Friday, January 30, 2009

500 Fewer Congregations of the Churches of Christ

A few weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I sat at the kitchen table scanning the obituaries in our local paper, the Amarillo Globe-News.

"I want to know what happened to them," I said.

"Who?" said my wife.

"All these people who just died. I mean, I don't want to be crass or voyeuristic or whatever. I just want to know how they died. Especially the young ones."

"I know what you mean," she said. "They never give the cause of death."

I had that same sort of feeling last week when I read for the second time that story in the Christian Chronicle, the one that reports the recent decline of Churches of Christ in America.

So many things come to mind. Most of them have been batted around the blogosphere over the last few weeks. Here's the part that I can't get out of my head: Apparently, over the last six years, Churches of Christ have lost over 500 congregations. Five hundred. That's more than one congregation a week closing its doors. I have a lot of questions about that. Don't you?

How did they die? Why did that happen? Where did the people who were still there go? Churches don't just disappear.

Of course, members of a now-closed congregation either became a part of another Church of Christ, or joined up with some other group, or dropped out altogether. That's something I wonder about too. What are the percentages for each category? Where did those people go?

Some of the churches that died had a lone preacher, presumably doing what he could to sow the seed of the kingdom and help others grow in the likeness of Christ. Where did he and his family go?

Some of the congregations that closed owned real estate and cash. What happened to that?

The more I thought about those questions, the more I remembered some of the stories from my past. During my years in New England, there were a handful of small, struggling churches that just couldn't hang on and eventually closed their doors.

One of them, a congregation in suburban Connecticut that had been around for several years, had come to depend heavily on one man. When he suddenly died, the church was at a loss. They closed up not long afterward. The church owned a building, which was sold. Over the next couple of years, the congregation where I preached received in the mail a few sizable, anonymous donations. I always figured that the money came from the proceeds from the sale of that building. But I wasn't sure.

Another church had been started by a group of young, bright, energetic Christians. They had worked for years, establishing an outpost for the kingdom of Christ. One of their leaders, a young man, tragically died. The group kept at it until many years later the congregation finally closed.

In the church closings I know of, the majority of the members went to one particular congregation of the Church of Christ because of convenience (it was the next nearest congregation), because of a studied consensus (that's where people from our group would fit in best), or because of some combination of those and other factors.

We should expect that congregations will die. One of the many things I learned from Evertt Huffard is that, unlike the kingdom of Christ, congregations are like people. They are born, they grow and reach a certain size and maturity. Sometimes they give birth to one or more congregations. But invariably, they get old, start to shrink, and finally die. I still wonder about the closing of more than 500 congregations in six years. Why did this Christian group I love so much lose so many churches in such a short time?

Turning to the future side of my question, if the cutting edge of the kingdom is the local congregation (a Phil Slate-ism), and if Churches of Christ want to do better than we have of late, wouldn't one of our main concerns be the planting of more new congregations?

Yes, as well as exciting, that sounds kind of scary. And it's got to be a lot of hard work. And, no, not every newly-planted church survives. But I believe that any emphasis designed to help us become more faithful and effective will include the intention to plant more, viable new congregations in places where there are lots of people.

That's what I'm thinking about today. What do you think?

1. Have you been a part of a congregation that made the decision to close? How did it come to that?

2. Have you been a part of a new church planting? What's that like? What are the ups and downs, the dos and don'ts of that process?

3. What are some of the church-planting bright spots among Churches of Christ today?

4. What does it take to adequately shape and train successful church planters? Who's doing an especially good job of that these days?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

John Updike, one of the truly great authors of the last few decades, died yesterday at age 76. He had been battling cancer and passed away at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

I'm no literature professor. Truth be told, I haven't read much fiction in my time. But I still think Updike must have been one of the best ever. Whenever I read something he wrote, here and there it seems like Updike the virtuoso is self-consciously showing off with a smirk on his face. And I don't mind. He's that good.

Not only that, he often takes up theological themes. The few novels and shorts stories that I've read make me think that Updike was convinced of what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity": basic, historic orthodoxy. It's no secret that he was influenced by the writings of Karl Barth. To read more about Updike's theology, check out the fine post over at Ben Myers' blog.

Have you read any of his stuff? What did you think? Any favorites?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Introducing Buddhism by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Of the courses I teach, the biggest challenge is "Introduction to World Religions." I don't know too many Buddhists; never been to a Hindu temple; and find myself confused by the many facets of historic and modern Judaism.

So, one of my commitments for 2009 is to do much more reading in the primary and secondary sources for these and other religious traditions that I hardly know. And, I'm trying to record what I learn. Here's a quick review of something I read this week:

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Introducing Buddhism. New York: Friendship Press, 1956.

This is a booklet (64 pages) that briefly describes the origins, history and worldview of Buddhism. Latourette, one of the best-known American historians of Christianity, earned the Ph.D. from Yale in 1909 and taught at Yale College of China (yes, there was one) from 1910-1912. Beginning in 1921 and for many more years, he taught at Yale (in the US). By the time he wrote "Introducing Buddhism," Latourette was retired.

