Author: David McMurtry

Fixing the Church’s Marketing Problem: Will the Real God Please Stand Up?

Just how big is God, anyway?

 At this weekend’s NBA all-star game, some of the best players on earth will assemble to put their talents on display.  The game of basketball has certainly come a long way from the day James Naismith first nailed a peach basket to a wall in Springfield, Massachusetts 125 years ago.  Imagine the difference in the way it was played back then with the way it is played today.  

 What caused this rapid development of skill and talent?  Passionate people building upon what was learned by others.

 Twelve years after the peach basket was put up, two bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio taught the world to fly.  The discipline of aviation started primitively, by flying only a few feet.  Mankind took what was learned from that first flight and, over the next 113 years, has landed on the moon, built a space station and daily transports tens of thousands of people from one end of the world to the other. 

What caused this rapid development of aviation?  Passionate people building upon what was learned by others.

 Ironically, the church has not done that with the teachings of the man from Galilee, even though it has had nearly two thousand years to figure it out.  I think it is safe to say that if the church had been in charge of basketball’s development, its players would still be trying to get a ball into a peach basket.

The church seems to struggle getting past “because we’ve always done it that way”.  Basically, that is why we have a marketing problem for reaching this generation of young people.

As Christians, we have the greatest product on earth, which can transform lives and give hope to every person on earth.  Properly implemented, it could end child hunger around the world.  Actively engaged, it could end domestic violence and child abuse. 

But instead of building upon the things learned in the past, the church keeps recalibrating itself backwards, limiting its integration into each subsequent generation.  So for the church to flourish in the 21st century with its young people leading it instead of leaving it, the church must change its marketing campaign.

This is how the church currently markets itself to its young people:

1.        Numerous rituals

2.       Tells them of future events that aren’t likely to happen in their lives for the next 75-80 years

3.       It can’t fully explain most of the things it teaches in this Internet age

4.       It’s about things you have to do, instead of things you get to do

 The church is trying to market itself to the world with a 2,000-3,000 year-old portrait of God, which was drawn against the backdrop of superstition, mythology, and ignorance.  It should instead be showcasing God’s available power for the current world they live.  Right marketing campaign; wrong time.

 It may have been the best portrayal of God those inspired writers could muster in their effort to inspire and motivate their audiences toward a likeness of Him, but, viewed through the prism of modern day discoveries and scrutiny, much of what we read in the Bible can’t hold water in this Internet age.   

 Nor was it intended to.  It’s the difference between trying to appeal to tens of thousands of people back then and trying to appeal to billions of people today.

 Here are some illustrations that highlight biblical inconsistencies:

 1.       When the Israelites left Egypt, God thought they might turn back if He led them directly into Canaan, and had to fight against a strong Philistine army.  God didn’t know if they would or wouldn’t?  God was not omniscient?

2.       In the story of Abraham being instructed to sacrifice his son Isaac, God ultimately stopped Abraham because then God knew of Abraham’s faith.  He did not know?  God was not omniscient?

3.       Several times when the Israelites messed up in the wilderness, God would become angry when he saw their behavior.  So God didn’t know beforehand?  God was not omniscient?

4.       Throughout Scripture God is given human attributes, as if He is a man in the sky.  The problem is that does not allow God to be at other places at the same time.  When God was over Jerusalem, was He also over Tokyo? Australia?  Personification is a great teaching tool for novice minds (like Saturday morning cartoons) which is why God metaphorically sitting on a throne like a person might was used so to help the Israelites get their arms around God.

5.        Solomon wrote that nothing happens to a person after they die.  No heaven?  No hell?

6.       Solomon also said that man cannot comprehend what goes on under the sun, which was true three thousand years ago, even for the wisest man on earth.  But now any fifth grader can unravel many of the biological complexities of mankind as part of their educational process.

7.       In the ten commandments, Moses noted that there should be no other gods before God while Matthew wrote that God is God Most High.  So there actually are other gods?  In Greek mythology, the higher the altitude, the more powerful the god. It’s not “God Most High”; it’s just “God”.  Matthew was just parroting his religious training.

 The inspired writings were supposed to create a rocket launch, with each subsequent generation building upon what its charter members created.   Instead, the church chained those teachings to the first century, not allowing them to be built upon, threatening doom and gloom for anyone who thought outside the box.

Statistics show that thousands of people leave the church every day.  To turn that around, the church needs to re-market, re-brand, and re-package God so that His full available power for their lives can be seen.  

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Consider this: there are over three-quarters of a million words in the Bible, written by forty or so inspired men over a thirteen-hundred-year span, but here’s the reality:  you could take the worst photograph the Hubble telescope has ever taken of the farthest reaches of the universe, and it does a far better job of describing the essence and dimension of God to this generation than all of the words of the Bible, combined.

 Imagine how differently the Bible might have been written had Luke, the doctor, seen a heart transplant surgery, or sat in a neuroscience class to understand how the mind works, or had a better working knowledge of the causes of diseases or temptation. 

 Imagine how differently Paul’s tone might have been in his letters had he spent a week up in the space station or had even known that Jesus would not return for at least the next two thousand years.

In effect, the God described in the Bible thousands of years ago, in the eyes of many in this generation, does not exist.

The reality is that He is bigger.  Way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way bigger.

Bigger than anything Moses could have possibly understood; more powerful than David ever dreamed about.  And the way Paul tried to explain God, when compared to God’s actual Presence, is like comparing a firecracker to an atomic bomb.

 For this God we serve is not a person up in the sky, but rather is a tower of strength that occupies every inch for trillions of light years in all directions, like a blanket.  God is a reservoir of spirit large enough to fill everyone on earth with His power, with plenty to spare, to help alter the course of history.  And, if you want to know where to send your prayers, just look in the mirror, because God lives in you.  Rituals won’t help young people understand that.  

 The best way to look at Christianity, and its available spiritual firepower, is to think of it like training for a triathlon.  Always thinking of ways of becoming stronger and staying away from things that are counter-productive to the goal.  Then it wouldn’t be necessary to parse words in the Bible to allow people to eat what they want, drink what they want, and look and act as closely like the world as possible, but still sneak into heaven.

