Losing Faith?

In the newest issue of Mission Frontiers, Dr. Ralph Winter cites an alarming statistic in the first of a number of articles on losing one’s faith. He writes, “Nowhere, in fact, is this catastrophe more obvious than in the United States. Here, estimates are that 75% of teenagers in Evangelical homes will lose their faith after high school. One denominational study says 85%.”

I cannot find the documentation for these statistics, but Dr. Winter is not one given to making up statistics out of thin air. If even close, this should give all of us in evangelical, Bible believing and teaching churches something to think about. Later, he mentions a number of currently prominent debunkers of faith who were once considered one of us. He includes:
Hector Avalos, former Pentecostal minister, now Professor of religious studies at Iowa and an avowed secular humanist, and author of The End of Biblical Studies.
Bart Ehrman, Moody and Wheaton grad, whose latest book is God’s Problem, How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer.
John Marks, former Young Life staffer, author of Reasons to Believe, a book that concluded there were none.

A succeeding article by Dr. Ruth Tucker reflects on the factors that led former missionaries and pastors to give up their faith, and it makes for depressing reading indeed. One take away from the article: you cannot argue someone back to faith any more than you could argue them into faith originally. Any “restoration” takes the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

Is this new news? In fact, it is not. Ever since John wrote his first epistle, there have been those “who went out from us” but were not really part of us, even though they looked and talked the part.

But what is it that causes the majority of evangelical young people in the U.S. to abandon their faith after high school, with only a minority seeming to return after wandering in the world’s “wilderness” for a number of years? Theologically we can go back and forth about election. We might wonder if families have failed to “train up a child in the way he should go,” but then again some of the wanderers have brothers and sisters who don’t stray.  The children in our Awana programs, Sunday schools, and youth groups rarely leave them saying that they are not “saved,” yet nationally three out of four will not be following Jesus a few years past high school.

What might we do?  For starters, remember the parable of the seed and soils that we studied in Mark 4.  If we learn anything there, it is that salvation is a process that has a definite beginning, yet only can be seen to be taking place as fruit appears.  Perhaps if we were less insistent that our children were saved, we would be more careful to encourage them to continue to seek Christ, to look at their lives, and even examine themselves to see if they are in the faith as they grow older. 

We might also remember that Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go…”) is a proverb that describes reality, but not a guarantee in all cases.  Our best efforts as believing parents do not assure us that our children will trust the Lord.

Third, we might be much more intentional about training our children and young people in the Scriptures at a deeper level, wrestling with questions like the existence of evil sometime before a crisis or tragedy occurs.  Teaching freshmen at Cedarville University, I must say that I am appalled at the lack of general Bible knowledge of many of my students who come from Christian homes and evangelical churches.  Worse, they not only lack Bible facts, they have no theology–a coherent system of biblical thought that helps them know how to think about questions that come to them. 

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Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 12:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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A story of the good seed…

Brian Nester sent me a link to this story, and I thought it was so good I would repost it here.

David and Svea Flood 

Back in 1921, a missionary couple named David and Svea Flood went with their two-year-old son from Sweden to the heart of Africa-to what was then called the Belgian Congo. They met up with another young Scandinavian couple, the Ericksons, and the four of them sought God for direction. In those days of much tenderness and devotion and sacrifice, they felt led of the Lord to set out from the main mission station and take the gospel to a remote area.

This was a huge step of faith. At the village of N’dolera they were rebuffed by the chief, who would not let them enter his town for fear of alienating the local gods. The two couples opted to go half a mile up the slope and build their own mud huts’.

They prayed for a spiritual breakthrough, but there was none. The only contact with the villagers was a young boy, who was allowed to sell them chickens and eggs twice a week. Svea Flood-a tiny woman only four feet, eight inches tall-decided that if this was the only African she could talk to, she would try to lead the boy to Jesus. And in fact, she succeeded. But there were no other encouragements. Meanwhile, malaria continued to strike one member of the little band after another. In time the Ericksons decided they had had enough suffering and left to return to the central mission station. David and Svea Flood remained near N’dolera to go on alone. Then, of all things, Svea found herself pregnant in the middle of the primitive wilderness. When the time came for her to give birth, the village chief softened enough to allow a midwife to help her. A little girl was born, whom they named Aina. The delivery, however, was exhausting, and Svea Flood was already weak from bouts of malaria. The birth process was a heavy blow to her stamina. She lasted only another seventeen days. Inside David Flood, something snapped in that moment. He dug a crude grave, buried his twenty-seven-year-old wife, and then took his children back down the mountain to the mission station. Giving his newborn daughter to the Ericksons, he snarled, “I’m going back to Sweden. I’ve lost my wife, and I obviously can’t take care of this baby. God has ruined my life.” With that, he headed for the port, rejecting not only his calling, but God himself. Within eight months both the Ericksons were stricken with a mysterious malady and died within days of each other. The baby was then turned over to some American missionaries, who adjusted her Swedish name to “Aggie” and eventually brought her back to the United States at age three.

