Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity

A few weeks ago I got a copy of Daniel Im’s new book No Silver Bullets in the mail to read and review.

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I got to know Daniel Im by listening to the New Churches podcast that he was part of along with missiologist Ed Stetzer, and was glad to receive this copy of his book, which I have enjoyed reading. What stands out to me about the book is the focus on not looking for a “fixes” or “gimmicks,” but rather simple strategies for how to better pastor and shepherd people towards Christ.

In one section of the book, he references a research study done by Lifeway Research called the Transformational Discipleship Assessment, which took place between 2007-2011 and studied 2500 Protestants in order to determine which “inputs” tended to lead to the greatest amount of spiritual maturity, progress and growth over time.

“Inputs,” according to this study, were spiritual disciplines that a person can do. The “outputs” were indicators of Christian maturity, namely: Bible engagement, obeying God, denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships and transparency.

Here are the most interesting finds of the survey:

  1. The most important “input” (spiritual discipline) a person can do to have the greatest impact on their life, is reading the Bible.
    This may sound obvious, but you might be surprised to discover how much this is neglected even in many Christian circles. If you want to grow, and if you want to help other people grow, there is no substitute for the Word of God; reading it, studying it, and teaching it.
  2. One input which most powerfully affected people in spiritual growth was confessing sins.
    The Bible encourages us to confess our sins, both to God and to one another.

    If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
    Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
    Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

    In fact, what was most interesting, was that confessing one’s sins was found to positively influence an individual’s proclivity to share Christ with others.

  3. The three most impactful inputs that the study showed helped people to grow in their faith and as disciples were: reading the Bible, regular church attendance and participation in small groups or classes.

Are those things a part of your life?

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 2

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In Part 1 of this post I shared some thoughts on the commonly held belief that religious belief is in decline around the world and eventually doomed for extinction.

Today, we look at three more important factors to keep in mind regarding this topic:

2. Liberal Religion is Declining, but Conservative Religion is on the Rise

I wrote about this phenomena recently here: When You Stand for Nothing…, where I talked about the case of two Presbyterian denominations, one which is theologically liberal and the other which is theologically conservative. The liberal denomination is bleeding out quickly, whereas the conservative one is growing strongly.

It seems that there has been a major miscalculation by many people about the eventual demise of theologically conservative beliefs.

Since many of the historical mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the Episcopal Church in America (TEC) have taken a hard turn towards theological liberalism, they have seen rapid declines in their membership and attendance. And since these denominations compromised a large portion of the population in the United States, their declines have caused many to say that Christianity in the United States is in crisis.

Of the people leaving these denominations, many have transferred into theologically conservative Evangelical Protestant Churches. According to this article from Christianity Today, over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational. Non-denominational Evangelical Protestant Churches now compromises about 30% of all Christian church attendance in the United States.

Around the world, both in Christianity and outside of Christianity, it is the conservative branches of religious movements which are on the rise, not the liberal ones. This is surprising to those like Richard Dawkins, who assume that as the world becomes more educated and developed, religion will either turn into sentimental tradition or just die out completely. Quite the opposite is happening actually.

3. Secularism is Set to Decline in the Future

In an interview with the Christian Post (full article here), author and pastor Timothy Keller said:

“In the past there was hardly anybody who was secular,” Keller told the Christian Post. “In the future there will be significant numbers of people who are secular more than have ever been in history. But, the facts on the ground are that Christianity and Islam in particular are growing faster than the population. And that over the next 25-45 years the number of people who say that they are secular, the percentage of the world’s population that is secular, is actually going down.”

Is Keller correct? According to a Pew Research Center report released in April 2015, he is. That report projected out to 2050, finding that, as the world population changes in the coming decades, the world’s religious profile will also change.

Christianity is poised to remain the largest religion in the world, but Islam is growing quickly, less by conversion than by birth. This relates again to my previous post, in which I pointed out that inherited religion is in decline globally. It would be assumed that this decline will affect the growth of Islam as well.