 While there may be five or six growth metrics toward becoming a triathlete, there are 20-25 growth metrics for growing spiritually.  For example, having the same patience, mood, and focus with only two hours of sleep as you would with eight hours of sleep is a derivative of spiritual growth.  

Why do you think Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry? Spiritual boot camp, to spiritually prepare for anything thrown at him for the next three years.  For us, that is the role of the church.

 You will reach this generation of kids once you allow them to test drive God’s available horsepower based on the octane of their own faith, and on their own terms.  From there, the sky’s the limit.

Selling the Gospel in the 21st Century

As anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or transform their life in a meaningful way already knows, there is no lack of books, programs or equipment on the market to help make that a reality. That doesn’t mean it will ever happen, because there is no book, program or equipment by itself that can overcome the biological realities that caused the problem in the first place.

 

The products that draw the most attention, as well as the most credit card numbers, are the ones with the most dramatic “before” and “after” pictures of what is supposed to be the result of buying their particular product. Regardless of the accuracy of the claims, pictures that show a dramatic transformation in a person’s life will make other people want to try it for themselves, hoping against hope, that it might do the same for them. That is because evidence creates hope; evidence creates faith.  It doesn’t matter whether the product is a weight loss program, basketball shoes, a new car, or even the gospel: evidence sells.

 

Selling is an art; selling is a science. Most of all, selling involves the relationship between two people, whether in a crowd or in a one-on-one conversation. Even an on-line sale, where one computer talks to another computer, actually involves someone on one end trying to determine what might prompt someone on the other end to buy what they are selling.

 

Selling is the ability to influence, to encourage, to convince, and/or to motivate someone to change their “before” to the “after” they believe would improve their jobs or their lives. For those of us whose livelihood depends on our ability to create that reality, we know there is a fine line between making a presentation and making a sale. While the average success rate for a salesman may be 3-5%, the success rate for the best salesmen in any particular industry or endeavor, is astronomical by comparison.

 

That defines the difference between selling with a passion and a purpose, and selling for a pay check. It also defines the difference between proclaiming the gospel, and actually selling it to those who need it most. I would put the inspired writers of Scripture into that category of salesmen: selling with a passion and a purpose.

 

In the church, we are having a massive sales problem, evidenced by the exodus of young people currently running away from the greatest “product” on earth. It’s not that they are necessarily running away from the timeless teachings of Jesus, which should be easier to sell than those giving away the Publishers Clearinghouse ten million dollar prize. They are running away from the way we have packaged these teachings, making them so unattractive by the numerous religious restrictions we have encased them with.

 

Trying to sell the gospel with theological barnacles attached to it is like watching Secretariat trying to run a race with a wagon hitched behind him. That is why millennials are now returning the product back to the store of their youth that tried to sell it to them, without allowing them to take it for a test drive for themselves. If we would just demonstrate for them how to get the most out of Jesus’ teachings to transform their lives, there would be nothing to run away from. This is not a product problem; it’s a sales problem.

There have been several books, articles and blogs written by the top salesmen on earth, sharing advice about how they achieved their success. And although they probably didn’t know it, almost every bit of advice they offer was first used by Jesus to connect with the people who followed him. These include:

 

  1. Relationship building- all sales is personal. Learn what motivates them. Learn what their hopes, dreams and fears are and connect the aspect of your product that best addresses their needs. That is what Jesus did. It is very possible that Jesus did not actually need a miracle to know everything about the woman at the well; maybe just the power of observation.
  2. Learn your product- know your product backwards, forwards and upside down. That doesn’t mean we should beat people over the head with our Bibles. In fact, just the opposite. Just as you wouldn’t want a car salesman to have to pull out a brochure to answer your questions, don’t throw a bunch of Bible verses at people who would be turned off by them. Just be prepared to answer any question thrown at you in terms they can understand. I may have memorized several books of the Bible but I can’t imagine any situation where I would ever quote a passage as part of the selling process.
  3. Live Your Product- there is no better sales pitch for the gospel than a life fully committed to living it.
  4. Sell what they will buy- there are 15-20 distinct aspects of Jesus’ teachings that can have a transformative effect on a person’s life. Through your relationship building, present the one they think they need, not the one you think they need. A person might go to a dealership and buy a car with great gas mileage, but later find out about the incredible sound system or comfort of the ride. Don’t try to throw the whole gospel at them; just the portion they think they need. It’s okay if they later find out about a dessert called heaven.
  5. Attention to Detail- nothing connects people more than an unfailing attention to detail. Remembering the names of children, schools, grandchildren, anniversary dates, etc. is a telling sign that you really do care about more than just making a sale. People sell to people, and there is no better advertisement for the teachings of Jesus than how it affects us.

 

It turns people off when we try to tell people what we think they should believe. Just tell them what you believe and why you believe it and let the evidence of your life be the advertisement for its effectiveness. That is the most effective way to sell the gospel to the world in the 21st century.

 

It may go against the grain for how the gospel has been presented over the centuries but there has never been a time in history where literacy has been so pervasive, that people can read it for themselves. Rather than proclaim it, explain it, and let the chips fall where they may.

 

Let’s become the most effective sales staff the gospel has ever had. And let’s demonstrate the power of God in our lives so that millennials will want to be a part of whatever is causing it. Let’s be the “after” picture that helps make the sale.

 

(By the way, the apostle Paul may have made tents, but somebody had to sell them)

Moving Women from the Back of the Church Bus

You’ve certainly come a long way, baby!

 

Finally unchained from the bonds of servitude their lack of a Y chromosome imposed on them throughout history, women now have unlimited possibilities in front of them. It’s not that they somehow discovered their Y chromosome, which magically leveled the playing field; in fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. Companies are beginning to realize that the attributes of nurturing and listening, which appears more naturally in women than in men, are far more effective business tools in this ever-changing business environment than the good-ole-boy network could ever accomplish. That is why women are becoming a greater presence in the corporate landscape. Although the glass ceiling which separates them from their male counterparts in the workplace still exists, it continues to shrink as more and more successful women weaken its framework.

