Dear Associates, Students and Friends:
This month’s article discusses priorities. It is titled “Why Churches Fall Apart” and it is transcribed and edited from an audiotape Dr. Martin presented in 1996. In this article, Dr. Martin deals with the failure of churches to give their members what they need to grow spiritually and produce more mature members of the body of Christ. Churches today, and throughout history, have failed to use the one tool that would give spiritual satisfaction. As Dr. Martin wrote:
“The Holy Scriptures indicate that there will develop among the laity of the world (in a few years ahead of us) a great antipathy and disdain towards Ministers, Priests, Evangelists, Rabbis, and Imams who represent religious organizations, whether large or small.”
“Chaos in the Churches” 1
This is beginning to take place at an increasing rate, even in the evangelical Christian churches. Dr. Martin continues:
“The principal reason this antipathy will develop among the laity is because they will finally realize that religious authorities have led them astray from the essential teachings of the Holy Scriptures. They have been led into idolatrous customs and traditions that come directly from paganism. These heathen customs and religious beliefs have been palmed off on the Christian world as biblical teachings.”
“Chaos in the Churches”
Churches decline because biblical teaching is watered down or ignored, or falsehoods are taught.
George Barna makes his living performing surveys for Christian churches on various topics. He and Frank Viola coauthored a book called Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. 2 They discovered that most practices within the contemporary Western Christian churches are pagan at worst, and unbiblical at best.
Their recommendation is simply this: the core of true spiritual growth, the way to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) is through the study of God’s Word. Therefore, individual Bible study should supplement any group study. Challenging questions should be allowed, otherwise those in the audience are mere “receivers.” Everyone should be an active co-learner. 3
In the first epistle of John, the apostle mentions three things that we should know as believers in Christ. Note the last one in particular:
“ We know [are aware] that whosoever is born of God sins not; but he that is begotten of God keeps himself, and that wicked one touches him not.
 We know [are aware] that we are of God, and the whole world lies in wickedness. And
 we know [are aware] that the Son of God is come, and has given us an understanding, that we may know him [have knowledge of Him] that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.”
1 John 5:18–20
The living Word of God, the man Christ Jesus, is known to us through the written word of God, the Holy Scriptures. For some, that knowledge and that awareness taught from the Bible is not enough. Some people (indeed many people) seek additional special validation, some special revelation or sign to tell them that God loves really them. Yet they already have such a special revelation and validation. You have it too.
That special revelation that assures you of your great value to God is the Holy Scripture. Temporarily, until He returns, He has left us with the written word of God that communicates His love to us, literally communicating God’s thoughts into your mind. Yet the Scriptures are ignored by people to their great loss.
This is why churches fail and fall apart. The Scriptures are not understood to be “sufficient” for them. Our sufficiency is from God (2 Corinthians 3:5) and He communicates with us through His Scriptures.
Since the 1990s, the Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago has been one of the country’s most influential mainline evangelical churches. Willow Creek began conducting congregational surveys. They thought they had developed a method of ministering that would nurture the spiritual growth of the members of their congregation. The idea was that church growth would come through individual spiritual growth. Spiritual growth came by helping others grow. In 2004, Willow Creek Church began new surveys to gauge the effectiveness of their ministry (small study groups, worship service, music, counseling, youth groups, etc.) in the spiritual lives of their members. 4 The results of the 2004 survey, and surveys at other churches, presented the leaders with a disturbing and frightening realization.
They discovered to their horror that their much heralded programs and ministries resulted in the “best and brightest” of their members — their oldest and most mature non-clergy, unpaid members — were leaving the church in surprising numbers. In fact, the numbers and percentages were stunning.
These members did not leave angry. No specific issue turned away these once dedicated, bedrock members. They did not go and start their own congregations. They had no personality conflicts with other members. They had no doctrinal differences; they just stopped attending. They simply drifted away. The people who left were not growing spiritually from all the church programs and they just stopped attending. They were spiritually bored. They were not growing in grace and in knowledge (2 Peter 3:18).
Willow Creek (and other mega-churches, as it was later discovered) was losing its core members, the backbone of the congregation. These departing members were not being supplied with mature biblical teaching to nourish their spiritual lives.
The senior pastor of Willow Creek is Bill Hybels, considered by many to be a leader in the “church growth” movement in America. His method of ministering to the community that he promoted successfully (it was thought) for decades, deemphasized personal Bible study while church programs promoted individual personal growth. The survey revealed what was lacking in Willow Creek church:
“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
Willow Creek learned that people need to take personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth and begin reading their own Bibles.
My observation is that most church leaders act as if leadership involves telling people what to think. Most churches give lip service to the Bible, whether in a liturgy reading, explaining a few passages in sermons, or in hymns based on biblical themes and verses, yet in reality they rarely teach from the Bible. This is certainly the case in most mainline Catholic and Protestant churches. There are basically three categories of churches:
(1) Those who largely ignore the Bible yet claim their doctrines are based on it.
(2) Those who teach from the Bible but discourage personal Bible study and questioning.
