Sunday, August 28, 2016
Three Reasons Millennials Are Abandoning Christianity
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Chances are that if you are in your 20's or 30's, you are not a church member. Polling is now a highly sophisticated industry, and religious organizations are being fed some irrefutable numbers about what is happening among their congregations. In a single generation, the Catholic and Christian church dropout rate across all denominations has increased five-fold. The Barna Group, a leading research evangelical Christian organization based in Ventura, California that focuses on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be “disengaged” before they are 30. The fault for this lies with those same denominations, and particularly their leadership as far as I am concerned. These churches – and I'm not going to name any denomination in particular – and their members spend every Sunday morning being religious for an hour, and then spend the rest of the week doing whatever suits them. They call themselves Christians while isolating themselves from the very people they are supposed to be ministering to! We as believers are charged with this very duty, as Jesus has taught us: “He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark chapter 16, verses 15-16) As to whether one believes or not, that is between them and God. My responsibility lies with teaching about Jesus Christ and the Bible. I cannot force anyone to believe, since force is never the way of Christ anyway. But the outcome of disbelief is clearly spelled out.
In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and now exceeds 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from Christian churches, both in America and globally. Is it any wonder? There are too many churches I have been to that look more like fashion shows than places of worship. Many others insist that the members must “tithe” 10% of their income as specified in the Old Testament. Never mind what Jesus taught us, which was that he was the fulfillment of the Old Law (see Matthew 5: 17), the sacred Law of Moses, and that He continuously represents a new covenant between God and mankind. Yes, we should give to our churches as much as we can, when we can, but I disagree with the teaching that one's donations must be exactly 10% each and every week. If that were the case, then only rich Christians could obey the law. That's why I came to the conclusion many years ago that this teaching is a distortion of what the Bible says on this subject, meaning so-called tithing is a thinly veiled excuse for procuring the maximum amount of donations to church coffers. It's all about the money. Then there are the Christian TV stations (speaking of money), which I used to watch some of them, where some of the women have enough makeup on for three people, and where some of the musicians are obviously gay and doing a poor job of hiding it. Still others are preaching the so-called “prosperity gospel”, which is a bogus teaching if there ever was one, and a gross distortion of what the Bible actually says about that topic.
While denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized members, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers. Once baptized, always a 'listed' Christian! Simply put, denominations are no longer a reliable source of membership information. If they can't even be trusted for something as basic as accurate reporting regarding their attendance, is it any wonder good Christ-seeking people are leaving in disgust? The mega-church movement also has flattened, with people leaving as fast as they are recruited. The only real growth among Christians appears to be in the home church movement in which small groups of independent believers gather in a house to worship. While the polling numbers are in, the debate about the reasons for lack of attendance is only just beginning. When a pollster asks if a person has left the Christian Faith and a church, the answer is answered “yes” or “no.” However, when the pollster asks “why?,” the answers become mushy and the numbers lose their significance. Why, then, are people leaving churches so fast?
I am not a pollster, but rather an observer of the religious scene looking in from the outside. Speaking as an independent minister who is unaffiliated with any denominations, entirely too many churches today – from the pastor on down – have a credibility problem because of all the things that I mentioned above. My impressions are anecdotal and in no way scientific. I receive personal responses to my blogs and other postings, and I carry on conversations with a steady flow of people by e-mail. I strongly believe we Jesus worshipers and especially the clergy need to look at ourselves for at least some of the reasons for the decline in membership, and probably most of them. Allow me to offer three observations:
 Churches are no longer intellectually challenging, if they ever really were to start with. I can still remember being sent to Catholic school as a child and being “taught” not to think for myself, or to just obey. Christians who think for themselves are considered weird at best, or dangerous at worst in today's churches. Obedience is good and personal independence is (allegedly) bad. Organized religion has always been like this and critical, independent thinkers like myself are shown the door without just cause way too often. More and more of our young people are college-educated, and in the future an overwhelming majority and will accept the challenge of post-high school education. They are thinking people who are expanding the limits of their curiosity and knowledge. Some of them will be the first American generation to establish outposts throughout our solar system, and eventually beyond. I have often wondered what will happen to organized religion when life is inevitably discovered on other planets and their moons. It is no surprise to me that these young people often conclude that they are not willing to accept the Church’s rigid catechism, an educational method that teaches all the right religious questions and the correct answers. As an educational tool, private religious schooling has become outdated and provides no challenge to students eager to question and discuss. Ministers must take the responsibility to re-establish themselves among the leaders of the intellectual community.
