Many in our congregations have only a limited commitment to Christ and the church. Some seem bored. Others seem characterized by indifference, unconcern, passiveness, and Laodiceanism. They give lip-service to the Lord. They attend church services only if it is convenient, if the weather is nice, if company doesn’t come, and if there are no special programs on television.
A commitment is a pledge or promise to do something. When we are received into church membership, we promise to be there when services are scheduled, to encourage and support those who are fellow members, and to accept duties when called upon to do them. A few of our congregations continue the practice of the annual deacon’s visit. One of the major purposes of the visit is to give members of the local church the opportunity to renew their covenant of faithfulness to Jesus Christ. The content of the annual renewal of commitment has historically centered around three questions. (See page 206, History and Doctrines of the Church of the Brethren, Otho Winger, Elgin, 11, 1920.)
#1) “Are you still in the faith of the Gospel as you declared when you were baptized?” That is, do you still believe in the power of God, the reality of Satan, the value of a promise, and in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation?
#2) “Are you, as far as you know, in peace and union with the church?” That is, can you walk hand-in-hand with the other members of the congregation? Can you say that there is no one in the congregation whom you have a disposition to hate?
#3) “Will you still labor with the Brethren for an increase in holiness, both in yourself and others?” That is, are you willing to make new efforts to overcome temptation? Are you eager to bring your mind and affections more and more into conformity with the will of God?
It is true that in the past some have carelessly and casually answered “Yes” to those questions, but whether or not your congregation continues the annual call to commitment–the questions named above are matters about which all of us need to think seriously. All of us from time to time need to search our hearts and make new commitments to eagerly pursue increased faith, more devoted peacemaking, and greater purity.
I have been involved with church services in Germany, India, Peru, the Philippines, and Russia. I have spoken with people who have been tortured and imprisoned because they were committed to obedience to Jesus Christ. There is something about hardship and persecution that brings out the best in people. We Christians in the USA have tendencies to become careless and complacent for a number of reasons. Brother Carl Brubaker spells out for us some of the causes for the lack of commitment in our churches. The article is an edited version of a message delivered at the Mount Pleasant Church of the Brethren near Canton, Ohio in September, 1993.
Causes for Lack of Commitment to the Church
By Carl L. Brubaker
The theme for the day is “Commitment to the Church. The very fact that we are looking at this theme is an indication that we recognize a need for commitment to Jesus Christ and His church. Indeed, there seems to be a lack of commitment to the things of the Lord in our day. All of us need to check out our own commitment levels. There is a reproof in Christ’s message to the church at Ephesus: ‘Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4). Have we left our first love? Has our faith commitment level been in neutral? How are we doing in the area of commitment to loving and serving Christ? What about our service to others?
The Apostle Peter, in the Upper Room, vowed to be faithful to his Lord, and to stay by His side even until death–but soon after, Peter denied the Lord. We, too, don’t always keep our commitments. When trials come, we tend to be like Peter and fall far short of the level of commitment we had aspired to reach. It is likely not so much that we don’t know or understand what commitment is (or what it means), but rather, it is our lack of placing priorities in proper order. We do have commitments in many areas; unfortunately, in the lives of many of us, our commitment to Christ and to His church sometimes comes in at second place.
Luke’s account in the New Testament describes the commitment of our Saviour Jesus Christ. “Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus knew what was before Him. But what an example! He was obedient! He suffered and died for our sins. Praise God that He was totally committed to doing the will of God the Father, even to the length of being our Saviour by shedding His blood on the cross for every one of us.
All of us know that commitment is sadly lacking in the lives of many Christians. Several years ago, former Annual Conference Moderator, Earle Fike, made this observation during g training seminar in our district. He said, “Why is it that when people’s schedules get too full and they become over-committed with their time, that it is the church that gets dropped first? Why not drop that extra work commitment, or that hobby? Why not drop out of the bowling league instead of Bible study? Why the church?”