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With more frequency, they are becoming presidents and CEOs of companies, architects, inventors, Secretaries of State, and members of Congress. They are pilots and astronauts, bankers and engineers, even while raising their families and caring for their parents. It’s not that they couldn’t have performed these duties long ago, had they the education and training as the foundation for such work; it’s just that they were never allowed the freedom to see how high they could soar while chained to the ancient cultures men created. That is why Solomon’s description of the virtuous woman would probably include far more multi-tasking had he written it today.

 

For thousands of years, testosterone-laden armies set out to enlarge their borders by conquering weaker neighbors, with gold and silver, women and children taken as the spoils of war. As the physically weaker sex, women were at the mercy of the consciences of those in control regarding their safety and well-being, as their ability to bear children became their greatest asset toward survival in a semi-civilized world. The story of Ruth, a Moabite, and Boaz follows these realities and emotions as Ruth seeks to have Boaz marry her and become her kinsman-redeemer, which, for a foreign woman in a strange land, was like hitting the lottery. That is how Ruth became King David’s great-grandmother, and the rest is history.

 

In Bible times, few women were educated and since they were physically weaker than men, their help and support was needed in a man’s world. That is not debatable. What is debatable is how women should be treated in the church today, in a world where those metrics no longer apply. The reality is that at no time in history have women been as educated as they are now, perhaps even more so than men are.

 

For the most part, in the church today, women are treated as second class citizens, metaphorically relegated to the back of the church bus, not because they read their Bibles and determined that is where they needed to sit. Rather, centuries ago, at a time when they could not read it for themselves, women were told that was the place they needed to be, to follow the apostles’ instructions. Who told them this was the case? You guessed it: men, who interpreted Scriptures to say that their wives needed to be submissive to them.

 

The reason that is still the case today is not because a complete study of the Bible would yield the same interpretation. In fact, it would not. The reason is because, even in this Internet age where knowledge flows from all available angles, the church does not allow its ancient teachings and interpretations to be challenged. If it did, young people and millennials would not be heading for the exits. If there is one organization on earth that is on the cutting edge for fostering the unity of the spiritual gifts of men and women, it should be the church. That is not the case.

 

Imagine that a fourteen year old girl in your congregation has done what you hoped she would: read the Bible through, from cover to cover. And from this analysis, she determined that men and women are equal in all things in the church, including teaching, preaching and leadership. How would your church handle that? Would they have her parents try to do a better job of indoctrinating her, hoping this time it sticks?

 

While doing research for “Heaven’s Gold”, I interviewed dozens of young ladies who had permanently left the church. In seeking reasons for leaving, to a person, they all said the primary reason they left was because of the way the church treated them. Let’s face it, having one half of an organization be submissive to the other half, is not a good sales plan. Ultimately, it was not Jesus’ message driving them away; rather, it was the way that message was being taught, filtered through centuries of testosterone.

 

The most important aspect of any consideration of Scripture is context. Context, context, context. Consideration of any letter in the compilation of inspired writings we call the Bible, should always begin with the following: why did he write it? From where did he write it? Where was he writing it to? Who was he writing it to? What were the cultural realities? Was he trying to fix something? Was he successful?

 

Concerning the roles of men and women today, these questions come to mind from ancient cultures: were the wives educated? Could they read and write? How old were they? Did they choose their husbands or were they chosen for them? Were they property of their fathers and then their husbands? What rights did they have?
These seem to be the relevant points that arise from that contextual consideration about the roles of men and women in the church, then and now:

 

  1. Nowhere in Scripture does Paul tell women to love their husbands. Although he continually tells men to love their wives, he tells wives to respect their husbands. Respect their husbands? Why is that? Was it because they were much older? Was it because wives didn’t choose their husbands, but were chosen for them? Were they property?
  2. Peter tells wives to submit to their husbands “in the same way” slaves are to submit to their masters. Are churches saying that women today should submit to their husbands that way? Is it barely possible that the situation in the locales the apostles were speaking to are extremely different than they are now?
  3. By definition, the young wives did not love their husbands. Paul tells older women to teach young women to love their husbands. Why would they need to be taught to love someone they already loved? And one thing that is typically missed in that passage in Titus is the two words included in that admonition: “and children”. Paul instructs older women to teach younger women “to” love their husbands and children, not “how to” love them. How young would a girl have to be that she has to be told to love her children? 12? 14? 16?
  4. In I Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to do something he couldn’t do himself: get the women in Ephesus to submit to their husbands. What were the odds that Timothy would be able to do something Paul couldn’t do?
  5. Adam and Eve. Paul told Timothy to tell those gentile women that because Eve (not Adam) sinned that they had to submit to their husbands, and would be saved by being barefoot and pregnant. But in his letter to the church in Rome, he told them it was Adam (not Eve) whose sin started the ball rolling in the wrong direction. Expediency? Paul found out how difficult it was to get gentiles in Asia Minor, home of the temple of Artemis, to go along with Jewish customs.

Paul and Peter were dealing with cultural realities that are nothing like today. Today, women are not property and they can choose their husband for themselves. They are smart, they are educated, they are spiritually-gifted, and they can support themselves. When Paul was in prison, he wrote letters to three churches: Ephesus, Colosse, and Philippi. The one letter he did not mention wives being submissive to their husbands was the church in Philippi, where he stayed with Lydia, who ran her own business and was able to fend for herself.  Running the church as a male-dominated, top-down organization instead of a servant-led body, has turned Jesus’ teachings into a religion instead of the way of life it was intended.

 

That doesn’t mean that women should be given leadership roles, either. Spiritual leadership is not a right based on chromosomal organization. It is a calling. People will follow those who passionate lead in the direction that best serves others, whether male or female. Whoever happens to be the best leader in patience, joy, love, kindness, etc. should be followed. Church leaders should be the ones who best exhibit these qualities, regardless of gender.

 

This is not intended to tell people or churches what they should or should not believe about the roles of men and women or any other issue in the church. It is, however, intended to foster an open dialog between all members of the church, considering the entire Bible, and not just hand-picked passages.

