrote a blog earlier this year titled "The Slippery Slope to Incest" to examine cultural decisions that are being made that will continue to carry with them sweeping ramifications. Who knows how long it will be until someone is advocating for the right to marry Amazon's Alexa. You can read that blog here.

"Untruths as Facts"
Searching for facts, stories or opinions that confirm your own beliefs is known as confirmation bias. We explore only information supporting our perspective, which potentially omits a plethora of untruths at the core of a new reality. We witnessed this cultural trend during the recent presidential election as well with those on both sides of the political debate finding stories to cement their views firmly in place. Much of this led to Oxford's 2016 Word of the Year – Post-Truth – which I wrote about last week in a blog titled "A Post-Truth World."

Be sure to take a moment to view the entire slate of entries.

After all, 2017 is right around the corner.

James Emery White


Sources

"A-Z Culture Glossary 2017: The trends you need to know to be relevant," Sparks & Honey, November 27, 2016, view online.

"Scholars Delve Deeper into the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence," NPR, November 21, 2016, read online.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, "The Coddling of the American Mind," The Atlantic, September 2015, pp. 42-52, read online.

C.T. Casberg, "The Surprising Theological Possibilities of Virtual Reality," Christianity Today, November 11, 2016, read online.

Theology Matters

On the church and culture front, it's an old story: Mainline churches in the U.S. and Canada are in decline, evangelical and charismatic churches are on the rise.

On face value, it would be easy to the see the demarcation along stylistic lines. Mainline churches tend to be more traditional in style; evangelical and charismatic churches more contemporary. Yet there are enough exceptions to this rule to prevent it from being the sole – if not leading – factor.

The deeper truth lies in… well, truth. In 1972 Dean M. Kelley released the results of a sociological study of religion titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

The conclusion?

Conservative churches were growing because they were conservative.

A new study now confirms this thesis. Researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University and Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada, have concluded that the reason some churches decline while others grow is largely based on their theological beliefs. If the members of a church and its clergy embrace conservative theological beliefs, they tend to be growing. If they don't, they tend to be in decline.

"The riddle of mainline death has been solved," said David M. Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Of equal interest is how the declining churches self-identify the cause of their decline. Members and clergy of declining churches blame changes in society leading to dropped interest in religion.

The reality is that growing churches hold more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs and are more diligent in such things as prayer and Bible reading. They tend to take the Bible at face value as truth, and believe that God is alive and active in the world.

How foundational is this divide?

Consider this:

93 percent of pastors in growing churches said they agree with the statement: "Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb."

In declining churches?

Only 56 percent.

Many would say: "My goodness! If you don't believe that, what kind of Christianity are you espousing?"

Certainly not something that is arresting the attention of the world.

And that is the point. If we water down our faith in order to have it match the world's values and ideals, then we end up having nothing to offer the world that it does not already have.

What is most compelling in a post-Christian world is not a playback of its already existing perspectives. No, the voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content and bold in its challenge.

In other words, Christianity as presented by Christ Himself.

So let's make sure this isn't missed.

Mainline churches are in decline, and have been for many decades.

Conservative churches are growing.

"The strength of our study is we actually now can explain it," Haskell concludes,

… "because theology matters."

James Emery White


Sources

Emily McFarlan Miller, "Study finds churches with conservative theology still growing," Religion News Service, November 21, 2016, read online.

The results of the five-year research project will be published in the December issue of the Review of Religious Research.

A Post-Truth World

I always find Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year provocative and, often, highly enlightening.

Take the Word of the Year for 2015.

It wasn't even a word.

It was, as I highlighted in last week's blog, an emoji. Specifically, this emoji:

6-5LaughingWithTearsEmoji.jpg
 

You can read that earlier blog for a glimpse of the significance I put into that selection.

Oxford's 2016 Word of the Year has just been announced, and it is equally reflective of our day:

"Post-Truth."

It is defined as an adjective relating to "circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals."

Yes, it was born out of the recent political season that led to the U.K.'s "Brexit" vote and the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump. But it's actually been long in the making.

A few years back we called it "truthiness," as inserted into our lexicon through the Comedy Central television network, and specifically through the premiere of The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert:

And that brings us to tonight's word: truthiness. Now I'm sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster's, are gonna say, "Hey, that's not a word." Well, anybody who knows me knows that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, not heart.

The idea behind "truthiness" is that actual facts don't matter. What matters is how you feel, for you - as an individual - are the final arbiter of truth. "Truthiness" is the bald assertion that we are not only to discern truth for ourselves from the facts at hand, but create truth for ourselves despite the facts at hand.

