Friday, July 31, 2009

Antony Flew on His Debate with Thomas B. Warren

Yuck! Raining again today. So for the afternoon, this big group of extended family I'm with is planning to get out and go shopping.

We did much the same thing yesterday. Packed up and went to the mall in Holyoke, Mass. Of course, once we were about halfway there, the sun came out and we knew we should have gone swimming. So on the way home, we consoled ourselves by stopping at a roadside stand that had freshly-picked ears of butter-and-sugar corn. That and burgers cooked on the grill. Mmm Umm.

At the mall, I finally wound up in the Borders Bookstore. I remembered that in a couple of weeks, I'm supposed to do a presentation on "The Existence of God." So I was looking through the Religion section and came to that book I'd heard so much about a year or two ago: There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, by Antony Flew.

I've read the first section so far. All along, I was hoping to find a section on Flew's debate with Thomas Warren of the Churches of Christ. Here's an excerpt:

The 1976 debate with Thomas Warren in Denton, Texas, had an audience, on different days, from five to seven thousand. . . .

Debates in the United Kingdom typically took place before small academic audiences. Thus my first exposure to a mass audience in the context of a debate was my encounter with the late Professor Thomas B. Warren, a Christian philosopher. The debate was held on the campus of the North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas, in Denton, on four consecutive nights starting on September 20, 1976, dates that coincided with the first of that year's U.S. presidential debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Before an enthusiastic audience, Dr. Warren wielded an impressive array of charts and slides.

Interestingly, a good part of his case was an attack on the theory of evolution, which at that time seemed to me to be a novel undertaking. When Dr. Warren asked if I believed there could be a being that is half ape and half human, I responded that this was sort of like determining whether someone is bald. My supervisor Gilbert Ryle was positively egglike, and there is no doubt that everyone must call that bald. But if we go one hair at a time, it is not easy to define who is bald and who is not.

However, given my current views, a few of my very declarative statements from that debate may be of interest in depicting the fervency of my atheist convictions at that point:

"I know there is no God."

"A system of belief about God" contains the same "sort of contradiction" as "unmarried husbands or round squares."

"I myself am inclined to believe that the universe was without beginning and will be without end. Indeed, I know of no good reasons for disputing either of these suggestions."

"I believe that living organisms evolved over an immeasurably long period from nonliving materials."

I was impressed with the hospitality of my hosts, but the debate ended with both Warren and I sticking to our guns
(pp. 67-69).

By the way, here's the homepage for the Warren-Flew debate on video.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Go to Yale for Free

I'm back in New England for the time being. Woke up to rain, which is precisely what these Connecticut Yankees didn't want. This July has been their wettest one on record (not counting the year they had a hurricane). Today's showers will likely push the total for the month to over 9 inches. We're hoping for sunshine this afternoon.

Anyway, sometime back Yale University began its open courses program. What's that? The homepage says, Open Yale Courses provides lectures and other materials from selected Yale College courses to the public free of charge via the internet. The courses span the full range of liberal arts disciplines, including humanities, social sciences, and physical and biological sciences.

So far, I've watched several of the segments from "Introduction to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible" and "Introduction to Psychology."

As you'd expect, the lectures are very good to excellent. The one complaint I have is that only one camera is used, and it stays on the instructor. So when watching the videos, you can't always see the visuals (slides or chalkboard) used in the classroom. But that's a minor thing.

I've mentioned this program once before. But just recently they added several more courses and basically doubled the number. So if you didn't see something that interested you the first time, you might check it out again. Here's the Yale Open Courses homepage.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Summer Reading

Last month, I picked up a used copy of the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays. Since then I've skipped around in it, reading whatever looked interesting to me.

I gave up on a few of the essays. After the first few paragraphs, they didn't even begin to reel me in. I skimmed some of the others, just getting an idea of where the writer was going, but not reading every word. But then there were several of the entries that completely had me from the start.

One of the best was The Way We Age Now, by Atul Gawande. Without being morbid, the writer describes some of the realities of aging and highlights the importance of doctors who treat elderly patients. It's actually a lot better than I just made it sound. Check it out.

So what are you reading these days?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Small-Church Ministry: A Few Suggestions

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of all churches in the United States have fewer than 100 in attendance at their weekly services. That's 177,000 congregations accounting for 9 million people. Of those congregations, a large number of them fall into the category of the truly small church, which has 40 or fewer members.

