Tag Archives: American church

Alternative Approaches to the End Times

left behind

As I wrote last week, the “play-by-play” approach of end-times is not working for everybody. The speculative nature of dispensational theology is highly problematic even if its simplicity and relevance is very attractive. Attractiveness comes from the perception of connecting Scriptures with current events. The hearer is offered an interpretative paradigm from which he or she can make sense of the world around us. This is especially true, when the hearer already aligns with an Anglo-American conservative view of reality.  It is also attractive because, on the surface it appears to be the most literal reading of Scripture, and therefore the “safest” way to read Scripture.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that to challenge the dispensational view requires a wholesale challenge to one of the central tenets of evangelical theology, namely, its approach to Biblical interpretation.  I do not have the time or the intellectual energy to do at this point. Suffice it to say that popular evangelical approach to interpretation lacks a basic awareness of different literary genres in the Bible. This is well manifested in this end-times theology debate. Most of the passages used come from either the prophetic books of the OT and Revelation. Occasionally there is a use of some of Paul’s letters and the Gospels. The problem lies primarily in the use of the first group – the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Bible. For these books, the plain sense or literal interpretation falls apart because they are filled with symbolic language. Instead, what is passed for literal reading tends to be highly speculative. Symbolic language is not meant to be read literal so we need to find other ways to approach it. What is missed is the fact that Revelation and the prophetic book was written in a time and meant to be understood about the hearers of that time, not a secret key to the future.  Therefore, these texts are best treated with caution and historical awareness rather than coordinates for wars to come. It does not mean we ignore them but we approach them with humility and avoid speculation.

A better alternative would be to approach end-times starting with the gospel and the letters of Paul and Peter. The Olivet discourses found in the synoptic gospels (Mat, Mark and Luke) provide a general view of the topic without trying to give details. It then becomes a thematic approach that can be summarized in a few points:

Jesus will return to Earth – It is hard to read the NT and not get the sense that this is a central belief of the Christian faith. It is also present in the early Creeds giving it a strong witness for its validity.

We should be ready to meet him – The parable of the virgins is instructive here. The point is not whether we know when he comes but that we are ready to meet him, being through death or through eschaton.

There will be judgment and wrongs will be put to rights – Here is a point that gets missed a lot. The whole point of Jesus return is to establish justice, to right the wrongs. This is where our eschatological thinking should run in parallel with kingdom of God thinking in the NT. We long for justice and we have the audacity to believe that our Lord will bring it to the Earth.

This is not a novel approach but one that continues to be espoused by mainline Christian denominations. Sure this is a lot less sensational and will not sell many books, yet it closer to mainstream Christian tradition than dispensational approach. Maybe it is time we in the neo-Pentecostal movement get off our prophetic hubris and start listening to our brothers and sisters from these denominations.

I add below a link of NT Wright speaking on the rapture providing a through explanation of the imagery there. This is worth considering when examining eschatological interpretations. To be fair, dispensational theology does not have to necessarily lead to political inaction as Wright is saying here. Unfortunately that is often the case well exemplified in how Anglo-American evangelicals refuse to deal with climate change.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvOig4sH6Ic

End Times Paranoia

Graphic images of Christians being martyred in Libya are harrowing reminders that this world is constantly threatened by evil. With the power of social media, these acts gain a wide audience which was not possible in the past. Confronted with such realities, our tendency is to despair clinging to fear and paranoia. That is when we must be reminded of our Christian hope.

It is fitting that at this time I am taking a class on eschatology (the fancy word that means study of the last things). Honestly, this was not a topic I looked forward to. Growing up in an environment saturated by dispensational theology (Left Behind series – you get the picture), I have grown increasingly skeptical. There was a time I literally wished that Revelation was not in the Bible so I would NOT have to deal with the wacko stuff that gets passed as legitimate interpretations of the book. In the last weeks, I came to learn that this was not just a theological debate but deeply personal and something that evoked a number of emotions from passion, mistrust to anger (It was interesting to learn that I was not alone but the Luther himself had questions about Revelation’s place in the cannon).  However, I have now gained a renewed appreciation for this topic and maybe formed some opinions that may be helpful to this discussion.

First of all, I continue to deplore the dominant dispensational approach this topic gets in evangelical circles. By this I mean the approach that tries to read Revelation literally as a “play-by-play” description of the events leading to the end times.  I’ll spend the rest of this blog laying out my case:

1) It mostly leads to paranoia, fear and inaction – As I have seen this pattern a lot in the past, when you tend to emphasize this play-by-play view, a topic that should bring hope ends up bringing fear. I know that the intended message was to say: “these signs are pointing Jesus return.” This should bring us hope yet because the focus was so much on impending doom, that left little place for thinking of hope.  It is also disheartening because it feels like there is nothing one can do about it. Some might say that this should be an incentive to evangelize and by doing so we are hastening the Lord’s coming. That is possible, yet when so much energy is focused on painting a picture of destruction, the evangelism part gets downplayed.  We already have Fox News, CNN and radio talk implanting fear and paranoia in our society. Do we need the church to join the bandwagon?

2) It lacks historical reflection on the topic– How many times have I heard statements like: “this could be THE generation that sees the Lord’s coming” ? It is like we throw 2,000 years of church history and claim that the NT was all about 21st century world all along. It certainly sounds pretentious and self-serving. Even if the statement is correct, a bit of humility and historical reflection would do us a lot of good. We are NOT the first generation to think that. In fact, one could argue that even the apostles’ generation  (and they had much more reasons than we do) thought they were it. Then you had a number of movements in Christian history that made the same assumption, all of them to be proven wrong. Is it really wise to walk in this line of thinking without at least entertaining the possibility that we are wrong?