If evangelical Christians have been about anything throughout history, it has been truth. Through the heresy-addressing gatherings of the great councils during the patristic era, the ad fontes ("back to the sources") cry of the Reformation, the bold proclamation of the gospel during the great awakenings, or the gauntlet of revelation thrown down before modernism, truth has been our bulwark.

There have been three major conceptualizations of truth throughout the history of Western thought. The first, and most dominant, has been the correspondence theory of truth. The idea is simple: If I say, "It is raining," then either it is raining, or it is not. You simply walk outside your door and discover whether my statement corresponds with reality. This is by far the most common understanding of the nature of truth and has left the strongest mark on evangelical theology. Of course its weakness is that not everything can be verified by walking out your door. I might say, "There is a God." If you walk out your door, will my statement be proven?

However, the greater dynamic of the correspondence theory is regardless of whether you can validate something, what is true is that which does indeed correspond with reality – regardless of one's current ability to actually make that correspondence. So while a triune God may not be discernible through the empirical method of science, the "correspondence idea" is that the triune God is true because there is, indeed, a triune God who exists in reality.

A second theory regarding the nature of truth is often called the coherence theory, which is the idea that truth is marked by coherence – meaning a set of ideas that do not contradict each other. The coherence theory of truth is much like a Sudoku puzzle: The numbers must align, there can't be a violation of the internal rules, and the completed puzzle must fill in all of its own squares. Imagine a system of thought consisting of a tightly bound set of ideas that, when introduced, complement one another and hold no internal contradictions. Perhaps you might think of the ideas as a set of colors that do not clash when put side by side.

The coherence theory of truth not only holds that truth is that which is coherent, but that truth is ultimately marked by a system of thought which "hangs together" in a way that is superior to the way other systems of thought hang together. So democracy might be considered by one political theorist as "truer" than Marxism in terms of its internal consistency.

The dilemma is that such a view divorces itself from what may, in fact, be true. Think of the testimony of a witness during a trial: The story may make sense and hold up under cross-examination, but that doesn't make it true. The argument simply presents itself as a plausible narrative without internal contradiction. Granted, this is far better than if it did contradict itself, but it is still not sufficient.

Further, the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that a coherence view of truth can, and will, prove grossly inadequate when it comes to the things of God. For example, it records God saying, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8), and contends that the gospel itself can seem "foolish" to the human mind (I Corinthians 1:18-25). Thus a human perspective will always find aspects of God's truth incoherent although it remains profoundly true.

A third major contender for the idea of truth is the pragmatic theory of truth. When someone is being "pragmatic" they are pursuing a course of action because it achieves an end result. So a pragmatic theory of truth maintains that what is true is that which "works." This is an appealing view, particularly when we consider Jesus' words that we are to judge things by their "fruit." However, determining what is truly fruit of the Holy Spirit, and what is done in the flesh – or even what is, in the end, evil – is tricky business.

One needs only to think of the "final solution" of Nazi Germany. Hitler believed that the principal woes of Germany were found in the existence of the Jewish people. They constituted an "erosion of capital" and a "waste of space." From this, the removal of "lebensunwertes Leben" ("life unworthy of life") was elevated to the highest duty of medicine. "Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life," maintained one Nazi doctor. "Out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind." As a result, the "final solution" was their extermination. There can be little doubt of the workmanlike efficiency evidenced by the smoke that billowed from the furnaces of Auschwitz, yet there have been few enterprises more uniformly condemned as untrue – as well as rank evil.

So among the three candidates competing for our best understanding of truth, it would seem that the correspondence theory deserves its place of prominence in Christian and, more broadly, Western thought.

But this is precisely what we seem to be losing, and at risk is our sense of revelation itself.

This is, to be sure, the heart of the matter. It's the idea that truth exists, and that it stands above human experience. It judges human experience. Truth is, by its very nature, transcendent. It exists independent of our acknowledgment of it, much less our obedience to it. To deny this is to live in not simply a "truthy" world, but a "post-truth" world.

But it's not simply that "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals." It's that we deny the existence of objective truth itself, and make emotion our authority.

Yet even a skeptic as hardened as Sigmund Freud had to maintain that if "it were really a matter of indifference what we believed, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether."

Oxford Dictionaries' Casper Grathwohl said "post-truth" could become "one of the defining words of our time."

Yes,

…but because it's a word that defines our time.

James Emery White


Sources

"'Post-truth' declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries," BBC News, November 16, 2016, read online.

Stephen Colbert, "The Word – Truthiness", The Colbert Report on Comedy Central Network, October 17, 2005, watch online.

"Colbert's 'truthiness' strikes a chord," USA Today, Monday, August 28, 2006, p. 1D.

Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), p. 37.

The comment by Freud was cited in the article "Truth" in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer J. Adler, Editor in Chief.