4. Only a Small Part of the World is Moving Towards Greater Secularism, and They Will Soon be a Minority

What the Pew Research Center report had to say about the “nones”:

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

So, it would seem that secularism is set to decline rather than increase in coming decades.

It is important to remember that the rise of religious beliefs is taking place as education as well as industrial and economic development is taking place. It would seem that as the world is becoming more educated and more developed, people are increasingly aware of their need for God.

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1

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Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.

It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.

Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?

The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.

1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise

This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.

What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.

Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.

This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.

Here’s an excerpt:

[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6Jer. 9:25Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!

Why You Should Make New Year’s Resolutions – and How to Actually Accomplish Them

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I never thought I would be a New Year’s resolution type of person, but over the years I have learned a few things about myself and about New Year’s resolutions that have changed my mind.

Here are some quick statistics for you:
One study shows as few as 8% of people accomplish their resolutions.
However, that same study shows that people who make resolutions are as much as 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t.

People who make resolutions are as much as 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t

In a way, the New Year is a strange holiday. We aren’t celebrating a grand event in the past which changed the course of history, as we do at Easter or Independance Day. We are not celebrating the birth of a great figure as we do at Christmas or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We are not celebrating a class of people as we do on Labor Day, Veterans Day or Mothers Day. All we are really celebrating is that the Earth went all the way around the sun again; which we could theorertically celebrate any day of the year. We have gotten to the end of our calendar, which begins on an arbitrary date.

However, I have come to greatly appreciate this holiday, because it gives us something to measure time by. And albeit slightly contrived, it does give us the sense of a new beginning, a fresh start.

On my desk in my office, I have a book stand, and on that stand is a notepad. For the past 2 years, I have been writing down several goals for the year, ranging from personal goals, to items related to my marriage and family to ministry and prayer topics, which I would like to see come to fruition in that coming year. Then for the rest of the year, I leave that notepad right there, always in constant view, so that I see it every day when I sit down and get to work.

The reason I started doing this was because I read somewhere that goals which get written down are much more likely to be accomplished. I think there’s more that goes into accomplishing goals, but that’s a good start.

Over the past 2 years that I have been doing this, I have been amazed how at the end of the year, almost all of the things which I wrote down have become reality. 2016’s list had about 20 items on it, and at the end of this year, only 2 of them remain unrealized. Those items will be rolled over into 2017’s list, but even those are not to be considered failure, as having them on the list for the past year led to them being topics of prayer that I brought before God almost daily and asked for His will to be done.

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

Why You Should Make New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. If you set a goal and write it down, you are 10x more likely to do it than if you don’t.

  2. If done right, it can guide your prayer life and help you to see and rejoice in God’s faithfulness.

  3. If you set God-honoring goals, planning and working towards them are acts of faith and obedience to God.

    Setting goals which you cannot accomplish on your own keeps you on your knees and dependent on God, pushing forward and asking Him to do great things.

How to Actually Accomplish Your Resolutions:

  • Make Decisions.

Without a strategy, your resolutions will likely only remain a good intention, and we know what those pave the road to… This Forbes article points out that the huge difference between “intentions” and “decisions”: stating that most people don’t follow through on intentions, but they do follow through once they’ve actually made a decision.

This year one of my goals is to run a half-marathon. Rather than just writing it down, I’ve also gone online, picked out the race I want to run, signed up and paid for it, and signed up for a training program. Whatever your goal is, don’t let it remain only a good intention, make a concrete plan for how it is going to become reality.

  • Use Your Calendar.

Time is kind of like money: you’ve only got so much of it, so you’ve got to budget it. Be strategic and schedule things that are important to you into your calendar. If you want to pray and read the Bible more, scedule it into your day. If you want to spend more time with your kids, schedule it into your day. If you want to read or write more, schedule it. You can still be flexible, but at least having it on the calendar will give structure to your days and keep your on track towards your goals.

