Category Archives: Theology

Why the Church is Declining Part II

SupermanJesus

Why is Evangelical Church attendance declining? One of the reasons is because the church cannot compete in the entertainment realm. It should not be completely abandoned, but never should be the sole catalyst for church life.

This is part of a series focusing on declining church audiences. The first one covered the fact that marketing and branding have been on an upswing in the church world while content has been sacrificed. See Why the Evangelical Church is Declining Part I for this.

John Lennon knew back in the 1960s what it was. At the height of Beatlemania he stated, “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”(1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/More_popular_than_Jesus He later stated it was a fact that was taken wrong.

Lennon had the numbers to support his claim. And today it is even clearer. For every time two cents is used to promote Christian values, $10 is spent on an alternative message. Yes, the Beatles and the consumer driven attractions that it symbolizes are far greater monoliths than Jesus.

Financial figures back this up. Religious institution donations in the United States are annually around $115 billion and decreasing. This includes donations to churches, not para-church organizations like World Vision and the like, so if these are included it may be more. However, one must keep in mind that 80% of this $115 billion is likely used for infrastructure costs such as building maintenance, equipment, and salaries, the other 20% may be visibly used for marketing and entertainment purposes, which reduces the total to about $23 billion for propagation of the faith.

This amount designated for the church doesn’t even compete with the liquor revenue sold annually in the United States estimated around $211.6 billion.(2)http://www.parkstreet.com/alcoholic-beverage-market-overview/ Nor does it compare to the United States film industry which had $564 billion dollars of revenue in 2014,(3)http://www.statista.com/topics/964/film/ or the conservatively estimated $400 billion amount that gambling and casinos raked in a one-year period in 2014.(4)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/gamble/procon/ Gambling could be much more, even double by some estimates.(5)http://www.citizenlink.com/2010/06/14/frequently-asked-questions-gambling-in-the-united-states/

So the church has $23 billion to market and instruct the general public about the Christian tenets while the various forms of the entertainment and beverage industry has over one-trillion in revenue to promote an alternate lifestyle. I am not even including the sales of illegal drugs, annual vacations, or sports markets in this total that the general public has vested interests in. If these totals were included, it would make the differential even higher.

Two cents is not going to beat $10 in the realm of influence. I am not going to argue that these two cents have been well used, it simply is not enough to gain any significant public traction and inject ideas or thoughts into the larger social conscience.

But this hasn’t stopped the church from using entertainment and media as a primary medium to engage greater society. Instead of focusing on the message, the medium has become the important part. In essence, many evangelical churches sensing the decline in membership and anticipating the needs of millennials, have switched the function of the church as a place of worship to that of a church theater.

Is this is what the Church is purposed to do? St. Paul exhorted others to adapt the Gospel to the social context.(6)1 Corinthians 9:19-23 But how far do we take this?

If one makes a broad examin, there are some good Christian movies being produced. For example Courageous, which was developed by an associate pastor and he used actors largely recruited from his Church, Sherwood Baptist, on a tight $2 million budget. The gate receipts for this movie greatly exceeded the budget.

It comes across preachy but the story does work for a Christian audience, not so much for those who are not part of this movement. This may not be a bad thing, as this movie is a powerful didactic for instilling and reasserting core values of church life.

Heaven is for Real, which cost $12 million to make, had made into the public realm of discussion on heaven and God and has made a tidy profit. The movie beat out the $200 million blockbuster flop, Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp which tried, but failed to build a cohesive story on the intersection of God, authority, and technology.

The Veggie Tales movie, Jonah, cost $14 million to bring to theatres and led Big Idea Productions into bankruptcy. It did garner a 3 out of 5 rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

This movie, along with the whole Veggie Tale phenomenon has a combination of music, comedy, and storylines that always seemed to work well together. It is well received among a spectrum of viewers.

Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar re-telling of the Crucifixion stirred controversy for his abstract, violent, gory, and over-simplistic approach. However, the cinematography, sound, clothing, and the speech in various languages really were top-notch. He did succeed in bringing viewers into evaluating the Christian message for their lives.

The DaVinci Code which explores religious themes, especially that of the possibility of Jesus being married to Mary Magdelene and begetting a line of children, brought the Christian faith into a critical review.

Although the theology is whacky, the author, Dan Brown, brought the discussion of history back into the forefront of modern society. It was somewhat of a revival of Greek and Latin literature studies. I am very thankful for this part of his story.

Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is a refreshing change from shallow or predictable Christian movies.

He is one of the few who has intellectually engaged culture and Christianity into a complex and interesting narrative. A vlogger called Half-The-Mike did a short movie review on this movie and concluded, “I don’t think it is a Christian movie or a religious movie. Its kind of in between… I usually think of those movies as absolute crap and they usually are absolute crap. But I was pleasantly surprised by this movie.”(7)https://youtu.be/r9kINOfVpOA around the 4 minute mark

The Chronicles of Narnia movies are very good but have not impacted or become viral because they are very predictable. Each film has cost between $155 to $225 million and collectively have exceeded over $1 billion dollars in revenue.