The first ten pages, "Beginnings of a Faith," provide a very good introduction to the origins and teachings of Buddhism. The second section, "Influences in the Changing Pattern," describe the early history and expansion of Buddhism in the centuries just after the death of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama.

As he continues, Latourette, a Baptist and longtime Sunday-school teacher, emphasizes (1) that Buddhism tends to flourish in undeveloped, unsophisticated societies, (2) that Buddhism has experienced decline in many areas where it was once much stronger (3) that there are irreconcilable differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and that (4) Christianity is superior in its effects and measurable contributions to a society.

Because the world has changed so much in the last 50-plus years, Latourette's descriptions of history are out-of-date. And, it's safe to say that he would be surprised and dismayed at the growth of Buddhism in the United States over the last few decades. I have no good way of evaluating his negative view of why Buddhism grows.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ever Ride a Silly Bus?

"Are you into a bus ministry?"

That's what John Willis asked as he handed me the "silly bus" for a graduate course I was auditing with him. That was many years ago. But to this day, I've had a hard time not hearing "silly bus" whenever someone says "syllabus." And now I'm a college teacher.

Anyway, because classes begin next week (college breaks are the best), I'm working to finalize the syllabi that I'll be handing out then.

Here's something that experience has taught me and that I've now learned: first-and-second-year students have a hard time figuring out a subject for a term paper. And, once they've settled on a topic, it's almost always way too broad, something that you could write about for volumes, but not a few pages.

Then, last semester, I learned something else. One of my students mildly complained that she just couldn't figure out a topic for her paper in my Old Testament class. I asked her if she wanted me to end the agony and assign something to her. With relief in her eyes, she said, "Yes." So I told her I wanted a paper on Genesis 6:1-4, that interesting passage about the sons of God and daughters of men and the Nephilim and all that. Several weeks later, she turned in the best paper in the bunch. At that point, I remembered that many of the best things I've ever written were prompted by an assignment.

So, my new commitment is to provide a good list of topics for all the classes in which I require a paper. I've already started a list for (a) New Testament, (b) Life of Paul, and (c) World Religions. I won't list everything that I've come up with so far. Here are a couple of examples for each course:

New Testament

1. Of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) choose one and then discuss some of the writer's main interests and points of emphasis.
2. How does John 1:1-18 serve as a prologue for this Gospel?

Life of Paul

1. Who are Paul's opponents in 2nd Corinthians? In the letter, how does Paul go about winning back the congregation to his thought and way of leading?
2. Discuss either 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-35, or 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and how they inform current discussions of "women's role in the church."

World Religions

1. What is the Quranic view of Mary the mother of Jesus?
2. What is a Bodhisattva? With regard to Bodhisattavas, what are the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism?

Now, here's my question for you. Under any or all of those headings, what paper topics would you add? (These are first-and-second-year courses in which I require a 5-6 page paper). Thanks for your suggestions.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

I first heard the name Richard John Neuhaus when he made quite a splash with his 1984 book The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. Years later, I read parts of that book, not always sure if I agreed, but always impressed at how Neuhaus wrote with such clarity and conviction.

A theological and social conservative who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., Neuhaus struck you as the kind of person who had thought long and hard about what he believed and why. His powers of expression often made me think of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.

So I was sad to find out last week that Neuhaus died on Thursday, January 8th at the age of 72. He had been struggling with cancer.

In 1990, Neuhaus founded First Things, a religiously-informed and socially-conservative journal of the highest quality. Since then, he and his cohort of writers have written some of the finest reflections on culture, politics and religion published anywhere.

So far, obituaries and tributes have appeared in the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal, and in dozens of other places.

Neuhaus followed an interesting religious course. He started out in the conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Later, he was affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America before converting to Catholicism and becoming a priest.

He was always keenly aware of his position as both a follower of Christ and an American citizen. Here's what he wrote in one of his many fantastic essays, "Our American Babylon":

Thought that is real and not merely, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it, "notional," is thought that is sympathetically situated in time and place. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Christians have here no abiding city. In the third eucharistic prayer of the Mass we pray, "Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth." We Christians are a pilgrim people, a people on the way, exiles from our true home, aliens in a strange land. There is in all the Christian tradition no more compelling depiction of our circumstance than Saint Augustine's City of God. Short of the final coming of the Kingdom, the City of God and the earthly city are intermingled. We are to make use of, pray for, and do our share for the earthly city. Here Augustine cites the words of Jeremiah urging the people not to fear exile in Babylon: "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Help! Upcoming Interview


One of the great old men in the congregation I attend is a veteran of World War II. Fact is, we have several WW II vets at San Jacinto. But there's something unique about this one man: he was a part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He's never seen "Saving Private Ryan." Doesn't seem too interested.