A Millennial’s Guide to Heaven

After spending decades barely mentioning the details of heaven in anything but euphemisms, the Internet’s effect on young people leaving is forcing the church to address seemingly difficult topics. I have read blogs written by various preachers about heaven recently, and I have also watched video and sermon series of others as they each shared their view on the afterlife. Perhaps not ironically, each of these presentations parrot one another, the overlapping thesis being the words of Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter and John taken literally. That is incredibly odd, since each author, in trying to lift their audience’s weight of tribulation, presented different spins on the same metric. No two were the same, because the circumstances of each audience were geographically and theologically different.

 

Assigning teachable moments in Scripture as literal, related to future events has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, which is why the attempt is never made to explain their conclusions, biologically or metaphysically. Thinking that there will physically be a new heaven and a new earth, and that the coordinates for heaven will be moved from the sky to terra firma when Jesus returns is, well, bizarre, especially since young people have effortlessly traveled from one to the other most of their lives.

 

During these presentations, it is often said that the holes they can’t explain were things we weren’t meant to know. That always occurs when metaphoric things are defined as literal. Taking Jesus’ parables as literal creates the same cross current.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, how could the rich man talk to Abraham across such a large chasm without a phone or bullhorn? Of course, that wasn’t the intended lesson, but when people try to assign anything to any parable outside the points Jesus was making, the same theological mess is created because they are figurative in nature, and not literal events.   Teaching that incinerated and cremated people will be given new bodies, without explaining the biometrics of how that will occur, leaves reasonable questions unanswered.

 

In this new world order, the earth is supposed to be a perfect place, but hell is never explained.   And why would the new earth need such an enormous wall if God is in control? The way the new earth is described appears to come out of a science fiction novel, with far-fetched and unexplained renovation plans, suited to a very small geographic component of its existence.

 

It’s hard to believe that men who supposedly know the Bible would present something so bizarre to people looking for answers. If this was done in hopes of appealing to college students and millennials, it probably has the opposite effect. While the church has been debating pre-millennialism and post-millennialism for decades, perhaps it should focus on why millennials are walking out the door, looking for answers in other places.

 

Let’s give young people in the 21st century a view of heaven they can get their arms around, for heaven’s sake.

 

I don’t know when the word “heaven” was first coined in human speech, but it likely just referred to the sky and whatever might be above the earth, based on its etymology or construction. By definition, that includes clouds, stars, planets, the sun, and anything else floating around “up there”. Thousands of years ago, that also included each culture’s gods and mythological creatures, overseeing human activity and behavior and even competing for human devotion.

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Because the sky created an incredibly large canvas, and people in those cultures were so superstitious, nothing was off-limit to their imagination. Since the details of stories set in unknown environs can’t be disputed, the sky served as a storehouse for fears and dreams for centuries, of people daring to wish upon one of its stars. Although God is spirit and, therefore, does not reside in the sky, it none-the-less provided the perfect training ground for teaching His gravity-laden disciples how to soar above their own human limitations. When the Wright brothers won the battle against gravity, they inadvertently unleashed a star-gate of discoveries from explorations of the heavens that people in the first century could not have possibly imagined.

 

The audiences of the inspired writers had never soared across the sky at 40,000 feet, witnessing God’s creation set against that canvas. They had never traveled at the speed of sound, nor had they seen vivid pictures of distant galaxies from space telescopes. Imagine how differently the Bible would have been written had they landed on the moon prior to its compilation. Had the Bible been written today, Jesus’ teaching illustration about heaven would have likely included something other than him ascending into the sky, dodging Boeings and Cessnas.

 

Back then, radar could not predict life-threatening weather to avoid. In fact, their lives had to be experienced in the moment because it was impossible to see into the future. They could not rush sick children to a hospital because of illnesses they could not explain, and they had no way to protect their crops from famine. For them, space was not the final frontier; the future was. The reality is that trying to live in the moment while being worried about the future can be overwhelming in an uncertain world, when death can occur with little or no warning.  And if their world started crashing in around them, they could not simply get on-line and book a flight to carry them across the country or around the world at the drop of a hat.   Any way you cut it, we are not them, and they were not us.

 

So why did the inspired writers of Scripture mention heaven in the first place? To give them hope. The sole reason for telling these stories was to encourage and motivate their audience to look beyond their current circumstances, by showing them a glimpse of something beyond themselves. The anticipated result was that they would be able to bear up under a heavier load, inspired to run the race to its completion. This would help them focus on the future, instead of being afraid of it, since fear is paralyzing. With this in mind, their purpose was not to foretell the future; it was to alter it.

 

When John sat in exile at Patmos, his stated goal was to inspire and encourage the troops back home, who were like a ship without a rudder. Times were tough in the Roman world for Christians at the end of the first century, and things were about to get a lot rougher. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he noted that if that much adversity could happen while he was alive (a green tree), imagine how bad things would be when he was gone (a dry tree).   In John’s day, they were facing a forest fire.

 

What words could John write to channel the emotional energy of the churches of Asia Minor into a sustaining hope, without offending his captors, who would be censoring his mail?  To accomplish both, John produced a vivid, action-packed movie that would entertain his hosts but have a galvanizing effect on his followers.  Just as screenwriters today draw from things of which they are familiar, John’s description of hell in his Revelation letter was eerily similar to their trash dump called Gehenna just south of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom.  Having no bulldozers to cover this pit of death and destruction, it continuously burned, like a lake of fire, metaphorically speaking. In addition to the city’s garbage, the dead bodies of the city’s lepers and unclaimed bodies were also burned, creating an awful sight and smell. Jesus used this visual in his teachings to describe worm-ridden bodies in the second death.  Had John’s letter been written to us today, he probably would have painted a vivid picture of a nuclear holocaust to create an equivalent emotional quotient.

 

To describe the final battle called Armageddon, John used an ancient abandoned battlefield in Israel to create its backdrop. Tel Megiddo was a hill overlooking the Jezreel valley, where many important battles had been fought. However, by the time John wrote his letter, it had been abandoned for nearly 700 years, the last major battle fought there resulting in the demise of King Josiah. What an incredible place to locate his story of a battle to the death for humanity! It is interesting to note that “Armageddon” is the Greek word for Tel Megiddo, Patmos being a Greek island. I guess had John been carried off to a place like, say, Japan, we would be calling the end-of-times battle by Tel Megiddo’s Japanese name.