C.S. Lewis’ work has been around for fifty years and his stories are well-known. This removes the element of surprise that the movie should possess, and, therefore, audiences are more critical. The expectations are extremely high and almost impossible to meet.

The Left Behind series of movies, based on the books of the same name which have sold over 65 million copies and evoked Jerry Falwell to say the most impactful book in contemporary times outside the Bible,(8)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_Behind hasn’t helped to expand the Christian faith. It really hasn’t detracted either. The latest 2014 installment was rated a 2.1 out of 10 at the Rotten Tomatoes website(9)http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/left_behind_2014/ RogerEbert.com describes the movie in this way:

Christian readers and audiences are the base here, but it’s hard to imagine that this incarnation of the story will persuade anyone else to find the Lord unless they’re sitting in the theater praying for the dialogue or special effects to improve. This is essentially an “Airport” movie with an Evangelical spin, but it lacks the self-awareness to turn such a wild concept into a guilty pleasure.(10)http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/left-behind-2014

In relation to the amount of movies being produced, distributed and watched, christian movies are a small drop in the bucket. It hardly dents into the myriad of genres available for the public to peruse.

Sometimes the use of media can create a negative reaction and hurt the Church brand more than help it. For example, Bible Man was a popular series produced from 1995 to 2011 about “an evangelical superhero who fights evil and quotes scripture.”(11)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibleman

Or the Kenneth Copeland based videos, SuperKid Academy:

This is a b-movie that is a simplistic narrative that the child actors enunciate favourite Christian phrases. It rivals Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The following may be the most infamous of all. The music video Jesus is a friend of mine by Sonseed.

A YouTube commenter noted: “This song will make terrorists give up hostages...”

One must be reticent of making such a bold assertion. Corny videos may have been a sign of the 1980s music scene. Billy Joel’s For the Longest Time video similarly parallels Jesus is a friend of mine. Joel is singing about a girl, but no woman ever appears in the video. The age of the singers related to the content of the song, clothing, flashbacks and the dancing did not seem synchronized as a cohesive story at all. You be the judge. See the video below:

The use of the theater in church services, which are done on very tight budgets, usually falls into the category of being too preachy and predictable or simply assuaging its already established base. Success usually needs a significant cash infusion and, at least, six months to a year’s worth of full-time preparation by a large committed, creative, smart and salaried team. This type of product is out-of-reach by most churches. I have yet to see a church-based play explore the complex human condition with any meaningful feeling from a faith perspective.

Another problem is the legacy gift of the televangelists – its become a derogatory term throughout most households. If one self-identifies as a Christian in any discussion, this is one of the first topics to be brought up. The televangelist abuses have created real barriers to any discussion about matters of faith.

Last Week Tonight host, John Oliver, recognize most churches have a positive impact, but televangelists are a serious problem. His commentary, small portions laced with profanity, expresses the typical viewer mindset:

John Oliver demonstrates how the power of media can be very profitable, but if not managed properly, can be a real disaster. In the case of Christianity in North America, it is almost irreparable.

There is an alternative that works and it is found in the Catholic approach. Pope Francis and the present Catholic Church has instead asserted the Church as a “voice of the conscience of the West,”(12)https://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/VATMOD.HTM on ecological, social, ethical, and humanitarian issues and has not tried to compete as an alternative theater venue.

However, this would be difficult to duplicate. This Pope represents over 400 million adherents, whereas the large 1 billion plus Protestant umbrella group of Pentecostals, Charismatics, Third Wavers, Baptists and so on are fragmented. They do not speak with a unanimous voice nor have any central form of hierarchy. This deeply hurts their message. These groups convey an existential religious smorgasbord that people can pick and choose – a western capitalist form of commoditized religion, or as Reginald Bibby, the author of Fragmented Gods, puts it, a consumerized religion.(13)http://aurora.icaap.org/index.php/aurora/article/view/30/41 This status takes away any moral authority in the public sphere and does not communicate with any unilateral support.

Secondly, the Pope is drawing ideas, thoughts and draws from a strong group of thinkers and strategists. The Pope himself is very intelligent about matters of the church and the modern psyche. Most Protestant-based pastors and leaders do not have the educational background or a professional team that has the ability to properly understand the historic faith and communicate it in modern terms.

The problems of the lack of unity and trained spiritual leaders leaves evangelicals with few options to communicate with the larger society. The church as a theater is the most natural fit in the present circumstance.

This will probably never succeed. First of all, the church isn’t designed to be a media megastar. It is intended to be an embassy for God’s coming kingdom. Making films or using multimedia may be a part of this role, but it cannot be the mission. The church does not have the resources to richly and professionally communicate via film to the public and make its message stand out. The church also has abandoned the richness of the message and shed part of its humanity to be an entertainment alternative. With the one exception of Sherwood Baptist Church, the success of Christian based films is produced by extremely talented third-party religious adherents who feel strongly motivated to present their message in film form. There are always the few exceptions and these must be encouraged. Donald Miller is one of the leading examples of this genre. It may be better for churches to skip their performances and pool their resources for talented people such as Mr. Miller to get their message out.

