Learning From Each Other
Most of this special issue tells inspirational stories of the impressive growth of our community around the world. A few of the articles discuss preaching methods that have run their course and need to be updated or replaced. Another article reviews common reasons churches die and emphasizes how critical adapting to change is to stay alive.
“And the gospel must first be published among all nations.”
“I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth;
but God that giveth the increase.”
1 Cor 3:6-7
Learning from the stories
Most of this special issue tells inspirational stories of the impressive growth of our community around the world. A few of the articles discuss preaching methods that have run their course and need to be updated or replaced. Another article reviews common reasons churches die and emphasizes how critical adapting to change is to stay alive. These latter kinds of stories act as warnings, primarily to those of us in the longstanding areas of our community. In his article Bro. Matthew Blewett explains how the brothers and sisters in South Africa needed to make changes to re-invigorate their preaching efforts; we must all do the same.
To this end, the present article looks at some of the obstacles that have limited growth of the gospel in North America and other places.1See Bro. Jeff Gelineau’s article, “The Shape of Things to Come,” in this Tidings’ Special Issue. The focus is on issues associated with our depiction and living of the gospel, which can influence how others perceive it. That is, this article identifies ways in which we create hurdles that discourage people from accepting or abiding in the gospel.
This article will not be the last word on the subject. Rather, it is intended to start a dialog. What are we doing as a community that is causing people to struggle with their faith, perhaps even causing them to leave us all together? What are we doing that turns people off? And, how can we improve?
In other words, this article lists problems we all face to some extent. These issues can inhibit the growth of the gospel. It is important we identify them so we can address them. We must “confront the brutal facts (yet never lose faith).”2Jim Collins, Good to Great, Chapter 4. In addition to identifying the problems, we offer practical ways we can put into practice lessons learned from the stories.
Identifying the issues
Here we summarize some of the issues identified by two Christadelphian surveys and three much larger non-Christadelphian surveys. These results are relevant input even if we will not be able to address all the issues raised.
Five years ago, a group of brothers and sisters were concerned with what they were seeing and they conducted an online survey to try to understand the situation better. They state in the introduction to their report:
Three categories of issues surfaced from the responses to the survey:
- Sexual abuse, racism, and class-consciousness.
- Internal conflict, divisions, and inappropriate attitudes.
- Diminishing Biblical awareness; anti-scholarship; speakers and teachers are unprepared.
The first of these categories is perhaps more prevalent than many of us perceive; these issues seem to lurk below the surface and are hard to talk about. That said, it is clear issues of sexual abuse, racism, and class-consciousness need to be addressed proactively, especially as we hear and see these same issues in society.
The second category continues to be a thorn in the side in many of our longstanding communities. We need to focus on essentials and refuse to tolerate any politics of division. The damage being done is irreparable. We must heed Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians, who faced similar problems:
May God bless the current efforts so we can overcome the last hurdles and cross the finish line on unity.
The third of these categories is a serious issue. With easy access to information and better all-around education, not to mention those in our midst with advanced degrees, it is essential speakers know what they are talking about. They must be trustworthy. If they are not qualified to talk on a subject, they should pick a different subject or we should get a different speaker. Of course, our human inability to accurately judge our own competence makes this difficult for all of us.4This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; for a summary, discussion, and links to original documents, see the Wikipedia entry The New Testament is clear. Teachers will be held accountable for their teaching. This should be warning enough.
Williamsburg Christadelphian Foundation (WCF) Survey:5Complete results for the WCF Survey are available here
In September, 2019 the WCF distributed a survey to learn about the North American Christadelphian community’s attitudes and concerns regarding issues of faith. Here we review the results of Question 5: My faith is weakened by these past or present challenges (Select all that apply). Answered: 600; Skipped: 17.
