The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Congregations, Part 3 (Preaching Hebrews)

cooperation.jpgSo what does yesterday’s post have to do with shrinking congregations? Well, not as much as my conservative friends might think, but it does matter a lot. Churches that forget to get around to teaching the boundaries of grace will soon have the problems the writer of Hebrews warned against.

Indeed, I think our preaching should mirror Hebrews, with powerful lessons on confidence and assurance interleaved between lessons against the dangers of falling away. We don’t need to make our members afraid so much as aware — we have confidence, yes, but a confidence that can be thrown away. And while I don’t believe we should build our theology on fear, fear has a place for the immature.

You see, if we don’t do this, in a generation or two, we’ll  have lost our members — not to the Baptists and Methodists, but to Satan.

People my age remember the hellfire-and-brimstone sermons well. We heard too many, and they taught us a God looking for a chance to damn us, and so today we resist anything that even remotely reminds us of them. We still remember what happens if we fall away.

But our children may well have never heard about damnation and the deceitfulness of sin. And they don’t have our traditional upbringing and our deeplyembued fear of hell. They’ve just heard the sermons on grace and freedom. We wonder how God can be so gracious. They wonder how God could ever damn anyone. And so why go to church? What’s the big deal? What are we afraid of?

Reflect on the last 3 or so years of preaching in your progressive congregation. How many lessons have there been on falling away? On the necessity of faith? of penitence? on what it means to be lost?

Now imagine that you’re a teenager who’s been in class learning all about forgiveness and compassion and listening to the sermons for just the last two or three years. What do you know about falling away? Hell? The deceitfulness of sin?

I’m sure the answer varies a lot from church to church. I just want to suggest that we use Hebrews as a template for preaching — confidence, assurance, and don’t trifle with sin and here’s why — because If we don’t, our congregations will soon be empty.

(Heb 3:14)  We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.

(Heb 4:16)  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

(Heb 10:19-22)  Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

(Heb 10:35)  So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

Together with —

(Heb 3:12-13)  See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

(Heb 6:4-6)  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

(Heb 6:11-12)  We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

Again, fear of falling away should not be our motivation. We should be about God’s mission because of our love for God and our neighbors, and if we love as we should, fear doesn’t enter the picture.

But we all need reminders. Chapter 6 is aimed directly at the immature among us, and chapter 6 is filled with the sternest warnings in all of scripture. And if we are successful in bringing the lost to Jesus, we’ll always have the immature among us (and we all have our immature moments, I think).

To be clear: I don’t think this is the reason that some progressive churches are losing members today. But I do think it’s a danger that will impact us greatly down the road.

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29 Responses

  1. Let’s define falling away. I read a book not too long ago from a professor out at Cascade College called “Failing away”. The better title for the book should have been about church attendance and involvement. His thesis seems to be that no church attendance and involvement equals apostasy or falling away. I may be over simplifying this but that was my take. It really didn’t have anything to do with why people who once believed in Jesus were led to believe in another god or nothing at all. It seems that to many in the churches of Christ the absence of weekly communion every Sunday only on Sunday or instrumental music or women speaking publicly or something like that is the equivalent of not believing in Jesus anymore. I believe the falling away that the writer of Hebrews speaks of is different than not adhering to a list of religious rituals and acts or a lack of church attendance or involvement. The reality is the average person sitting in the pew of an average church of Christ is ignorant of our heritage. All you have to do to confirm this is bring in Richard Hughes or Leroy Garret to teach a history class on the restoration movement and you will see that most don’t even know that without Alexander Campbell and his buddies there would not be any churches in the USA with church of Christ on the sign outside the building. Then not only does the average church member not know their heritage very well they don’t know (beyond some simple bible banter and prepackaged answers) why the y believe what they believe. They just believe it. I know this seems harsh but my research is confirming this. Most people don’t even know why they believe the Bible is true. Sure they offer up the same answers of historical evidences and prophecies coming true and so on. But they have never compared the contextual ideas of Bible against other religious writings that claim to be the word of God as well. Most people can’t even tell you specifically where the Bible came from. Yeah they can tell there is 40 authors and that type of thing but most have no clue how and why the NT was canonized and that is was a Nicene Council that ultimately decided which books would be in the NT and which would not. Most don’t even know that Revelation was thrown out until the very last moment because it was so scary and enigmatic. In fact the only reason it was included was because John’s other epistles had already been canonized. One of the most attended classes I teach now is “How we really got the NT”; because the average church goer who has considered this bible to be absolute truth their whole life doesn’t really know where it came from. Kind of scary huh? The “falling away” that the writer of Hebrews speaks of has more to do with actually believing in another god or no god at all after coming to believe in Jehovah God. That is something that grace cannot cover. It is what the false teachers that Peter addresses were teaching was that “they deny the deity of Christ”. Our country is becoming more multicultural each day many of the people reared in the churches of Christ and who had a basic knowledge as the Hebrew writer describes are leaving their Christian beliefs for Zen Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, secular humanism, and Islam and the biggest group based on the last Poll which all the major news networks covered is …………no religion at all! That is right no religion at all is the fasted growing group in America. Now hopefully this gives us some better perspective of what falling away really is about.