References   [ + ]

History according to Pentecostals and Charismatics

An overview of how Pentecostals and Charismatics view history. The following four points are gleaned from discussions and readings within these parties.

  1. 1 to 100 A.D. The story unfolds. A perception that the Bible is finalized. This period is the golden age of Christianity and sets the standard.

  2. 101 to 1517 A.D. The Church is corrupt and theologically deviant. There is nothing much to write or necessary to know during this period.

  3. 1517 to 1905 A.D. A little better but still very stodgy. However, Edward Irving and the Irvingites in the 1830s and other fringe groups start a small but important restoration of the ancient Christian faith.

  4. 1906 the Azusa Street revival. The golden age of Christianity is restored. Anything from 1 to 100 A.D. and 1906 forward are acceptable teachings. Anything between 101 and 1830 A.D. and most from 1831 to 1905 are not.

This is a grass-roots definition and does not reflect the small number of academic Pentecostal and even smaller number of Charismatics who work hard to educate their constituencies on a proper reading and integration of history within their communities.

Charismatics, Headaches and Healings

CharismaticWorship

Examining the role of divine healing in charismatic churches and the urgency to review, modify, or abandon this as a staged event.

If you attend almost any charismatic church meeting, you are sure to hear about supernatural healings. They are usually abstract ones such as headaches banished, a sore back relieved, a short leg lengthened, and many other unusual conditions cured. The majority cannot be scientifically proven because of the vague symptoms, but the person feels better. There are seldom any that can be empirically proven.

The practice of divine healings is typical of a charismatic liturgical experience. The charismatic movement, originally birthed from mainline denominations in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the 1960s, was originally assigned to those people deeply connected with the pentecostal wave but still attended their traditional churches. They were part of a theological influence that erupted through the continent emphasizing a mystic union with God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, subsequent speaking in tongues and an emphasis on the supernatural.

Those imbued with the pentecostal wave and still attending their Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist and other mainline churches tried to bring their spiritual awakening to their traditional brethren, but it did not succeed. The result was that many of these people voluntarily left or were forced out. As a consequence, these people formed their independent churches. One of their attributes, apart from their emphasis on the supernatural, is the autonomous nature and avoidance of denominational or sectarian features. Because of this, there is a wide range of expressions and practices within the charismatic movement. There is no key leader, church, or theologian that represents them. Dialogue and cooperation exist between these independent churches, but no desire to form a hierarchical structure.

One may think that the charismatic movement is a small slice of the religious pie, but this is not the case. It is one of the fastest growing segments of the christian faith in the world. In the United States alone, the Barna Group states that four out of every ten independent churches are charismatic based, and 46% of those who attend a protestant meeting are Charismatic. (1)https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-Charismatic#.Vc1JVB_iubk

Divine healings is part of the charismatic emphasis on the supernatural and the mystic christian life. It is an important part of their religious identity.

Problems with exhibitions of divine healings

However, there are serious problems with the mystic rite that the charismatic movement must address.

First of all, the public exhibition of divine healings strengthen public sentiment that those practising are radicalized religious fanatics. It scares the general populace more than attracts. This healing practice, which is perceived as a staged act rather than fact by most members of the public, also further alienates the christian faith from being a regular participant in public social dialogue.

Secondly, the staged process of divine healing undermines the credibility of the message. I don’t know how many times I have had public discussions where the faith discussion is quickly shut down because they think the whole church thing is a fraudulent process that is for the elderly, the mentally weak, or those who are easily deceived. They usually quote faith healers they have seen on television, the radio, or in print magazines to back up their refusal to discuss any matters of the christian faith.

This leads to a serious concern. Unless the various branches of the protestant churches seriously confront the problems of perceived fraud and lack of accountability in the practice of divine healing, then a serious public relations problem exists. The lack of discipline may lead to a tipping point; some abuse relating to divine intervention will spark the already existent anti-church sentiment and will set a precedent for government intervention. As a result, this will send a very bad message that the church, which is supposed to pursue and encourage moral excellence, is an institution that cannot govern itself, nor be considered reputable. Whose fault is that? Is it a war on the church or is it a backlash the church has created for itself?

The historic problem of supernaturalism

This is not the first time in history that an overemphasis on the supernatural within the christian community has caused problems.

Both Origen in the second and John Chrysostom in the fourth-century touched on it. They agreed that very few pious people would ever achieve the status of producing miracles.(2)Origen, Against Celsus. As found in The Writings of Origen. Translated by the Rev. Frederick Crombie. Vol. II. Origen Contra Celsum. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1872. Pg. 426. For Chrysostom see the footnote below Chrysostom especially did not want to attach miracles to the Christian identity. He felt that superstition and magic would be an obstacle to personal growth. He also stated that there was a certain danger of pride with those who were miracle workers and very much de-emphasized such a ministry because of this.(3) Homily on Matthew 9:32 See also: Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues which covers Chrysostom’s beliefs regarding miracles.

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century dwelt deeply on the topic of miracles and formulated the definition into various degrees. He cautions against improperly assigning a natural phenomenon as a miracle. One example he used was an eclipse. To the astronomer, it is part of a routine pattern, but to the thirteenth-century layman, it was out of the natural order and, therefore, a miracle. Aquinas simply assigns this as a wondrous event.

