The Gates Are Open


Pondering the Death of the Emerging Church

In 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.

In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.

A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.

But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.

But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.

1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:

  • Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
  • Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
  • Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
  • Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
  • Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.

The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.

2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.

3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger  story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.

4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: Three years ago, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.

Recently, I asked a group of Millennials what they value about church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join churches because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives.

Today’s Evangelical church  must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.

The American Church’s Culpability in Gun Violence

pacifismOver the past 20 years, do you know who had the most effective reaction to gun violence in America? The Amish. When Charles Roberts, on October 2, 2006, went into a school in Pennsylvania and shot ten girls (killing five), the world waited to see how this pacifist enclave would react. And they did! They publicly forgave the shooter. They took care of his family. They paid for his children to be sent to college.

Not coincidentally, it was the last murder of any kind in their county. You can’t tell me it didn’t have an impact.

For 11 years, I was a pacifist pastor in Montana, the state known for its Wild West attitude toward gun ownership and usage. The 2nd Amendment has many champions in that part of the world. Yet they didn’t fire me, shoot at me, or publicly ridicule my personal stand and teaching on violence. Why?

Because I was not against guns per se. Instead, I followed in the great theological tradition of Anabaptists worldwide who oppose the killing of another human for any reason.

My problems were never with the gun owners in Montana. I am not just a pacifist, but also a libertarian. I believe everyone should be allowed to make their own choices in life and by not rescuing them from those choices, have to face the consequences of choices. I believe this is how God treats us also, so I have a good example in this. I also believe in mercy and grace, knowing if someone hurts me and asks me to forgive them, I need to do that also.

So if you want to own a gun, that’s fine with me. If you want to point it at me, that’s fine with me. (I have had two people point guns at me and threaten to kill me, and I talked them out of this foolishness both times). If you fire that gun, that is not fine with me, but I’ll deal with it. If you want to fire it at another human, I am against that strenuously and will never support it.

We have had more gun murders involving the deaths of more than one person in America in 2015 than there have been days this year. The gun lobby is advocating for stronger vetting of foreigners and those with mental illness. The anti-gun concerns advocate for tougher gun legislation. I think both groups are missing the point completely, but I’ll give most of them a pass on this one. Many of them don’t know God and don’t know what the Bible says about the human soul.

But I cannot give the Church that same pass. We do know God and we should know what the Bible says about the human soul. I believe that our world is becoming increasingly violent for the same reason it always has: Human Beings are selfish and the human heart is deceitfully wicked above all things.

My contention is that the Church in America–apart from the Amish and other Anabaptists– must be held accountable for failing the American people on this issue of gun violence. I have a number of reasons I feel we have failed:

  1. By and large, preachers have not taught against killing other people. My observation is that preachers are afraid their constituents will think they are unpatriotic if they teach there are no qualifications on the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill”. In today’s church, most Christian leaders will allow for a certain measure of exception to the murder rule:  Self-defense, justifiable war, capital punishment, to save the lives of others who are threatened, to protect property, to overthrow bad governments, to preemptively attack those who would attack us later, maybe. All of these rationales are given tacit approval by the church in America. What is interesting is there are few churches outside of America that agree.
  2. Evangelical Christians have adopted the 2nd Amendment as an apocryphal commandment. There is nothing biblical about the 2nd Amendment. It is fine if you want to agree with it–that is your prerogative as an American citizen–but it doesn’t make it a biblical mandate. The pulpits of America glibly support the right to bear arms and never challenge the wisdom of bearing arms. Isn’t the church supposed to stand up against those things that destroy a nation? Isn’t the reason God left Christians on earth to state the minority opinion when things get out of hand?
  3. Liberal Christians have supported measures to limit gun ownership when every rubric and study shows that this is not the problem.  I have never owned a gun, but even I can tell you that whether I had a gun in my possession or not it would not alter my decision to kill another person. A gun is a tool that a violent nature uses to express itself. Timothy McVeigh used a white van and fertilizer. My issue with liberal and progressive Christians is that they march in quick-step with slogans that do not have basis in fact. Michael Moore is not a Christian prophet.
  4. Conservative Christians are in lock-step with anyone who advocates the freedom to own however many guns and whatever types of guns you want. They advocate open carry policies. I don’t mind if a Christian believes in those policies. But as a Christian, this is never to be our primary focus in life. We are about preserving life, bringing salvation, being Salt and Light and being the Beacon of Hope in a dying world. Conservative Christians have made gun ownership way too high a priority for themselves AS A GROUP.
  5. We have not taught enough on non-violent alternatives. I listen to sermons all the time, and what I hear from the most popular preachers on the subject of non-violence is … very little. One very popular preacher advocated the castration of all effeminate Christians because they were polluting the manliness of “Real Christian Men.” He was applauded by so many. What bothers me is the amount of people in other religions who advocate for non-violence and put their lives on the line for it, while American Christians do the opposite.
  6. Christians in America keep buying more guns. Most of my Christian friends own non-hunting guns. When I have personally asked my friends why they are purchasing guns, the answers, when boiled down, all revolve around Fear. The Bible tells us that “perfect love casts out fear.” But I will also say that intense fear blocks love. Love and fear cannot co-exist. You will choose one or the other.


I hope I am getting an emotional reaction from you with this article. It is only when you are emotionally engaged that you will continue to think about something. I am fine if you disagree with me. But there need to be voices that cry out when everyone is falling into two camps. There is a third way. This way will not prevent gun violence. It would not have stopped the violence in Southern California this week. But when violence does happen, if all American Christians had abhorred violence, people would run to churches when this world falls apart. Now, the non-believing world is right to ridicule and despise us and see us as part of the problem.

I am sad for the wasted time and money we have spent on such foolish arguing over hardware that could have been spent educating.

If you want to boil down all I am saying to one statement it is this: Guns are never the problem. Believing in violent solutions to human problems and not embracing non-violent solutions is the problem. From Cain and Abel to today, this has always been the case.

A Pagan Witch and Christian Prophecy

Here is a link that is probably going to disturb many readers. Don’t worry, there is nothing here of a salacious or immoral nature. The real problem is what this article implies and what it may mean for followers of Christ in the years to come.

The article is written by Annika Mongan, who describes herself as a born-again witch. She admits to growing up in an evangelical, charismatic church background. She attended a Christian college and while there became doubtful about her faith. Without re-telling all her story, she discovered nature-based paganism and witchcraft. She is one of only a handful of pagans who have an evangelical background. I’m not going to speculate on why she left or what contributes to anyone making the switch she did, but I accept it is her choice and she is being honest and forthcoming about her own struggles in the process.

This is her background and it flavors the article. In this story, she tells about going to Bethel Church in Redding, California. She writes several articles about her experiences there, but this particular one focuses on two women having prophetic words for her. Here is how she describes the event:

After a while two women approached us and asked if they could prophesy over us…. Then they moved over to me and asked to lay hands on me. Just a few years ago I would have replied with a categorical “no” (I have a Christian friend who still, all these years later, holds a grudge against me for refusing prayer from her). This time, however, I took a big gulp of the stale air, and nodded consent.

