“The Church is losing 7,600 customers a day in Europe and North America, according to Barrett. That means that every week, more than 53,000 people leave church and never come back. To put that in perspective, consider that the United States lost about 57,500 people in the Vietnam War. In a different sense --- though strangely appropriate --- the church “loses” almost that many every week. (Exit Interviews—Hendricks, 1994)”
In Proverbs 29:18 Solomon, so aptly inspired by the Spirit of God tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (KJV). In this verse the Hebrew language brings out a much richer understanding for us to benefit from.
· The word “vision” in the Hebrew language basically means, “To see or perceive divinely, to have or possess divine communication, hence in some translations the word “revelation” is used.
· The Hebrew word for, “perish” is better translated to mean, “neglect, lack of restraint,” or most literally “to let loose”.
When Solomon refers to keeping the Law most literally he means to have charge of it or to possess it, (i.e. - To live it (the law) out in one’s life in an outflow from one’s character, as if it were, a part of that ones own personality.” Thus to possess the Law of God in one’s own life will bring as the Israelites would say, “A blessedness of blessedness’s,” meaning the extreme amount of happiness and fulfillment a person could possess.
So a better translation of Proverbs 29:18 might be as follows:
“Where there is no divine perception and communication, (i.e. - God’s revelation) among people, all moral restraint is neglected and let go of, thus leading to destruction (physically and spiritually). On the other hand those who have or possess the Law of God as a natural out flowing part of their personalities are extremely fulfilled in all happiness’s.”
In the time of the Judges scripture tells us in I Samuel 3:1: “There was no open vision…” The Hebrew word for, “open” means, “to break through, to break down, to break over, or to break out.” This word also conveys the idea of bursting and breaching, possibly the idea of floodwaters breaking or bursting over and through a dam wall.
Once again, as in Proverbs 29:18 the Hebrew word for, “vision” means, “divine perception and communication.”
So we could say at this time in Israel’s history there was no word of divine impact to break through or breakdown the lethargic moral and physical condition in Israel.
I Samuel 2 shows how Israel’s spiritual leaders, Eli the priest, and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were involved in the basest of sins such as mocking the priestly offerings and fornication (I Samuel 2: 12-25). In our churches throughout North America today the same parallels in church leadership exist.
The very men and women who should be feeding and nurturing the Saints are, in fact, using and abusing the sheep through their own self-aggrandizement until, for the most part, ”There is no longer an Open Vision.” Instead, there exists such a state of spiritual and moral lethargy that the organized Church is dying.
This short article has been written with the intention of placing before the reader a synopsis of four critical problem areas. These are areas I have encountered within the Organized Church over the past thirty years. These problem areas are leading many Christians down the pathway of disillusionment and despair, until they finally give up and walk out of North America’s church doors… never to return.
1) No longer is there an Open Vision concerning spirituality and spiritual growth
Over the course the church’s history, some brilliant thinking has been put forward on the nature and process of salvation, or justification. Likewise, good work has been done on our future hope in Christ, or glorification. But there’s a gap in our theology when it comes to sanctification, leaving unanswered questions between one’s initial faith and his or her meeting Christ for eternity.
I believe, from my study of scripture, that spirituality is a process. What exactly IS that process? Can its steps or stages be discerned? In I John 2:12-14 the writer says that he is writing to “little children,” and, “young men,” and “fathers.” Are these phases of spiritual development? If so, what are their characteristics?
Likewise, what is the relationship between spirituality and biological age? At twenty, I had been a believer for sixteen years. What should I have been able to expect by that point, as opposed to a man of fifty who might have been in the faith for, say, five years?
This seems like a crucial point in light of all the people I have spoken to in the church over the past thirty years. Most folks I spoke with were adult veterans of church, not new converts. None of these people had been Christians for less than ten years, some for two or three times that long. Yet they were dissatisfied with their spiritual progress.
Along these lines, the church has told people that the goal is, “spiritual maturity.” What is that? What are its characteristics? Is spirituality a destination or direction? How long should it reasonably take to arrive at, “maturity,” (whatever it is)? Or do we ever arrive? If not how do we stay motivated? How do we mark our milestones? How do we even know if we are making progress?
In the final analysis, what part of the spirituality/spiritual maturity is God’s responsibility and in what part do we share? And what should be the church’s role in all of this?
I know of no single body of work or church that has thoroughly explored these issues and others like them. Yet spirituality is probably the foremost theological issue in people’s minds today.
As long as the Church lacks an “Open Vision” in this area, it will keep losing credibility – which is to say it will keep losing people. Why? Because people no longer examine Christianity on the basis of whether it is true, but how it is true. As a good friend of mine has said, today’s question is not whether God exists, but what difference does He make?
