Parable of the SUV

January 21, 2016

He put another parable before them, saying, “A certain ‘mainline’ Christian denomination may be compared to an SUV. This SUV was large, and held many passengers. It was a vehicle that had been on the market for many years and the world was quite familiar with it.

For perhaps as many as 30 or more years, this make and model of SUV had an increasing tendency to swerve very sharply to the left when it was driven. In fact, it almost seemed as if the SUV would move to the left while it was parked. It was possible for drivers to steer this SUV straight down the road, but only with a great deal of difficulty. And sometimes, no amount of effort would keep it from drifting to the left.

This SUV’s tendency to swerve to the left was well known by most people. Drivers and passengers alike knew about this tendency, as did other drivers on the road. Some of the drivers of these SUVs hoped, some even prayed, that the SUVs would stop swerving to the left, but none of their efforts met with success. Interestingly, some drivers and passengers actually liked this characteristic of the SUVs and never wanted another kind of vehicle. They appreciated this left-swerving tendency.

Importantly, this tendency for the SUV to swerve sharply to the left was well known by the executives of the auto maker. Some of the executives were actually quite pleased that the SUV had this performance characteristic and encouraged the engineers to keep and even enhance this design feature. Some executives seemed mostly ambivalent about the matter. They did not say anything one way or the other about it. Finally, there were other executives, who, while they were very much aware of this characteristic, did nothing to correct it even though they had the authority to do so.

It so happened that one of these left-swerving SUVs was driving down the road. This particular SUV was being driven and occupied by people who really preferred that the SUV not pull hard to the left. Not surprisingly, the SUV went off of the highway to the left, and rolled over in the center median of the highway. By the grace of God, all of the occupants were able, without assistance, to exit the SUV. Miraculously none of the them were injured physically. Yes, they were shaken up, some were trembling from the experience, but by and large they were reflective about what just happened and importantly why.

They huddled together in the median a short distance from the overturned SUV and prayed with grateful hearts for God’s gracious protection of them. Almost the instant that they said their ‘Amen’, the SUV burst into flames and it burned until their was nothing left but a smoldering shell of twisted steel. Curiously, several other SUVs of the same model passed by on the roadway immediately after the accident, their drivers struggling to keep their vehicles from also going off into the center median, many of them alternately driving back and forth between the left shoulder and the main lanes of the road.

The driver of that burned-out SUV soon had a new vehicle. This time, one that was able to be driven without the dangerous tendency to swerve to the left. And all of the driver’s passengers were quite relieved.”



This sounds about right.

February 18, 2009

A recent Ellison Research study found that 22% of respondent prefer one brand of toothpaste and use it only.  Similarly, 19% prefer one brand of toilet paper, and use over all other brands.  16% of respondents said they prefer one religious denomination over all others, and “use” it exclusively.  Conclusion…surveyed people have a stronger preference for what they use to clean their mouths and their bottoms, than for the institutions that serve to teach about the salvation of their souls.

But this sounds about right to me.  I have contended for some time, including in couple of articles at this site, that the last 25 or so years have brought with them the diminishing of religious denominations and the flourishing of faithful individual congregations.  Some of these congregations, might “network” with other like-minded groups of believers, but those networks sometimes include congregations that bear a different “brand” on the sign outside their places of worship.  Religious liberalism has brought with it the presumably unintended consequence of the destruction of the overarching institutions which their leaders represent and the elevation of the local body of believers, even among so-called connectional denominations.  I am convinced from personal experience and observation that the parent churches among the Presbyterians (USA), the United Methodists, the Episcopal Church (USA) among others, are nearly rotten to the core. 

Yet, there remain faithful individual congregations among them that still are unwavering in their belief in such essential “first order” theological matters as the authority and accuracy of scripture (particularly as it relates to the subject of qualifications for the office of elder in a church, and the clear teaching of the Bible on such matters as sexual immorality, both homosexual and heterosexual),  the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ’s atonement for sin, the Trinity, and the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. 

It is the apparent uncertainty, or dismissal of these core doctrines that have resulted in the irrelevancy of denominations, while adherence to them has caused individual collections of faithful believers at the local congregational level to thrive.

It seems to beg the question…”Do the facts not speak for themselves and are the metrics of membership loss and indeed even entire congregational loss not obvious to everyone, particularly the people who sit in the seats of authority among these old and dying institutions of faith?”  It seems so plainly obvious, that it speaks not so much to ignorance, but perhaps more to a sordid sort of defiance.