One of the women prays prophetically over Annika. In the article, Annika analyzes each of four prophetic messages this first woman prays over her. She concludes that three of the messages are profoundly accurate. She even relates this observation about these prophetic words:

I had come with no expectations, except to remember, to maybe integrate some parts of my past, or to distance myself even further from Christianity. Maybe I came for all of those reasons, but I didn’t expect to receive any spiritual gifts. Certainly not a three-out-of-four accurate and deeply meaningful prophecy. –

Annika receives accurate and helpful messages through this woman. Later, another woman steps up and gives her a painting she drew during the worship part of the service. It is a beautiful message that confirms one aspect of the prophetic word the other person gave Annika.

So where is the problem? These messages the women gave to her were plainly affirming her position and place in the world of witchcraft. Annika interprets them according to their most obvious meaning: That God is approving of her choice to live as a Pagan. Here is one of the prophecies:

Yes, I feel Jesus saying that you have been a part of many communities. So many! Different churches and ministries. But none of them really felt like home, did they? You never felt like you fit in or that you belonged. God wants to tell you that this has changed. I see a community that you are in now and it is different. It is really different from any of the churches you have known. It’s like… It’s not at all like the ministries… I don’t know how to say this. I just know that it is really different but in some ways it isn’t. Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to put this into words. It is confusing. Does this make any sense to you?

This prophetic word says that the community she is now part of is the place she fits in and belongs. The other prophetic words affirmed her musical gift and her place in the current ministry. The prophetic woman told her that she should utilize her spiritual gifts to serve her new community.

Of course, the prophetic person didn’t know she was a pagan witch. Should she have? It is not always obvious and she probably wasn’t wearing any symbols of that belief system. And the gift of Discerning of Spirits is not a common gift and it is obvious this prophetic woman didn’t have that gift. But that still brings us back to the difficulty of the “accurate” prophecy.

Theologically, the easy way out is to follow the reasoning of John McArthur and others who claim that all modern attempts at prophecy are a work of demons. In his book “Strange Fire”, McArthur claims that all supernatural gifts ceased when the Bible was completed. Any supposed miracles of action or speech are demonic misrepresentations and should be shunned and avoided. He would conclude a demon inspired this woman to speak what she did.

I don’t have the time or inclination in this article to refute that silly notion. I believe the Bible is quite clear–as is Church History, both ancient and contemporary–that God still works miraculously through his people today. If that is true, how did this prophetic person get this so wrong?

There are three possibilities and I think all of them have a ring of truth. Let me just touch on the two most common reasons and then the one I think applies the most here.

The prophetic person might just pray this over everyone. This has been one of the criticisms of the so-called Prophetic Movement: That certain people have the same half dozen prophesies that they mix and match for the occasion. These prophetic words are generic enough that they can be interpreted any number of ways to fit the situation for the person receiving them. In this sense, they are like horoscopes.

Second, the recounting of the witch in the article might not be accurate. As in, she may have heard what she wanted to hear. We all do that when receiving any kind of news. We pick out the parts we like and the parts that apply to us and we turn a deaf ear to the parts that we don’t like. There may have been some of this happening.

But, I think there is another factor here. Assuming that the woman was praying something specific over Annika–and not generalized horoscope stuff–and assuming that Annika remembered it correctly, the problem may be with where the prophetic person was picking up the message.

Steve Thompson, in his book “You May All Prophesy” cautions about one sort of error regarding prophetic hearing:

“It is always possible to ‘read’ what the person wants you to pray instead of receiving a message from the Holy Spirit. We might pray for someone who wants a husband badly, and if we have a sensitive soul, we may hear the thought ‘pray for a husband’. This comes not from God in those moments but from the recipient’s wishful thinking.”

I have seen this in groups I have ministered with. The most sensitive of prophetic people do not always discern the difference between what the Spirit is showing them and what the person receiving prayer wants.

I believe this is what happened in the Bethel encounter. This is not to say this happens all the time at Bethel or that the other options are not also possible. But I think any of us who are prophetic need to look at this soberly and learn from it. Learning to hear God and speak that over other people means we must wade through our own thoughts, temptations from malevolent spirits and even the heart-wishes of another person.

This is why there were “schools of the Prophets” in the Bible. This is not an easy gift to use and we need to be mentored in it. I post this article as a caution to all of us who are occasionally prophetic. Do it right and if you don’t know how to do it right, get some training.

I Blame Michael W. Smith

Posted on August 27, 2015

Michael_W._Smith_in_June_2014My step-dad Larry told me he had been listening to a lot of “Mike Smith” on CD lately. Larry’s musical tastes and mine had never overlapped much, so I only half-listened. He told me about Mike Smith’s approach to music, worship and public speaking. I had never heard of Mike Smith, so I asked Larry if he had a favorite song of his.

“I love “Above All”” Larry told me. Then it dawned on me.

“Oh, you mean “Michael W. Smith” don’t you?”

“Sure. Don’t they call him “Mike Smith”?”

I guess his crew calls him that. Maybe. No, I doubt it. His brand has always had the full name and middle initial. I envision his wife calling him “Michael W.” when she has dinner ready. I believe his children call him “Daddy W.” I wouldn’t swear on it, but that’s my theory.

I have an ambivalent emotional relationship with Michael W. Smith. First, he is a little too “pop” for my taste. But I admit he sings well, has an ear for songs that fit his range and ability and puts on a great concert. There is little I don’t like about him.

Except he ruined the style of church I love the most. Ruined it. Just took it outside and tied it to his truck and took the corners hard and ripped the skin off it.

I blame Michael W. Smith for the mess we’re in.

In the mid-1990s, MWS toured the United States several times, hawking his brand of pop CCM. These were some of the most well-attended concerts of any genre and he and his team were making a boatload of money. I went to one of the concerts and came away thinking “this guy has figured it out.” I meant the business part of performing, not the God part.

Then he did something unexpected and risky. In the midst of one of his tours, he took a chance and led the concert-goers in an impromptu worship service. He borrowed songs written by friends and put together a set of worship songs most of his audience knew. Because there were 18,000 people there and he had a live band and an already skilled mixer board, sound system, lighting effects, smoke machine, backup singers etc., it was an auditory and cultural experience that few people had ever been part of. The crowd in Houston, TX that night was blown away.

Let me interject a word about pop performers having worship music in their concerts. MWS was not the first or the best to do this. Keith Green started the ball rolling on this one. The Gaither Vocal Band took the aegis of the Gaither Trio and turned it into massive concert experiences. They were completely focused on worship. Don Moen, Vineyard Music, Christ For the Nations Bible Institute, Rich Mullins, Petra, The Imperials, and a lot of other Christian musicians had hosted public worship services before. But MWS did something that no one else had thought of. Essentially, Christian singers could choose one of two formats. They could perform in churches where they led congregations in worship. On the other hand, they could perform rock, folk or pop music with a Christian theme. They utilized concert halls and arenas for these performances. Occasionally, during a song or two, the formats would blur. Petra, for instance, used to perform the worship song “King of Kings” with a heavy metal sound that their fans loved.

