Searching for Jerusalem (Apr 2013)

By Matt Dabbs

by Craig Lair

Recently, a national Pew Research Center study highlighted alarming data as it relates to the transfer of faith among generations. Specifically, across many American churches, our younger generations are rejecting their parent’s version of church at a rate in excess of 40% per generation. This rejection ranges from simple choosing another version of church to a growing segment that rejects faith and religious affiliation entirely.

This national survey has been empirically confirmed at least on a limited basis among Churches of Christ in the book Why They Left by Flavil Yeakley. It does not take a calculus professor to realize that an organization with a 60% retention rate per generation faces near extinction within three generations. Absent a change in these trends, the church traditions that many of us grew up in have roughly 75 years left.

Many of the church leaders who now have been made aware and understand this data (and even those who have confronted the data more directly within their own families) have shrugged with a pained “what can you do?” attitude. I strongly doubt fatalistic resignation would have been the first century church’s response to a similar crisis.

In fact, Acts 15 provides an often overlooked guide to dealing with contemporary crisis issues. Acts 15 has always been there, even though our leaders have mostly ignored it. In fairness, we have had to ignore it for the past century or two, otherwise one of our core interpretive methodologies would have been challenged, and ignoring difficult biblical passages has tended to be the path that leaves the fewest people unsettled.

The modern struggles of change agents within churches have the perfect biblical road-map for how to push forward with the hard issues in Acts 15. As you will recall, in Acts 15, the agents of change wanted to eliminate circumcision, a biblically-commanded act that had proved to be extremely inconvenient for making gentile converts.

There was little need to debate what the scriptures said about circumcision; after all, it was initially commanded directly by God. Genesis 17:11 and Joshua 5:2. It was required by the law of Moses (Leviticus 12:3). Like baptism, the direct example of Jesus was in their favor (Luke 2:21). And, arguably Jesus himself directly commanded the practice (or at least by negative inference failed to repudiate the practice when he discussed it (John 7:21-24). Clearly, the overwhelming favorite of this debate in Acts 15 was those who sought to impose circumcision. And, yet in the face of overwhelming scriptural and traditional evidence, the resistors of change lost.

Generally, with rare exceptions, as a movement our leaders have taken the resistance approach favored by the Pharisees in Acts 15

We have traditionally done it that way;

Let’s study about it; and either, the Bible says so right here, so we shall, or the Bible is silent, so we will not.

Yes, we should all study and strive to understand scripture even better than we do. But, the unsettling reality for many of us is that in Acts 15 the party that best knew scripture lost the debate.

What does it say to us 2,000 years later and our modernistic interpretative philosophy that the only recorded example of a resolution of a church conflict involving the need for a large scale change was resolved by a conference of multiple church leaders and resolved in favor of change, expediency, and church and gospel expansion, and against the clear, unambiguous language of a biblical command?

My conclusions from Acts 15</a> are:

More studying does not always get to the best result; otherwise, our leadership criteria should simply be a Bible test for those who best know scripture;

Leading at times may mean making difficult decision;

Most of all, we need a forum; since, the absence of an established forum leads to lots of different methods and unintended consequences.

In the absence of a forum, it has been rare for churches to agree upon basic procedural issues about change – where is our modern equivalent of a Jerusalem Council (forum for advancing change)? Is it just us or do we seek change or a larger scale? (local, our tradition, Protestantism in general, or on a wider level)? Who qualifies as the equivalent of the Acts 15 “elders” who would vote on change? If decisions are limited to one congregation, are we still friends if your church decides differently than my church?

Our model of change is much like the Israelites in the period of the Judges. We wait patiently, watching those around us change, until we see those great ideas that we absolutely have to have. So, paradoxically, if you want to implement change at your local congregation, the best historical strategy has been to convince the other churches or congregations around you to change first.

In the absence of a formal forum, informal substitutes arise. It creates forums such as preacher’s conferences; elder’s conferences; and writers, and the modern equivalent – website creators and bloggers. The absence of a forum also leads to an elevation in power of Christian college presidents and boards and Church affiliated high school board’s because they can impose faculty guidelines or limits about some change elements.

There are signs that the continued existence of church as many of us knew it is dependent upon a radical re-thinking and likely a reorganization and reinvention. I do not profess to have the answers of what this new vision will be. My hope is that if someone does develop the vision and if that vision requires widespread institutional change, they will at least have somewhere to present it.

Cites: “Nones” on the Rise“.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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