He describes miracles as something out of the natural order of nature, such as the sea temporarily parting so that people can walk through it. The more the event goes against the laws of nature, the greater the miracle. The healing of a blind person, paralysis, etc., are actions that nature cannot do, and, therefore, are categorically a miracle. Another kind of miracle is where God intervenes where nature could have done the same thing such as curing a fever, or bringing on rain. He deems these as a lesser miracle.(4)Thomas Aquinas. Contra Gentils. 101 “On Miracles.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#101

One must realize that Aquinas lived in an era where mystic christianity was in a heightened stature. He realized there was a fundamental problem and clearly wrote out basic principles for defining a miracle. Although his work is almost 800 years old, it still surpasses what the present charismatic community has in place today for defining a miracle – which is nothing.

The eighteenth-century English philosopher, David Hume, among others, noted that superstition and adherence to mysticism were too strong a social constant in his society. It permeated all the theaters of decision making. From this perspective he produced this powerful sweeping statement.

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events.(5)David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1777 with introduction, comparative tables of contents, and analytical index by L.A. Selby-Bigge. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm

He further added that miracles should not justify a system of faith.(6)IBID Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Miracles used to rationalize a charismatic church or christianity as an authentic representation of religion instead of reason delegitimizes such movements within the Canadian social mosaic. Any religious leadership that uses miracles to promote their brand may have short term gain by preaching to the choir, but in the long term, the public will be further disassociated.

Nor are most Charismatics aware that they are simply reinventing the wheel. The topic of divine healings, mysticism, and the supernatural were a central core of European society for centuries. It dominated the political and social landscape. William Lecky, in his book, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, described the circumstances in the 17th to 18th centuries as this:

Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.(7)William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888. Pg. 157

He saw no difference in the attitudes of either the Protestants or the Catholics on the subject.

The improper application of miracles and the supernatural was one of the factors that forced a social revolution that regaled against any perceived spiritual intervention. The desupernaturalizing also had another important factor. It deprived Church of their authority and transferred it to a new entity. As a consequence, it enabled society to establish a new set of laws, selection processes for civic leaders, systems of government, and a different framework for scientific exploration. This correction was an overreaction that downgraded the realm of miracles and supernatural into the place of myth; a piece of history that should remind present day charismatics to tread carefully.

There is also a theological and common sense problem. If a church has regular weekly healing meetings based on the premise that miracles will happen, then this means they have the ability to suspend the laws of nature for an hour or two every week. Such a proposition displays a predictable pattern of health recovery and, therefore, a normal procedure. Such a custom is not consistent with what constitutes a miracle. A miracle is something that cannot be controlled or predicted in any way. This is not a realistic premise to encourage or practice.

Building a proper framework

Miracles do happen but the definition should be purposely narrow and only be declared when something occurs that is obviously outside the laws of regular nature. The cure for a common cold, or a back feeling better are too subjective. An amputated arm that grew back, or somebody clinically defined as dead and then suddenly brought back to life while someone was praying over the coffin are miracles are of substance. However, I have never seen anything like this happen.

It is important that churches who emphasize faith healing have a clear policy in place. An independent third party must empirically prove any miracle. Therefore, meetings that encourage divine healings should state that only a health care professional declares whether a miracle has happened.

It would be difficult to ascribe something as spontaneous healing with many ailments. Diabetes, most cancers, multiple sclerosis, or many other afflictions are all conditions that can be tricky to declare healed. Some can heal through natural means or can even go in remission. They can hide for long periods of time and then surprisingly reappear. These states can lead to a false hope and potentially to a premature death because a sick person who believes that a divine intervention has occurred may fail to take prescribed therapies or refuse medical treatment.

All healings and miracles should be listed according to Aquinas’ system: wonders of nature, greater miracles and lesser miracles.

Some would counter that the positive affirmation of community prayer heals a broken spirit and can alleviate emotional suffering. This then can cross over into the bodily realm and help those with heightened sensitivities to physical pain.

Many divine healing services succeed in encouraging people by instilling a sense of hope. Hope is hard to grasp for those who continually struggle due to a physical malady, lack financial means for the most elementary of provisions such as medications, dental work, food, or employment, or hurting through a divorce, death, or many other reasons. These are situations where many have quietly given up on life and live in the shadows. Many testimonies in healing services attest to overcoming such obstacles and finding the experience as a place for a new kick-start in life.

The psychological help and inspiration of a divine hope appears to be a great argument for divine healing services. However, these aren’t miracles. They are words of encouragement. They are a divine wonder.

These last two arguments gloss over the serious trust broken by faith healers and ignores the ominous task of rebuilding it. Until the various branches of the protestant movement seriously address this subject, the Good News will remain stagnant or even regress in the hearts of the majority of North Americans.

References   [ + ]

Thoughts on Ecstasy, Private Revelation, and Prophecy

The use of private revelations, ecstasy and prophecy in the 18th century European religious vernacular. What these words stood for, the growing opposition, and parallels to modern Christian mystics.