 Churches are no longer leaders in moral and ethical discussions. Young people have grown weary of churches that cannot get past issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Although I personally am not in favor of either abortion or gay marriage, God has given me enough wisdom to know I can't persuade everybody to think like myself. Instead, I choose to follow the Bible, which warns us not to judge others (see Matthew 7: 1-5; James 2: 12-13; James 4: 11-12) and to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2: 12)! My job is to bring the good news message of Jesus Christ to everyone I can. I cannot 'save' souls, only Christ can do that. Once I have presented the message of the Gospel, I have fulfilled my responsibility. If the Gospel is presented any other way but that, it starts to sound like a sales pitch. Moreover, millennial Christian drop-outs are still very interested in alternatives to the selfish, hedonistic and violent society we live in. More and more, they are catching on to something I have been preaching and teaching for years – namely the unilateral rejection of materialism and the trappings of wealth, and a rejection of violence and hate. Success in life is not defined by how much money and possessions we have accumulated! That type of “success” is only an illusion. Instead, success in life depends on what kind of legacy we leave behind when we're gone. Justice, fairness and compassion are supposed to be high on our agendas, and looking for opportunities to serve as a way of worshiping God should be the priority of people of good conscience. Life is all about how we treat other people as well as how devoted we are to serving the less fortunate. It's not just about religion. Today's generation of young people want to be involved in solving environmental problems, ending poverty and homelessness and their root causes, and in peacemaking. “Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus said, “for they shall be called 'sons of the living God'.” (Matthew 5: 9)
In contrast, pizza parties and rock concerts – techniques that have been used to make churches appear more relevant to the young – are not high on the agenda of young people concerned about society’s deep-seated problems. In other words, too many churches are concerned about the hot-button issues of today, such as same-sex marriage or abortion, when the preachers should be talking about the extreme immorality of waging war! Or, how about pointing out the extreme immorality of 50,000 children per day dying of starvation globally? What about the fact that fully one fourth of the world's population has no access to clean drinking water or electricity?? If the same amount of passion were devoted to protecting and upholding the living as has been said and written about protecting the unborn, the world would be a markedly better place in which to live. As for same-sex marriage or abortion, Jesus never said anything about either. The Bible does teach that being gay or bisexual is wrong, but it also warns us repeatedly not to judge other people. I don't hang around gay people, nor do I approve of their “lifestyle” – as they call it – but that does not give me the right to hate gay people, nor is it an excuse to hold them in contempt, and never to condemn them. “Love your neighbor as yourself”. By showing disdain for gay people, I would lose all hope of ever persuading them to believe in Jesus and all he stands for.
 Churches are no longer visionary for the reasons I have stated above. They have remained focused on offering rituals, dogma, pomp and circumstance, tied to perpetuating theologies while not bothering to explain to people how they should live once they have left church for yet another week. That's because many of these theologies aren't based on what the Bible says, and can even contradict it, and people who take the time to pick up their Bible and read it see right through that. Too much religion today is taught from the perspective and viewpoint of the extreme right-wing of American politics, and as before it is a glaring contradiction of the teachings of Christ. If the teachings of Jesus could be compared to modern political ideology, its closest comparison would be to what we call socialism today (see Acts. 2: 42-47; Acts 4: 32-37; 2nd Corinthians 8: 13-15). This is one Biblical fact that invariably infuriates the conservative extremists who have invaded America's pulpits. Read the above passages of Scripture and you'll see what I mean (If you have no Bible and want one, send your email address to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you a free one. Seriously.) People are figuring out that God is not a conservative Republican, and that he never was. For all these reasons, churches are no longer significant players in shaping the life of our communities. If priests, ministers and their churches will not lay out what the kingdom of God on earth might actually look like, young people will continue to look elsewhere for other models. In that sense, I don't know who to be concerned about more – the young adults who are leaving churches, or the churches they are leaving behind. In the meantime, the rest of the world is rushing at top speed towards World War 3. Millions will be killed instantly in what is bound to be a nuclear conflagration, and then they'll be out of time. Maybe we all will, who knows? The best we can do for now is to start praying – a lot – for peace.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Sunday, August 21, 2016
Wars, Rumors of Wars, and the Truth
by Pastor Paul J Bern
One of the things I did on my own behalf five years ago as I was looking for ways to cut my expenses was canceling my cable TV subscription. My reasons were partly economic, partly practical, and partly because of my Christian faith. I also had practical reasons. I was just getting started with my writing and blogging, so I no longer had time to watch TV. To me at least, there's really nothing much on there worth watching, so why bother? Plus, the news and information channels such as Fox, CNN, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and so many others are filled with misinformation at best, and propaganda at worst. So, I started streaming videos off the Web, mainly from You Tube, Mypeace.tv and a few others. I have intentionally cut myself off from much of the world, just as it is written: “Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world....” [John chapter 18, verse 36]. It is also a fact mainly known to Jesus followers that real Christians define intelligence differently than anyone else, as it is written: “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight.....” [1st Corinthians chapter 3, verses 18-19]. The apostle John, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, also had a comment or two in this regard when he wrote, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” [1st John chapter 2, verses 15-17, NIV]
These are the underlying reasons, my dear readers, why I have disconnected from the world (I no longer own a radio for the same reasons). There is one very noticeable difference between cable and network television and what's being shown on the internet, besides the fact that much of it is free. I can sum it up in one word – truth!! The contrast between the news, information and even the entertainment on the Web compared to commercial TV and the movies is pretty stark. One of the most worrisome trends I'm seeing on the internet, however, is those who go overboard in search of the truth to such an extent that they damage their own credibility due to excess speculation about humankind's future. The wild speculation about the timing of World War Three and with regard to End Times Prophecy are the two examples of what I mean by “worrisome trends”. Never mind all the misinformation. Let me set a few things straight.