2) There is No Open Vision Concerning Persons
Hand in hand with an Open Word on spiritual development, the church lacks an Open Word concerning, “persons.” I am not speaking about anthropology here, which addresses the nature of humans. An Open Word concerning persons deals with personhood. Its subject is not the human race, but rather the individual. It considers the question of identity, and the essence of who someone is.
Why is that important? Because I believe the Church must first, and foremost be in the people—development business.
Ironically, the people to be developed are both the “customers” and the “products.” On both counts, we can’t know enough about how God has made people. When the church attempts to take someone from conversion to spiritual maturity, it is developing a human life. So what is human life? What does God see when he looks at a person? Who does he see? Who should the church see? How can we know the essence of an individual?
Today, more than ever people need a sense of meaning and to find out WHO they really are. I believe the church has fallen far short in meeting this very important need.
3) There is no Open Vision Concerning Spiritual Gifts
In more than thirty years in the church I have seen more than enough of my share of unfulfilled expectations. Christian teaching today does nothing more than raise more expectation, that for the most part, go unfulfilled, except in the matter of spiritual gifts.
The doctrine that has been presented today in the church is that God has given a special gift or ability to each believer, so that he or she can contribute meaningfully to the Body of Christ. What incredibly good news! It’s like telling folks that there’s a job in the want – ads with their name on it.
Naturally people want to find out what their job is. But that’s when things start to fall apart. First of all, how many churches have a “technology” for helping people discover their abilities? For that matter, what exactly are the gifts mentioned in the New Testament? (See Romans 12:3-8, I Corinthians 12:4-11, 28-31; Ephesians 4:11; and I Peter 4:10-11).
How does each one serve the body? Are these lists exhaustive? Why do some letters, such as I Corinthians and Ephesians, stress them, while others, such as I Timothy and Titus neglect even to mention them?
Of course most people could care less about questions like these; they want someone to tell them WHAT their gift is and how they can use it in the body. Again, how often does that happen?
Some gifts seem fairly evident --- teaching, for example. But what about the less obvious ones? If someone has a lot of money, he or she may be gently told that God wants her to express the gift of liberality, (a gift she may or may not have). However, for the rest, they are liable to end up in the catch-all category of “helps.”
This inability to pinpoint people’s giftedness only acts to dash people’s hopes. Think what a letdown it is to be told that you have a “significant” role to play in the Body of Christ, only to discover that you’ll be handling a minor chore, that frankly, anyone could do—when what you were hoping for was a task only you could do, one that you were uniquely created and gifted by God to do.
It’s like answering the aforementioned want ad, which promises you a position, “vital to the future of our company,” only to find that your assignment will be the spiritual equivalent of flipping burgers.
Over the years I’ve heard countless pastors and church leaders cry that they can never find enough volunteers, and therefore the work of the church goes undone. Their tendency is to blame the people. Could it be that the people are merely responding to a woefully inadequate Vision of spiritual gifts?
The keys to such a vision or theology lie in the vision or theology of spirituality and the recognition of each unique individual as mentioned in points one and two. It is not difficult to see that spiritual gifts and spiritual formation are related. For example, “God is in my gift!” as my friend George told me. Consider this… spiritual gifts and personhood go hand in hand, as in the example of missionary to China and Olympic runner, Eric Liddell who said, “When I run, I feel His pleasure!”
As for detecting people’s gifts, the telltale sign is passion, as was evident in my friend George’s exclamation. What is this person passionate about doing? What motivates him or her? If the Church would just get out of the way how will that person instinctively serve God and other people?
4) There Is No Longer An Open Vision of Grace
I believe the church, as we know it today in the 21st Century, has drifted and even fallen far away from the message of Grace once delivered to the Saints of New Testament times.
Here’s the situation: Never have the expectations put upon believers been higher… we simply know too much. For example, think how much we now understand about family relationships and the development of children. For parents, such knowledge translates into a laundry list of “shoulds” and ideals at which past generations would have gasped at. There are so many of them, and they’re so high!
And the family is just one area of responsibility. Similar lists of “what committed Christians ought to do” could be generated for the believer’s work, participation in church, involvement in the community, responsibility to the world, and so on. Add it all up, and it’s a crushing burden—absolutely staggering!
Yet never have people been less able to live up to those expectations, biblically based though they may be. For one thing, we are not a morally or spiritually robust generation. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to live up to the high ideals with which we’re challenged. But the fact is, we can’t! We simply can’t! They are so high and so many, and we are not only weak, but in many cases wounded as well.
The standard response to this fact is, of course, that, “We’re weak as human beings, but with Christ’s strength we can do all things”(Philippians 1:19). With all due respect to that point of view; let me state plainly that it’s not going to happen that way.
People are not going to become super—saints. They’re going to live ‘less than ideal’ lives, and lots of times they’re going to fail. They’re certainly not going to live up to anywhere near the heightened expectations of well-intentioned Christian teaching. Spirituality must be a process that includes failure.
So what does the church say to them? What is our vision or theology for failure and, “our theology/vision of plan B?”