Sperately, but not unrelated, check out this link and be sure to look at both the “Breakdown of Religious Belief” and the “Topography of Faith”.  The map is almost too cool.  Roll your mouse over the map of the US and look at the stats to the right.

“A little dab’ll do ya!”

June 26, 2008

Brylcreem (pronounced “brill-cream”) was a men’s hair grooming product that was huge in the early and mid 20th century.  The product produced a wet look (picture Elvis in the 1950’s) that was popular until the early 60’s when longer, shaggier, dry hair became popular.  Brylcreem was basically a combination of water, mineral oil and beeswax.  One of their product claims, in differentiating themselves from their competition, was that a man did not need to use much of the product to achieve the desired results.  Their marketing jingle that played on television and radio went like this:

“Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya.  Use more, but only if you dare.  But watch out, the gals will all pursue ya.  They’ll love to run their fingers through your hair.”

The apostle Paul tells us about “a little dab” doing much.  In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is teaching the young church in Corinth about a major issues they had failed to address, and needed to remedy.  Paul’s concern was that the issue at hand would spread throughout the church in an almost irreversible manner.  To make his point, he uses an analogy of leaven, or yeast, saying that a little bit of it will affect a whole lump of dough.

And what was the leaven that Paul was warning the Corinthian church about?  Sexual immorality.  But he was not warning about its presence in the culture around the church, he was specifically warning about its presence WITHIN the church.  And the particular sexual immorality Paul had been made aware of was of a kind and nature that even the pagans did not tolerate, specifically, a man in the church was sexually immoral with his father’s wife.  Even today, there is a disparaging profanity that describes this form of sexual immorality.

Sexual immorality is a term that, for me at least, encompasses a wide range of human sexual behavior.  Thankfully, the one identified by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 is probably a more uncommon one.  But my understanding of scripture suggests that ANY sexual contact that occurs outside the boundaries of a covenental marriage relationship between one man and one woman, would be properly classified as “sexually immoral.”  And sexual activity includes vaginal, anal and oral, in spite of the attempted redefinition of the latter by William Jefferson Clinton.  So, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, friends with benefits, incest, bestiality, and homosexuality all fit under the umbrella of “sexual immorality.”  And using that as the guide, I think it is fair to say that there is a presence of sexual immorality in our culture, and unfortunately, it is also present IN THE CHURCH!

The “leaven is already in the lump” in several of the major denominations of the Christian church in the United States.  And there is at least the appearance that little if anything is being done to comply with Paul’s instructions on what do do about it.  And what exactly are Paul’s instructions?  To not associate with anyone in the church who is sexually immoral, and to PURGE the evil (person) from among you.”  Harsh?  Yeah, I suppose it is.  But the health of the church, the body of Christ, depends on this sort of drastic action.  (Now, lest anyone think we are to abandon the sinner, that is not the case.  In Galatians 6, Paul teaches that those who are spiritual should seek to restore him/her.)

Yes, the leaven is in the lump.  The ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly homosexual man, to the office of Bishop has rendered the Episcopal Church, apostate.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to wrestle with its own ordination standards year after year after year.  Thankfully, they have maintained a scriptural view of the qualifications for ministry, but the fact that they have not purged from their fellowship those who seek ordination (which by definition means they are members) and who do not cling to the so-called “fidelity and chastity” standards for the office of teaching elder found in their Book of Order, suggests that they too are apostate.  The United Methodist Church also continues to wrestle with matters of authority relative to the conduct of same-sex unions of its members, by its clergy.  The fact that this continues to be a topic of conversation suggests that this church too is falling away through its failure to comply with Paul’s clear instructions on how to deal with the matter of sexual immorality.

Just further reason why I am at peace with my self-description as being “anti-denominational.”

What’s in a name?

June 18, 2008

For many years, I worked for a division of The Coca-Cola Company.  It did not take me long after starting my career with the company to realize that its most priceless assets were its brands.  Specifically, the brand names that it uses to market its products.  The flagship brand of course is “Coca-Cola” or “Coke.”  Both of these names are literally known and understood world wide.  Studies consistently list them as among the top one or two brand names in the world in terms of recognition.

In addition to recognition, those brands are also understood to MEAN something.  They MEAN brown colored, sweet tasting, carbonated soft drink, with a particular and unique flavor that is consistent around the world.  [The slight variations that people claim are the result of variations in the taste of the water used to make the product and the type of sweetener that is used, which does vary from market to market.]