Through the years, I have known about and come to appreciate a good number of small congregations of the Churches of Christ. After going back through some notes and reflecting on my experiences, here's a bit of advice I'd share with anyone who's looking to work with a small church:

1. Arrive as a chaplain, not as a successful businessman.

Small churches don't require someone who's good at administration. There just isn't much to administrate. And, what little there is probably already has someone taking care of it. But there's never too much kindness, care, and love. So give them that. Especially if you go to a rural area--the scene for many small churches--you'll want to roll up your sleeves and do some work with your hands. To farm and ranch people, sitting at a desk isn't work. I know, anyone who has studied hard knows better. But people who have always worked with their hands need to see that you aren't afraid to get some dirt on your clothes and break a sweat. If you really work with them, they will listen to you as they never would have otherwise.

2. Remind them of their identity in Christ and of their mission in the world.

Sometimes a church just needs to be reminded that belonging to the Lord and living for Him is what life is all about. Like individuals, churches can get depressed and disoriented. A few years ago, a congregation that had been through a bad time welcomed a new minister. About two years later, one of the members of the congregation remarked, "He didn't try to set us on fire. I think he realized that it had been a long time since we had felt really good about being Christians. So he preached about Jesus and how great it is to know and serve Him. That did a lot to restore our spirit. Now we're a happier, more effective congregation."

3. Discover the very best aspects of the congregation and emphasize them.

In his letters to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation chapters 2-3), Jesus had at least one positive thing to say about each congregation. Every small church has something about it that's good. Identify that, and then tell the people what you've noticed. Build on that strength.

4. Encourage the congregation to do one or two things very well.

Unlike medium-sized and large congregations, the small church can't do many things at once. There simply aren't enough people or resources. However, a small church can and should carry on one or maybe two specific ministries. Help them to do something at which they can really excel. Meals on Wheels, Bible correspondence courses, special care for a missionary family. The possibilities are endless. What the congregation chooses will obviously be related to the previous point.

Just a few thoughts. What would you add or change?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Strengths and Values of the Small Church

The last post identified some of the pitfalls of small churches. Now I want to consider some of the positives. The following are my own observations mixed in with ideas that I've borrowed from others. Here are three real strengths and values:

1. Small churches experience fellowship naturally.

Ever known a small church that had a small-groups ministry? Of course not. In the small church, the congregation is the small group. Much-larger churches must create and manage what small churches already have, simply because they are small churches. I'm an advocate of the big church, too. But I wonder how much time and money big churches spend in order to provide a time and setting for relationships outside their big worship assemblies? Life Groups, Care Groups, Brother's Keeper, etc. The small church has never needed these terms, nor the expense and structure that go with them.

Along this line, a recent comment by Dusty Chris says it all: I think the small church is alive and well and "gets church" better than its larger counter part "in the big city." [People in small churches] help each other, they love each other, they eat together often, they depend on each other like I have not seen in larger churches. The benefit is in its smallness...everyone has to be available for ministry and leadership. Smallness is not bad. It means there are more opportunities for intimacy and closeness...and that beats the pants off the larger churches. I feel like Norm in Cheers when I walk into the Paonia Church of Christ. Everyone knows my name.

2. Small churches serve as vital outposts for the kingdom of Christ.

Some areas are sparsely populated. Many communities in the U.S. are small. They will never have a big church because there just aren't many people there.

In hundreds of rural counties across the U.S., the population has been in a nosedive since the middle of the last century. For example, here in the Texas panhandle there are only two counties that aren't in population decline, the two that are associated with Amarillo.

Years ago, when I served as a preacher in a small town in Arkansas, I decided to look up the population statistics for the county. The results surprised me. The high-water mark had been the 1950 census, when there were 28,000 people in the county. But each decade since then, the numbers had gone down. The most recent census was 1990, when the county population stood at around 18,000. The membership numbers at church were flat for years, and we just didn't have many new visitors. No wonder. Compared to 40 years before, our population had shrunk by 36%.

Naturally, in communities in numerical decline, a church will almost always dwindled in number. Peter Wagner once referred to this as a church disease which he named population abandonmentosis. This disease has shriveled many churches that were once much larger. Today, those congregations would be classified as "small."

I have to say that there's a soft spot in my heart for these churches. So often, they are tempted to look down on themselves. They're like the guy who's doing what he should, but who still questions and doubts himself; like the older person who no longer thinks he is valuable. These churches need someone to remind them of who they are, and to tell them that by simply being and doing what they do is precious to God and a benefit to community.

Churches in small towns and in the countryside continue to moor the faith of their members as they hold up the banner of the cross. That's no small thing in the eyes of the Lord.