 

Because his friends in Asia Minor were under extreme hardship from the Roman Empire, the temptation for some to abandon their faith was overwhelming. That seems to be why John included Jesus’ notation that those events would happen “soon”; that they were imminent. That they wouldn’t have to hold on for very long.  But, obviously, for them, they weren’t actually imminent. In fact, they never happened.  But that didn’t keep those stories from being extremely inspiring to those who needed to hear it the most.

 

The reality is that none of the things John wrote ever had to happen to accomplish his goal of encouraging them to stay the course. That doesn’t mean these things will or won’t happen, but it should serve as a reminder that our primary focus should be on growing God’s spirit within us, which can manufacture more hope than any prophecy ever could. If God lives within us, heaven becomes our  dessert. And when each of us takes our last breath, Jesus came.

 

Here are ten clues about understanding heaven in the 21st century:

 

  1. The Bible was not written to us. It was inspired by God, not written by Him. Big difference. We were not the intended audience.
  2. Heaven is not a goal or destination; it is an integral part of the journey. When God lives in us, we are in heaven.
  3. Heaven is a spiritual place. Heaven is not a physical place in that it has no coordinates. God is spirit; God and heaven are inseparable.
  4. Stories about heaven and hell were not written to foretell the future, just alter it. Coaches know that some players respond best with praise while others are motivated by fear of punishment.
  5. Being one heartbeat away from death for us, equates to “soon” for them.
  6. Jesus is currently here on earth. Jesus is in us and among us (two or more gathered in his name…). So he never has to return, right? What form is Jesus today?
  7. God, being the world’s greatest teacher, can utilize any teaching metric to encourage. Including metaphors, embellishment, hyperbole and exaggeration. Teaching without boundaries, like our favorite coaches and teachers did.
  8. Paul thought Jesus would return in his lifetime. So has every generation since.
  9. The inspired writers shared stories of heaven to create an emotional reaction toward God’s nature. Like anything else, the heart must buy in before the mind will go along.
  10. None of the prophetic words of Scripture have to occur to achieve their desired effect.  But those words have inspired every generation from then to now.

 

Whatever you teach young people about heaven, be sure there are no holes in your description.  Otherwise, their faith can fall through.  Give them something they can believe so that hope can sustain their faith.

A Millennial’s Guide to the Bible

From the time a child enters school when they are five or six years old to the time they finish twelve to twenty years later, they will be issued dozens if not hundreds of text books for the subjects they will study. In first grade, they will be given first grade level text books. In second grade, they will be issued second grade level books, and so on, as they progress from one level of understanding to the next, until the day they walk across the stage for the last time. Fortunately, these textbooks are provided each year as needed and not issued all at once on the day they first enter school. If that were the case, they would probably need something much bigger than their little red wagon to carry all of those books around.

 

As Christians, we have only one textbook. One. But just as a school’s text books can provide a wealth of knowledge and understanding through a progression of information, our one textbook can do the same for every conceivable subject under the sun. And though it was written thousands of years ago, it can provide the answers to subjects and issues not yet considered. When allowed to seek each generation’s intended trajectory through a thoughtful and thought provoking evaluation of each culture’s ways and means, its writings truly comprise the most fascinating and effective collection of material ever written.

 

Like any other discipline or field of study, that certainly doesn’t mean that everyone will learn the material at the same level or speed. In fact, centuries ago, differences in theology and doctrine seemed to originate from dissimilar levels of understanding of the same passages, rather than merely from differences of opinion. In this Internet generation, these interpretations are now scrutinized from all directions, and anything that will not pass intellectual muster is marginalized and dismissed. Unlike previous generations that catatonically followed in the footsteps of their family’s religious choices, millennials are not slaves to the religious traditions of their parents and grandparents. That doesn’t mean they aren’t as spiritual; in fact, they are probably more so. It just means that they won’t blindly follow religious teachings in directions contrary to intellectual analysis. In effect, millennials aren’t running away from God’s Word; they are running away from the way it is taught.

 

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One example of this would be the pyramids in Egypt. Comparing the chronological data from Egyptian records and biblical information, the pyramids would have been built about 300-400 years before the flood that was supposed to have eradicated life on earth, not counting the centuries it would have taken to learn how to build them.   And where did Moses acquire such linguistic skills for writings more indigenous to much later times, when his Egyptian training would have likely been limited to hieroglyphs? And who of these former slaves could have actually read it? And is neuroscience wrong to assume that temptation is due to misplaced neurons, making Satan just a teaching mnemonic?

 

We shouldn’t wait until the world ridicules the church’s teachings before confronting these issues; that is the role of the church. When we send kids to college unprepared for these types of questions, theologically they end up with dunce hats on their heads, because these things have never been explained to them. It’s not that these are hard questions to answer. It just means we have to unlearn the things we were taught for any exploration of Scripture to uncover new treasures.

 

Imagine that Albert Einstein was going to teach a group of quantum physics students, ranging in age from six to twenty-six. On a given day, Einstein would present twelve one-hour lessons to students grouped by age, so that he could teach each group at their particular level of understanding and aptitude. The first hour’s lesson would be to first and second graders while the lesson the second hour would be presented to third and fourth graders.   This would continue throughout the day, so the last lesson would be presented at the college level to graduate students seeking their doctorate degrees. Imagine how different the first and last lessons would be from each other. Now imagine the transcripts of these twelve different presentations are published, for all to read. Which of these twelve books would actually be considered “Quantum Physics”? All of them. That is because they all cover the same subject, just at different levels.

 

Jesus, Himself, even chided his followers for not progressing in their ancestors’ teachings. In the Law, the Jews were told not to kill, but Jesus told them they should have progressed in their understanding of the Law, so that behavior control would be a precursor to the control of one’s spirit. The result: not hating. And it shouldn’t take a genius for anyone who has ever worn a wedding ring to understand why lust might eventually lead to adultery, based on the same reasoning. Cause and effect: progressions of understanding.

 

Discerning ancient writings related to what the author intended his audience to take literally or to take figuratively seems to also define the separation between milk content and meat content. The most important means of making that distinction always begins with the context of the writings themselves. Who wrote it? What motivated the author to write what he wrote? What was his intended outcome for writing it? Who was it written to? What was their education level? What was their religious background? Etc.