When one observes life in America in the 1990s, it is quite evident that the influence of the church has waned considerably. Some writers have even called our era a ‘post-Christian” era. The good news, however, is that the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and well, and it won’t be defeated, for Jesus himself said that the ‘gates of hell” shall not prevail against it. Yet it troubles many of us to see the very prevalent lack of commitment to Christ, to His Word, to the church, and to the Christian way of life.
Since the early 1960s, every major mainline denomination has lost members, and that includes the Church of the Brethren. In thirty years, our membership has dropped over 25%, from more than 200,000 members to less than 150,000 members. According to the Barna research group, the percentage of “born again” Christians has been fairly constant from the 1970s to the 1990s. Thirty-two percent of the adult population of our country claim to be born again. In the realm of politics, the awakening of the “religious right” has taken place. We have seen the emergence of the Christian media, including radio stations and evangelical magazines. Hundreds of Christian schools have opened. Thousands of sermons have been preached. Yet, the Barna research team concluded that the church has not been all that effective in winning the world to faith in Christ. Why haven’t we made more of a difference? Is our commitment level dropping? Are we becoming more like the world?
Statistics also show that the fastest growing religious groups in America are not the fundamental, evangelical churches. Instead, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) are growing most rapidly. And although their doctrine is completely false, one does have to admire their commitment. They expect high moral standards and teach abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. They place a high value on family life. They expect their young men to devote two years to missionary endeavors designed to spread their beliefs. We would do well to apply that level of commitment to our own church life as we seek to servo the true and the living God.
My task today is to outline several of the causes that have led to the decline of commitment to the church.
1.THE SHIFTS IN SOCIETY
Our society is vastly different today from the way it was fifty or more years ago. We have changed dramatically. In the late 1800s, the United States witnessed remarkable growth. An abundance of natural resources (coal, iron, and oil) were instrumental in the development of an industrial economy. This event, termed in history as the Industrial Revolution, gradually began the shift from a rural agriculturally-based society, to an urban industrialized setting. By 1900, America was the most developed country in the world and was considered the land of opportunity. Since World War II, the shifts have been even more dramatic. By noting the shifts within the socio-economic strata of society, a number of observations can be made which I believe affect the area of commitment.
First, society is much more mobile than it was one hundred years ago. Companies move workers across the country; people move from areas where there is little work, to places where work can be found. Even though many mortgages are written for 25 or 30 years, the average life of a home mortgage is only about seven years, because many people move and change jobs and locations. Years ago families stayed in the same area where they grew up; they raised their children who in turn married and raised their families near by. Because we are a much more mobile society, many folks don’t develop the deep roots and ties to a community; they do not have the support of the extended family; and as a result, commitment at many levels is affected–including commitment to the church.
Second, the church is no longer the focal point of the community. Some of the “old timers” in my congregation explain that when they were growing up–on a day that a congregation had a lovefeast, the whole community came to observe. Lovefeast was a social event. Brethren members attended revival meetings wherever they were held. One elder brother told me that as a boy his family attended revival meetings for six or seven weeks straight, because all the neighboring churches had meetings at about the same time. Times have changed! There are so many other things competing for the attention of people. I am glad that my parents instilled within our family a strong sense of having the church as a very important part of our lives. We didn’t participate a whole lot in afterschool activities, but when something was scheduled at the church–choir practice, youth activities, Sunday School–they made sure we were there, and I am grateful today for that positive influence in my life.
Third, the tremendous rise of affluence, which can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, is another malady that has invaded our churches today. Materialism is affecting our priorities and commitments. We pride ourselves in saying that we believe in the simple lifestyle. But really, are we serious about that? Even in conservative churches –the desire for material things and the drive for worldly success–is at the forefront in many peoples’ lives. Our obsession with materialism is much more prominent than we would like to admit. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus very clearly spells out the dilemma. He says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). We must keep our priorities in order, for materialism is a direct affront upon the command given to us by Christ–to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
The shifts of society–the moves from an agrarian to an industrial economy, from a rural to an urban population, and from a simpler life to the hazards of materialism–these constitute the first basic cause of lack of commitment to the things of God.