Because words, including words that are used as brand names, mean something, people tend to rely on them.  The meaning of the word “Coke” was so important to people that when The Coca-Cola Company temporarily changed the formulation of Coca-Cola in 1985, there was a near revolution among consumers.  The so-called “New Coke” fiasco has become legendary, and a classic example of a company asking the wrong questions, not listening clearly to their consumers, and relying too heavily on market research that is critically flawed in its methodology.

The names, or “brands” if you will, that represent the denominations also have meaning.  Actually, that’s not right.  I should say, they used to have meaning.  Fifty years ago you could say the word “Presbyterian,” or “Lutheran,” or “Methodist,” or “Baptist,” and someone familiar with them would have been able to say what those words meant.  And by meaning, I am suggesting an explanation could be given for what they believed and stood for.  And those explanations would likely have been pretty consistent across several responders.  I contend that is not the case anymore.

But on a more contemporary level, and because the news is fresh, I will “pick on” the Baptists to make a point.  If I say the word “baptist” to describe a church, tell me what its theology will be?  Can you do it?  I will save you the time and effort.  The answer is there is no way to tell.  By simply describing a church as “Baptist” you could be exposed to teaching that is on either end of the theological continuum characterized on one end as Arminian and on the other as Calvinist.  The differences between these two theological models are NOT insignificant.  In fact, the differences are huge, speaking directly to what one believes about the nature and “abilities” of man, and the character and sovereignty of God.

Want proof of this contradiction?  The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY is organized, staffed and teaches a theology that is decidedly Reformed.  They are Calvinistic from top to bottom administratively and academically.  While not all of its graduates will fully embrace Reformed theology in their ministries, I dare say many and perhaps MOST will.  And incoming students are making decisions to attend Southern based on the seminary’s clearly stated doctrinal position. 

Standing in stark contradiction to this reality, the Southern Baptist Convention elected with a huge majority, a pastor named Johnny Hunt as its president earlier this month.  Hunt is strongly Arminian.  In fact, he is hosting a conference in his church in Georgia in November of this year, to refute Calvinism.  The outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, wrote a book critical of Calvinism entitled Trouble With The Tulip, referring to the acronym used to describe the so-called 5 Points of Calvinism. 

With this tension in mind, if someone were to tell you they are Baptist, or that they worship in a Baptist church, what do they believe about the sovereignty of God, or what teaching influence are they under theologically?  The short answer is: you can’t tell by virtue of the “brand”.  In fact, it seems that the only thing that is consistent in Baptist churches is an adherence to credo-baptism, or believer’s baptism by immersion.  However, as a denomination, they are not unique in this particular dogma.  So aside from this not-unique distinction, what do the Baptists stand for that differentiates them from other denominations, or for that matter from “non” or “inter” donominational Christian fellowships who express a preference for credo-baptism?  I don’t ask that rhetorically.  I would love to know.

Similarly confusing contradictions between the historic and contemporary understandings of other denominations can also be identified.  The issues at the root of these contradictions will likely be the subject of future posts as I explain my recently articulated bias toward “anti-denominationalism.”  But for now, the bottom line of this post is that I contend that denominational identities and meanings have become, at best, unreliable.  At their worst, they could be regarded as downright deceptive.  Thus, in losing their meaning, they have lost their utility and their purpose.  This in turn makes them largely meaningless, and on some important levels, irrelevant.

As a final thought, is it only me, or has anyone else noticed how many new churches are sprouting up, that are NOT using denominational names as a part of their identity?  Are these all “non” or “inter” denominational churches?  Or, is it just in vogue to use some amorphous name?  Or, are new church planters intentionally avoiding being identified with a particular denomination?  I know for an absolute fact, that in at least some cases, avoidance is a delibrate strategy!

Some explanations, before the explanation.

June 16, 2008

A few days ago, I posted an article where I said that I would identify myself as “anti-denominational.”  This was in response to the question “what are you?” with respect to my church affiliation.  As I begin to explain my thinking, it is important that I make a few things clear on the front end.

First, I am by no means angry.  I have been blessed richly by the various churches that I have been associated with as a congregant and as a leader. 

Second, neither I, nor my family have ever been “injured” in any way whatsoever by any individual church leader, congregation, or denomination.

Third, I am not suggesting that anyone should abandon their affiliation with any particular church or denomination.  Perceiving myself to be “anti-denominational” is a personal matter and not a cause that I am teaching, aside from explaining myself here.