3) It portrays itself as the only “biblical” approach– I suspect that some of you may even wonder about my eternal fate given my questioning of this topic. This is especially true in Neo-Pentecostal circles where the prophetic is overemphasized and end-times thinking is a regular staple of their preaching. Churches like IHOP  and Morning Star tend to be big on the topic. Given their influence, and the prowess of the left-behind industrial complex (yes, the whole thing: books, DVDs, video games, etc.), one would think that is the only “biblical” approach to the topic. Well, I am glad to inform you that there are other ways of interpreting Revelation that are not “play-by-play” oriented. Certainly, the weight of church history is not on the side of dispensationalism but more on thematic approach (one that I will explore in a future blog).

4) It claims to provide a framework to understand news while it merely reflects a reactive Anglo-American right-wing political perspective of the world –This is probably one of my biggest realizations in recent years, namely how closely tied end-times thinking is with right wing (and even conspiration theory) thinking.  They tend to share the same enemies. What is even more intriguing is how these “play-by-play” systems never quite know what to do with the United States. That is a bit ironic that the most powerful nation on the Earth would not have a role to play in Armageddon. If it does role a play, it is usually a positive, and one in which it stands for the truth of the Bible. Hmm, that sounds like civic religion to me. Sometimes I wonder whether end-times fixation is less about the end of the world and more about the end of the North American empire. Just some food for thought….

5) It is a questionable evangelism tool (in fact it may lead people away from the faith) – That people have come to Christ because of it, I have no doubt. The God of the Bible have spoken through a donkey, assassins, heathens, terrorist, liars and the list goes on. Also bad theology has saved many throughout the history of the church. That is not to the approach’s credit but to the ever-loving God who will use whatever means possible to reach the lost. Now, let us now take a “means-justify-the-ends” approach here and justify this approach in its effectiveness of bringing people to Christ. It should stand on its own.  For every case of people that have come to Christ I can also tell of many who left the church because of it. I almost did. I suspect that to continue to emphasize this approach will most certainly lose the ear of the millennial generation.

Why do we go to church? – When church attendance hinders faith

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside of the church)

The statement above summarized the belief the Medieval Western church held in regards to the importance of the church. For centuries, Christians have attributed the local church as the center of salvation and spiritual growth. There were exceptions, as the monastic movements in the early 2nd – 4th century reminds us, who believed spiritual vitality was to be found in the desert. Yet, for most of church history, the focus has been on institutional participation. There is much to be said about finding spiritual nourishment outside church services. But what if church participation actually hampers and limits spiritual growth?

Let me explain. In the last weeks I’ve been looking over two books that shed some light in the current transition in the North American church. The first one is the The American Church in Crisis which summarizes current trends based a 200,000 church database research. The second one is Quitting Church in which a journalist compiles the stories of people who have recently left the church. The picture painted by these books is revealing and cannot be ignored any longer. Let me quickly summarize them in a few bullet points pertinent to our topic above:

– Every denomination in the US is currently undergoing either decline or slowing growth. While some churches are growing, the overall trend is clear: a smaller % of the US population will be attending churches in the future.

– While there is a net growth (opens minus closures) of 300 churches in the US, this is far below what is needed to keep up with population growth.

– Single women, people over 35, influential people, mature Christians and even charismatics are leaving the church in significant numbers. The millenials are in no hurry to get and in and single men stop considering it an option a long time ago.

– People that left the church over time show little sign of missing the experience and some have found alternative ways to fill their spiritual needs.

As one who works with data for a living, I appreciate both these authors research and reporting of their findings. Their analysis of the problem is right on. Yet, both seem to ask the same question as the next step: “What can churches do to get them back?” Usually, the answer goes: plant more churches. Now, you have to ask, is the approach to current problem to do more of what has not worked in the past? I understand the value of church plants and how they tend to grow (or die) faster than established churches. But really, is that the best we can do?

A group who is not captured by these statistics is those who stay but struggle. Given my personal experience and those around me, even married couples with children (for long the prime demographic of church attendance) are starting to have doubts. I am also overwhelmed by the stories of hurt from  church plant experiences – life plans shattered, families falling apart, promises un-kept, depression, financial ruin to name a few. I hear a lot of things from seminary friends these days but planting a church is not one of them. This is not a good sign, possibly foreshadowing a future decline beyond the current trends. When you see so many faithful and strong Christians struggling to stay in the very institution designed to help them grow, you have to wonder: Maybe the surprise shouldn’t be why so many people are leaving but why so many have stayed.

What if the right question is not how to get them back (or keep them in) but how to help them thrive spiritually wherever they are? Much of the books written on the topic seem focused on helping churches become more efficient organizations so they can grow enough to make up for their losses. This is a business mindset way to address the problem that can only do so much. You can market a product in a 1000 different ways, but it will still not sell if people don’t want to buy it. And by the way, word on the street is that customer service is very poor. Certainly, this is not just a business problem but an issue of institutional survival.

What if the problem is more systemic? What if the local church centered system has become obsolete and believers need new ways to fill their spiritual needs? What if the church can thrive outside of the “church” instead of confined in it? What if the local congregation is no longer the center of spiritual growth and formation? What would this world look like and how would it function?

In the next blogs, I would like to explore this topic that has occupied my thoughts lately. I hope to provide some good information and insight but above all to start a conversation. I welcome your feedback and comments: positive or negative.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this but intend to become a disciplined learner.