These states of Christian being had individual, group and societal effects. The perceived infusion of the divine impartation can be found in decision making on small personal things and large ones too. They had an impact in the larger political and community realm as well.

The following conclusions are from research derived from reading Medieval and Reformation literature on the subject along with these through historical narratives: William Lecky’s monumental work, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1 (1)William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888., Paul Carus’ publication, The History of the Devil and The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries by Hugh Trevor-Roper.(2)Further details on Christian mysticism and how it affected the role of Patristics can be found in the following article, The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy. A third influence is my affiliation with the modern Charismatic and Pentecostal communities for over 30 years. Their modern experiences, especially those of the Charismatics, accidentally parallel those of the Medieval period. This creates a framework to address this subject.

These three books demonstrate that all of Europe, whether Protestant or Catholic, was immersed in a mystic lifestyle. This age cannot be understood without this as a central axis.

Private revelation is understood as a divine message. This revelation was imparted on a person by a dream or vision. The person does not necessarily have to asleep in bed for this to occur but could be wide awake. It could be the discerning of a devil or witch’s presence. The experience could outcome with a miracle or healing. The private revelation could be an inner locution (an inner voice). It did not necessarily have to be major, nor theologically deep. It often applied to the mundane things in life such as decision making in a business transaction, marriage, divine appointment of a leader, or family life.(3)Decision making such as marriage, appointments of leaders etc. is my own conclusions based on being within the confines of the Charismatic movement that practices private revelations. It may be my own bias but this is seen as a natural progression of private revelation.

Charismatics and Pentecostals still believe in private revelation but this term is not consistently nor universally applied. Most contemporary Christian mystics would say, “God spoke to me,” and add nothing more.

The eighteenth century philosopher John Locke categorically railed against its effect. He called these types of persons enthusiasts:

Their minds being thus prepared, whatever groundless opinion comes to settle itself strongly upon their fancies is an illumination from the Spirit of God, and presently of divine authority: and whatsoever odd action they find in themselves a strong inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from heaven, and must be obeyed: it is a commission from above, and they cannot err in executing it.(4)An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke. Book IV, XIX:5

Locke was outlining the problem of absolutism with the office of private revelation. If someone speaks out publicly with a private revelation, then it is an absolute thought that cannot be disputed. The disputation against such a revelation would then be arguing against God. A person or institution could act or behave irrationally with little or no accountability to anyone else because the motivation was perceived to be of higher origin. Locke attempted to outline a balanced approach on dealing with private revelations in his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Private revelation would be especially problematic if leaders used it as a means to instruct the masses. The public would have no choice but give absolute consent to whatever the leader’s divine revelation consisted of.

Another practice was that of divine ecstasy. This is a state where the mind is either totally fixated on a religious subject such as the crucifixion of Christ, the love of God, the sign of the cross, the end-times etc. It typically was understood that the persons physical senses are totally overtaken by what is perceived as an external power. It may cause the person to go in a trance, or enter into a temporary catatonic state. The person is overwhelmed by the perceived presence of the divine.(5)Ecstasy A similar description is described in contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic theological terms as spirit baptism or slain in the spiritslain in the spirit may be a closer parallel because it can occur on numerous occasions. This is unlike spirit baptism which Pentecostals and Charismatics teach can only happen once.

The sixteenth century Teresa of Avila was a religious icon celebrated throughout all of Europe. Her book, the Inner Castle, “forms one of the most remarkablespiritual biographies with which only the “Confessions of St. Augustine” can bear comparison,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia(6)http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14515b.htm She popularized ecstasy throughout the international religious community. She described ecstasy in her book, The Inner Castle, as:

This supreme state of ecstasy never lasts long, but although it ceases, it leaves the will so inebriated, and the mind so transported out of itself that for a day, or sometimes for several days, such a person is incapable of attending to anything but what excites the will to the love of God; although wide awake enough to this, she seems asleep as regards all earthly matters.(7)The Inner Castle by Theresa of Avila. Chapter 4:18

St. John of the Cross echoed similar sentiments to that of Teresa, but added that the state of ecstasy provided knowledge beyond anything science could offer:

I was so far beyond,

So lost and absorbed,

I lost all my senses

I was of all sensing dispossessed;

And my spirit was filled

With knowledge not knowing,

Beyond all science knowing.(8)Nine verses made upon an ecstasy of high contemplation by John of the Cross. tr: Willis Barnstone 1968

The sixteenth century Stephanus’ Greek Lexicon devoted three columns to defining the word ecstasy,(9)Stephanus Vol. 3 Col. 570-572 This was not normative for Stephanus to devote so much page space. This long entry demonstrated how controversial and popular this noun had become.