Want Your Marriage to Succeed? Harvard Study Shows What Can Help

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A recent study by Tyler VanderWeele, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, on the topic of the relationship between religion and health, shows that there is a direct link between church attendance and lower rates of divorce.

The study shows that married couples who regularly attend religious services together are 47% more likely to not get divorced, than couples who don’t go to church.

You can read Tyler’s thesis here.

Want your marriage to succeed? Attend church regularly.

A few months ago I wrote about some of the “bad church statistics” that go around, one of them being that the divorce rate amongst evangelical Christians is just as high as amongst people who are not Christians (roughly 50%). The conclusion that is often drawn based on this incorrect statistic is that being a Christian really makes no practical difference in the way people live. This statistic is, however, incorrect. As this new study out of Harvard shows, the more a couple attends church the less likely they are to see their marriage end in divorce.

Not only is it good for your marriage, but it’s also good for your kids. The more a couple attends church, the more likely their kids are to have faith of their own when they grow up. (Those statistics and more on this topic here)

VanderWeele’s study also linked church attendance to lower rates of depression and suicide.

In an interview with the Christian Post, VanderWeele said,

“Religion is, of course, not principally about promoting physical health or decreasing the likelihood of divorce, but about communion with God. However, it turns out that the pursuit of this goal also has profound implications for numerous other aspects of life, including health and marriage.”

“religion is about both communion with God and the restoration of all people to their intended state of complete wholeness and well-being. The evidence suggests that it can indeed accomplish both,”

“The religious community provides social support, a constant reinforcement and reminder of the religious teachings, family programs, and a communal worship and experience of God.”

On a personal note, I believe in the Church. I believe in it not only for practical reasons, but for theological reasons. Even if I were not a pastor, I would be committed to church; in fact, it was my belief in and commitment to and service in local churches which led me to become a pastor – a path which I had never sought after or imagined for myself.

I believe in the church because I see in the Bible that it is something which was ordained by Jesus, built by Jesus, and commissioned by Jesus, not only to spread the gospel, but also to start more churches!

It isn’t because church “works” that church is true, it is because church is true that it works.

Charitable Giving Habits of Americans

Living abroad for many years, one of the things which I came to realize and be impressed with, is how much American citizens give to charitable causes.

I was living in Hungary when the monster earthquake hit Haiti, and Hungarians were blown away to hear that average people in the United States were giving generously to help provide aid and relief for people they had never met in some faraway country. They were used to governments giving aid to regions with humanitarian crises, but for regular people to do such a thing was surprising to them.

It could be because people in the United States have more expendable income than people in most parts of the world, and that our currency is strong and goes further than other currencies. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is a culture here in the United States of using what we have to do good for other people.

Perhaps it comes from our history: having been a nation of immigrants, whose ancestors moved here to seek a better life or to escape poverty, and so it is built into our collective psyche, to use what we have to help others, knowing that we have experienced divine providential fortune to live in this country.

It also can’t be ignored, that a great number of Americans identify as ‘religious’. Part of the Judeo-Christian ethic is that, like Abraham, if we have been blessed, it is so we might be a blessing to others – that God wants to bless other people through us (Genesis 12:2).

The Sacramento Bee published an article last month, showing the Adjusted Gross Income of every county in the US compared to how much was given in that county to charitable causes, non-profits and churches.

Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it was the poorer counties which gave more per capita than the richer ones. One of the major factors in how much people in a given county gave to charity seems to be religious affiliation; places with more people who attend religious services saw higher rates of charitable giving.

The idea that people who have less tend to give more may not be surprising to everyone. Jesus drew the attention of his disciples to a woman in the temple who gave her last 2 mites – all that she had, whereas other people who had more gave less of what they had. Preachers have long cited statistics which show the same thing: ironically, the more one accrues, the more miserly they tend to become with it.

How about Boulder County, Colorado, where yours truly is located? 2.6% of income was given to charity. That’s pretty low, and pretty ironic, because people in Boulder County, in my experience, talk a lot about being “locally minded and globally conscious” and caring about the well-being of other people, even if most of them are not Christian or attend religious services of any kind.