Anyway, I asked him if I might interview him about his experiences and memories. He said yes. I haven't done many interviews. And I really don't know that much about the Second World War. I'd appreciate any help you can give me. Here are some of my questions:

1. What are the best ways to begin an interview?

2. Can you tell me something I especially need to know (or read) getting ready for this interview?

3. If you could ask my subject a question, what would it be?

Thanks for any help you can give me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Wine of the Passover and Lord's Supper

Most Christians realize that when Jesus began what came to be known as the Lord's Supper, the context was the Passover Feast. By that point in Jewish history, the cup of the Passover was likely four cups of wine (the number found in the Mishnah) interspersed throughout the meal. This helps to explain why it is that in Luke's account there are actually two cups, one on either side of the bread.

In the Mishnah, the four cups are specifically called "wine." And what was the character of this drink? It was wine mixed with water:

When they have mixed the first cup of wine-- . . . . They mixed for him a second cup of wine. . . . They mixed the third cup for him (m. Pesahim 10:2-7).

The earliest specific references to these mixtures has a ratio of two parts water and one part wine (m. Niddah 2:7). Later, in the Talmud, the ratio is three to one (b. Erubim 54a and b. Nedarim 55a). The mixing of wine with water was evidently an early practice in Judaism as well as among the Greeks. For example, Song of Songs 7:2 speaks of "mingled" or "blended" wine, which is clearly thought of as being good. See for yourself.

When it came to "wine" or "the fruit of the vine," early Christian practice mirrored that of Judaism. For example, in that famous passage in Justin Martyr's First Apology which describes Christian worship, the elements of the Lord's Supper are bread and "wine mixed with water" (Apology I, 65). Similar passages are found in the writings of Hippolytus, Irenaeus, and Cyprian.

Someone might ask, But if the ancients used the term "wine" to refer to the wine-and-water mixture, then why does Justin mention both wine and water? Probably because he wanted to protect the church from the pagan accusation that Christians were drinking their wine straight, unmixed.

By way of summary, the wine of the ancient world and what we call "wine" are not the same things. Do both contain alcohol? Yes. But who today mixes wine with a larger amount of water? Or any water at all?

Were there people in the ancient world who got drunk on wine that was unmixed or only slightly diluted? Of course there were. But again, even the average pagan considered such practice to be pretty low. The only wine fit to drink had been mixed with a large amount of water, which was the universal practice.

Friday, January 09, 2009

When Wine Really Wasn't "Wine"

A current discussion over at Bobby Valentine's blog reveals a common gap in our thinking about wine, the ancient world, and the Bible. The posts and comments rightly criticize the tired, old argument that the wine mentioned in the Bible was unfermented grape juice, the Welch's of the ancient world.

However, what isn't mentioned is the fact that what the ancients called "wine" was actually wine mixed with a large amount of water. Therefore, to say that Jesus in John 2 turned water into wine is not the same thing as saying that Jesus turned water into something like Pinot Grigio. Consider:

"We call a mixture 'wine' although the larger part of the component parts is water"(Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 20 in Moralia 140f).

The literature of the ancient world is filled with specific examples of mixing many parts water with a few parts wine. For example, in the Odyssey, Homer mentions a ratio of 20 parts water to 1 part wine (see 9.208f). Pliny the Elder speaks of an 8 to 1 mixture (Natural History, 14.6.54). Most writers have it a little stronger, but still very diluted. For example, in The Nurse, Athanaeus of Naucratis has the following conversation:

"A: Look, here is wine. Shall I pour a Triton [three parts water to one part wine]?

B. No, it's much better as one and four.

A. Too watery, that! However, drink it up and tell me the news; let's have some conversation while we drink" (see Deipnosophists 10.426c).

Because "wine" really meant "wine mixed with water," if a writer wanted to refer to undiluted wine, he was required to use some such adjective. For example:

"If the headache only came to us before we drink to intoxication, no one would ever indulge himself in wine immoderately. But as it is, foreseeing not that punishment for drunkenness will come, we readily give ourselves over to drinking unmixed cups" (Alexis, The Phrygian, in Deipnosophists, 10.429e, emphasis mine).

As in the previous quote, many writers warned against drinking unmixed wine:

"In daily intercourse, to those who drink it moderately, it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half, and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse" (Athenaeus quoting Mnesitheus of Athens in Deipnosophists 2. 36a,b).

Quotes like these from the ancient world can be multiplied many times over. I cite these ones only to show that what we call wine and what the ancients called wine are two different things.

No, I'm not prepared to make the argument that the Bible demands total abstinence. What I am saying is that it is a category mistake for modern-day Christians to cite the biblical references to wine and then compare them to the products of Reunite and Beringer. The fact is, the average person in the New Testament era considered the drinking of unmixed wine a barbaric practice. That, I think, should give us caution.

For Further Reading:

Ferguson, Everett. "Wine as a Table-Drink in the Ancient World," in Restoration Quarterly 13 (Third Quarter 1970): pages 141-153. Like all of what Ferguson writes, this is a fine piece of work. The quotations in my post here are taken from this scholarly article.

Stein, Robert H. "Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times," in Christianity Today 19 (June 20, 1975): pages 9-11. Stein is another first-rate scholar. His article is written at the popular level, shorter and easier to get through than the one by Ferguson.