Conyers Middleton, in his 1749 publication Free Inquiry, demonstrated that by his time the mark of a prophet was by the confirmation of an ecstatic experience. He attacked this correlation which was a direct reproach against the Church and Civil authorities:

For whereas the Montanists delivered their prophecies always in ecstasy, or with loss of senses ; it was then urged against them, “that this was the proof of a Diabolical spirit ; that the true Prophets never had such fits ; never lost their senses ; but calmly and sedately received and understood whatever was revealed to them.” And Epiphanius makes this the very criterion or distinguishing character between a true and false prophet ; that the true had no ecstasies, constantly retained his senses, and with firmness of mind apprehended and uttered the divine oracles. St. Jerome also declares, that the true Prophets never spake in ecstasy, or in madness of heart, like Montanus and his mad women, Prisca and Maximilla, but understood what they delivered, and could speak or bold their tongues, whenever they pleased, which these, who spake in ecstasy could not do. Eusebius also mentions a book of one Miltiades, written against Montanus, the purpose of which was to prove, that a prophet ought not to speak in ecstasy.(10)Conyers Middleton. A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers, which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church, from the Earliest Ages through Several Effective Centuries: By which it is shown, that we have no sufficient Reason to believe, upon the Authority of the Primitive Fathers, that any such Powers were continued to the Church, after the Days of the Apostles. London: R. Manby and H.S. Cox. 1749. Pg. 110

The Montanists were a critical piece of evidence by Middleton in demonstrating the improper use of the supernatural to communicate with and control society. It was a vanguard in the argument against the religious tyranny of the time.

Middleton’s diatribe set in motion new principles of thought that could now be expressed. Science no longer was a prisoner of prophecy, nor were the institutions of law, or civil duties, to be occupied solely by those people considered spiritually enlightened: spiritual absolutism could no longer dominate.

Evelyn Underhill was an English Anglo-Catholic writer in the early 1900s who devoted much of her intellectual pursuits documenting the concept of Christian mysticism. She wrote a comprehensive book entitled, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness.(11)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Underhill She acknowledges the religious dimension of ecstasy but believed it to be a psychological contrivement:

“Such ecstasy as this, so far as its physical symptoms go, is not of course the peculiar privilege of the mystics. It is an abnormal bodily state, caused by a psychic state: and this causal psychic state may be healthy or unhealthy, the result of genius or disease. It is common in the little understood type of personality called “sensitive” or mediumistic: it is a well-known symptom of certain mental and nervous illnesses. A feeble mind concentrated on one idea—like a hypnotic subject gazing at one spot—easily becomes entranced; however trivial the idea which gained possession of his consciousness. Apart from its content, then, ecstasy carries no guarantee of spiritual value. It merely indicates the presence of certain abnormal psycho-physical conditions: an alteration of the normal equilibrium, a shifting of the threshold of consciousness, which leaves the body, and the whole usual “external world” outside instead of inside the conscious field, and even affects those physical functions—such as breathing—which are almost entirely automatic. Thus ecstasy, physically considered, may occur in any person in whom (1) the threshold of consciousness is exceptionally mobile and (2) there is a tendency to dwell upon one governing idea or intuition. Its worth depends entirely on the objective value of that idea or intuition.

In the hysterical patient, thanks to an unhealthy condition of the centres of consciousness, any trivial or irrational idea, any one of the odds and ends stored up in the subliminal region, may thus become fixed, dominate the mind, and produce entrancement. Such ecstasy is an illness: the emphasis is on the pathological state which makes it possible. In the mystic, the idea which fills his life is so great a one—the idea of God—that, in proportion as it is vivid, real, and intimate, it inevitably tends to monopolize the field of consciousness. Here the emphasis is on the overpowering strength of spirit, not on the feeble and unhealthy state of body or mind. This true ecstasy, says Godferneaux, is not a malady, but “the extreme form of a state which must be classed amongst the ordinary accidents of conscious life.”

The mystics themselves are fully aware of the importance of this distinction. Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtedly “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.” “The great doctors of the mystic life,” says Malaval, “teach that there are two sorts of rapture, which must be carefully distinguished. The first are produced in persons but little advanced in the Way, and still full of selfhood; either by the force of a heated imagination which vividly apprehends a sensible object, or by the artifice of the Devil. These are the raptures which St. Teresa calls, in various parts of her works, Raptures of Feminine Weakness. The other sort of Rapture is, on the contrary, the effect of pure intellectual vision in those who have a great and generous love for God. To generous souls who have utterly renounced themselves, God never fails in these raptures to communicate high things.”(12)http://www.sacred-texts.com/myst/myst/myst19.htm

The Catholic Encyclopedia was well aware of such an argument and countered:

“The rigid condition of the ecstatic’s body has given rise to a fourth error. Ecstasy, we are told, is but another form of lethargy or catalepsy. The loss of consciousness, however, that accompanies these latter states points to a marked difference.