Neighboring Weld County was not much better at 2.7%, Larimer County came in at 3.2% (there are quite a few more church-going folks up there).

Here is the map with each county’s income versus charitable giving:

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Do you give charitably? The Bible recommends 10% of one’s income. The only places that came close to that number were the heavily Mormon populated counties of Utah.

Where do you direct your giving towards?

 

Church: Love It or Leave It?

I recently read a statistic that 80% of people in the United States believe you can be a good Christian and have no connection with a church community.

That means: follow Christ, know Christ, relate to Christ.

80% of Americans polled said that it is possible to do these things without being related to any church.

Jesus would disagree.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, as Jesus is praying to the Father the night before he is crucified – he looks at his disciples, and he looks forward to the church, which he is going to create by what he’s about to do, and he says:

Father, for their sake I consecrate myself, so that they may be sanctified. (John 17:19)

That word “consecrate” means: “I set myself apart for them!  I am dedicated to them! I live for them!”

Jesus lives for the church. He died for the church. He is wholly committed to the church.

That means that there is never a time when Jesus says to himself, “The church… that little organization I left behind down there… I haven’t thought about them in a while; I wonder how they’re doing… ”  

No! Rather, he lives for the church, he died for the church, and he is wholly committed to the church.

 

The church is God’s masterpiece, which he gave his life to create – and which he promised to protect forever, never allowing it to be overcome by evil.

In Ephesians chapter 1, it says that Jesus rules all things for the church.

The church is God’s expression of Himself in the world.

The church is God’s chosen and designed vehicle for the carrying out of his mission in the world.

In the Book of Acts, we see God bringing the church into existence, then adding to the church, then multiplying the church – and then sending out missionaries to start more churches.

In the Book of Revelation, where do we see Jesus? He is walking amongst the lampstands, which represent the churches.

God loves the church! It is his masterpiece. Jesus lived and died to create it, and he actively sustains it. He is fully committed to it – and you should be too.

And not just in the sense of the invisible worldwide communion of all who follow Christ – but the local church in particular. It’s easy to say, “Oh, of course I love “the church” in the sense of all the followers of Jesus out there – you know, as long as I don’t have to actually see them or interact with them or have any responsibility towards them…”

The idea that Christianity is a purely private, personal matter and that the church is optional and unnecessary – or even as the leader of a parachurch organization put it to me once: a “necessary evil” – is the product of our individualistic culture rather than the heart of God.

It has been said that the church is like a work of art, a masterpiece which mediocre and even bad artists have been painting over for centuries.

This happens sometimes: a great artist created a masterpiece, but over the years other artists – mediocre or even bad artists – tried to touch it up, and they painted over the top of it, and the challenge is to get underneath, back to the original masterpiece. That requires slow, hard work of scraping away and removing layers.

There is much about the church which turns people off, but there is no way you can say, like 80% of Americans that you can be a good Christian and write off the church and have no commitment to it.

The answer is not to write it off or dismiss it, but to return to the original masterpiece.

If Jesus loves the church, if Jesus is committed to it and lives for it and gave his life for it – then to love Jesus and follow Jesus means to love his church and be committed to it as well.

 

About Those Muslims…

I ran across this factoid in my reading today:

In my experience working with muslim refugees from places like Iran, Afghanistan and Kosovo, I found that many people born and raised in muslim families in majority muslim countries are open to hearing and considering the Gospel – sometimes more open than people in “Christian” Europe and North America.

Many people born and raised in Islam know very little about what the Koran teaches, and for them being muslim is more about cultural identity than theological conviction.

Consider this: the majority of muslims in the world do not speak Arabic, yet the Koran is to be read only in its “pure” form: in Arabic. What this means is that the majority of muslims have not read the Koran for themselves. The largest muslim majority country in the world by population is not even in the Middle East: it is Indonesia, and in Indonesia Christianity is legal, there is a sizable Christian population and there is opportunity for muslim people to hear the Gospel.