3. Small churches produce kingdom leadership.

I don’t have any statistics for this, but I’m virtually certain of it: I think small churches produce a disproportionately large number of Christian leaders. Many of today's great preachers, teachers, worship leaders, missionaries, etc. grew up in a small church. If you attend a congregation with 225 or more in attendance, the odds are your preacher grew up in congregation smaller than that. Ask him.

What percentage of young people from large churches are growing up to serve as Christian leaders? Again, it's my guess, but I think that number is disproportionately small. Why? Mainly because larger congregations, led and attended by professionals, simply won’t put up with amateur leadership. Not for long anyway. But small churches depend on mostly amateur leadership. If you want to learn how to teach or preach or direct the singing, the small church is where you can get free (and sometimes obligatory) training.

And, there’s a flip side to that coin. Most would-be preachers or worship leaders might never stand up in front of hundreds of people and give it a try. But they would in front of, say, thirty people. And that's a small church.

I don't mean to suggest that Christian leadership is all about being in front of the congregation. We know that it means being connected to people, nurturing others, and teaching them by example to be more like Christ. Again, the small congregation is the place where that opportunity and challenge very naturally presents itself. A person or family can live almost anonymously in a large church for years. I know. I've seen it. But it's impossible to be anonymous in a small church.

So let me ask you: Does any of this sound familiar? What are some of the other positives--strengths and values--of small churches? What kinds of experiences have you had?

Next time, I want to offer some suggestions for encouraging and working with the small church.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Often Small in Their Own Eyes

Then I cried out, "Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!" (Amos 7:5). The prophet Amos was afraid for his people. They were such a tiny nation. In a similar way, sometimes members of a small congregation fear for the church they know and love so well.

In this post, I want to focus on the spiritual and psychological pitfalls of being a small church. But before we go any further, it might be best to step back and establish a few things.

By small church, I mean a congregation with 50 or fewer members. A typical plateau for churches of this size is about 30-35. If and when churches grow larger than that, they often push forward to the next plateau of 70-85. At that point, the congregation becomes a different animal compared to the truly small church it used to be.

How many small churches are there? A lot. Of all the Protestant congregations in the U.S., roughly one quarter of them fall into the 30-35 category. Compare: only about 1% of Protestant congregations in the U.S. have 700 or more members. But 25% of them have 50 or fewer members. So when we talk about the small church, we're talking about many congregations.

Not only that, we're also talking about the size of many churches of the New Testament era. All the evidence suggests that most Christian communities of the first century weren't large at all. I think it's safe to say that most of them would fit our definition of a small church.

Still, today's churches of this size often have a low self-image. When you visit a small church, it's not unusual for one of the members to apologize for the congregation. This is especially true when they ask you where you're from and you answer with the name of a big city or a larger town nearby.

Years ago when I took a "Church Growth" class with Evertt Huffard, he included a unit on small churches. Here are some of the reasons he gave for why these congregations often seem small (read: unimportant) in their own eyes:
  • They don't have a preacher, or can't keep one for very long.
  • There's a nagging sense that the congregation is flopping along--that they just don't do things right.
  • A small budget, shortage of money.
  • Families with children often leave them for a larger, full-service church.
  • American culture associates "bigger" with "better."
  • Typically, the worship isn't conducted by polished leaders. Only a few people are there to sing. It usually isn't an exciting or uplifting experience.
  • The facilities are second-rate.
Experiences in the small church often reinforce negative feelings within the congregation. For example, when a family with children leaves a small church for a larger one, they're told, "We really hate to see you go, but we understand."

In a small church that was once much larger, the baptistery sometimes presents a depressing dilemma. It hasn't been used in years. And it takes money and effort to fill it up and keep it clean and warm. But it seems unspiritual or faithless to leave it empty. What to do? I once heard about a visiting preacher who was looking around the church building. When he saw the green algae along the edge of the baptistery, he remarked, "Looks like this is the only growth you've experienced in a while." Clever. But hardly encouraging.

Sometimes an energetic, young preacher will come to a small church. It's his "first pulpit." Most everyone in the congregation assumes that it's just a matter of time before the preacher becomes bored, or a larger church discovers him and offers something closer to a middle-income salary.

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't any healthy and happy small churches. I know there are, and hope their number grows. I also know that there are huge differences among small churches. No two are alike. Some were planted within the last two or three years and have high hopes for future growth. Others have been around for decades. Many of these small churches were once much larger than they are today. That's an entirely different atmosphere compared to the young small church.