First, and much to the discredit of organized religion, or “Christianity, Inc”, I often wonder why some of the answers to these questions are not being discussed in churches. All I hear in the majority of them are false doctrines such as the “pre-tribulation rapture” and the bizarre idea that Jesus wants us all to be rich. I can hardly find a church these days that teaches the truth of all these things except on the internet. The ugly truth is far worse than what is currently being 'taught'. No wonder the church is not mentioned in Revelation directly, just the tribulation saints (see Rev. chapter 7, verses 9-14). The rest are being consumed in the great apostasy that will hit a peak once the Antichrist governmental system gets into full swing, and that will be happening in the near future. Have any of you other Christians brought up these subjects in church? I have and it does not go over well, but that doesn't matter to me. Now is the time to speak out and expose false teaching on these subjects. One prime example of what I mean can be found in scripture in Revelation chapter 13, verses 1-5: “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. Men worshiped the dragon because he gave great authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, 'Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?' The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months.”
Don't worry, I'm not going to confuse or confound anyone with any long, drawn out explanations because none is necessary. “The Beast” symbolizes an extremely powerful nation. “The Sea” is a biblical metaphor for the sea of humanity. The “10 horns, 7 heads and 10 crowns” refers to a large international organization, most likely the countries that are the primary or founding members of the United Nations. “The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion.” What modern countries use those animals as their national symbols? Germany, Russia and Great Britain, in that order. The “fatal wound that had been healed” is presumably Germany, who lost WW2 but has since been rebuilt and revitalized. “The Dragon” is a synonym for the devil, or Satan. And who is “The Beast”? What does it say? “'Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?” This is a clear reference to the largest and by far most powerful military force the world has ever known – the United States!
What else could this be? “The beast” in the Book of Revelation is none other than the United States military, the American Empire, the US military-industrial-incarceration complex, or all of the above! I mean, it does not take a seminary or a university graduate to figure this stuff out!!
There is much talk today about war being imminent. Granted, when it comes to the Middle East, war could break out at any time, nobody knows for sure. So you can forget about those who say they know the date of Jesus' return, or that WW3 or a colossal economic crash is going to occur on a certain day. They either don't know what they're talking about, or they have ulterior motives for saying such things (like selling books, for example). Let's not forget what Jesus taught: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels of heaven, or the Son, but only the Father". (Matt. 24:36) But there are several other quotes directly from our Savior that may offer a clue about a certain time frame regarding Christ's return. Jesus also said, "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night", and, “The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him". Moreover, when Jesus taught the parable of the wedding feast (see Matthew 22, verses 1 to 14), the groom arrived at midnight, and everyone had fallen asleep. When I combine the above quotes, the message is clear. He will arrive in the middle of the night to take his Bride home, and the world will have fallen asleep because it's taking 2,000 years for this scenario to play itself out so that all prophecy can be fulfilled. Problem is – and this is where it gets interesting – if Christ comes in the middle of the night in Jerusalem, when I add up the time zone changes from Israel to the US, He would arrive here during afternoon rush hour. Wouldn't that be something!