Fourth, I am in no way suggesting that an effort ought to be put forth to seek the demise of the denominations.  My self-description as “anti-denominational” is not a personal call-to-action to bring about this end, and I am certainly not suggesting anyone else should either.  Furthermore, I am not sure any particular deconstruction effort needs to be put forth, as the denominations are doing a remarkably fine job of moving themselves toward extinction.

Fifth, while I don’t expect everyone (or more realistically, anyone) to agree with my views, they do not come without being informed by personal experience.  I am not just a spectator on the sidelines throwing rocks.  Our family has moved geographically several times.  These moves have afforded us the opportunity to become associated with a variety of churches.  I currently worship in a church in a small rural town that is a part of a large mainline denomination.  We love the people that make up this church and we have been made to feel welcome to a greater degree than we might have originally expected.  I do not agree with all of the theology that represents the doctrinal underpinnings of the denomination, but I have a wonderful relationship with the pastor, and we challenge each other in our differences with a mutual respect and affection for one another.  

Before we moved to the country, we were members of a church in a large city that described itself as inter-denominational.  However, it had decided leanings toward the particular denomination that was the basis of the pastor’s seminary education and original ordination.  For several years prior to that, our family worshiped in a church that was a member of a large denomination, different from the one we currently fellowship with.  And in yet another city, I was ordained as an elder of a large mainline protestant denomination different from the two mentioned above. 

While these transitions might appear to be the product of some sort of theological indecisiveness, or “shopping,” I can assure you that was not the case.  The theology that I profess and which can be found stated elsewhere on this site, is not a new formation by any stretch of the imagination.  We were very intentional about each church decision we have made, have not regretted any of them, and have benefited from each.  And those benefits have not been limited to discipleship.  Being a part of these various denominations have also provided an inside look at the way a variety of denominations operate.  They have helped to form my denominational worldview.

More another time.

“What are you?”

June 12, 2008

The camp for which I sit on the Board of Directors is recognized as a non-denominational “Christ-centered” camp.  Consequently, we are intentional in limiting the expression of any particular doctrine beyond communicating an individuals need for a saving relationship with Jesus Christ as savior and then yielding their lives to the Lordship of Christ.  The faith backgrounds of the families who send their children to camp is varied, with some representation from virtually every denomination or fellowship that falls under the overarching title of “Christianity.”  It is, therefore, understandable that as a so-called non-denominational camp, parents do not want their children being influenced by beliefs that may be in conflict with those of their family.  So, our goal is to inform campers of their fallen natures and separation from God with the good news of forgiveness and redemption in Christ.  We also teach them about the good habits of prayer and studing God’s word along with other widely held beliefs about normative Christian conduct.  Because we only have them for 1-3 weeks, we rely on true ongoing discipleship for campers being done by their families and their faith community outside of camp.  Naturally this would include further instruction on doctrinal distinctives such as God’s administration of grace, and any response to salvation that my be important for a particular Christian fellowship, such as baptism.

Our staff is also diverse in its beliefs, although all obviously claim a relationship with Christ and evidence a changed life because of it.  My teaching of this group is somewhat more ecumenical than it would be, were it not for the overall philosophy of ministry for the camp.  I consider that I have accomplished the task of being ecumenical when I am asked, (with respect to my denominational affiliation):  “What are you?” 

[As a side note:  There are some readers of this site who have experienced my teaching at camp, and they left without any shadow of a doubt about my theology.  Maybe I am not as ecumenical as I think, or I am making a better effort to be more so now than I was then.  I have in no way abandoned my convictions, just trying to be less overt about them in the camp setting.  I certainly have not veiled my views at this site!]

“What are you?” is a fair question, and it is usually couched in terms of sincere interest.  My preference is that the staff remain unsure, at least in absolutely certain terms as confirmed by some declaration on my part.  Still, I am certain that if they are listening to my teaching, they could narrow their choices down considerably.  They tell me they guess among themselves, and can definitely rule out certain denominations.  About a week ago, I had one of those “what are you?” conversation with a bunch on counselors.  My answer was that I would describe myself as “anti-denominational.” 

Wow, where did that come from?  That was the first time I had ever used that term, and it surfaced without any particular premeditation.  And after I said it, there was an uncomfortable moment, not because of the counselor’s reactions, but rather my own.  You see, I would much prefer to be known as someone who is “for” or “pro” something rather than being “against” or “anti” something.  Interestingly, the counselors said that my answer did not surprise them.  And, in retrospect, I think “anti-denominational” is EXACTLY how I feel.

In upcoming posts, I will try to condense in my own mind where that thought came from and explain why I am not inclined, at least for the present, to back away from it.