Here are the top ten responses by percentage:
- Legalism in the Community (383/600 = 64%)
- Apathy in the Community (340/600 = 57%)
- Lack of Unity in the Christadelphian Community (329/600 = 55%)
- Boring ecclesial services or activities (196/600 = 33%)
- Competing demands on my time (188/600 = 31%)
- Materialism (174/600 = 29%)
- Lack of good Bible study (153/600 = 26%)
- Women’s roles in the ecclesia (148/600 = 25%)
- Boring music (145/600 = 24%)
- Inability to pray effectively (144/600 = 24%)
The top three of these responses all have to do with the Christadelphian community — legalism, apathy, and lack of unity — and are related to the second category in the LSC results above. Response 7 is similar to the third category in the LSC results. Responses 4 and 9 reflect the fact that for the most part our worship services and music are still based on the way things were done in the last half of the nineteenth century. There is nothing wrong with them per se, except that they can cause a huge obstacle to anyone born since 1980. At the very least, we need to allow more variety. Diversity in unity, not uniformity, is a key element of the gospel (Rom 14; 1 Cor 12-14). Results 5 and 6 are common first-world problems and arise from where we put our priorities. It is easy to criticize others, but we are all likely guilty of these to some extent.
Sisters are too often treated like second-class citizens. They are not allowed to participate fully in worship,
Bible classes, Bible schools, or the administration of ecclesias or Bible schools.Response 8 is a much bigger issue than many of us want to admit. Sisters are too often treated like second-class citizens. They are not allowed to participate fully in worship, Bible classes, Bible schools, or the administration of ecclesias and Bible schools. In some areas, it is common for girls to be told they shouldn’t pursue an education or a job, but should plan to stay at home, in the kitchen, raising children. Sadly, they may even be discouraged from studying the Bible. One young, unmarried sister was told by an older sister,
Another sister summarized what she’d been taught,
This perspective pushes women away, whether they are raised Christadelphian or come into contact with us from the outside our community. It also causes the one body to be somewhat dysfunctional, with less than half of our members growing spiritually and contributing their God-given talents to the benefit of the whole. Although it will be difficult to address this issue in general, it is essential it not be ignored. At a minimum, reinforcing, allowing, or even failing to recognize misogynistic attitudes is seriously counterproductive to the gospel and we must be vigilant to put an end to them.
Interestingly, response 10 is the only one in the top ten to deal with an individual believer’s feeling of ineptness at one of the basic spiritual disciplines, in this case, prayer. It is likely that if we discussed these fundamentals more often, then we would see this and other disciplines higher on the list. This is a wake-up call revealing we are not attending to our flocks appropriately. Perhaps it is because of all the distractions higher on the list.
Many of these issues coincide with what has been found in broader studies of Christians leaving their churches. Here are summaries of three non-Christadelphian studies that identify issues facing Christianity in general. There are reasons to think we are facing many of these same concerns.
A Recipe for Disaster:6John Marriott, A Recipe for Disaster: Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How They Can Instil a Faith that Endures, 2018, Wipf & Stock: Eugene, Oregon.
Based on interviews of those who had left Christianity, John Marriott identifies four overlapping ways churches and parents prepare people to lose their faith.
- Tyranny of the Necessary (Over-Prepared) — Christians are often required to accept a long list of particular interpretations of the Bible, many of which are based on weak evidence at best. This is especially true when it comes to interpretations felt to be essential to combat perceived challenges from other disciplines (e.g., science, archeology, history, medicine).
- Spiritual Culture Shock (Under-Prepared) — Christians are unable to deal with today’s secular culture. Growing up in isolation makes them powerless to adapt when the time comes for them to interact with that culture.
- Half-Baked (Ill-Prepared) — Christians are often taught inadequate conceptions of God and the Bible. These conceptions are often unscriptural and quickly become a house of cards when the Christian starts to study the Bible seriously for themselves. Discovering a single example that contradicts what they have been taught can cause their entire faith to come crashing down.
- Friendly Fire (Painfully Prepared) — The reaction of the church and family to opinions or behavior that are considered unacceptable can create deep wounds and long-lasting resentment that drives people away, never to return.
Why 18-29-year-old Christians are Leaving the Church:7David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church … And Rethinking Faith, 2011, The Barna Group. See Bro. Ben Drepaul’s book review, Tidings, May, 2020, pp. 233-235.
Between 2007 and 2011, the Barna Group conducted a series of nationwide opinion polls to study why passionate Christian teens often become Missing-In-Action 20-somethings. They focused on 18-to-29-year old “Mosaics,” that is, those born between 1984 and 2002, who are often referred to as Millennials and Gen-Y.
David Kinnaman identifies the following six major concerns this age group has with Christian attitudes. These are summarized on pages 92-93 in the book:
- Overprotective — discouraging creativity.
- Shallow — boring, proof-texting platitudes.
- Anti-Science — must choose faith or science.
- Repressive — religious rules, especially concerning sexual mores, feel stifling.