 

By pulling the camera back, the whole of Scripture can be seen against the backdrop of each generation’s paradigm. For example, although Luke may have been a doctor who included his limited understanding of biology in his writings, he could not have possibly anticipated everything science and medicine would have learned during the next two thousand years, related to heart and mind, addiction and temptation. Nor does that include how archaeology, thereafter, discovered the existence of dinosaurs or how the Wright brothers taught mankind how to overcome gravity, ultimately exposing dimensions of God not fathomable in ancient times.

 

That said, it was not the responsibility of the inspired writers to connect the dots; as Bible students, that is our job, as we carry out the hunt for God’s treasure. If someone thinks Moses’ description of the Garden of Eden about a talking serpent and trees with names resembles a Saturday morning cartoon, and is, therefore, metaphoric, while another person assigns the same literary device to John’s Revelation letter of encouragement to the troops back home, why should that matter to someone who doesn’t? Or vice versa?

 

Since the ultimate goal should be to develop a strong and resilient faith, it doesn’t actually matter how a person gets there. However, generations of Christians who were indoctrinated into their faith while not being allowed to question their teachings, should not expect college students and millennials of this Internet generation to fall prey to the same tactics. By the same token, millennials should not expect everyone to buy into their own way of interpreting the Bible, either. After all, unity of spirit is not dependent on unity of thought. Being on the same team means everyone being focused on achieving the ultimate goal of living the love of Jesus, rather than worrying about how everyone arrived at that conclusion.

Church Unity: Tearing Down the Walls

When John Lennon imagined a world where the brotherhood of man could end many of the world’s problems in his song “Imagine”, unbeknownst to him, he was describing a world where the church is executing its intended purpose. Can you imagine a world where two billion Christians come together in unity to create a spiritual snowball so large it could provide food for the entire world so that no child ever die of hunger again? Or a woman ever become the victim of domestic violence again? Or any child ever be abused again so they could all grow up in an environment without turmoil and nurtured by love? Imagine what that would be like and what it would take to create it.

 

Unfortunately, that can never happen as long as the church is as fractured as it is, having been broken into hundreds of different brands over the centuries. While the problems of the world have gotten larger and more complex, increasing the need for unity within the church to create an even bigger snowball, the various brands of Christianity, instead, have spent over a trillion dollars on land and buildings erecting walls, separating themselves from each other. Children dying of hunger don’t really care why the walls are being built. They don’t even care about the doctrinal differences between the various brands which has caused this disconnect between believers. Food, among other things, is what they need, and the disunity in the church is the reason they aren’t getting it.

 
Although just about every church on the planet talks about their desire for unity as one of the tenets of Christianity, the reality is that the pursuit of unity within the body of Christ is almost non-existent. While preachers and church leaders may pound the table about the need for adherence to other biblical commands ad nauseum, similar instructions about the command for unity are typically only given lip service. That is because in order to achieve it, most of the doctrinal differences between each brand of Christianity would have to be jettisoned. That is, we would all have to learn how to be on a team with people who see the Bible differently than ourselves. It’s ironic that people on athletic teams are able to form bonds with each other even though the differences between these teammates might be greater than the supposed teammates who attend various churches. The doctrine of each particular brand of Christianity is what created the walls between believers so that now anyone going to church on Sunday morning is likely to pass a dozen or more other churches on the drive to their own.

 
To our credit, it was not actually our generation who developed these doctrinal differences between each brand of Christianity. Nor was it our parents’ generation, nor our grandparents’ generation nor even our great-grandparents’ generation who built the doctrinal walls that divide us. That credit goes to well-meaning but misguided shade-tree theologians centuries ago who, in times of ignorance, superstition and illiteracy, imposed their interpretation of Scripture onto other people by trying to scare them into submission of their way of thinking. Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” presented over 250 years ago, is an example of this type of manipulative oratory by trying to get people to do things or not do things through fear and control. To our discredit, we have done nothing to break down these doctrinal walls that prevent unity within the body of Christ, from which today’s young people are running away. I think that defines how ingrained these doctrines have become over the centuries. It seems we would rather keep teaching the same things that were taught in the Dark Ages and chase away our young people, than reconsider whether those doctrinal teachings are worth losing our kids over or whether these doctrines even hold water in the first place.

 
Just as the free flow of information is what ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall, the free flow of information in the church would bring Christians of all stripes together by tearing down the walls that divide us. Having said that, there was probably a greater likelihood of Communist leaders allowing their people to question their teachings than for church leaders to allow their members to question or challenge their doctrines or teachings. Strange as it may seem, neither the church nor any of its various brands has ever allowed its members a forum to challenge its own doctrines. During interviews with young people who had left the church while doing research for “Heaven’s Gold”, many of them said one of the factors for their leaving was that they were never allowed to question the things being taught. In fact, two young ladies said they were told they would go to hell for even questioning those teachings. It doesn’t seem anything has changed. I am not aware of any group of believers of any stripe being allowed to challenge their leaders’ teachings in a forum where change might result.

 
Whether we want to admit it or not, this particular means of instruction is called indoctrination. Yes, indoctrination. While atheists and agnostics categorize our methods of instructions as brain-washing, that is neither true, nor fair. However, “indoctrination” is an appropriate description of the church’s teaching methods because of the way its doctrines are presented. When only one particular interpretation of Scripture or doctrine is presented while also describing why the other interpretations are wrong, that is indoctrination. Does anyone really believe their church fosters an atmosphere of discovery, where all aspects of a given topic or issue are freely and openly discussed? Consider this illustration. Imagine that a fourteen year old girl in your church read the Bible for herself and came to the conclusion that boys and girls, men and women, husbands and wives are all equal in the church; walk me through how that would play out in your church, especially if she has leadership skills beyond everyone else? What are young people allowed to think and what are they commanded to do or think while they are still under our roofs? How does that change once they go off to college?