2. THE TRENDS OF TECHNOLOGY
The explosion in the area of technology has been astounding during the past several decades. If our meeting here in Ohio had been held 100 years ago, we would have come by train, or by horses and buggies. Now space vehicles navigate millions of miles and communicate back to the earth pictures and images of other planets. Our world is no longer as big as it used to be. If a major event happens across the world, we can see it or hear about it in minutes. We can talk to people from every continent without leaving our kitchen telephone. When the Trust Department in the bank where I work was computerized nearly 15 years ago, our computer was about the size of an office desk. Today, a small personal computer can do the same amount of processing at much faster speeds. Technology has tended to depersonalize society, and as a result, we don’t spend as much time developing relationships.
I want to be more specific in one portion of this thought, and that is in relation to the advent and influence of television in our culture. I am not here to bash TV, but I am concerned about the impact it is making in many Christian homes. Surely it can have a direct influence on Christian commitment in many person’s lives. When I was growing up, we didn’t have television, and I thought I was greatly deprived. I couldn’t wait for the day until I could go out and get one of my own, but I’ve changed my thinking a great deal since then; with some help and influence from my good wife, we still don’t have a television set in our home. I know that I personally would have difficulty in controlling it. I enjoy the sports and news programs, but you can waste a lot of time in front of the tube. And from what I observe, I know it would not be good for our children to be constantly exposed to the stuff that comes across the airwaves.
From what limited TV programming I do see, the performances are atrocious. The insinuations, the portrayal of immoral behavior, the graphic violence and killing, the ideas that pass for comedy, the vulgar language and the taking of God’s name in vain–is just not fit for Christians to feed upon. In many homes, the TV has become the substitute babysitter, and researchers have told us that young children raised in front of the TV have witnessed thousands of killings and related violence by the time they enter school. I admire those people who once had television in their homes–people who were raised with it, but got rid of it because they felt convicted about the time which was wasted and the impact that the moral sewage was making on their homes. The influence of television can have a definite effect upon our spiritual well-being.
In recent years, Christian ministries have begun using TV programming in an attempt to proclaim the gospel. The programs include Christian talk shows, interviews with famous persons, and the broadcasting of church worship services. I am thankful if lives are converted to Jesus Christ through those ministries, but the Christian church has also been getting a bad rap as a result of some who have abused their opportunity to share Christ. The local church has suffered because some folks would rather stay at home and watch their favorite television ministry, and send their money to them rather than to the local church.
The television set is a tremendous tool of technology, but sad to say, it has diminished the dedication and commitment to Christ and the church in the lives of some believers. Remember, the words of the Psalmist, “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes” (Psalm 101:3). We must be careful what we allow into our minds through what we watch and observe on TV.
3. THE LEANINGS TOWARD LIBERALISM
Perhaps one of the greatest causes for a lack of commitment to the church has been the infiltration of liberal theology throughout the mainline Protestant churches. The Church of the Brethren is no exception. Church historians tell us that for the first 1800 years in the life of the church, Christians generally maintained a faithfulness to, and a belief in, the authority of the Bible. But nearly 200 years ago, some German scholars and theologians began a movement toward higher learning, and began to study the books of the Bible with the purpose of dealing with such questions as the authorship, the time of writing, the literary structure, and so on. These theologians used what was called the ‘higher criticism” approach to come to the conclusion that the Bible was a collection of human writings. The miraculous and prophetic elements of the Bible were explained away. They questioned the inspiration of the Bible. They believed that the emergence of scientific discoveries proved much of the Bible to be inaccurate and outmoded. In essence, the authority and inspiration of God’s Word was no longer upheld by the modern liberal movement.