This family loved the little girl and were afraid that if they tried to return to Africa, some legal obstacle might separate her from them. So they decided to stay in their home country and switch from missionary work to pastoral ministry. And that is how Aggie grew up in South Dakota. As a young woman, she attended North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. There she met and married a young man named Dewey Hurst.

Years passed. The Hursts enjoyed a fruitful Ministry. Aggie gave birth first to a daughter, then a son. In time her husband became president of a Christian college in the Seattle area, and Aggie was intrigued to find so much Scandinavian heritage there. One day a Swedish religious magazine appeared in her mailbox. She had no idea who had sent it, and of course she couldn’t read the words. But as she turned the pages, all of a sudden a photo stopped her cold. There in a primitive setting was a grave with a white cross-and on the cross were the words SVEA FLOOD. Aggie jumped in her car and went straight for a college faculty member who, she knew, could translate the article. “What does this say?” she demanded. The instructor summarized the story: It was about missionaries who had come to N’dolera long ago … the birth of a white baby … the death of the young mother … the one little African boy who had been led to Christ … and how, after the whites had all left, the boy had grown up and finally persuaded the chief to let him build a school in the village. The article said that gradually he won all his students to Christ… the children led their parents to Christ… even the chief had become a Christian. Today there were six hundred Christian believers in that one village…. All because of the sacrifice of David and Svea Flood. For the Hursts’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, the college presented them with the gift of a vacation to Sweden.

There Aggie sought to find her real father. An old man now, David Flood had remarried, fathered four more children, and generally dissipated his life with alcohol. He had recently suffered a stroke. Still bitter, he had one rule in his family: “Never mention the name of God- because God took everything from me. After an emotional reunion with her half brothers and half sister, Aggie brought up the subject of seeing her father. The others hesitated. “You can talk to him,” they replied, “even though he’s very ill now. But you need to know that whenever he hears the name of God, he flies into a rage. Aggie was not to be deterred. She walked into the squalid apartment, with liquor bottles everywhere, and approached the seventy-three-year-old man lying in a rumpled bed. “Papa~” she said tentatively. He turned and began to cry. “Aina,” he said. “I never meant to give you away.” “It’s all right, Papa,” she replied, taking him gently in her arms. “God took care of me.” The man instantly stiffened. The tears stopped. “God forgot all of us. Our lives have been like this because of Him.” He turned his face back to the wall. Aggie stroked his face and then continued, undaunted. “Papa, I’ve got a little story to tell you, and it’s a true one. You didn’t go to Africa in vain. Mama didn’t die in vain. The little boy you won to the Lord grew up to win that whole village to Jesus Christ. The one seed you planted just kept growing and growing. Today there are six hundred African people serving the Lord because you were faithful to the call of God in your life. … Papa, Jesus loves you. He has never hated you.” The old man turned back to look into his daughter’s eyes. His body relaxed. He began to talk. And by the end of the afternoon, he had come back to the God he had resented for so many decades. Over the next few days, father and daughter enjoyed warm moments together. Aggie and her husband soon had to return to America-and within a few weeks, David Flood had gone into eternity.

A few years later, the Hursts were attending a high-level evangelism conference in London, England, when a report was given from the nation of Zaire (the former Belgian Congo). The superintendent of the national church, representing some 110,000 baptized believers, spoke eloquently of the gospel’s spread in his nation. Aggie could not help going to ask him afterward if he had ever heard of David and Svea Flood. “Yes, madam,” the man replied in French, his words then being translated into English. “It was Svea Flood who led me to Jesus Christ. I was the boy who brought food to your parents before you were born. In fact, to this day your mother’s grave and her memory are honored by all of us.” He embraced her in a long, sobbing hug. Then he continued, “You must come to Africa to see, because your mother is the most famous person in our history.” In time that is exactly what Aggie Hurst and her husband did. They were welcomed by cheering throngs of villagers. She even met the man who had been hired by her father many years before to carry her back down the mountain in a hammock-cradle. The most dramatic moment, of course, was when the pastor escorted Aggie to see her mother’s white cross for herself. She knelt in the soil to pray and give thanks. Later that day, in the church, the pastor read from John 12:24: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” He then followed with Psalm 126:5: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”

According to the original website a movie is being made of this story–details are here.