(3) Those who teach from the Bible, encourage personal study, and even hold small group meetings, yet they hold to doctrines (usually nonbiblical) that channel or mold all sermons and group Bible study. This limits discussion and questions. Questions and discussions challenging certain “orthodox” doctrines are discouraged. This lack of questioning also discourages deeper study.
This was the case with the religious education I received in the Lutheran Church as a teenager. I read from a Bible history book and not from the Bible itself. My first introduction to religious doctrine was from Luther’s Small Catechism, revised and “modernized,” but not from the Bible. The Catechism assumed the Trinity was true, it did not prove it so. Instruction on how to live a righteous life came from the minister, and I had to take his word for it that the teaching was biblical. Basic religious education was always one step away from the Bible. Why not just teach from the Bible?
From what my minister said, things were different in the Lutheran Church in Milwaukee the 1920s. Interest by the adult Lutheran members to learn Scripture in the original languages was so great that the minister held Hebrew and Greek classes. Later however, the Hebrew course was dropped from lack of interest and eventually the Greek class was dropped.
In the late 1970s, Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California required courses in Hebrew and Greek for School of Theology graduate students. Later the Hebrew requirement was dropped. When I attended in 1984 the mandatory Greek courses had become electives. At present no Hebrew or Greek courses are required at Fuller seminary unless you are working toward a professional academic degree. This followed a trend for most seminaries: Hebrew and Greek requirements decreased enrollment, so language requirements ended.
I mention all this to give my witness of a gradual watering down of standards and a decrease of biblical teaching and knowledge in my mainline conservative Lutheran church and at a major evangelical seminary where first-rate scholars taught. The Willow Creek and other surveys show that this trend is occurring in all denominations, in all seminaries, and in all churches. 5 It affects many churches around the United States. For mature Christians the nation’s churches are becoming a spiritual wasteland.
What do people want from their church? A major finding from the Willow Creek surveys was that 87% of people wanted to understand the Bible in greater depth. They were not being taught Bible or its message. This is astonishing but also encouraging. It means that people in the churches surveyed were not being weaned from “milk” to “meat” as Paul told the Corinthian ekklesia:
“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal [fleshy], even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto [up to now] you were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able [even now you cannot be fed with meat]. For you are yet carnal [fleshy]; for whereas there is among you envying. and strife, and divisions, are you not carnal [fleshy], and walk as men?”
1 Corinthians 3:1–3
In Hebrews chapter 5, after discussing the subject of Melchisedec Paul speaks in frustration:
“… you are dull of hearing. For when for the time you ought to be teachers, you have need that one teach you again which be the first principles [rudimentary elements] of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.
For every one that uses milk is unskillful [untried, with no experience] in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age [mature], even those who by reason of use [habit] have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
Anyone who lacks experience or is “unskillful” in “the word of righteous” (the Holy Scriptures) is a babe in the faith. People today desire what they are not receiving from their churches. As the apostle Peter wrote the ministers are supposed to:
“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight [supervising] thereof, not by constraint [compulsion], but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.”
1 Peter 5:2
The main function of leaders in the ekklesia is to teach the Word of God. Everything else is secondary.
I hope to speak again at Grace Chapel, 1418 San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead, California in December. Check the “Events” button on the ASK homepage (http://www.askelm.com/news/events2.asp) for details. This event is free and open to the public. I will speak on “Forgiving God,” based on my article by the same name at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d031002.htm. This is important information that everyone needs to hear.
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We humbly and greatly thank you for your contributions throughout the year. You are lights to the world and support us greatly. We know that you sometimes feel “alone” out there, alone among family, friends, alone in a vast spiritual wilderness. You may feel like a misfit in your own society but in fact, this forces you to conduct personal Bible study.
“Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That you may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom you shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life.”
Your financial support, your prayers, your calls, your notes, your expressions of encouragement, even your criticisms all make it easy for us to be thankful to God for brethren like you. Such responses tell us clearly that you are reading and studying your own Bible more and more, taking the Word of God seriously, as a means for God to communicate his thoughts (written thousands of years ago) to you.
1 “Chaos in the Churches” is Chapter 23 of Dr. Martin’s book The Essentials of New Testament Doctrine (Portland, OR: ASK Publications, 2000/2006), available online at http://askelm.com/essentials/ess032.htm.
2 The documentation in their book is impressive. See http://www.paganchristianity.org. Readers of ASK should recognize much of the information in their book. Barna and Viola reached the same conclusions through their own independent research that Dr. Martin published decades ago. As usual he was ahead of his time.
3 In fact, most “growing” churches use some form of home bible study to approximate the biblical model of the synagogue. See Dr. Martin’s “Synagogues and Ekklesias” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d051201.htm.
4 Willow Creek continues to conduct surveys on a variety of matters relating to the spiritual life and needs of their members and has expanded the survey to other churches.
5 America’s oldest colleges and universities were founded to serve religious ends and to teach the Bible. Intense individual study was required. Other subjects were originally subsidiary to biblical and religious curricula and intended for tent ministry skills.
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