We know that the early Brethren forebearers believed the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, which says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Alexander Mack wrote that The orders, statutes, and laws which the Son of God and His apostles have ordained…this is the perfect will of the true lawgiver.” D. L. Miller, in the Brethren Tracts and Pamphlets, wrote in 1900 that the “Brethren hold the Bible to be the inspired and infallible Word of God, and accept the New Testament as their rule of faith and practice.” It is also interesting to note that the 1927 catalog of Bethany Seminary contained a doctrinal statement from its Board of Directors which listed one tenet of faith that declared belief in the divine inspiration and absolute trustworthiness of the Bible as the Word of God. The initial and primary purpose for the founding of the Brethren Revival Fellowship is stated with the words, We believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, the final authority for belief and practice, and that to personally accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the only means of salvation. This continues to be our focus, and the statement is found on the front page of every issue of the BRF Witness which is printed.
If you want to topple a building, you must hammer away at the foundation until it falls. The liberal agenda, which no longer accepts the inspiration and total trustworthiness of God’s Word, distorts all kinds of doctrines, and we see the results of this distortion all around us in our churches today.
a) The creation account is not accepted as truth, and the evolution theory is accepted instead. The miracles of the Bible are explained away as allegories. Jesus is our great example who came to show justice and love to all people, and is the perfect example to follow, but not necessarily the only way to find God.
b) The word “missions” is no longer defined as implementing the Great Commission, but as cooperating with non-Christians to make this world a better place in which to live.
c) Acceptance of an any-thing-goes type of standard in the area of morality is common. To speak out against sin is said to be judging, and not showing love for the persons involved in sinful behavior.
d) Those who reject biblical authority often embrace a thought pattern which implies that all the world’s problems are really the result of a capitalistic economic system advanced by America.
e) Many teachers soft-pedal the concept of God’s wrath and coming judgment, and overemphasize the all-encompassing love of God, so as to permit practically any kind of behavior or belief.
I believe that the constant bombardment of liberal theology in many churches today has had a direct impact on the commitment to Christ and the church. When standards are dropped and the Bible is no longer revered and upheld as the authority for life–and when the fundamentals of the faith are abandoned–what reason is there for a commitment?
4. THE VANISHING OF VALUES
The social changes in our society in the last 25 years have been almost unbelievable, and it seems to be getting worse by the day. What we are seeing is the vanishing of the traditional Judeo-Christian values upon which our nation’s relative goodness was largely built.
In the 1960s we saw an unprecedented breakdown of established values. The Hippie Movement and the Vietnam War protests and riots were indicative of a generation which basically snubbed their noses at morality, honesty, and integrity. Many rebelled by getting high on drugs and involved in free love and sexual immorality of other kinds. Long hair, rock music, and a lack of respect for authority were marks of that period. Generally they followed the political left and the liberal agenda, and today we have in the White House someone who grew up in that era. Most of us are appalled at some of the social issues the President has been supporting.
Values began to vanish rapidly during the 1960s. In 1963, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to have a prescribed prayer and Bible reading in the schools. Today, the courts have ruled (and the ACLU has pushed for) the removal of any Christian symbols and activities. The call is for no prayers at high school graduations and no nativity scenes on the lawns of city halls.
We see a glaring lack of commitment in the area of family life. Today it is said that one of two marriages will fail. Did you ever look at the engagment announcements in your local newspaper and notice how many have the same address already? Or, have you noticed the birth lists and seen how many children are born to parents who are not married? Charles Corson says that 40% of all American children are living in homes where there is a single parent. Fewer and fewer children live in the traditional “family” setting. In the spring of 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle was blasted “long and loud” for expressing his view on how the Hollywood establishment and the cultural elite have glamorized the single parent. But later, even the liberal secular magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, carried a cover story entitled “Dan Quayle Was Right.” More and more secular writers and researchers have pointed out the harm caused by the breakdown of marriages, and the effect that family disintegration is having upon the children of our land.
The devaluing of human life is also very prevalent. Millions of unborn babies are killed each year through abortion. You can be fined up to $5,000.00 if you destroy the egg of an eagle, but it is legal to kill unborn children, because many argue that an infant fetus is not human life. They say it is the mother’s choice. And Dr. Kevorkian is doing all he can to desensitize our culture so that the idea of euthanasia and mercy killing will become more and more accepted. Killings and shootings are a daily occurrence in our major cities, and those who live in small towns and rural areas are sensing violence there as well. It is estimated that 247,000 guns went along back to the classrooms with children when the new school year started. Crime and drugs and violence are rampant.