Published in: on May 23, 2008 at 10:26 am  Leave a Comment  

Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room.

Preaching through Mark has been an eye opening exercise for me, as I face familiar texts and learn so much more than I anticipated.  As I let the text speak to me (and then, prayerfully, to all of us), I find Jesus such a desirable and yet convicting King. 

Over the last few Sunday mornings, as I have shared my sadness over instances of God’s people not treating each other as family (the way Jesus viewed His followers and views us), or about the danger of professed faith without fruit, I know that some may have thought about the university controversies that currently surround us.  Some even asked if I was addressing the conflict generally or one of the “sides” more directly.  It seems like the difficulties have become the “elephant in the room” here in Cedarville that either we avoid talking about, or we can’t stop talking about. 

I want to make a few points clear.  First, in my preaching and in my ministry here, I am not trying to “take sides” in a dispute over words such as truth, certainty, and assurance.  When I use one of these words, I’m not trumpeting a position.  I’ve made my understandings of these words clear when asked in the past, and I do not want to join arguments over what seem to be nuances related to whether we use these words in their “common language” meaning, within philosophical speech, or as part of the vocabulary of an epistemological school of thought.  Here is my position, in case you have not heard me state it in other venues.  Truth exists–objectively, outside our perception.  It is an attribute of God, and because he is a communicating God, He has made us able to receive and know truth.  Our finiteness means we never comprehend the truth of God exhaustively.  Our fallenness in sin means our perceptions of truth are sometimes twisted and prone to error.  By His Spirit, God allows all sinners some comprehension of truth (within common grace), and He gives redeemed sinners sufficient comprehension through the Spirit of spiritual truth (through special, saving grace).  He has spoken through the Word, and we, as redeemed people with new natures and the indwelling Spirit, can achieve and have assurance, certainty, trust, confidence, and any other such word you want to use in its message.  In my conversations with various parties, no one disagrees with the heart of what I have said, even if they might choose different words to express it.

Second, I am not trying to tell people how to administer a ministry over which God has given them oversight (after all, it is God who raises up and takes down, who appoints and removes, according to numerous Scriptures).  I am the Pastor of Grace, and that is more than enough leadership responsibility for me.  My understanding of Scripture leads me to the conclusion that constituted authority is to be submitted to joyfully, as Paul did to Nero, and as he urged slaves to do to masters who may or may not be kind.  I need not be in agreement with my leaders, but I do need to recognize and submit to their authority.  In a democracy, I carry the dual role of citizen and authority (as a voter).  In the church, we submit to the authorities God places over us, and in the world of business and organizations, we submit to those over us and lead in godly fashion those under us.  Trying to undermine our bosses, stirring discord among peers,  and mistreating our subordinates are equally sinful behaviors.

It is my conviction that Christians can and will disagree (Paul and Barnabas), and sometimes be wronged by other believers (Paul, by those in Philippi who sought his harm–Phil. 1:15-17), but our responses must reflect the values of a Christian family–we do not return evil for evil, we do not let one side’s actions determine our reactions, and we do not use worldly weaponry to accomplish spiritual goals.  If we disagree, we must talk, then talk some more, taking witnesses and mediators, and do everything we can to arrive at clarity about the issues and then seek resolution that honors God.  His honor is more important than our own, and he is most definitely NOT honored by the use of the media, the internet, and publicly released statements that escalate conflict, cast aspersions on people’s character or motives, broaden the circles involved in private disputes, and take these issues far beyond their proper spheres.  Paul’s clear words to Christians at Corinth who thought about suing fellow Christians was, “why not rather be wronged” than create the kind of spectacle that is already a defeat for us all? 

I have seen and heard enough during these past months (and years) to become convinced that no one side can rightfully claim the moral or spiritual high ground for itself.  While I can understand, and sometimes sympathize with, concerns of both sides (if there are only two), I do not think that either side has always acted and spoken in ways that honor Christ and show Christian charity toward those who disagree.

I am praying that we will see the current conflicts resolved and peace restored.  In the meantime, I ask the people of Grace to do all we can to be peacemakers, forebearing with one another, forgiving one another, speaking gracious words to one another, slow to take offense and quick to deal with any hurt that we have caused.  As we listen to Jesus through Mark, let’s take it to heart.  And let’s be careful that we don’t hear His words and find ourselves most concerned that someone else listen.  The hearing that pleases Jesus is the hearing that applies to ourselves. Perhaps if each of us can apply His words to our own hearts and actions first, we can keep from degenerating into camps with separate agendas, begin and maintain reconciliation between family members, and show elephants in the room the extra large exit door.

Published in: on May 22, 2008 at 3:00 pm  Leave a Comment