It seems to me that the words many Christians so desperately need to hear today can only be found in the language of grace. We need a liberty within the Body of Christ that allows us to try, and if we fail, still be loved and accepted. Just as the language of the King James Version of the Bible has been updated, we need to update the good news of grace so it is intelligible to modern ears.
However, not everyone who claims to speak for Christ speaks in that language, new or old. And therein lays a crisis, especially for the conservative side of the church. Based on my thirty plus years in the organized church I believe the church needs to decide how long it is going to coddle legalists in its ranks.
By legalists I mean people who preach grace but practice works; people who inflict guilt on others for being human, let alone sinful. People who say (as I heard in church as a young lad), “Well, we don’t want to go overboard on this grace thing because people will take advantage of it.”
The church has made it comfortable for the Legalistic Pharisee. But at what cost? Legalism is keeping people out of church, it is driving people away from the church, and it is poisoning the lives of those who remain in the church. So why permit it? Why even tolerate it, especially when Jesus and Paul, among others, reserved their harshest words for those who compromised grace?
On that note it seems appropriate to recall the words of Luther that theology comes from living rather than thinking, reading or speculating. An overstatement to be sure – or
I have mentioned four critical areas that pertain to people leaving the church. Perhaps the best way to come to terms with these issues is to realize that God may desire to do something totally new within the organized Church as we know it today in this 21st Century.
Jesus said not to put new wine into old wineskins or else it would burst the wineskin. I would say today that we can not continue to do the same old things we have always done in the church without seeing more and more people leave in despair and disillusionment.
I believe God desires such a new and impacting work that many may need to come out of the organized church as we know it, because:
1) To be able to “hear” what that work involves
2) many in the organized church as we know it today will not accept this new work of God and thus turn against their brethren so they will be forced to leave. (Isaiah 66:5)
In I Samuel 1 and 2 in the beginning of this article we saw that Israel was in dire straits spiritually and morally; so much so that even the Priests were involved in gross sin. Isn’t this the same parallel we see in our North American churches and nations today?
Yet in the midst of this atmosphere of Spiritual Lethargy God brought hope in the birth of a child by the name of “Samuel”, who would usher in a new and liberating work of God.
Notice, even as, “There was no Open Vision” (I Samuel 3:1) and the sons of Eli (those of the Priesthood) were called son’s of Belial (or sons of worthlessness) due to sin (I Samuel 2:12, 17, 22-23), just the same, Samuel ministered before the Lord (I Samuel 2:11, 3:1)
In the Bible names are very significant because the meaning of a person’s name reveals what person’s character was like. Such is the case with Samuel’s name. In the Hebrew language “Samuel” most literally means, “His Name is El or His Name is heard of God.”
In Hebrew “El” means, “Strength” or “One that Is Almighty,” and most often refers to God. So we can see that Samuel became a man of great spiritual strength and might.
There are two other compound Hebrew words that the name Samuel is derived from; one word means “To hear, to hear intelligently, to perceive; to hear with intent to act and obey”; the other word means, “the number eight.”
All the meanings of Samuels’ name tie into a beautiful, yet timely picture for us today. The number eight in Scripture always refers to “New Beginnings” and God desired to come upon the scene through his servant Samuel to begin to do a new and impacting work (i.e. - to give a new fresh and “Open Vision”). In ancient Israel, these meanings applied to shaking them from their spiritual apathy.
God desires to do the same new impacting work in the church today. Notice in our story in I Samuel 1 & 2 there was no longer any divine communication (”No Vision”) between God & Israel; therefore, God brought “Samuel “ the one who “hears” and ministered (communicated) before the Lord.”
Into their midst and to open up the lines of communication Samuel brought fresh words of revelation to Israel. Today, In the church God is looking for symbolic, “Samuel’s” who will not just be hearers of His word but also doers of the Word (James 1:22).
Only effectual doers will bring needed positive change to His Church. This change happens as they hear God’s word imparted to them. Lastly, Samuel’s name means “Strength or Might” and Samuel possessed within him the Strength and Fortitude of God; this enabled him to enact change in Israel. Samuel did this in the face of much spiritual apathy and evil opposition.
Today God is searching for those whose hearts are right before him in order that he might show Himself strong on their behalf (2 Chronicles 16:9). He does this to confront those issues within the church that must be addressed and bring much needed change within the body of Christ.
Finally in the Life of Samuel we can see a parallel to the church today, as God called Him on to the scene to begin a new work in Israel. Samuel was the first prophet of Israel and he was called out as it were, to do something different and new.
In 1 Samuel 7 the Philistines (Israel’s arch enemy) are defeated through the leadership of Samuel and great spiritual reformation takes place in all of Israel. Today God is looking for those “Samuel’s” he can call out from the church to lead a fresh, new reformation in the church that will cause the Body of Christ to be transformed into a life changing force in the world today.