Sunday, December 21, 2014

Perpetual Milk for the Perpetually Immature: And the Pastors that Accommodate Them

American Christianity suffers incredibly from the disease of intellectual weakness. Mark A. Knoll writes, “Taken together, American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well, but built-in barriers to productive thinking remain substantial.”[1] Ever since I can remember, I have heard more than one pastor caution about trying to present issues, doctrines, or concepts that are far too meaty for their community, and that we must first give people the milk before we put them on the meat. Some of these pastors have been pastoring those churches for 5, 10, and even 30 years. And they are still worried about asking their congregants to use their mind a little more than they have in the past. I think I understand why this is the case, but we will come back to that toward my summary.
One has to look no further than the lack of interest in or commitment to the deliberate training of young men for future ministry. We put our money into missions, into evangelism, into social programs and such that produce immediate feel-good results. But we seem to shy away from anything that might require a little effort, some patience, or a little hard work. Has the church become a mirror of the intellectual sloth we see in the culture? Sadly, I think she has. More often than not, the local Christian community is little more than a mirror of the culture in which it finds itself, priorities, values, and all.
What about this complaint that we have to give people milk? Is this a legitimate concern? Do we try to take people too deep when we make an effort to help them understand something about how divine revelation serves as the basis for Christian truth? Is it so difficult to look up metaphysics or epistemology in a dictionary or encyclopedia? Is it just too hard to follow when an alternative view is presented so that we can understand what is wrong with it? I don’t think so and I don’t think Scripture would support taking such a shallow and intellectually lazy approach to discipleship either. Whatever happened to new believer classes? Should we consider a program that separates those who have been around for a while from those who have not so that both groups receive the appropriate training and education? I think that only makes sense. But what about those who have been in Christ for 10-20-30 years and who are obviously capable of understanding but still require milk? What I think is that they need a swift kick in the pants. What about them? Honestly, they are not on my list of concerns. If someone has been around for 20 years and they still know more about the current television programs and fantasy football and politics than they do about Scripture, I must confess I have little hope that they will ever care about equipping themselves for Christ. They will give an account to God for they’re laziness, not that they care about that at all because if they did, I suspect they would have already done something about it.
Christian leaders, beginning with pastors, have to stop worrying about numbers and attendance and finances and begin to focus on the things that Scripture commands them to focus on. Every church should have a 1:1 discipleship program and every believer, especially new believer should have a spiritual mentor that they meet with and talk to regularly. This should not be a group meeting and it most definitely should be more than a check-the-box coffee meeting. Moreover, someone should be actively managing that program, providing oversight to the mentors so that they appreciate the work they are doing. On the one hand you do not want to overload your mentors while at the same time you do want to be in regular communication with them. They should each be assigned an elder to work with. Finally, there should be some separate class in the church specifically geared toward those who are less than one year in the way. This class should be designed to cover the basics of Christian teaching and praxis. The discipleship relationship covers both of these as well but emphasizes praxis while the new believer class emphasizes doctrine.
The question I have is why is this type of structure absent from just about every church in existence? Instead, we offer a variety of classes and leave it to the new believer to pick one just like they would at the shopping mall. We also leave it to the new believer and other mature believers to pursue discipleship relationships. The structure is not just loose; it is non-existent. The Church needs to focus on those who are new believers, say less than a year and those who are beyond that and should be progressing in the faith. But the sad truth is that we have believers that have been in the church 30 years who cannot even articulate the gospel. Most of them could not utter a single word about the history of the bible. Very few could have an informed conversation around the importance of believing that the Bible is the self-attesting sole authority of the Christian faith. This is not just pitiful, not just embarrassing, it is scandalous. To the pastor who tolerates such lethargy in his congregation, and in his leadership, I want to ask what right do you have to take the souls of other men under your care? I acknowledge this is strong language, but isn’t that part of the problem. We don’t use strong enough language to counteract apathy in places where apathy has no business existing. Persistent immaturity in the Christian community can be pinned mostly on the leadership. Now, I will admit that the community will shrink when spiritual growth is expected because such expectations will weed out false converts. But isn’t that the point?
Paul grumbles to the Corinthians that he was not able to speak to them as to men, mature in the faith, but rather he had to speak to them as if they were infants. Paul founded the church at Corinth sometime around 50 and left the work there sometime around the spring of 51. He wrote this letter to the Corinthians in 55. This was a church plant in 50 and Paul expected her to be mature within 5 years. One should keep in mind that these folks had nowhere near the resources that modern Christians have. Yet Paul was very stern in his rebuke of the immature congregation. The writer to the Hebrews issues his audience virtually the very same rebuke. His opinion was that this community should have been teachers by now but they were still on the elementary things.
