Saturday, February 23, 2013

By Faith: The Limits of Christian Apologetics

... for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Except ... well, frankly, I'd really rather walk by sight.  Sorry ... but I'm just keepin' it real, y'know?

In 1972, Josh McDowell published his landmark apologetic, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  In the 4 decades since, the book has been repeatedly revised, republished, amended, appended, attacked and defended.  McDowell's method emphasizes archaeological and documentary proof of the Bible's historical accuracy, which is important and abundant.  It is not--indeed, no amount of evidence can ever be--dispositive.  In other words, we will NEVER prove our case, even to our own satisfaction, by any apologetic method. Period.

Let me explain it another way.  I have often thought how much easier it would be to believe God--and conclusively prove His truths to others--if I could see one really impressive, knock-your-socks-off miracle.  I don't know, maybe something like this:
Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. (Exodus 7:20)
Yes, that would do it!  Just one like that and my testimony would be set for life!  Of course, apparently neither that, nor plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, death of the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, or the death of the firstborn served to get through to Pharaoh.  But his was a special case, yes?  After all, He was raised up for that very purpose!

Now the people of Israel--God's chosen people--they had all that and more!  Where shall I start?  Pillars of fire and cloud.  Red Sea, parted.  Pharaoh's army, swamped.  Manna from Heaven.  Water from rocks.  Fireworks at Mount Sinai.  Shall I go on?  If ever there was a people with an abundance of proof of Yahweh's supremacy, this was the generation.  No need to check the documents or dig for clues.  They were set for life!

Er, except how'd that work out exactly?
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:16-19)
The fact is simply this:  sight cannot replace faith.  At most, it purchases a temporary enthusiasm, as it did when Christ walked the earth and performed many miracles to the delight of crowds.  Yet these same crowds abruptly rejected, deserted, and called for the execution of the miracle-worker.  Like tepid fans turning on a losing team, they jumped off the bandwagon as soon as things got tough.

Don't get me wrong--I believe there is abundant evidence that testifies to the truth of Scripture.  I believe our faith is solidly substantiated and extremely reasonable!  Moreover, the Scripture makes clear that we need to stand ready to contend intelligently and persuasively for our faith. In other words, Christian apologetics is an important and necessary endeavor, because it demonstrates that our faith is firmly rooted in objective reality, not a blind leap into some fantastic alternate universe.

But apologetics cannot resolve doubt and unbelief.  These are ultimately spiritual maladies that can't be cured with applications of more and better evidence.  My testimony would certainly be more spectacular if I could engage in a little water-walking or produce never-before-seen video of Jesus' resurrection, but that does not mean it would ultimately be more effective.  Once again, there is no amount of sight that can penetrate the hardness of men's hearts.  Only the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit is sufficient for that!

So by all means, contend intelligently for the faith!  Engage the minds of men by testifying to the weight of the evidence and the reasonableness of Scriptural truth.  Just remember, we will never successfully debate the world into the Kingdom of God, nor will we ever finally resolve our own nagging doubts by mastering the apologia.  The wisdom of God will ever be foolishness to the carnal mind, for faith does not come by sight. It comes by the life-giving power of God's Spirit!
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Youth Ministry FAIL: The Church's 70% Dropout Rate

Happy, well adjusted ...
and out of the church within 5 years
How's your church's youth ministry going?  Before you answer that question, look beyond the crowded Wednesday night gathering with its rockin' Praise Band and the hip youth pastor who can "get real" with the kids.  Instead, look at the post-high-school dropout rate.  Where are those kids 5 years after graduation?

Statistics say 70% of them will have left the church.  Seventy percent. 

That's a very big number, and is going to include a lot of "great kids" who seem to be "on fire" during their teen years.  That also means the church is badly failing to equip our kids.  We've traded in disciple-making for the long term in favor of the short-term satisfaction of seeing happy kids in church.

If you haven't been there already, get over to Marc5Solas and absorb his observations on what is happening to our kids after they leave the church.  It's well worth reading in full, but I'll give you the condensed version here.

In short, we're working so hard to get our kids to emote for Jesus, that we're sending them out without even a rudimentary understanding of why they should.  We want so badly for them to see our Christianity as accepted and cool, that they trade in our phony hipness for the world's better product.  In other words, we're not teaching them Scripture.  We're targeting them with relevant-sounding messages by relevant-looking people and begging them to feel good about being Christians.  This is utterly inadequate, and a very thin reed on which to build authentic faith over the long term.

Now, the job isn't easy.  The American family--both inside and outside of the church--is a shattered mess.  I'd venture to say that most parents aren't looking for the kids they drop off at Youth Group to receive Biblical instruction.  To the extent they know what they want, they're looking for someone to entertain them in a safe, healthy, and positive environment ... or they want someone to fix them so they can survive high school without permanent damage.  They get little spiritual reinforcement at home.  Frankly, many of them are practically orphans ... at least spiritually.  So the church has a tall order to meet the need that presents itself.

But therein lies the temptation. There are lots of safe, healthy and positive environments.  Scouting, Boys & Girls Clubs, sports, after-school programs ... if the church is trying to compete with these we have already lost our way, because our mission and our message are utterly different from theirs.  Let them specialize in practical life skills for this world.  We preach Christ and Him crucified for eternity!  Or we're supposed to ...

It's great to focus on community, but community for what purpose?  Lots of organizations offer community.  As Francis Chan once said, "This is why I didn't believe in 'fellowship' before, because I didn't need any more 'friends'." Yet that is precisely what many of our youth programs most specialize in delivering--happy, well-adjusted kids in church.

Read Marc's crushing conclusion.  We've passed down a "faith" they simply don't need:
Our kids are smart. They picked up on the message we unwittingly taught. If church is simply a place to learn life-application principals to achieve a better life in community … you don’t need a crucified Jesus for that. Why would they get up early on a Sunday and watch a cheap knockoff of the entertainment venue they went to the night before? The middle-aged pastor trying desperately to be “relevant” to them would be a comical cliché if the effect weren’t so devastating. As we jettisoned the gospel, our students are never hit with the full impact of the law, their sin before God, and their desperate need for the atoning work of Christ. Now THAT is relevant, THAT is authentic, and THAT is something the world cannot offer.

We’ve traded a historic, objective, faithful gospel based on God’s graciousness toward us for a modern, subjective, pragmatic gospel based upon achieving our goal by following life strategies. Rather than being faithful to the foolish simplicity of the gospel of the cross we’ve set our goal on being “successful” in growing crowds with this gospel of glory. This new gospel saves no one. Our kids can check all of these boxes with any manner of self-help, life-coach, or simply self-designed spiritualism … and they can do it more pragmatically successfully, and in more relevant community. They leave because given the choice, with the very message we’ve taught them, it’s the smarter choice.

Our kids leave because we have failed to deliver to them the faith “delivered once for all” to the church. I wish it wasn’t a given, but when I present law and gospel to these kids, the response is the same every time: “I’ve never heard that.” I’m not against entertaining our youth, or even jumbotrons, or pizza parties (though I probably am against middle aged guys trying to wear skinny jeans to be “relevant).. it’s just that the one thing, the MAIN thing we’ve been tasked with? We’re failing. We’ve failed God and we’ve failed our kids. Don’t let another kid walk out the door without being confronted with the full weight of the law, and the full freedom in the gospel.
"This new gospel saves no one."  Well, at least 30% stick around to see what happens next.