 
We are losing our young people simply because we are force-feeding them antiquated doctrines that will not hold up under scrutiny so we don’t allow them to challenge those doctrines for that very reason. The church will always be a shell of what it could be as long as it envelopes itself in teachings that divide instead of teachings that unify. Hundreds of years ago, men such as John Calvin, Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, etc., frustrated by the church’s interpretative inflexibility during the previous millennium, set out to update church teachings by incorporating existing knowledge, information and common sense into their interpretations of Scripture.   Well, that wasn’t their intended method of interpretation, but that is how it unfolded. Perhaps it is time for another church reformation to bring it into the 21st century.

 
It’s not that the Bible needs to change to accommodate this generation. Rather, it is time, again, to consider Scripture through the lens of information available to us that was not available to the authors of Scripture, just as the first church reformers did. In fact, in this Internet age where knowledge related to neuroscience, astronomy, biology and archaeology is common place, it is important for the church to make this an integral part of its DNA to keep the teachings of Jesus as fresh as the day he presented them. It may not prompt church members to storm the Bastille and compel church leaders to quit trying to indoctrinate a generation of young people not interested in learning the Bible that way. However, it might shine the light on how much more effective the church would be if it were unified in spirit like the team we are supposed to be.

 
While indoctrination involves presenting only one interpretation of a given topic or issue, teaching involves presenting all available viewpoints and then facilitating a discussion to help the audience frame their own interpretation of the subject matter. After all, since faith is such a personal aspect of life, shouldn’t everyone be allowed to formulate their own foundation of faith without having it crammed down their throats? For example, how flexible is your church about women’s roles in the church? Or whether Satan exists? Or what rituals should be observed and when? Or the differences of science and church teachings? Typically, indoctrinated people, which includes just about everyone who grew up in the church, only see these subjects through narrow viewpoints, mainly because that is how it was taught to them, and as far back as anyone can remember.

 
Unleashing the power of God on a world in dire need of it will require God’s people to join forces to create an enormous spiritual synergy. Doing so will require tearing down the doctrinal walls that has kept this from happening throughout our lives and what is now driving away the church’s young people. So for the next few weeks, we will evaluate all of the church doctrines that keep God’s people apart to see if any of it should still be applied. It’s not about telling anyone what they are to believe; it is about allowing everyone to form their own faith by pulling the camera back and seeing the Bible through a wider lens, absent the indoctrination that has dominated the church’s teachings for centuries and generations.

 
Imagine what a unified church would look like. Imagine.

Ghosts of Christians Past: Brow-Beating Women into Submission

As our country is about to celebrate its 238th birthday, it is hard to believe that it’s been less than 100 years since half of its citizens were “given” the right to vote by the other half, men who either came to their senses or finally realized history would judge them harshly for withholding it. With the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women took a giant step toward vacating the second class status they have held since the beginning of time.

In the church, however, women are still second class citizens. This is not because the current generation of believers decided it should be that way, but rather because they have been following in the misguided footsteps of their ancestors, incapable of escaping the theological tractor beam holding them to such outdated teachings. Centuries ago in the church, when few people were educated and in times of ignorance and superstition, church leaders maintained control of their flock with rules, rituals and threats of doom to scare them into submission. The currency of knowledge created power for those who possess it in the presence of those who do not, and in the nearly two millennia since the last apostle died, supposedly godly men have shoved God’s Word down the throats of those who could not read it for themselves to maintain the power their ancestors passed down to them.

In the last century, women have become as educated as men, so knowledge can now flow in both directions. That should mean that men can no longer play the guilt card on women to get them to be submissive, since they can now read and understand for themselves, especially in this Internet age, that Paul and Peter were addressing a completely different time and culture. Unfortunately, that still happens, simply because women have been so brow-beaten and indoctrinated into this antiquated vision of teamwork all of their lives, that some of them may not want to rock the boat. With that in mind, the men leading these churches seem to be counting on this type of blind submission from women, manipulated and indoctrinated in the church of their youth to keep peace in the family. That doesn’t mean that women raised in the church aren’t leaving in droves as soon as they are allowed to make that choice on their own.

It’s not that preachers, expertly trained in Scripture, can’t see the contextural differences between the first century and now. In fact, there is very little disagreement among scholars about the circumstances and characteristics of first century life in most of the relevant cities mentioned in the Bible. Therefore, all that any teacher or preacher would have to do to release women from the chains assigned to them is to present God’s Word in its full context. Unfortunately, to keep peace in the pews, that doesn’t happen. That is why preachers of each brand of Christianity tend to pick and choose whatever context keeps their particular group happy, like shoppers at a BOGO shoe sale. It doesn’t matter if it’s right; just make sure it fits and keeps people in their seats.

I’ve often wondered what a church made up solely of women would be like. If there were no men in it, then there wouldn’t be an issue of women usurping men’s authority, right?. Let’s see how a women’s church might be different than the current male-dominated structure is. First of all, men in the Dark Ages decided the church must engage in Holy Wars; women probably wouldn’t have done that.   When men in the 16th century decided certain women should be burned as witches, women probably wouldn’t have done that, either.   And when men, even leaders in the church, a half-century ago couldn’t tell their children they loved them, there’s a pretty good chance that a church led by women wouldn’t have had that problem. Now that young people are leaving the church in staggering numbers while the men in charge tend to do nothing to resolve the problem, if women were in charge they would probably jump out of the car and ask directions of how to bring their children back. Doing their ostrich imitation, church leaders seem to have stuck their heads in the sand, hoping the exodus of youth from the church will fix itself. If women did actually leave their current churches, in addition to the song service having a deeper pitch, men would also have to start doing the work themselves instead of assigning it to their wives.

This doesn’t mean that women are now supposed to be leaders, or not to be leaders. It just means that we are all supposed to serve and submit to each other, as equals, like any good team would do. We should all be free to utilize our gifts and talents to the fullest, regardless of how our chromosomes are arranged. It might make some of our ancestors turn over in their graves, but there is a lot of starving children, domestic violence and child abuse that needs to be flushed from the earth and two billion Christians can’t make that happen if one billion of them are chained to the starting gate.

Metaphorically Speaking

There were many iconic scenes in the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, which have become part of the landscape of American culture. One of these scenes involved the main character, Indiana Jones, confronting a big villian wielding a very large sword, aiming to kill our hero. After trying to impress Dr. Jones with his swordmanship, Indiana nonchalantly pulled out a pistol and shot him, which prompted laughter from the audience. After all, swords in the 20th century were already outdated weapons. Imagine how much more outdated these types of weapons have become for kids in the 21st century, raised on video games.