But Michael W. Smith for several years made a full 50% of every concert a worship time. This was wildly successful both from a marketing standpoint as well as having spiritual impact on people’s lives. Church-goers who never went to concerts attended the tour stops of MWS. He had to get larger venues to accommodate the crowds. The church crowd and the concert crowd were now blending into one demographic.

This changed the Christian music industry forever. The stars of CCM became the groups that wrote and performed worship music. Their songs crossed over and churches began to sing their music in worship services.  Thus, we saw the emergence of David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Delirious, Kari Jobe, Newsboys, etc. Like most of the people reading this, I like their music. I have enjoyed their concerts and approach. It’s all good. I couldn’t care less who writes the songs we sing or where they are first performed. But it is this worship service/concert blend that I am angry about.

And I still blame Michael W. Smith.

For 20  years now, this style of concert worship has infiltrated church services. The seepage is so complete that anyone who started attending church in the past 20 years will think it has always been this way. But it hasn’t. Let me give a couple of examples.

If you walk into a contemporary church today, the feel is completely different than 20 years ago. If someone was transported from 20 years ago into a church without any context or feel for what has taken place, they would notice the following:

  • They can hardly see because it is so dark (churches used to have as much lght in their buildings as they could)
  • The ceilings and walls are black. (Colors used to be the standard)
  • There is professional stage lighting everywhere (we used to have functional lighting and maybe some flood lights).
  • The drummer’s kick-drum is miked and overpowering. (drums were never miked until recently…and yes, I know this started so the volume of the drums could be controlled. Well, they’re not controlling the kick-drum any longer, they are enhancing it).
  • The platforms are three times the size of what they used to be
  • Musicians cover every inch of the platform (there used to be symbols up there. No longer).
  • Rarely does anyone explain the meaning of the songs. No pastors (except musical pastors) are seen on the platform. (The theology of music used to matter. Hymns would be explained. It is good to know what we’re singing and why. Now, pastors almost never interrupt the “worship set”).
  • Few people in the congregation are singing. (The performers are so loud and the songs so complicated, few people feel like they can sing them. Also, because so many new songs are introduced, few people even know all the words).
  • The lighting changes with the mood of the song. There are pulsating changes to the lighting to match the rhythm of the song.

If you asked this person transported from 20 years earlier where they were, they would say “I’m at a concert.”


Contemporary churches now design their musical worship to mirror concerts. This is because the average church-goer attends concerts and while there, is invited to join in for musical worship. The real problem is the focus on the concert worship is always upon the performers. That’s who you are there to see and hear. And why not? It’s their concert.

The generation that was discipled by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong has come to expect that musical worship will look and sound like a concert. The difficulty with this is, the goal of the concert is the exact opposite of what congregational worship is designed to emulate. We learn from both biblical and historical evidence, music is supposed to be a group experience. We are supposed to see each other, encourage each other (speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs). Now the focus is on the performers and the lighting.

How can you be part of one another, speak to one another, if the lights are completely out and curtains cover every window? By the way, why do churches black out the musical part of their service? One person told me it was so they could see the projector screen better. Well, first of all, that isn’t true. With today’s powerful projectors, you can see the screen clearly even with bright lights on. Second, they don’t do this when the preacher is speaking. The lights go up for that and no one struggles to see the screen.

No, they dim the lights so the focus goes to the front and the performers there.

Why do churches have strobe lighting, mood lighting, spot-lighting? It is all designed to look like a concert, because this is where people associate their most powerful musical moments in worship.

When you look at the words of the song on the screen, in most large churches the background is a video of the worship team playing. The same team you are watching.

I blame Michael W. Smith. And I fully believe he had no idea what he was starting.

My advice to churches is they turn up the lights, turn off the spots, get rid of the mood enhancers, take the mike off the kick-drum, stop putting your “team” on the screen and teach the congregation to sing again. Allow the congregation to be the performers.

Anne Ortlund, in her book “Up With Worship” said this.

“We get worship all backwards. We are right in believing it is like a concert, but we get the roles reversed. We think that the Performers are the musicians and singers, the Prompter is God and the Audience is the congregation. That’s not it at all. The musicians and singers are the Prompters, the congregation are the Performers and the Audience is God.”

“We’re coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you…it’s all about you Jesus.”


The Best Expose Ever on The Ridiculous Prosperity Gospel

Posted on August 25, 2015

In the listing of comedy styles, satire and sarcasm should be near the bottom of everyone’s list. These stylistic attempts to entertain are always based upon a deeper level of anger and frustration. They are the venue of the passive-aggressive.

However, when wielded against things that ought to make us angry, they are both effective and devastating to the objects being attacked.

This video is dedicated to attacking one of Christianity’s most heinous copycats: The Prosperity Gospel Copycat. It is 20 minutes long and certainly irreverent. However, Christians have been way too nice to these charlatans in the past. John Oliver on his show laces his attack with profanity and sarcasm. But he also has some excellent proof of what is happening. After watching the video (or as much as you can) come back here and I’ll give you my personal take on all of this:

Many years ago, when I was pastoring a church, I invited a man to come and speak in our church. He was known to have certain powerful gifts and I was curious to see his ministry up close. He never identified himself as a Prosperity teacher, but I found out soon that this was his schtick.

On the second night, he spent almost 20 minutes on a financial appeal to seed money into his ministry. He used the same blurring of biblical texts to back up his doctrine. At the end of that service, I politely told him this was not what I or our church believed. I asked him to stop doing it.

Two nights later, he did the same thing again. In the middle of his appeal, I got up and asked him to sit down. Even though we had two more nights of meetings planned, we were done that night. I wasn’t going to endorse his shenanigans any longer.

I later learned in four days he had raised over $25,000 for himself. I was incensed and called him to let him know I thought he should give back that money to people. He laughed at me over the phone.

Cut to ten years later. The same Prosperity Teacher called me up (i was living in a different town) and asked to see me. I refused. I wanted nothing to do with his trickster approach to life. He assured me he didn’t want anything from me or my friends. So I agreed to meet him.

He wanted to apologize. He told me that he had raised a lot of money for himself in the few years he toured as an “evangelist” asking for money. He admitted it was in excess of a million dollars. Most of it went into gambling, drugs and jewelry. He was now broke, divorced and fighting addiction problems. He was going through a treatment program and part of his recovery was to make amends to those he had hurt. I was on that list.

In our conversation, he told a number of stories about men and women who had been part of his Prosperity Gospel movement. He told me that very few of them are followers of Christ and even less of them have any sense they are serving God. They know a great scam when they see it. He especially focused on men he knew: Creflo Dollar, Bob Tilton and Charles Capps. These three had taught him so much about how to raise bucks from unsuspecting rubes.