What I've related here is just some of what the I've learned from others and seen through the years. In the next post, I want to talk about some of the real positives of the small church. But before we get to that let me ask, What are some of your observations? Have you ever known or been a part of a slightly-depressed small church? What were some of the experiences that led to those feelings?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Church of Christ, Gould, Oklahoma

Back in March, I was returning home to Amarillo. I'd spent the night before at my folks' house in my old hometown of Altus, Oklahoma. Driving west along State Highway 62, I went through Duke and then came to an even smaller town: Gould, Oklahoma.

I grew up in Altus, so I've been through Gould many times. But I don't believe I've ever stopped there before. If I have, I don't remember it. Since moving to Amarillo three years ago, anytime I've driven through, the little Church of Christ just south of the highway has caught my eye. I've wondered, . .

How many little churches just like this one dot the map across the U.S.? What's the history of this church? When was the congregation established? Who are its members? What was the congregation like during the glory days, when many more people lived in Gould? What are the congregation's hopes and fears now that the town, like so many others, is drying up? (I checked the Census figures for Gould. In 1990, the population was at 237. By 2000, the number was down to 206).

I still don't know the answers to my questions. But this time as I came through, I remembered that my camera was with me. I decided to stop and chronicle what I could. Here's the north side of the building. (That's my car, Big Blue, in the distance).

The front doors face east . . .

It was a gorgeous afternoon, and I stood outside the front of the building for a while. Then, just because, I decided to see if the building was open. Maybe someone was inside, maybe a preacher sitting at his desk or practicing his sermon from the pulpit. Maybe the custodian was there, making sure everything was ready for the next morning.

I was surprised to discover that the front door was unlocked. I stepped inside. "Anyone here?" No one. I sort of felt like an intruder. But I also knew that nobody would mind that I was there. From the foyer, here's the empty auditorium. I love the effect of the afternoon sun shining through colored windows . .

At right in the previous photo, you can see the small statistics board on the right. Here it is up close:

As I look around, I wonder why this is so fascinating to me. Why do I look at all of this as though it were a piece of art? Is it because I see it as some quaint scene quickly fading into the past? Maybe. Either way, I can't resist standing behind the pulpit. I back up a step and look out at the empty pews . . .

This intrigues me for reasons I don't fully understand.

Anyway, sometime this summer I want to do a few posts on small churches. I'm not an expert on the subject. Far from it. But I am interested in the present and future of small congregations, especially Churches of Christ, across the U.S.

How 'bout you? Ever stopped at a small church somewhere, just because? Many of you have visited a small congregation while traveling. Or maybe you have memories of being a part of a small congregation. Do you ever wonder what's happening to church life in small towns as the U.S. becomes more and more urban? Maybe small church life is your life right now. What's that like? I'm interested in hearing about your experiences and what you know.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Wondering about Worship

The article on John Calvin came out in Sunday's paper. Before sending it to the editor, I made a few changes and added the paragraph about executing heretics. You can see the published version here.

- - - - -

Two random thoughts about worship assemblies:

1. I think it would be better if prayer leaders finally stopped thanking the Lord that we can worship without the fear of molestation. To people under 50 years old that doesn't sound quite right. The word molest has changed in meaning since that worn-out phrase was invented. The older meaning of the word is not what teenagers think when they hear it.

2. I understand that in the Middle Ages the image of the church (or the individual Christian) being nursed by Christ was a common spiritual theme. It didn't seem weird to people who've gone before us. I suspect it was a healthy thing for them to use a feminine metaphor to speak of what the Lord means to us. When we do that, we remind ourselves that the Almighty is sexless, that God is not some cosmic male. However, as a song leader, I exclude all songs that have us singing about the breast of Jesus. If it's just one verse, I might lead the song, but will skip that verse.

What other things do we do or say in our assemblies that simply mis-communicate?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Summer Fun

On Tuesday of this week, Michele and I and the kids who were here (Aubrey and Ben and Abigail) went out to Splash Amarillo. It’s our little water park.

Splash is sort of like Wonderland, Amarillo's amusement park. Not the biggest and the best. However, Amarillo attractions have their advantages. They're minutes away, relatively-inexpensive, and are rarely crowded, especially on a day like Tuesday.

Anyway, we were there when Splash opened at noon. Around 4:30, a thunderstorm rolled in and the park closed. On our way out, they gave all of us half-day passes to be used after 4:00 some other day. We're looking forward to using them.

What about you? Do you have a not-so-likely place you enjoy as much as anything?