Every English teacher knows that a metaphor has a shelf life directly related to its intended audience.  This was especially true in Bible times since there were no pictures, movies, videos, slide shows, computers or projectors to aid in getting the speaker’s point across.  Since there was no way to photograph loved ones, the ability to mentally capture those details would have been sharpened. Just as people today who have lost one of their five senses have greater sensitivity for the remaining ones, people in Bible times not able to take snapshots of their children, would more acutely be able to create mental pictures of details surrounding them.

From cover to cover, the Bible is saturated with metaphors and word pictures as its writers tried to help their audience mentally frame their stories and teachings. The problem is that, just like the sword illustration in the movie, every single metaphor and illustration in the Bible is now outdated. That doesn’t mean that the word pictures used in Scripture have no relevance; it’s just that time and circumstance have greatly diminished them so that they now have only a fraction of the emotional impact that they did when the original words were spoken. For example, when Paul painted the vivid word picture about a soldier’s weaponry for his Ephesian audience by noting that the word of God was the “sword of the Spirit”, that would have framed a powerful image for his readers in the first century. However, swords are now an irrelevant weapon, which waters down any reference to it in Scripture.

Young people are leaving the church in staggering numbers for various reasons but one of those reasons could be because they are fed from a diluted biblical broth. These kids are being bombarded with visual stimuli from every direction from television, movies, video games and computer graphics. Using ancient illustrations included in the Bible to teach timeless lessons is like having a family night but showing silent movies from the 1920s. The teachings of the Bible are timeless; its illustrations are not.

We have to reinvent the way we teach the Bible by refocusing how it was taught to us. Even though they did not have pictures, movies, videos, encyclopedias or computers to aid their mental connection in the first century, we certainly do and should use them to accomplish that goal.

When All Else Fails…

Upon turning sixteen and getting our driver’s license, the last thing we were going to do was read the Owner’s manual of whatever car we were allowed to drive.  After all, what’s there to know- you just put the key in the ignition and turn on the engine and off you go. The gas pedal made the car go and the brake pedal made it stop. Of course, when the car had a flat tire or steam was coming from the engine compartment, it was then that we grabbed the Owner’s manual to see if it could help us pull a rabbit out of our hat or do some other magic trick to fix the problem.

Fortunately, there was a wealth of information in that little book among the clutter in the glove box. The Owner’s Manual is written by the manufacturer to inform whoever would be driving the car pertinent ways to maximize the life of the car and help to avoid problems down the road. Since it doesn’t know whether the driver of the car will have a lead foot or be someone who only drives it on Sundays, it is universal in nature.  It provides suggestions and tips to get the most out of the car as well as warnings and potential hazards that must be avoided. It also explains each of the warning lights so the driver can understand what exactly he/she should and should not do. At the back of the book there is a maintenance schedule, exercises if you will, quantifying how to ensure a long and happy life driving the manufacturer’s vehicle. Basically, it just gives general clues to help avoid danger and disaster. Just as the Owner’s manual of a car is written by engineers inspired by the manufacturer to demonstrate the best way to operate it, so the Bible is an operating manual written by “engineers”, inspired by the manufacturer of the world to demonstrate the best way for us to drive down the highway of life.

Millions of years ago, at a time of God’s choosing, everything was set in motion. Billions of stars that will never be seen as well as the ones already seen, were formed along with planets, moons, suns and the earth. Creating and utilizing molecules of hundreds of conceivable elements, a plan unfolded that eventually would create animals and people as well as a means of reproducing. It’s an incredible plan that has been able to sustain itself for millions of years thus far and, glorifying the manufacturer, for millions of years to come. He inspired men to write an operating manual universal in nature to help everyone navigate the highway of life. In the end, the Bible is just an operating manual to show those choosing to follow it how to get the most out of the life they have been handed, as well as how to avoid the pot holes.

Freedom to Choose

Near the end of the movie, “The Blind Side”, Sandra Bullock’s character received enough of a dose of reality to help her separate her own dreams and wishes from those of her adopted son, Michael, to allow him to make his own decisions.  At some point, this happens to all parents.  During our children’s early years, we make decisions for them intended to create a sphere of discovery and protection so they can grow in a direction that is familiar to us.  That is, if we played baseball, soccer or learned to play the piano when we were growing up, then having our children do the same is well within our comfort zone, emanating from our own parent tapes.  That doesn’t mean the kids we signed up to play tee ball or other guilt-assuaging activities actually wanted to do it, but if it was good enough for us, then it should be good enough for them.  Included in that list of mandatory activities would have to be going to church; I don’t remember it being an option.

Little by little, as children age, we hand over the decision-making reigns to them.  For the most part, they get to choose their clothes as well as their friends and other things like whether they will continue taking piano lesson or not. And once they turn sixteen, they get an enormous measure of freedom when we give them the keys to the car, if their behavior has merited such responsibility.

Despite the snowball of independence we created for them from the time they could tie their shoes until they put the car in gear, never once did we think to ask them whether they wanted to continue to go to church or not.  That is probably because each generation has been afraid of the answer.  It is only after kids go off to college, when we are not there to help them navigate the shark-infested waters the Internet throws at them, do they finally have a choice.    At that point, many of them become faith-napped, leaving little evidence that they ever believed, at least from those I interviewed.

Currently, preachers and teachers focus their presentations on keeping their older members happy, to the exclusion of what might nourish young people in their congregation.  Assured that teenagers can’t leave until they go off to college, the church continues to take advantage of not having to sell the Bible to its younger audience.

But let’s imagine that every child at the age of twelve is given the freedom to never come to church again if they so choose, and that their parents are not allowed to  influence that decision.  Imagine how the church’s teachings would have to change to keep young people interested and affected.  They would finally have to address questions young people have about doctrines that cannot stand up to scrutiny in this Internet age.

Churches should be doing that anyway, at least before teenagers go off to college where they would only get a one-sided argument.  It might make some older members a little uncomfortable, but it is far better than wondering what happened to the faith of their children.

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