They are out there people. And they laugh at you while you send in money. Maybe, even with as crude as his presentation is, we should all be required to listen to John Oliver’s presentation just to remind ourselves that there are many “wolves in Shepherd’s clothing.”

Dissecting the Dones

Posted on August 20, 2015

dissection tools

The Dones are not a Reality TV family. They are an ever-growing group of people who no longer attend church, nor do they want to any time soon.

A host of articles have been written in the past 18 months looking at and analyzing this group.

The analysis is being done both by the “Dones” themselves and by those who do not want them to be done: i.e. church leaders. In these reports on the reasons Dones have left church, there are 7 reasons mentioned most commonly:

  • The church is too judgmental
  • Church leadership stifles creativity and personal expression
  • Lecture style of preaching is not the style Dones want
  • Their church’s stand on some doctrine or political stance differed from theirs
  • They find authentic experiences of God more often outside of church life
  • The church is unbending on certain moral issues the Dones consider complicated
  • They were hurt by people in more than one church setting

Well-known Christians now count themselves among the Dones. Heralded fiction writer Anne Rice wrote this a few years ago:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Donald Miller, author of the best-selling “Blue Like Jazz” was less harsh, but just as “done”, with his admission he was no longer attending church:

It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through…How do I find intimacy with God if not through a traditional church model? The answer came to me recently and it was a freeing revelation. I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.”

Rob Bell, a former pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan has announced that he will be a regular contributor to the Oprah Network. He was quoted as saying that if the church does not embrace homosexual marriage, it will become meaningless and a byword in history. He went on to say,

“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,”

After saying this, Bell was so thoroughly castigated and disapproved, he willingly joined the ranks of the Dones. And he encouraged others to do the same.

I have taken a long time to dissect the inner workings of the “Dones” I know personally. Several of these are my closest friends and associates and  a couple are close family  members. So, I believe I am accurate in my findings.

Underneath the stated reasons that people have left church behind are factors that seem to unite this disparate group of people. I believe that even though these factors cannot possibly be universal–after all, there will always be unique reasons why people make certain decisions–I believe they represent the vast majority of Dones.


Unmet Expectations

This factor is easy to identify, for you will find it underlying any decision to be done with a relationship. A person has a reasonable expectation the relationship was going to go one way, and it ended up somewhere not as good. In this case, the relationship is between each individual Done and the local churches they have been part of.

Author Frank Viola, in his book “Pagan Christianity” claims there is only one authentic New Testament expression of Christianity: That is the one found in the 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians. I won’t break down that chapter or his argument, but his assertion is a good case in point concerning my idea that people leave church because of unmet expectations.

Viola is one of modern Christianity’s most vocal critics. Some would even say he led the original vanguard of the Dones (though he would likely dispute that on grounds he never left the church. He just redefined it).

Viola believes in the “pure” New Testament model of the Corinthians. However, the 14th chapter has to be placed in its context. For thirteen chapters, Paul has been criticizing the Corinthians for partisanship, greed, immorality, homosexual practices, the rich exploiting the poor within the church, pagan practices, loud public arguments between leaders: In short, he describes a church that few of us would ever want to join or stay with. But in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul commends them for the way they conduct their public meetings. They allow more than one person to teach. They invite participation from non-leaders, the music is intimate and communal, and the style is more free-flowing than modern churches embrace. The gifts of the Spirit are obvious and manifest and the Body of Christ seems to be functioning properly.

But though Paul commends them for this, the rest of their “junk” makes this group appear very dysfunctional, no matter how great their public gatherings appear.

If you study the letters of Paul, you find a Christianity disjointed, rebellious, given to cultic behavior and beliefs, rife with sectarian infighting and openly immoral. There is nothing about the first century church that would lead any of us to be satisfied with the Christianity they had over that of our present day. Paul in his letters even toyed with taking his own life and at the very least said he wasn’t averse to the idea of God taking him home early.

What I’m saying is that Christians since the first year of the church have felt this disappointment when their expectations of what the Church should be are not met with reality. But church history shows us a curious pattern: most great changes in the history of the church happened because someone got discouraged and said “I’m Done”.

Martin Luther said it many times. So did Ulrich Zwingli, Count Von Zinzendorf, William Tyndale, Samuel Rutherford, Charles Finney, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Aimee Semple McPherson, A. B. Simpson, Billy Graham, John Calvin and C. S. Lewis. All of these saw the Church as it should be and then compared the Church to what it was in their day and decided they didn’t want to keep going the way they were. Some, like Martin Luther, A. B. Simpson and John Wesley started new churches. Some like Zinzendorf, Zwingli and Tyndale just lived their life the best way they could and changed their world even though they weren’t plugged into the church. Others such as Finney, Rutherford and Billy Graham learned to come back into the church and help her change.

It just shows me that there are many ways to handle the disappointment of Unmet Expectations. But there is another factor that goes deeper than this. As I have written in the past, I hope the Dones will eventually give us something that can help modify and change today’s church into something better.


Pain and Resentment

John Bevere calls Resentment “The Bait of Satan.” When we are hurt by others, that hurt lasts for only a particular length of time. It has a shelf life. But if we entertain resentment for how we are hurt, then the pain does not stop. At times, the pain can take a life and a destiny all its own.

Gordon Sinclair was a newspaper reporter of some renown in Canada. He also was a recognized leader in his Church and denomination. In 1969, he announced to the world that he was done with the church, done with Christ and done with religion. From that day, he became a vocal opponent of Christianity and sought at every turn to point out the mistakes and sins of the church. What made him so vitriolic?

Sinclair joined the staff of a famous Canadian television program “Front Page Challenge.” It is through this medium that most Canadians came to know him. At one point in every show, the panel was asked questions about their personal life. (It was a news program designed to look like a game show). On one of those programs, Sinclair was asked why he hated Christianity so much.

He hesitated for a few moments and then launched into his explanation. In the late 1950s, he and his wife lost their only daughter to a debilitating disease. After this happened, he said, members of his church in Toronto barraged him with pat answers, phony good cheer and other nonsense. His pastor just wanted him to learn how to move through the grief into “victory”. After several years of this, Sinclair decided to stop attending church. That is when his denomination and friends who went to church turned on him. (This is his telling of the story of course).

He admitted he was bitter and resentful over all that happened. He resented God for taking his daughter, he resented the church for telling him to get over it, and he resented his Christian community for criticizing his decision to stop attending church.

Many of those who leave church and are “done” report some of these same feelings. So many of the Dones that I know grew up in conservative, almost legalistic, churches. In today’s church climate–and maybe it has always been this way–people feel very free to comment on each other’s mistakes, setbacks, family problems and life choices. Christians feel justified to do this since we use words like “body”, “family” and “community” to describe our church life. Inherent in those words are the implication that we should be able to be forthright and brutally honest. If you give that many people that many opportunities to comment on your life choices, you can be sure some of their opinions will cut to the core.