The lowering of moral standards is another evidence of vanishing values. Some encourage handing out birth control devices in school, advocate safe sex, and urge the use of clean needles by drug addicts. I am outraged at the defiance and the aggressiveness of the homosexual movement. Those who believe what God has to say about the subject are said to have the problem. We are too narrow-minded and judgmental; we are accused of being homophobic. The schools and society say there are no absolutes in morality, but God has the last word! We must stand for the truth, and lift up moral standards, and we must speak out against sin and call sin what it is. One of God’s ongoing principles is that whatever we sow, we shall also reap (Galatians 6:7-8).
The Bible tells us that in the latter days the vanishing of values is to be expected. Human beings will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but d~nying its power” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).
The call comes to all of us. We must remain committed to living godly and wholesome lives, based on the teachings of God’s Word, in spite of the vanishing values we see all around us in the world today.
5. THE EMPHASIS ON ENTERTAINMENT
One of the characteristics of our day is an increasing need for people to be entertained and self-fulfilled. There are many avenues people try in order to have their desires met.
In an effort to reach the unchurched, especially the baby boomers, some churches have begun to follow the current new fad of marketing the church, similar to the ways by which a business markets a product. Surveys are done to determine what would draw people to a church, what their felt needs are, and how the church might develop a program to meet such needs. Charles Colson, in his book called The Body , calls this a “McDonald’s philosophy,” where you have enough choices so everybody can pick and choose and be comfortable. Colson calls it “The McChurch Mentality,” where spiritual consumers are interested not in what the church stands for, but in the pleasureable fulfillment that it can deliver. George Barna, a church researcher, says that this consumer demand will intensify and shape the church of the future, where people will increasingly demand personalized religious systems that will meet their desire for a religious perspective without requiring the sacrifices and commitment that traditional Christianity demands. J. I. Packer calls this the “hot tub” religion. Everybody feels good and gets a lot of warm fuzzies. But we must remember that the task of the church is not to make people happy, but to help make us holy, and to conform us to the image of Christ.
Two years ago, an article appeared in The Wall Street Journal which described one of the nation’s largest churches, a congregation which wanted to increase the attendance for the Sunday evening service. The reporter says, “The church staged a wrestling match, featuring church employees. To train for the event, the employees got lessons from Tugboat Taylor, a former professional wrestler–in pulling hair, kicking shins, and tossing bodies without doing any real harm.” What message would such an exhibition make to the world? Another large church constructed a half-million-dollar stage complete with special effects to produce smoke and fire and laser light shows. They even sent staff people to Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas to study how they could use these special effects. Some churches use “Christian” rock concerts. One church recently discovered that “the oldies” radio stations were what many people listened to in their area, and so they developed music in the style of the 60s for their church. These non-traditional methods are being used in churches that are sometimes being called seeker-driven (or user-friendly) churches.
It is my firm belief that lives will be changed when people are confronted with the message of the Gospel. Some have said that the role of the church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But in Romans 1:16 the Apostle Paul declares, “l am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” If we want commitment to Christ and the church, we dare not water down the message simply to make people feel good. God wants us to call for repentance. He wants us to call sin, sin. He wants us to warn of the consequences of sin, judgment, and hell.
I personally believe that we should carefully plan our worship services with appropriate music, responsive readings, testimonies, and other expedient means of worship; but the preaching of the Word should be of paramount importance. It is the declaration of the Gospel that will call people to commit their lives to Christ and His salvation, and the preaching of the Word will call people to a deeper walk with Christ. The Apostle Paul says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God…it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached, to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:18,21).
The starting point of commitment centers around accepting Christ into one’s heart for salvation, and then following Him in obedience and with a willingness to walk as He walked. All of us need to make a new commitment to diligently seek to do the will of our Heavenly Father.