(5) In view of this, some have sought to identify ecstasy with the hypnotic state. Physically, there are usually some points of contrast. Ecstasy is always accompanied by noble attitudes of the body, whereas in hospitals one often marks motions of the body that are convulsive or repelling; barring, of course, any counter-command of the hypnotist. The chief difference, though, is to be found in the soul. The intellectual faculties, in the case of the saints, became keener. The sick in our hospitals, on the contrary, experience during their trances a lessening of their intelligences, while the gain is only a slight representation in the imagination. A single idea, let it be ever so trivial, e.g. that of a flower, or a bird, is strong enough to fasten upon it their profound and undivided attention. This is what is meant by the narrowing of the field of consciousness; and this is precisely the starting-point of all theories that have been advanced to explain hypnotic ecstasy. Moreover, the hallucination noticed in the case of these patients consists always of representations of the imagination. They are visual, auricular, or tactual; consequently they differ widely from the purely intellectual perceptions which the saints usually enjoy. It is no longer possible, then, to start with the extremely simple hypothesis that the two kinds of phenomena are one and the same.”(13)http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05277a.htm

Another important contributor to the public’s supernatural sense was the office of prophecy. Thomas Aquinas had described it as the greatest gift because it could take all sensory data, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual and make a cohesive meaning out of it.(14)See Thomas Aquinas on the Miracle of Tongues for more information Anyone who was conferred with such a gift, would rise to prominence. It was reserved for the blessed — which was typically assigned to Church representatives — persons who were central to the international, national, and local political mechanizations. This definition seemed to hold quite well in the Catholic realm but it was not universal within the Protestant world. The Huguenot Camisards, who lived in the mountainous south-central part of France called Cévennes, saw the prophetic rite as a God sanctioned directive for the overthrowing of a Catholic based Government.

The study of these three terms are preliminary. It is a good start but I am still not thoroughly convinced about prophecy or ecstasy. Prophecy from a Catholic point of view is understood, but the Protestant position is not clearly researched in this work and needs more attention. Why the term ecstasy got dropped from the religious vernacular and slain in the spirit or baptism in the spirit took its place, are not resolved.

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Why the Evangelical Church is Declining

Candy bar with Jesus name

The evangelical church as we know it is shrinking in size and influence. What is happening?

Churches from numerous types of backgrounds see that their numbers are dropping and are quickly upgrading their style of worship, renovating the church foyer into coffee shops, pressing people into the weekly small groups, producing bigger or better special dramas or shows, or spending on new personnel and equipment to better communicate through the web, apps, video and other burgeoning technologies. These help but there is something far deeper going on.

The problem of intellectual integrity

Rachel Held Evans, a popular American christian blogger and author, has recognized the serious problem of younger people dropping out. She wrote an important article on why millennials are leaving the church. She states, among many things, that it has to do with the clash between faith and modernity. Millennials feel caught between “their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.”

Mark A. Noll, a well-known history professor at the University of Notre Dame adds to the idea of intellectual integrity. He wrote in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that Evangelicals don’t think, and concludes that there is not much of an evangelical mind. This problem then surfaces in the evangelical church being ill-equipped to challenge the world of contemporary learning with little room for self-criticism or complex faith issues. Children today are raised up in a social climate with accelerated methods of learning that are complex. Therefore, the attraction between the younger generation and the older evangelical culture is tenuous at best.

Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, adds to this. He believes that evangelicals have never been taught how to think for themselves within a christian framework.

Evangelicals have been very good at providing Bible-study helps—word studies, for instance… But I’m not sure your average evangelical is able to use the Bible as the interpretive framework for his or her daily life.

The largest and fastest growing christian sect, and one the fastest growing religions in the world today, the Renewalists, an umbrella term for Pentecostals, Charismatics, and any person or group influenced by their mystical doctrines, are not equipped to intellectually engage with the modern culture. They have neither the knowledge of 2000 years of christian history and practice, nor the understanding of modern technology and social constructs to actively participate in the complex challenges that society is confronted with. They have instead into the realm of christian mysticism as an alternative to engaging the challenges confronting all of humanity. Many Pentecostals, and especially Charismatics, believe that reason and faith are opposite in meaning and that the only solution is to meet God through a mystical experience. Reason is a barrier. This solution appears even more distant and radical than the previous iteration of evangelical christianity to the public. Christian mysticism is a shift in approach but the anti-intellectualism remains consistent.

There have been so many changes in health, technologies, gender roles, morality, relationships, and scales of economics, that they have created many grey areas. The Bible was written when none of the present technologies and discoveries existed — contemporary discoveries that have impacted greatly. They have created tectonic societal shifts. The future of evangelicalism is how leadership engages in these discussions. Avoidance or one-word answers are not sufficient.

Evangelicals are coming to realize, especially children growing up in this framework, that their religious system contains an insufficient answer for today’s challenges. Many churches weekly promote the old evangelical lines of accept Jesus or that any of life’s problems can be answered with Jesus or promote more faith, piousness, earnestness or sincerity to plow through life’s difficult challenges. It doesn’t take long to discover that these simple formulas do not work in most situations and are too superficial.

However, it is not just millennials, it is also generation x people leaving as well for similar reasons.

The war against modernity is over. Evangelicals need a new identity.

The evangelical movement has always been a counter-movement. One of its central tenets was rejectionist of modernity. Science was believed to be a competitor for the religious mind and the overthrower of the old order. This war against modernity has been honourably lost but many evangelicals have not given up fighting in this battle field. It is part of the evangelical tradition. Modernists hear these volleys as sounds in the distant past, echoes of a time that was. Evangelicalism as an opposer of modernism has run its course. It is no longer relative. The younger generation can no longer use this as part of their religious identification.

The Church as a marketed brand instead of a trusted source has negative consequences.