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Monday, August 8, 2016
Sunday, August 7, 2016
Dispensing Justice and Promoting Healing
Are the Government's Biblical Obligations
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
This week I want to write about why implementing single-payer national health care is so important, and what the Bible says about that. The passage of so-called “Obama-care” a couple years ago makes this issue worse, not better. All the US government had to do was put the whole country on Medicare, and include all those on Medicaid as well. Then, we could just do away with Medicaid, saving the country roughly $650 billion per year! There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than that swirling around the role of government. The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: How big, how small should it be? But I want to suggest that what size the government should be is the wrong question. A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government and whether America's is fulfilling them in a Christlike manner. So let's put the politics to the side for the moment and look at what the Bible has to say about this topic.
The words of the apostle Paul in the 13th chapter of Romans are perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government. Paul says those purposes are twofold: to restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior. Civil authority is designed to be "God's servant to do you good" as it is written: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from the fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13, verses 3-5, NIV)
Today we might say 'the common good' is to be the focus and function of government. The Declaration of Independence defines this as being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The primary function of government is the care and welfare of its citizens”. According to the apostle Paul, the purpose of government is to protect from evil and promote the good, to punish the 'takers' while rewarding those who freely give. We are also obligated by law to pay taxes for those purposes. So to disobey, disrespect or circumvent good government is simply not a biblical position. Jesus summed this up very well during his ministry, as it is written: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. 'Teacher', they said, 'we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?' But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, 'You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used to pay the tax'. They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, 'Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?' 'Caesar's', they replied. Then He said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God's.' When they heard this they were amazed. So they left Him and went away”. (Matthew 22, verses 15-22)
First, government is supposed to protect its citizens' safety and security. Crime and violence will always be a real and present danger in this world, and that's why we have the police, who are meant to keep our streets, neighborhoods, and homes safe. Governments also need to protect their people judicially, and make sure our legal and court systems are procedural, just and fair. The biblical prophets regularly railed against corrupt court decisions and systems, in which the wealthy and powerful manipulate the legal processes for their own benefit and put the poor into greater debt or distress. The prophet Amos speaks directly to the courts (and government) when he says, "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts" (Amos 5:15 NIV). Again it is written, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an honest or innocent person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 23, verses 6-9)
But along with protecting, what should governments promote? The Law of Moses holds kings, rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice and fairness, therefore promoting those values. And the Scriptures say that governmental authority is to protect the poor in particular. The biblical prophets are consistent and adamant in their condemnation of injustice to the poor, and frequently follow their statements by requiring the government to act justly. That prophetic expectation applies today to the governments of all lands and peoples. Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well." Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for political leaders and the entire population: "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor."
There is a powerful vision here for promoting the common good — a vision of "righteous" prosperity for all the people, with special attention to the poor and to "deliverance" for the most vulnerable and needy, and even a concern for the land. The biblical understanding of justice is that the procedures must be fair and it demands unbiased courts (Exodus 23:2-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; 10:17-19). Immediately after denouncing Israel and Judah for the absence of justice, the prophet Isaiah condemned the way rich and powerful landowners have acquired all the land by pushing out small farmers when he wrote: “Now I will tell you what I am going to do in my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: 'Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants.' (Isaiah 5:7-9, NIV). It is important to note that even though in this text the prophet does not say the powerful acted illegally, he nevertheless denounces the unfair outcome.
The real truth is that fair outcomes do not always match equal outcomes. The historical attempts by many communist governments to create equal outcomes in terms of social and economic status have dramatically shown the great dangers of how the concentration of power in a few government hands leads to totalitarian results. The theological reason for that is the presence and power of sin, and the inability of such fallible human creatures to create social utopias on earth. Yet the biblical prophets do hold their rulers, courts, judges, landowners and employers (even slave owners!) accountable to the values of fairness, justice, and even mercy. The theological reasons for that are, in fact, the same: the reality of evil and sin in the concentration of power — both political and economic — and the need to hold that power accountable, especially for the protection of the poor and the sick. So fair outcomes, and not necessarily equal ones, are the goal of governments. Governments should provide a check on powerful people, institutions, and interests in the society that, if left unchecked, might run over their fellow citizens, the economy, and certainly the poor. And coming to a better moral balance in achieving fiscal responsibility, while protecting the poor, should be a bipartisan effort. The radically anti-government ideology of the current right wing Tea Party/Republican ideology is simply contrary to a more biblical view of government. The need for checks and balances, the sinfulness of too much concentrated power in either the government or the market, and the responsibilities we have for serving the common good, are all the Biblical definitions of good and just government. Anything less is the same as poking your finger in God's eye.