  2. You wrote:
    “Reflect on the last 3 or so years of preaching in your progressive congregation. How many lessons have there been on falling away? On the necessity of faith? of penitence? on what it means to be lost?”

    You do not appear yourself to attend one of these congregations; how would you know what is being preached there (or at any of them) and that the preaching is as you have characterized it?

  3. Joe,

    Do you ever get to feeling “pedantic”?

    You do make some good points regarding our history.

    How many within the sound of this blog actually understand the history of “the college question” and appreciate the historical significance of the federal government taking a position on this important issue amongst us, and that contrary to fact and law, in response to the insistence by some of the schoolmen desirous of financial gain?

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

  4. Bob,

    That’s twice now! :o)

    I’m getting a bit anxious waiting for you to be more explicit in presenting your perspective on the “progressive”/”conservative” controversies which this blog specializes in considering and the manner in which they are presented.

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

  5. Robert:

    I have to be a lawyer five days a week in my work; can’t I just pose good faith questions and just segue off the answers? 🙂

  6. Robert,
    Sorry if the pedantic side comes out too much. It is one of things I was cursed with and blessed with. I know it comes across as arrogant somtimes. What I was trying to say is that falling away is not what exactly what some have made it out to be. There that is a lot shorter than they other.

  7. Bob you pose a good question. “How many lessons have there been on falling away?” To answer your question: Yes! But not in the traditional context of church attendance, involvement or willful sin. In the context of why you believe what you believe.

  8. Joe,

    “Yes” does not appear to be an answer to “how many”!

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

  9. Robert Baty,

    I am sorry but I have not kept count in the two churches we have been a part of in the last two years I can specifically recall four. I will see if I can give you a link to listen to them.

  10. Joe,

    No need to go to any trouble on my account.

    It’s Bob Brandon you need to talk to.

    I was just noting that you didn’t really answer the question!

    Also, my little WebTv system is technologically limited. A lot of things I can “see” or “listen to”.

    One of the things I like about Jay’s blog is that it is WebTv friendly. So many blogs are not!

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

  11. Oops!

    That should have been:

    > “A lot of things I CANNOT ‘see’ or ‘listen to’.”

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

  12. From where I sit in the pew, if one is preaching a Pauline sermon on “the dangers of falling away,” I would expect – and be gratified to hear – an emphasis of the kinds of people we are now called to be, the changed lives we are called to live, the resisting of the urge to go back to one’s previous life in the face of trials, and the primacy of extending agape love to all we meet as it was extended to us.

    But that’s not what I usually hear on the topic of falling away: what I usually hear is that “falling away” is categorically the same as “not being in uniform agreement on a matter of opinion begrudgedly acknowledged as not a problem or sin in the first century church.”

    And that’s a problem and has been a problem since even before my dad remembers being in the family car while his elder dad was being jawboned by Foy Wallace in the 30s.

  13. Robert,

    I would very much appreciate your limiting comments on the housing allowance to the post on that subject.

  14. Guys,

    You have to read this post in light of Part 2 posted yesterday.

    While I believe that God will overlook an imperfect faith, an imperfect repentance, and even an imperfect baptism, none of these are to be trifled with. A man without faith in Jesus is lost (John 3:18) and a man who willfully continues to sin is in danger of falling away never to return (Heb 10:26ff and 6:4-6). And it would be truly tragic if we failed to preach these truths. And yet I don’t think we preach these much at all.

    A Christian falls away if he no longers submits to Jesus as Lord (surrenders his repentance) or if he loses his faith in Jesus.

    I am no legalist, and I’m not remotely suggesting that we should preach damnation for those who disagree with us on doctrinal niceties.

  15. Jay,

    I will gladly try to oblige.

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

  16. Jay,
    Some people will acuse others of legalism simply for taking sin, repentance, and the Lordship of Jesus seriously. I guess your need to defend yourself against charges of legalism simply illustrates the point of your post. I appreciate this post.

  17. Some use James’ comment about works to contradict Paul’s point that salvation is by grace through faith (alone). Others try to reconcile the different perspectives in their contexts.

    Some use Hebrews to contradict Paul regarding the assurance of salvation. Others try to reconcile the passages in theri contexts. “There is therefor now no condemnation …..”

    It seems there arer many that proclaim the unconditional love of God for the elect and then place all kinds of conditions that must be met in order to be a recipient of unconditional love. Perhaps, it would be more logical to deny that God loves his own unconditionally.