Did you know that Christianity is the most culturally and racially diverse religion in the world – by far?!  Every other major faith has 80% or more of its adherents on 1 or 2 continents, but roughly 20% of Christians are in Africa, 20% are in South America, a little less than 20% are in Asia, a little more than 20% are in Europe and North America each.  No other religion even comes close to the ethnic and cultural diversity of Christianity.

One of the differences between Christianity and Islam is that whereas Christianity affirms other cultures and languages, Islam does not. Wherever Islam has spread it imposes a foreign (Arabic) language and culture, including dress, art, music and other forms of expression upon its adherents. Christianity does not; rather Christianity liberates the African to be fully African and the European to be fully European in regard to language, dress, art, music and other forms of cultural expression. Considering the fact that the majority of muslims live outside of the Arabian Peninsula, this is a particularly compelling aspect of Christianity compared to Islam, which has imposed Arabic culture upon people at the cost of suppressing their African, Persian, Indian, etc. forms of cultural expression. For the Arab, while Islam does represent a distinctly Arab cultural expression, the fact remains that for 600 years a strong and healthy, culturally-Arab Christian community thrived in the Middle East, the remnants of which still remain – although they are currently endangered – in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Christians, we have been given a mission which is greater than protecting and preserving our comforts. We have been given a mission to “preach the Gospel to all creatures” and to “make disciples of all nations”.  This includes the 1.6 billion people on around the world who self-identity as muslim. We live in unprecedented times, in which more people raised muslim have come to faith in Jesus Christ in the last 20 years than in the previous 1400 combined. May God do an even greater work in the years to come, and may we share His heart for all people.

Bad Church Statistics

I ran across this article this week about Bad Church Statistics and the lies that are commonly believed as a result. I’ve copied the 7 myths part below, which is the core of the article.

I don’t know about you, but I have heard almost all of these before. I guess the sky isn’t falling quite as bad as we’ve been told it is. But, as Winston Churchill said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Myth #1. The divorce rate among Christians is as high as that of nonbelievers.

Reality: Christians have significantly lower divorce rates than the religiously unaffiliated. Further, the more regularly a Christian attends church, the less likely that person is to divorce.

Myth #2. Christian young people are leaving the Christian faith in record numbers.

Reality: It’s true that younger people are less affiliated with church than older people, but that’s the case in every generation since scholars began tracking it. We always need to help the next generation connect with church, but the overall percentage of Americans who affiliate with evangelical churches has remained rather stable for the last 30 years.

Myth #3. The majority of American evangelicals are poor and uneducated.

Reality: This quote from the Washington Post has some truth to it. The problematic term is “the majority of” which should be replaced with “many.” On average, evangelical Christians are less well educated than mainline Protestants, Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated. But evangelicals cover a wide spectrum from poorly educated to highly educated. Themajority, however, are not poor and uneducated.

Myth #4. The prayer life of American evangelicals is diminishing.

Reality: It turns out that evangelical prayer is on the increase. For example, 75% of evangelicals today pray on a daily basis, compared to 64% of those in the 1980s.

Myth #5. Evangelicals are less active in sharing their faith with others.

Reality: About half of all evangelicals report sharing their faith with non-believers, and rates of evangelism have held rather steady over the past several decades. This evangelism rate is more than double the rate of mainline Protestants and Catholics, and is higher than most other religions. We all have family and friends who seek a closer relationship with God, plus we know of entire people groups that have little exposure to the Gospel, so let’s keep ramping up our efforts.

Myth #6. Evangelicals preach one thing about sex outside marriage, but practice another.

Reality: Actually, evangelicals have relatively low rates of adultery, premarital sex and pornography usage, and these decrease with more frequent church attendance.

Myth #7. The more educated you become, the more likely you are to give up your faith.

Reality: Belief and practice grow stronger with increased education, evangelicals included.