- Exclusive — lack of open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance.
- Doubtless — no safe place to express doubts.
What 16-29-year-old Outsiders Think About Christians:8David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … And Why It Matters, 2007, The Barna Group.
In contrast to the four studies above which deal with why insiders struggle and leave the faith, this last study deals with the opinions young outsiders shared about Christians:
- Hypocritical — They say one thing and do another.
- Get Saved! — They are too focused on getting converts; they seem insincere.
- Anti-homosexual — They are bigoted and contemptuous.
- Sheltered — They are old-fashioned, boring, out of touch with reality, and unintelligent.
- Too Political — They have a political agenda and promote right-wing politics.
- Judgmental — It isn’t clear whether Christians really love people. Instead, they are prideful and quick to find faults in others.
Here we see many of the same problems identified above, with a couple of new ones. Many of the things about Christianity that offend outsiders are the same things that offend insiders.
Putting into practice the lessons learned
To note the obvious, none of these problems will be easy to rectify. That said, here are some simple, back-to-basic, ideas to get us started in the right direction.
Focusing on the gospel.
Our preaching needs to be centered on the first principles of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.9See Bro. George Booker’s booklet, What Are the First Principles?, available online This good news appeals to those who have ears to hear. They see that life eternal comes from knowing the only true God and His son (John 17:3). The gospel was the heart of the message Jesus and the apostles preached (Mark 1:14-15; Acts 8:12; Acts 28:30-31). It needs to be the core of our preaching too.
We need to avoid becoming sidetracked with disputed views of secondary, often esoteric theories about science, prophecy, history, atonement, sisters’ roles, and even the Bible itself. Our speakers need to avoid topics they are not qualified to discuss. Doing so turns people off, both outside and inside our community, and can give the gospel a bad name.
Instead, our message needs to be about God, Jesus, faith, love, and the coming kingdom. These form the foundation of our hope. The gospel is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son so that believers might have eternal life. He sent His son not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Jesus. Christ is the Word made flesh, the brightness of God’s glory, the express image of the Father. He is our Lord. He is our savior. He showed his love for us in his willingness to lay down his life for us. He is our example. We must abide in him. As fellow heirs of the promises, we are called to love God, to love Christ, to love our brothers and sisters, to love our neighbors, even to love our enemies. By such behavior, all people will be able to tell that we are God’s children and Christ’s disciples.
Balancing external and internal needs.
Our preaching must address both external and internal audiences. We need to meet people where they are, to preach to them on their terms, in their vernacular, adapting our methods to each of their needs. This is what Jesus and the apostles did (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 11:1; Acts 16:13; 17:17; 1 Cor 9:19-23). This has also been the hallmark of successful preaching efforts throughout our history, as illustrated by the stories in this special issue.
We must make sure our preaching doesn’t become too internally focused, caring for our own but ignoring our duties to others. We must reach out. We must avoid becoming insular, preaching only to ourselves, preaching only on our terms, in our parochial jargon.
When our approaches lose their effectiveness, we need to make changes. We need to adapt to our audiences, tailoring the gospel message to them. We need to preach to everyone. On the other hand, we must also avoid becoming so obsessed with outsiders that we ignore our own flocks. Both are required. Balance is critical.
In short, we need to stick to the first principles, the gospel of the Scriptures, with complete freedom to disagree on other matters.Our preaching needs to be life-changing, both for those we are preaching to and also for us as the preachers. Outsiders should be able to tell the difference between our outlook of hope and the despair of themselves and others. They should witness the changes the gospel makes in our lives and in their own lives. Seeing us living by Christ’s lifestyle of love will command their attention.
On the other hand, we need to avoid pretending to live the Truth within a purely secular lifestyle that is indistinguishable from those around us. People need to be able to see a difference in us. We need to reflect the gospel in our everyday lives. Failure to do so can undermine the gospel message. It can also cause our own members to lose confidence in the gospel. Instead, people need to be able to see our faith in our daily works:
In short, we need to stick to the first principles, the gospel of the Scriptures, with complete freedom to disagree on other matters. Moreover, we must acknowledge it is not the principles as mere abstract propositions that we must accept or reject, but rather it is the truth, the reality, those propositions reveal about the Kingdom of God and the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is God and His son that are imperative, our relationships to them, and how these affect who we are and how we interact with everyone in our lives.
(Austin, Leander, TX)