  18. Joe,
    I don’t think a person needs to do a comparative study of various religions in order to have a sound faith in Jesus. If that were the case, wouldn’t we expect to find scriptures telling is to study the pagan gods? Instead, by example after example, we are taught to have nothing to do with them.

    I also don’t think a scholarly knowledge of the procedings of the Nicene Council is necessary in order to believe the Bible is inspired by God. Faith in God is not dependent on scholarship and enlightenment-era reasoning.

    Heb 8:10 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
    I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
    I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
    Heb 8:11 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
    or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
    because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
    Heb 8:12 For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

  19. Again, fear of falling away should not be our motivation. We should be about God’s mission because of our love for God and our neighbors, and if we love as we should, fear doesn’t enter the picture.

    Consider these passages:

    Psa 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
    all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
    To him belongs eternal praise.

    1Jn 4:18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

    Php 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,

    1Pe 1:17 Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.

    Luk 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

    Fear of God is another one of those subjects where we tend to choose one set of scriptures and ignore the other. There are scriptures admonishing us to fear, and others admonishing us not to fear. We need to reconcile the two concepts, not choose between them.

    We need to keep a healthy fear of God. It is a dreadful thing to fall into his hands (Heb 10:31). As you said, we can have confidence but we can also throw away our confidence. We should fear the idea of throwing away our confidence because that leads to judgment. We should also fear the gradual hardening of our hearts that leads to falling away. Fear of falling away should be part of our motivation. As we mature we may feel more secure and less fear. But let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. (1 Cor 10:12) Perhaps that needs to be taught a lot more prominently in some churches.

  20. To respond to Jay’s request to stay on track.
    We are all sinful and we are all willfully sinful. I suggest that to say different is to be pridefully delusional. I always heard the phrase “living in sin” growing up. Well let’s think for a minute. We are all sinning in one way or another today. Paul says we are by nature objects of wrath not just bad deeds. This means that it is not only specific acts but thinking. Most of us good ol’s church folks know we have a sin in our life but are not really doing anything about it specifically other than asking for forgiveness each time. It may be as simple as jealousy, gossip or covetousness but it is sin none the less and we aren’t doing anything about it. Is this what Paul is referring to as continuing in willful sin? I think not. Now how is the above situation any different that one who lives with someone who is not their legal spouse? I remember an elder talking one morning about living in sin and specifically referred to a couple well known by the church that was cohabitating. Well he just happened to be my Football coach and swore like a sailor on the football field. So after his sermon I asked him what he was doing to overcome his sin of unclean speech. He said that is was not as bad as other sins. Wow! I told him that he was just like the couple he has condemned. The reality is that we all have sin we know of and are doing nothing about it. But are we falling away? Either because we are afraid to admit it, or we have deluded ourselves into thinking that is not really that bad. What I believe is “Falling Away” is after enough emotional/mental/physical pain we don’t care anymore eventually don’t believe in Jesus anymore. And more specifically until there is no remnant of faith left, no desire or belief in Jesus to overcome. Paul teaches that as long as there is remnant of faith no matter how small God is faithful. This is the only just way that grace can be applied to sin. Otherwise you fall in to this subjective system of “levels”, having nice sins and bad sins and how many or how long and who and when and where and so on. Tom me continuing in willful sin is when we don’t let God help us overcome it. If we really strictly applied the rules about sin we were taught growing up most would never see Heaven. I can already hear my critics shouting that I have given people a license to sin. To the contrary I believe that understanding sin this way gives people a license to overcome. There is a big difference in abstaining/ avoiding sin and overcoming it.