There is a need for milk to be a regular component within the community insofar as there are new believers regularly being added to the community. I would never argue otherwise. However, leadership has to take the command to disciple and care for those over whom God has made them overseer far more seriously. Saying you take it seriously pastor does not make it so. What we need to see are the signs or the evidence that pastors and leaders are taking serious the issue of spiritual growth in the congregation. It begins with discipleship and a focused, structured platform that provides for the training of all Christians and also incorporates the kind of accountability, respect, and appreciation it deserves.
What is the real problem? Is it the difficulty or the abstract nature of the doctrine or subject we are talking about or is it something else? For some reason, Christians appear to think that Bible study should be easy. Americans spend just under three hours a day watching TV. That is approximately 20 hours of TV per week. Look at it this way: Americans spend 20% of their waking life watching TV. If you live to be 80 years old, that means you will spend approximately 10 years watching TV. Now, I don’t have anything against watching TV. I watch my share. But I do have an issue with biblically inept people watching 20 hours of TV per week and then complaining that the lesson was over their head.
I don't believe this problem is a simple one even if it appears I am being overly simplistic about it. Part of the issue is spiritual leaders who are without much conviction or courage in how they lead their people. A leader without conviction is a leader without courage. He will not take the stand and exhibit the passion necessary to stimulate or inspire or confront his people to make the personal sacrifices necessary to know God by spending the time and energy required to understand the Bible. He is worried that people may leave if his church is that kind of church. Another problem is the amount of trash-talk that has been involved in the need to know abstract things like doctrine or perhaps apologetics. Doctrine has been belittled and attacked for a few decades now and that attack has done its work. We have a lot of ignorant people in the church where the Bible is concerned. They know and understand very little of its content and nearly nothing about its nature and history. Another major contributor to this problem is the need for immediate gratification. People view the weekly church service as something that is supposed to give them an emotional reboot, to make them feel good, to inspire them to have a good week, kind of like a pick-me-up sort of gathering. In essence, American Christians see the weekly service as revolving around them and their “felt needs.” To them, being a better employee, getting promoted, being a better parent, a better person, succeeding on and off the job are all things involved in being a better Christian. There is no connection between the purifying and heart-cleansing word of truth and spiritual growth.
The only way that the issue of spiritual immaturity and the problem of biblical knowledge can be addressed is if the leaders actually believe it is important. And you will see when leadership thinks this is important by the steps they take to address it. Preaching a sermon where it is mentioned once in a while is not an indication that the pastor or leadership thinks it is important. What must happen requires a degree of deliberateness and focus. It isn’t a bible study that will solve this. It has to do with the very structure and fiber of the church. It touches everything from sermons to Sunday school to the very structure and organization of that body. Spiritual lethargy is not difficult to spot if one is looking for it. There is no real discipleship program; No new believers class; No focus on spiritual growth and true personal accountability. There is no outreach either locally or globally. Missions is never or rarely a topic that is broached. Evangelism simply is ignored. There is very little true community. And apologetics is so foreign to such environments it is hardly worth mentioning. Nevertheless, all these things are supposed to be the dynamic fruit of every congregation. The members of the church are unengaged with the culture from a Christian perspective. They may be able to tell what President Obama is doing but could not provide hardly one story about something going on someplace in Christendom.
The Christian is commanded to have a superior mind and not to be conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2). Paul commands the Corinthians to become sober-minded, and stop sinning. He then charges some of them with no knowledge of God and says that he speaks this to their shame (1 Cor. 15:34). Shame was something to be avoided just about more than any other single thing in that culture. The command to come out of their drunken stupor and to stop sinning caps his argument in this unit. The stupor would refer to a benighted worldliness and a lack of spiritual awareness. Philo (Drunk. 38 §154) defines drunkenness in the soul as “ignorance of things of which we should naturally have acquired knowledge.”[2]

What we call “people needing milk” Paul calls a drunken stupor and shameful. Ignorance of God will naturally lead to immoral living. In this case, patience is not a virtue; it is a scandal of apathy and in many cases a lack of courage.




[1] Mark A. Knoll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.
[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 722.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Arminianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Pelagianism

Critical Distinctions     I have recently been invited to debate the question, “Is Arminianism Heresy?” In speaking with others abou...