Another challenge is the fact that millennials and gen-x have become much more adept at screening out marketing and campaign pitches. That is old schtick. The evangelical churches emphasis on slick marketing and branding with little emphasis on content has hit many peoples BS radar.

This can be found in one George Carlin’s most famous comedic routines. George was a well-known stand-up comic, satirist, writer and author. He stated that “When it comes to bull***t, big-time, major league bull***t, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion.”(1)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r-e2NDSTuE

As of August 5, 2016, there are over five-million views on his delivery on this subject. He was merely reflecting a common public opinion – one similarly echoed in my home and community that surrounded me while growing up. George’s audience loudly cheered him on. The evangelical church has not attempted in any way tried to remedy this tension except for dismissal of this community as utterly lost.

There are so many diverse evangelical churches competing for the same audience that it makes propositional truth appear as a relative entity.

There are so many independent evangelical churches being established with different sets of values, missions, and emphasis, that the public has become confused on the evangelical faith. With no central authority or definition, the conflicting messages remove the idea of a consistent propositional truth. Evangelical churches are viewed then as personal brand from the selection of choices found in the religious supermarket.

The Church does not have the budget or the skills to compete as an alternative entertainment package.

The attempt to compete with music studios, movie theatres, Netflix, sports and recreation for their audience has gone flat. They can never compete at this level and win due to the massive amount of money needed to produce a successful project. Neither is it the primary mission of the church to do this.

Adapting to the changing role of church in society.

The church as a universal institution was once involved in all the processes from birth to death. Education, hospitals, welfare, marriage, and cemeteries were once in the realm of the church affairs. This has all been completely transferred to the state. There is no primary role for the church in the present society. It is in an identity crisis.

What needs to be done?

For the evangelical church to survive, there are a number of steps that need to be taken, the first being the most critical one — real content through empowered leadership. They need to be specifically trained to lead congregations through the accelerating myriad of technological, ethical, and moral labyrinths being produced at a dizzying rate.

Secondly, If christians simply understood their own history, there would be much less need to reinvent the wheel in many basic structures of right christian living in this modern day.

Studying the ancient sages is a good reference point and should be the start for creating a christian worldview. As one reads historical writings, one will naturally conclude that these ancient writers were far more intelligent than given credit, and although our technology has definitely evolved, philosophically, we are no different. For everything that happens today, there is likely a philosophical parallel in history where societies, communities and peoples have wrestled with and have come up with a solution.

Discovering these ancient writers and applying them to modern problems should not be a requirement for the lay-person, but mandatory for any church leader. It is their responsibility to communicate these messages in a manner easily understood by a contemporary audience.

When using historical traditions as a guide for building an alternative worldview, it is not meant to be rejectionist of the modern science community or their opinions. Philosophically there are some important differences, but truth, whether it is found in science or in religion, still remains truth.

An emphasis on content would bring churches to similar core values and the public would recognize a coherent set of truths consistent among the broad spectrum of the evangelical faith.

Evangelicals have to change the approach to Scripture. Scripture does not contain every answer to life’s problems. It does provide essential information on the character and nature of God, our relationship with Him and life’s vital questions, but it cannot be used as a legal text for daily living. It is the role of the church to decide exactly what those answers are, based on inference, history, experience and wisdom. It takes strong, trained and experienced leadership to accomplish this.

Evangelicals need to be more active in right daily living and positively contributing to the greater social discussion with emphasis pointing to a better alternative. The Catholic Church is a great example. The Pope and the Catholic Church always brings about alternative views to the world on health, social, and political viewpoints. They are very well thought out and make sense. It is very rare that political pundits or the public have disdain or disregard for their message. Public pundits do not normally agree but accept the Catholic Church as part of the global discussion. Evangelicals have never been invited to that greater discussion because they have never demonstrated this same type of approach.

One of the greatest problems in building a comprehensive framework for understanding and interpreting life from a christian religious perspective is the Renewalist/Evangelical bias of history. There is an assumption that the contemporary mind has far superior ideas about God, the world and life around us than medieval man. This view tends to be rejectionist of all history and its writings. The historical thought has no utilitarian value for today. A short synopsis is this: the church was good up until 300 AD, and then went corrupt, sporadic instances happened for the next 1200 years but nothing of importance, then the Protestant revolt happened, and some acceleration happened in proper christian living. In essence, 1500 years or so of christian history was irrelevant and it was up to the protestant sect of Christianity to reinvent itself. This reinvention is still in process but since 1500 years of antecedents have been rejected, there is a look to alternative influences to fill the void. These alternatives are usually found through celebrity endorsements, the building of a religious celebrity persona, cliches like got Jesus? or abandoning any sense of reason and going into an extreme form of christian mysticism.

There is also an assumption that modern evangelicals are superior to their catholic counterparts in moral and intellectual thought. This excludes taking ideas and thoughts from this community who has diligently wrestled through many of these contemporary issues on a deep level.

So my answer on how the evangelical church can remain relevant and attract people — get some rich content and communicate it well. Superficial can only go so far.

This is a crisis time for the evangelical movement. If it cannot redefine itself with a deep and real purpose, its future will be uncertain.

For further reading:

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