I know a Christian couple where one spouse was unfaithful. The other one decided they did not want to be married any longer. That is their choice and it really is no one else’s business. However, the rest of their Christian circle has adopted it as their mission to save the marriage. This hurts my friend and they have told me they are “done” with church.

But the pain is one thing: Resentment is another. Pain is inevitable, but resentment is a choice. If a Done can be hurt and eventually move on without resentment, they will eventually play some role in God’s quest to renew and change his church. But if resentment seeps into the core of the soul, there is little chance of recovery.


The Move Away from Classical Orthodoxy

A close friend of mine, a pastor, told me he no longer believes God will send anyone to hell. We call this belief Universalism, and for centuries it was considered outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. An estimate was made that a full 40% of those who attend evangelical churches now are Universalists in doctrine.

A recent study done by Christianity Today revealed that 25% of pastors now support Gay Marriage. When asked if they would openly support it, only 1 out of every 25 said yes. Obviously, this has not been the historic belief of the church.

The numbers vary, but it is commonly believed that the majority of Christians do not hold to a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, including details like Creation, the Flood, the Egyptian Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the Fall of Man into sin. Curiously, many of the people who do not believe in the literal translation of the Bible still believe in miracles, prayer, the Voice of God and the Resurrection of Jesus.

What this shows me is that classical doctrine has now become a hometown buffet. As Christians today read through the Bible, listen to sermons and watch Christian movies and television, they are instinctively taking the doctrines they want and leaving the ones they don’t. This may be one of the most important underlying factors in why so many people are Done.

How did this doctrinal soup happen?

I will probably write another article in the coming weeks on all the factors that led up to this, but let me mention the one most responsible in my opinion. The universality of the Internet has made the sheer number of doctrinal opinions on every issue too many to grasp. I read a ton of articles every month related to the doctrine and practice of the Christian Faith. And it is hard for me, even with my Theology degree, to adequately interact with all I am hearing. I can imagine what it is like for people who have limited knowledge of the Bible when they encounter this barrage of opinions on every doctrine and practice.

Two years ago, I wrote an article on evangelicals and their beliefs on premarital sex. In that article, I pointed out that certain biblical questions still remain about premarital sex. It’s not as cut and dry as most Youth Pastors–and the parents of their teens–would like it. I quoted several contemporary Christian writers who talked about their own struggles to remain chaste in the middle of a culture that believes all sex is good if both parties are consenting adults. What made it hard for these authors is that the majority of their 20-something Christian friends were openly sexual. It is hard to feel you are the last person holding up a tent pole as the tent begins to collapse.

What effect did this trend have on the Dones? First, since most Evangelical churches are known for taking dogmatic stances on core beliefs, if you struggle to accept any of the core beliefs of Christianity you will feel ostracized from your church. Second, if you practice Christianity differently than others, often because of these differing belief systems, you will hesitate to hang around with people who may condemn the way you’re living. And third, there are many people in this world who do not go to church who are willing to accept the way you’re living while you’re sorting out your beliefs. Many of these people are nice, moral and easy to get along with.

Every time the church has focused on a particular facet of living to condemn, those who practice those things are “Done” with the church. In the late 1800s it was drinking alcohol. In the 1970s it was divorce. In the 1980s, it was premarital sex. Smoking, doing drugs, missing church, provocative clothing, swearing, declaring bankruptcy are all practices that have caused churches to shun their members.

In today’s church, if you believe in a woman’s right to choose an abortion, are sex-positive, believe that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex, support gay marriage–any of these will bring harsh reactions from church leaders.

This is the reason that Anne Rice and Rob Bell both became Dones.

I am not saying that the church should refrain from commenting on how people are living. I am not making any kind of judgment either way on that issue. Each church needs to decide what they believe and how they will communicate that to their members. What I am saying is that as church members realize there are millions of people who love Jesus and don’t believe what their church believes, they get discouraged. They realize that unless they adopt the entire package of things their church believes, they will have to be Done with church.

And many of them are. The Internet and the tendency of the post-modern age to say that nothing is absolute and no belief issue is settled make it easier for people to be Done with church.

And I wrote this article for two reasons:

  1. To help those who Stay with church to understand why some don’t
  2. To help those who are Done with church to know why you chose it.



My FOMO Letter

Posted on May 8, 2015

In addition to being a counselor and writer, I am also in leadership in our faith community (Gateway Fellowship) in Sacramento, CA.

I wrote a letter this week to the members of that fellowship–and several of them asked me to reprint it here for a much larger readership. So, with a couple of minor changes, here it is.

There are times I teach on Sunday mornings. I also teach occasional seminars, I write books, and even do a few videos to instruct. That is what God has called me to do—to instruct people on the truths of God’s word. This letter is one of those times of instruction. Indeed, it may be one of the most critical things I have taught in a long time. There is a disease of the ungodly world which has now begun to infect the people of God. It isn’t too late to vaccinate against this disease, but only when we recognize how much a problem it is.

To explain this disease, let me describe the first time I saw it. Hopefully as you hear my description of the first symptoms of this disease it will begin to dawn on you how seriously this disease can destroy many of the things we all hold dear.

One of my daughters many years ago planned a party to celebrate a very important occasion in her life. It doesn’t matter which daughter it was or which occasion they were marking. She sent out about 30 invitations to all her friends and waited for their response. She sent these invitations about 6 weeks before the event, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to respond. And then she waited.

My daughter is well-liked and has many good friends. Two of her closest friends let her know the next day they were coming. What a great start. But then something happened that made no sense at the time. She experienced teen symptoms of a large societal disease. No one else let her know if they were coming. She waited day after day, week after week, and no one gave her any indication if they would be there. She even resorted to calling several of them to confirm. Very few of them said they weren’t coming. The most common answer was this one: “I can’t really let you know yet. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

By the day of the party, 8 more people let her know at the last minute. But the danger within their hesitancy is revealed by that one phrase.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.” Let those words sink it. They indicate two things. First, they show that these people were thinking about attending and had not ruled it out. But the second truth is the most dangerous. They wanted to keep their options open in case something more important came up. As my friend Gary told us at a recent staff meeting, this is a case of FOMO. This stands for Fear Of Missing Out. So many people in our culture have been afflicted with this. We don’t really commit too early to anything because something better may come along. There are so many options in our culture of things to do, we don’t want to miss out. We can’t miss out. We won’t miss out.

Those who study church life have identified a disturbing trend. Though church attendance in America is not growing, it is also not shrinking. By one measurement, people who report they attend church has stayed the same for the last 20 years. But average church attendance is dropping rapidly. How is that possible?

It is simple. The same group of people still attends church; they just don’t attend as often as they used to. Do the math on this: If a group of 200 attend church every Sunday, then the average attendance is 200. What happens if those same 200 attend 3 out of 4 Sundays instead of 4/4 per month? The average attendance now is 150, even though everyone is still going to that church. What if all the 4/4 attenders now attend 2/4 times per month? The attendance is now 100 per Sunday, even though the same amount of people attend the church.