  21. Alan:
    I enjoyed meeting you Sunday morning.
    Do you know that people now do more to research on a new car to buy than the faith they believe in? How can you believe in something if you don’t really have some good reasons? I would suggest that believing something without really checking something out is not really faith at all but blind institutional loyalty. The era of “just believe” in the church in quickly going away. Do you know that within just a few miles of the FCCC building there are buildings representing all the five major world religions? Do you know that our children are comparing Jesus to Muhammad and Buddha and a bunch of other claims to truth? We can’t afford to keep our heads in sand any longer. If we don’t educate ourselves and our children about the religions of the world someone else will, and we will continue to see a mass exodus of our children to other faiths and no faith at all. What about the scripture that says to always be ready to give a reason for the hope you have. What about Paul when he debated the multicultural philosophers of his day in the market place and Mars Hill. He had already studied their theology and philosophies and used those comparisons to make compelling cases for Jesus Christ. Don’t you remember the statue to the unknown god?
    Example
    Many in the church believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. But they don’t know why they believe that. Sure they have some text book reasons but nothing really deep. They were just told that growing up and have never really examined it for themselves. If you believe that the Bible is divinely inspired would you not also have to believe that that the Holy Spirit directed the Councils of Nicaea as to which books to keep and which to throw out? There is a straw man argument that the books of the Bible were or are self evident. But the problem with that is that there are at least two additional letters of Paul to the church in Corinth and one to Laodicea that we know of. We don’t have those. If they turned up how and who would determine if they were canonical? Which books were canonical and which were not was hotly debated until the printing press largely determined what they would eventually be. Martin Luther who gave the Bible to the Germans seriously disagreed with the Catholics over which books should be in the Bible which should not. This is the type of Rhetoric our Children and the typical pot modern seeker are going through. About 10 years ago I was speaking with a man who seeking spiritual truth and is comparing the Bible to the Koran and other religious writings. I told him what t I had always been taught. The Bible has historical evidences and was well documented. He said so does the Koran. Then I told him that some of the prophecies from the Bible have come true. He said so does the Koran. Then he asked how are the contextual ideas in the Bible different that those of other religious writings that claim to be the word of the God as well. I did not have a very good answer because I did not know. Paul would have known and we should know if we expect to teach our children. The Process of falling away is as follows
    Step one is not knowing why you believe what you believe
    Step Two is being subjugated to other beliefs with people who know why they believe what they believe
    Step three either the person looks for more reasons or (why) to believe what they used to believe. If they can’t then they capitulate to the other beliefs.

  22. Different, “Alan”, Joe. But it was great to meet you, too.

    I’ll start using my last name so to keep all us “Alans” apart. 🙂

  23. Jay,

    In this situation, I must slightly disagree with you. Yes, I do agree that apostasy needs to be taught. It needs to be taught in a very real manner not in one that assumes Christians are in a constant flux: saved one day, lost the next, repented and saved the third. Where I disagree with you here is in your projected consequences of not warning people that they can fall away: “You see, if we don’t do this, in a generation or two, we’ll have lost our members — not to the Baptists and Methodists, but to Satan.”

    I was raised Baptist. My parents and most of my family still are Baptist. I came to be part of the Churches of Christ at the age of 19. (As I was converted by a very conservative segment within the Churches of Christ I was rebaptized – but that’s a different story.) Before coming into the Churches of Christ, I was fully convinced that falling away was an utter impossibility. It admittedly would have been easy for me to ask myself: “Why go to church? What’s the big deal? What [am I] afraid of?” But I — along with countless others — did not do so. For me, avoiding sin has always been famed around gratitude. I am thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice. I am thankful for all that God provides for me. I try to avoid those things that would make me seem ungrateful.

    Bottom line: (and I’m sorry if this sounds a bit harsh) it seems as though your dire predictions that “our congregations will soon be empty” are overly pessimistic. I see no reason to believe that we will be any worse off than the Baptists.

    – Weldon

  24. Joe Baggett asked:

    Don’t you know… (various things)…

    How can you believe in something if you don’t really have some good reasons?

    You can have great reasons for believing in God and for accepting the scriptures without examining pagan religions. God isn’t dependent upon pagan gods to make his case.

    Of course it is still possible to have a shaky foundation whether you do a comparative study of religions or not. And it is possible to have a sound foundation, whether you do that kind of study or not. Faith in God is not based on the weakness of the competition, but on who God is.

  25. Weldon,

    The Baptist Churches are in numerical decline. I doubt that their birthrate is less than the biological replacement rate. Rather, it seems that they aren’t converting enough people to even replace their own children who are leaving.

    Of course, the same problem exists among the Churches of Christ — although it’s likely for somewhat different reasons.

    I’m not saying the problem is a failure to teach the warnings of Hebrews. I don’t know that. I just know that the theology that grew the Baptist Churches 10 years ago is no longer enough to even keep their own children there.

  26. Okay, given the numerical decline, the Baptist churches are a poor example. Also, I guess that I read causation into your post that you did not intend. (i.e. I read it as: Failure to Teach Warnings of Apostasy = Declining Membership) Would it be safe to say that your concern in this regard is similar (albeit less extreme) to some of the concerns that are raised within the conservative Churches of Christ?

  27. Alan,

    So what do you tell the emerging generation of our kids who are being told that Islam and Buddism, and Hinuism and so on is just as good as Christianity? Just beleive? To me this is worse than a bad answer. In a sense you telling the seeker their question in not important. If you think I am making this up please read this book “The reason for God, beleif in an age of skepticism.” by Timothy Keller. This is a starter book for this issue.

  28. You have to address a person where they are. If a person is wrestling with deciding between Islam, Buddism, Hindiusm, and Christianity, then that’s what you have to address. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a person who never struggled with those things doesn’t have a sound basis for th

  29. … doesn’t have a sound basis for their faith.

    Sorry for the editing error!

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