Archive for February, 2013

When facts aren’t really facts

An Ed Stetzer blog article and tweet about megachurches caught my attention the other night, but I haven’t had time to write about it until now.

The tweet caught my eye first. Ed wrote, “Christians choosing megachurches & megachurches thriving is not a matter of debate, it’s just math.” I responded to his tweet, by suggesting that two terms in the statement need to be clearly defined biblically–Christians and thriving. Trying to seek agreement rather than argument, I suggested we both agree that attending a church is not the equivalent of being a Christian and that numbers are not the measure whether a church is thriving or not. Now, I did this in tweet form, so it was much more tightly constructed than this due to character limits.

Ed responded simply that he was comfortable with how he used the words. That response that was really more of non-response–it seems pretty obvious that he was comfortable with them or he wouldn’t have used them. I know that Ed traffics in a world which is unlike mine in a number of ways, the most pertinent to the issue at hand is the tendency to treat church growth issues as a matter of objective quantifiability. The “it’s just math” part of his tweet is what I mean.

Where I think I part from Ed, at least based on what I read and his response to me, is that I don’t see how assessing the health of churches (which clearly is implied with a word like “thriving”) can be a matter of “just math.” Thriving is a word that presents us with a judgment on how something is doing, and to draw that conclusion from the numbers alone is woefully misguided. My friend, Les Ollila, used to say that there is a difference between growing and swelling–your head will get bigger if you bang it against the wall, but that wouldn’t be considered growth. In a similar way, a church could be getting bigger for unhealthy reasons, so “math” is not the only or even main way to evaluate whether a church is thriving.

This false sense that you can quantify church health (thriving vs. not thriving) shows up in the article that Ed was tweeting about. There he uses the word “fact” to describe his conclusion that megachurches are thriving. By using that word, he attempts to move the discussion from the realm of opinion, telling his readers that everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. I agree with him on that point, but the flaw in his article and argument is that he isn’t talking about facts.

It is a fact that more people are attending megachurches. That is a math issue, so we can count them and draw a firm conclusion. But when he introduces two subjective variables into his assessment (that it is Christians who are attending and that increased numbers means they are thriving), this is no longer a mere statement of fact, it is a value judgment. He has assumed that all megachurches are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and that the growth in attendance is not only from genuine believers, but that larger attendance equates with greater spiritual health in those congregations.

If it is at least a possibility that some number of those churches which make up the megachurch category are in fact not faithful to the gospel, are in fact drawing crowds without a genuine faith commitment to Jesus Christ, and/or are marked by any number of internal spiritual deficiencies (e.g., frustrated, burned out leaders or members, growing financial burdens and pressures, etc.), then his “fact” statement is not accurate. If Christian, however, is being used simply to mean something like non-Muslim or non-Buddhist and thriving means only that they have more people there now than last year, sure, he is probably right. “Christian” congregations of over 2000 seem to be drawing bigger crowds than ever before.

For myself, I don’t see much value in “facts” like that. They may tell us what a numerical trend is, but they don’t actually enable us to think about church growth helpfully. Church growth, conceived of biblically, is not value-free. Who makes up the church and how the church is functioning are important biblical factors in determining whether a congregation is really thriving. It is never just a matter of math.

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In the Multitude of Words…

Thanks to Al Gore it seems like everybody knows (or thinks they know) what everybody else is doing and quite often seem to have an opinion about it. No doubt, some of this is good and helpful. Just as certainly, much of it is not so good and not helpful at all.

I wish there were some kind of clear, hard and fast rule that marks the boundary line which separates the legitimate need to know and right to comment from the sinful tendencies toward being a busybody. Are all matters of public knowledge really matters of legitimate interest and interaction? How do we define public knowledge anyway–someone posted something about it?

Seems like the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” line has been growing in popularity, but surely it needs to be balanced by the fact that some things are better left unspoken (cf. Ephesians 5:12). Exposing sin and error is vitally important, but I wonder about people whose whole life is spent digging in other people’s dumpsters looking for garbage about which to write.

As I said, there are no clear lines, but I don’t think that frees each of us from the responsibility of developing our own ideas about where the line should be drawn. Just because we may not all agree with the placement of the line, that doesn’t mean we should abandon the effort to live within a set of lines. A simple rule of thumb for me is whether the primary subjects of the discussion put themselves into it or whether others are talking about them. And when the subjects have asked for confidentiality, then there better be very clear and solid reasons for ignoring that request.

Another line that I think needs to be thought through is whether the things that I say in any discussion are actually public knowledge. There is a great temptation to offer up info that other people don’t have access to, and the power of that temptation is rooted in our pride. If we know something other people don’t know that gives us a certain insider status that puffs our importance. It is a devil’s bargain, though. What we gain in notoriety, we lose in credibility with those whose private info we just announced. People who can’t keep their mouths closed gradually lose access to important discussions simply because the people don’t want private discussions spread around carelessly and selfishly. It is better to be trustworthy than newsworthy.

An obvious line that is often crossed is the matter of honesty. It seems like we live in a day when being the first one to say something is of greater importance than being accurate in what we say. A clear news coverage example of that was how the press reported the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. They got just about everything wrong in the early reporting, but they kept running stuff out there because they are competing for viewers. To turn a twist on an old line, the modus operandi seems to be, “It’s easier to print a retraction than to get verification.”

People who are serious about the truth, though, need to walk more slowly, write more carefully, and most likely communicate less, not more. And we should communicate more directly, talking to people rather than about them. When we do need to take a stand against something, it is very important that we have our facts right or we will do more damage than good in the end–the people we critique will dismiss our valid points because we appear to be dishonest with the facts. It really is a shameful thing to do God’s work in the devil’s way, and, if we are honest about it, that is what gossip and lying is.

So, here are some questions I ask to help me think through how to handle news I hear: (1) is this truly a matter of public knowledge and appropriate for public comment?; (2) am I sure that the “facts” being stated here are accurate?; (3) should I talk to the people who are involved before saying anything publicly?, and (4) is it really any of my business?

I know that I have failed to apply these questions properly in the past. I also know that my answers to them will at times be different than how others would answer them. I guess I am not so concerned about everybody agreeing as much as everybody thinking about when and what they speak in public contexts. We will be accountable for our words, so I think this subject demands our careful attention.

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The Faithful Word

Just a quick post to announce a new ministry door that is opening on the radio. Starting today at 3:30 p.m. (EST), we are launching a radio broadcast named The Faithful Word that will air on WLQV AM 1500 here in the Detroit are, but it will also be available online at www.faithtalk1500.com and via mobile device at http://bit.ly/AM1500.

The regular broadcast will be M-F at 3:30 p.m. (EST), but it will re-air at 10:30 p.m. (EST) for a while also.

We’re starting with a series of sermons from the book of Proverbs and praying that God will use the broadcast to cause the Word to spread rapidly and be glorified (2 Ths 3:1). Please pray to that end!

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