I can hear someone saying, “What’s the big deal?”

If you are even toying with that question, then you don’t understand the real problem of the FOMO disease. FOMO, once it infects the soul, is like a cancer. It doesn’t stop. The more you give in to the idea that you may miss out on something, the more events, people and relationships you attempt to fit in. And the more you try and fit as many things into your life as possible, the less important each of those things becomes. All things in your life become trivial. All things in your life are optional, interchangeable and replaceable.

And that includes the fellowship of people you call your church.

In a recent Kinnaman poll of visitors to church, they revealed if someone is going to visit a church for the first time, they will usually arrive 10-15 minutes before the service begins. A similar poll was done by Kinnaman showing that 10 minutes before a church service, only 3% of the congregation is there. So that means most visitors show up to a church and almost no one is there. Think of the visitor: They are already nervous about showing up at a place where they don’t know anyone. Some of them were invited by friends and they show up 15 minutes before their friends do.

So why are people attending half as much as they used to? Why are believers in Christ coming to church at the last minute? Why do we feel less and less connected to each other in the Church? FOMO. We fill our lives so full all week long that we have to fit so many more things into Saturdays and Sundays. We are so afraid of missing anything that we continue to make plans for Sunday afternoon while the sermon is going on. We fit so many things into our Saturdays, for fear of missing out, that by Sunday we often have to sleep in until 11 just to catch up.

I am going to challenge you that if we don’t immunize ourselves right away, this disease is going to mess our souls up so much we may never recover. I could write an entire book on this (and perhaps this letter feels that long) because I am worried about these trends. And there are some reasons why this damages us:

  1. At the very least it tires us out constantly
  2. We no longer see the value of a few things because we are concerned about many things
  3. We diminish the value of important things in the sheer volume of things we are worried about.
  4. The Bible tells us in so many places that the Body of Christ is the primary place we will see God move to work in our lives in this world. If we rarely spend quality time with the Body of Christ, then the rest of the Body gets weaker—and so do we.


So, what am I suggesting we do about this?

Allow me to share something a friend wrote to me after a recent meeting. She and her husband came to realize as a family that they were maxing out their Saturdays that Sunday became a tiring day. Here is what they decided:

Some time ago, Mike Phillips led a teaching series on simplifying our lives. Something about that series resonated with our family. We were certainly running in all directions and didn’t have a lot of time on the weekends for the kids to just “be kids” and for us to just breathe. It has taken quite a bit of conscious effort on our part to reduce the amount of “weekend activity” we do, what with all of our friends in every sport under the sun and asking us to do that too. But we have decided that we do not want to live our lives in chaos and miss out on our family time while our children are young. This doesn’t mean we don’t have weekends that we are busy, but we have worked hard on saying no. Last Saturday, we had an opportunity to deliberately say no and be at home all day together. How liberating that day was. The kids played outside. We barbecued as a family and we breathed. We have found that free Saturdays are essential to our well-being as a family and this allows us to come into Sunday morning services without stress or feeling like we are missing out on our weekend.

Notice that they had to deliberately plan this: It didn’t happen by accident or because they are unpopular. They also fought the fear of missing out.

In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read, “24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Why do you attend church? Is it to see a show? Is it to show off a new outfit? Do you do it for the free coffee and food? Do you like having a live band that you don’t have to pay a cover charge for? Obviously, these would be ridiculous reasons to come to church. But this bible passage essentially says that we meet together to encourage each other and spur each other to love more.

This means, you are there to bless someone else. They are there to bless you. If either they or you are missing, so is a major part of the ministry God wants to do in people’s lives. We don’t meet together to pad statistics and make us feel like we’re part of something big. At Gateway Fellowship, we don’t put on a show. We leave that to the megachurches. We don’t have fancy furniture or loud music or flashy preaching. We allow others to focus on that.

We believe in community and we do our best to bring that to every member. But it requires that we are there. Not a quarter of the time, not half the time—most of the time. Can you ask God about this? I think it is time for God’s people to decide that the Body of Christ is more important that a marathon, a wine-tasting party or multiple trips to theme parks. I think our church family needs you more than you need two more hours of sleep.

Will you be there when they do? Will you be there when God speaks clearly through someone to you? Will you be there when God speaks through you?

How To Provide Affordable Theological Education in the Near Future

studentdebt1For the past 20 years, author Frank Viola has been writing non-stop about the need to eliminate pastors from the rolls of churches. Actually, in one sense, Viola has been advocating the end to all organized churches. He champions the validity and superiority of the House Church movement. He believes the only truly Christian model of the church is the one found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Viola teaches that the hierarchical pastor is the main reason the church is not effective and is not growing. He posits that if we just had home churches led by the average person the church would be much stronger and would have more impact on this world.


I don’t want to argue his basic premise. There are aspects of his teaching I agree with and some I strongly disagree with. What I want to highlight is one of the key arguments he uses to base this view upon. He believes that modern college education has made it prohibitive for a person to rise to the calling of Pastor. The cost, the demands, the time necessary and the type of person that has to fit these roles are extremely limiting.


I agree with him completely concerning the cost of theological education,. What I don’t agree with is his assertion that we don’t need full-time pastors and other paid church leaders. There is enough biblical basis for paying leaders. But even more so, I have seen cults and aberrant teachings destroy groups of people. And I have seen this happen more in house churches than anywhere else. In any group of people, the strongest personalities always take over. Better to vet those personalities and hold them to a community standard, as many denominations do, than let them take over a small group of people.

But as I said in my last article, we have a looming crisis on our hands. The average young person will never be able to afford their theological education and will certainly not be able to pay it off in a timely manner once they graduate. But I have a number of ideas that I have gleaned from others who are concerned about this matter. I believe all of these could work, and any combination of them would make the situation better.

Re-establish the Specialty Theological Schools: Before the mid-1970s, the average pastor was trained in a Bible School of some kind. These colleges devoted themselves to teaching a pastor the necessary skills and were not overly concerned about accreditation. Therefore they could hire professors and teachers that were more spiritually gifted than academically advanced.  But as more and more people in churches started to get advanced degrees, pastors felt very inadequate teaching this group if their degree was not from an accredited college. So pastors, congregations, denominations and college alumni pressured these pastors, and the colleges who trained them, to get advanced accreditations. This meant that the colleges had to require their teachers to have doctorates or other advanced degrees. The libraries had to contain a certain number of volumes.  The institutions had to offer a larger selection of majors and the administration of the college had to have more overseers to ensure the institution maintained their standing in the accrediting body.  What this meant is these colleges became liberal arts universities. Their focus left theological training and landed on science and arts degrees. They still maintained their theological focus, but the amount of students seeking a bible degree dropped off. In addition, as these changes got more expensive for the college, they had to charge the students more. This accounts for much of the growth of the tuition. Now, most theological students cannot afford these degrees.


But the answer is simple. The Bible College degree needs to become fashionable again. Colleges whose purpose is ONLY to provide theological training could be much smaller and even church-based (so they don’t have to build new buildings). At the very least, these colleges could hire professors who have years of ministry experience instead of profs that have multiple advanced degrees. Everything would be cheaper.

Church-Based campuses: This idea is already happening. Organizations like “Antioch School of Ministry” have created curricula that can be used to establish satellite campuses on existing church properties. Most churches do not use their campuses during the day except the offices. The classrooms could be used for any number of theological training options. This has been done for years in developing world countries, but is just now coming to the United States. The American church still has caviar tastes and we now realize that we only have a spam budget. One example of this being done is Salem Alliance Church in Salem, Oregon. They have designed a four-year degree program based on Antioch School’s curriculum. The estimated total cost for four years is $12,000. This is approximately 10% of what it would cost at an existing liberal arts college.

Denominational Changes in Policy: Actually to make theological education more affordable, denominations and church movements would have to make a number of changes to their training policy for pastors. Here are a few changes that would make this process so much simpler.

  1. Decide on the full number of credit hours a person has to have in Bible and Theology and then allow them to be licensed based on that instead of full degrees.
  2. Allow for degrees from non-accredited colleges as long as those colleges show sufficient levels of theological and financial accountability.
  3. Encourage establishment of regional church-based campuses all over the country so that students can save money on room and board.
  4. Maintain scholarship programs for students that show spiritual promise rather than just those who have academic ability. This would mean that denominations would have to work with local churches to find worthy candidates before they even start their education.
  5. Encourage and allow people who feel called to ministry but who have degrees in other areas to be licensed as long as they obtain the minimum level of bible and theology courses.


Bible-centered Intensive Programs: I am referring to a relatively new phenomenon where students learn to study the entire bible and learn the basics of theology in less than two years instead of four or more. As far as I know, the most successful of these programs is the School of Biblical Studies run by Youth With a Mission at many sites around the world. The SBS training regimen seeks to teach every student how to do inductive Bible study, and then works with them to study and outline every verse of every book in the Bible. This 9-month intensive course varies in cost depending on location, but averages between $7500-$11,000 for the entire nine months (including room and board and all materials). After completion of this bible intensive, the students are given the opportunity to join a Titus Team, which is an additional practicum, showing the students how to take the skill they just learned and pass it on to pastors and church workers around the world. Titus Teams, as the group of students are called, often go to the remote parts of the world providing bible education for pastors who cannot attend a school or may not even be able to read. These teams are also valuable resources to train people in North American churches who may want to obtain the basic skills to learn the Bible for themselves. But this model could also be used to adequately train pastors for the local church.

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs: One of the great, and least heralded, programs in our country is one where people who have graduated from college and then go to work for a public sector employer can apply to have a portion of their student loans forgiven for every year of service they give to that organization. This program includes school districts, state, federal and local governments and the military. What if it also included churches? If a young pastor who graduated in the past five years with mammoth debt were to work with a local church, the church could agree to pay off 10% of their student loans for every year of service the pastor gave to the church. This money would be tax-free and would benefit everyone concerned. In combination with the other four ideas, it would erase billions of dollars of debt that hangs over the heads of the generation that went through theological training in the past two decades.

These ideas can work and in one sense must work if the church is to survive. I believe if even a few of these are instituted and adopted by the majority of denominations we can have a strong and dynamic group of young missionaries and pastors to carry on the work of Christ’s Church.

In the Future, Will There Be ANY Pastors or Missionaries?

studentdebt1The church in North America is in more trouble, and more quickly, than anyone realized. I am not speaking of culture wars, moral deterioration or theological error. It is more insidious and potentially catastrophic than that.

In less than a decade, we may not have any more qualified pastors under the age of 35. Or if we have some, they will be woefully inadequate for the job ahead of them. In addition, if this trend continues, North American churches may not have any qualified pastors to lead churches in 30 years. Let me explain.

When I received my theological training in Canada during the mid-seventies, the cost of Bible College was about $4000/year. Some schools were more and some less, but that was the average. When my wife and I graduated from college, between us we had two degrees and a total of $600 in debt. By Christmas of that year, we were all paid off. We took out no student loans and had nothing preventing us from going wherever God called us. Certainly there were no financial impediments.

That was good, because we couldn’t have afforded any debt. Our first church paid us $9500 per year. The second church supplied us with a parsonage and gave us $15,000 per year in income. That was below the poverty level for Canada. But because we had no student loan debt, we could afford to do it. Things were incredibly tight, but through God’s help and a lot of creative cooking and sewing, we made do.

Two things have changed since those halcyon days; and two things have remained the same.

First, the things which have changed. Almost any church will require a pastor or missionary to have at the very least a bachelor’s degree with at least 24 credit hours in Bible and Theology. Not every community has a Christian college near them. Therefore, the majority of students will have to travel a distance to get educated. This requires those students to pay for room and board as well as tuition. Hold onto your hats. The average cost of tuition for a ministry degree at Christian colleges in 2013 is $18,000. The cost of room and board ranges from $10,000 to $25,000. Let’s be conservative and estimate this cost at $15,000 per school year.

This means it will cost a theological student seeking a four-year degree around $33,000 for each year they go to school. These students, of course can apply for scholarships, but because of economic hard times, schools are offering less scholarships. Legacy scholarships and Foundation scholarships. These scholarships were often the core way that colleges helped out students who couldn’t pay for college. But these funds are disappearing fast. Leaving a legacy of scholarships was the focus of the Builder generation who have all but faded away from this earth. Their children and grand-children are much more self-absorbed and much less likely to pour their money into the lives of potential pastors and missionaries.

Denominations are not providing very many scholarships either. Therefore, let’s assume that with summer jobs and scholarships, a student might possibly be able to cover a third of that cost. That still leaves them with $22,000 of the expense to carry with student loans. But wait: Most colleges require one or more internships in order to graduate. This reduces the amount of time that students can give over to earning their way through college. When I was in college, my summer jobs covered over 2/3rds of my expenses for the coming school year. Not any more. Most employers are not making room for summer students. They only want to hire someone who will be there in the Fall and Winter. It’s an employer’s market still, and a college student is on the lowest rung of the employee desirability ladder.

So this brings the potential cost for a school year back up to about $25,000. Perhaps parents have put aside money for their kids’ college education; but most have not. This leaves the number about the same for most students. By the time they are done with their Bachelor’s Degree, they will have $100,000 of net expenses.

Now some will observe I haven’t deducted the savings that may be found by taking part of that degree at a community college. I didn’t include it, because in essence it is a false hope. Four-year colleges cannot afford to have students come for only two years. So, even though it is technically possible to get an Associates Degree from a community college and then do the last two years at an accredited college, that is not how it works out in real life. Most four-year colleges have lists of prerequisites that change from year to year, and sometimes from semester to semester. By the time a student is finished, those last two years now take three to three and a half years to complete. I know one student who got an AA degree. Then, he went to a Christian college expecting to be done in two years. Because of changing requirements for his degree, it took him four years to finish.

But let’s assume you can knock off one year of college with an Associate’s degree from a relatively inexpensive Community College. That would reduce your cost to around $75,000 for the entire degree.

These are the things that have changed since I went to college. Let’s look at the things which haven’t changed since my day.

First, denominations and churches still expect the pastor and missionary to be the expert in their field. These graduates are expected to know how to do preaching, teaching, counseling and administrative duties with aplomb and skill. This means must receive a degree from a reputable school, and it should include as many courses in real-life church situations as possible. You can’t just get an online degree from Backwoods Bible school and Coffee Shop. It won’t cut it when you get into a church setting.

Second, the income for pastors and certainly for missionaries has not risen anywhere nearly as fast as other professions – or as fast as the expense for that degree. Graduates with church ministry degrees aren’t going to be making anywhere near enough money to pay off those student loans. Sorry to break that news to you. It is literally not possible to do that and to have any family, a home or even to pay rent. I know several pastors who have graduated in recent years. They all barely pay the interest on their loans. One guy estimated that he wouldn’t have his loans paid off until he retired.

Here is another problem. Of all professional degrees, the theology degree is the only one that is next to worthless unless you are working in that field. An engineer, doctor, lawyer, physiotherapist normally have a wide range of jobs they can apply for if they want to take a break from their field. This is never true of people with a theology degree.

Therefore, young students looking into pastoral ministry are figuring this out. Because the cost of theological education has skyrocketed so fast, this has taken a few years to figure out. Friends of mine in the field of higher education for theology are now admitting their degree programs will soon run out of viable candidates.

This is scandalous. We can’t expect pastors and missionaries to go into one of the lowest paid professions with such exorbitant expenses. Most students are beginning to figure this out. Because denominations (including my own) have just talked about trying to solve this and haven’t taken the radical steps necessary to make a real change, we may lose an entire generation of young pastors.

I think there is an answer to this dilemma. In the next article, I will lay out five ideas that could work if people have to will to make it happen.

Why I Don’t Care if Millennials are Leaving the Church

phonesI’m not convinced the Millennial generation is leaving the church in any great numbers. Thom Rainer and others have done studies, but their techniques fall short of scientific standards for statistical analysis. Rather, I believe church leaders are expressing  their gut reaction as to whether Millennials are leaving. They often base this from knowing a 20-something relative that is turned off by church and has said “I am never going back.

Or they may have read one of the 5,000 articles on the subject and become convinced that with this much smoke, there must be a raging inferno nearby.

Personally, I’m not convinced that Millennials are leaving church as dramatically as some fear. But for the sake of argument, let’s say they are. Why should I care?

When I pose that question, some of you immediately rise up with indignation based upon your Theology of Church,  and claim “The role of the church is to reach all people with the Gospel. To leave out an entire generation is unconscionable”. If the role of the church is to reach all people with the Gospel–and I agree it is, according to the Great Commission–then it is wrong to ignore a generation.

Many people have observed that “Christianity is always one generation away from extinction.” Though the Bible assures us that will never happen, it is certainly a possibility. At least, it makes for a good fear-based mission statement. I do understand that my generation is responsible to pass on the Good News of Jesus to the next generation. But that is not enough reason to make me care if Millennials are leaving church.

Others of you–parents, teachers, youth pastors–desperately want to see the Millennials you know go back to church as soon as possible. I can empathize with that; I have three children who are all Millennials, and who all wrestle with what they want out of church. But even that is still not enough to make me care if Millennials are leaving church.

Pastors may look at declining attendance in that age demographic and do the logical projections in their mind. They may ask “If they stop coming to church, will my church even exist in 20 years?” And that has merit, if two conditions remain the same. First, if the Millennials who are leaving now never come back. And, second, if no other generations coming after them go to church. I’m trained as a pastor, and I completely understand those projections and the terror they invoke. But it is still not enough to cause me to care that Millennials are leaving church.

Let me explain why.

Twenty-somethings have always been leaving church. Always. You cannot find a generation of twenty-somethings that wanted to readily adopt the traditions and patterns of their elders. Emerging generations always want to re-invent the wheel. And bless them for wanting that. We would have almost no new inventions, no new theories, no radical changes in life practice, if an emerging generation did not challenge the status quo.

For instance, we are told that in the field of Mathematics and Physics all the most revolutionary and ground-breaking theories have been proposed by people in their teens and twenties.

Some young Christians see glaring deficiencies in church and think they can change things from the inside. Others see those same deficiencies and conclude that hierarchical organizations cannot change. So they leave church, hoping to join with other malcontents to form something truly different.

Here is a recent example. Around the year 2000, we began to see people who called themselves the Emerging Church. Then, as it gained steam, it began to be called the Emergent Church. Then, it morphed into the Emerged Church. At that point, most of the changes they proposed began to show up in existing churches. Many of the “Emerging” group decided to give church a try again. These days, it is old news to talk about any of that. This movement was an attempt to force Christianity in North America to be more missional, socially conscious, and diverse. And a lot of churches incorporated at least some of these features into their personas.

And then I think back to my conversion in the late 60s, and I realize that many of the Sixties Generation were leaving church in droves. We pondered new types of worship music, new expressions of affection, new approaches at evangelism–remember the Coffee Shops we opened and preached the Gospel at–new ways of doing community. For a decade, we traveled on the fringes of church. None of us took out membership, none of us bought their books and tapes. We tuned out and felt superior.

Then something funky happened. We came back. And we brought our drums, our Serendipity Bible Studies, our Coffee ministry, our short-term missions trips, our Youth Ministry, our cell group ministry, our respect for the gifts and callings of women, minorities and young people. All in all, we brought both improvements and some questionable ideas back to those churches we said we would never enter.

Now, thirty years later, all our ideas are mainstream. Many churches have readily adopted our musical expressions. We have space set aside for counseling. Every church has small groups.

Now it is the turn for our children to take a critical eye at what we changed and say “Yeah, but the Church has to change a lot more before I’m satisfied.” Good for them. Some of them will stay in the church and work patiently to tweak what is here. Others will leave for a decade or more and then come back with some “blow-your-mind” ideas that none of us saw coming.

What does the church of today need to be concerned about? I don’t think we need to give one thought about Millennials leaving. Bless them. The question is not whether we need to change anything to please them, but rather, do we need to change anything to please God. If a church is doing what Holy Spirit is leading them to do, they shouldn’t be concerned if Millennials don’t like it. Who cares if they aren’t satisfied? That’s their job to question everything. When and if they return to church in the years to come, we hope they bring the Word of the Lord to help us continue to follow God’s plan for His Body.

I just hope you remember these things 40 years from now, when the blog articles all ask “Why are the kids of the Thirties leaving church?”

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