TRENDS & Share of Americans With No Religious Affiliation Is Rising Significantly, New Data Shows

by David Crary, Time Magazine, 10/17/19.

The portion of Americans with no religious affiliation is rising significantly, in tandem with a sharp drop in the percentage that identifies as Christians, according to new data from the Pew Research Center.

Based on telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, Pew said Thursday that 65% of American adults now describe themselves as Christian, down from 77% in 2009. Meanwhile, the portion that describes their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestant and Roman Catholic ranks are losing population share, according to Pew. It said 43% of U.S. adults identify as Protestants, down from 51% in 2009, while 20% are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

Pew says all categories of the religiously unaffiliated population – often referred to as the “nones” grew in magnitude. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up from 2% in 2009; agnostics account for 5%, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.

Read more at … https://time.com/5704040/american-religious-affiliations-decreasing/

CHURCH HISTORY & Christian Smith explains what happened in the 1990s that led to a surge in the “nones” – the religiously unaffiliated.

by

In the early 1990s, the historical tether between American identity and faith snapped. Religious non-affiliation in the U.S. started to rise—and rise, and rise. By the early 2000s, the share of Americans who said they didn’t associate with any established religion (also known as “nones”) had doubled. By the 2010s, this grab bag of atheists, agnostics, and spiritual dabblers had tripled in size.

Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.

This story begins with the rise of the religious right in the 1970s. Alarmed by the spread of secular culture—including but not limited to the sexual revolution, the Roe v. Wade decision, the nationalization of no-fault divorce laws, and Bob Jones University losing its tax-exempt status over its ban on interracial dating—Christians became more politically active. The GOP welcomed them with open arms…

The marriage between the religious and political right delivered Reagan, Bush, and countless state and local victories. But it disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics. Smith said it’s possible that young liberals and loosely affiliated Christians first registered their aversion to the Christian right in the early 1990s, after a decade of observing its powerful role in conservative politics.

Second, it may have felt unpatriotic to confess one’s ambivalence toward God while the U.S. was locked in a geopolitical showdown with a godless Evil Empire. In 1991, however, the Cold War ended. As the U.S.S.R. dissolved, so did atheism’s association with America’s nemesis. After that, “nones” could be forthright about their religious indifference, without worrying that it made them sound like Soviet apologists.

Third, America’s next geopolitical foe wasn’t a godless state. It was a God-fearing, stateless movement: radical Islamic terrorism. A series of bombings and attempted bombings in the 1990s by fundamentalist organizations such as al-Qaeda culminated in the 9/11 attacks. It would be a terrible oversimplification to suggest that the fall of the Twin Towers encouraged millions to leave their church, Smith said. But over time, al-Qaeda became a useful referent for atheists who wanted to argue that all religions were inherently destructive.

Read more at … https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/atheism-fastest-growing-religion-us/598843/

ATHEISM & Is the “New Atheists” Lack of Belief Inconsistent with the Scientific Method? Prize-Winning Physicist Thinks It Is.

Interview by Lee Billings, Scientific American Magazine, 3/20/19 with

Marcelo Gleiser a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College and prolific science popularizer, has won this year’s Templeton Prize. Valued at just under $1.5 million, the award from the John Templeton Foundation annually recognizes an individual “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” 

Scientific American spoke with Gleiser about the award, how he plans to advance his message of consilience, the need for humility in science, why humans are special, and the fundamental source of his curiosity as a physicist.

You’ve written and spoken eloquently about nature of reality and consciousness, the genesis of life, the possibility of life beyond Earth, the origin and fate of the universe, and more. How do all those disparate topics synergize into one, cohesive message for you?

To me, science is one way of connecting with the mystery of existence. And if you think of it that way, the mystery of existence is something that we have wondered about ever since people began asking questions about who we are and where we come from. So while those questions are now part of scientific research, they are much, much older than science. I’m not talking about the science of materials, or high-temperature superconductivity, which is awesome and super important, but that’s not the kind of science I’m doing. I’m talking about science as part of a much grander and older sort of questioning about who we are in the big picture of the universe. To me, as a theoretical physicist and also someone who spends time out in the mountains, this sort of questioning offers a deeply spiritual connection with the world, through my mind and through my body. Einstein would have said the same thing, I think, with his cosmic religious feeling.

Why are you against atheism?

I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, “Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.” And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and all that. This positions me very much against all of the “New Atheist” guys—even though I want my message to be respectful of people’s beliefs and reasoning, which might be community-based, or dignity-based, and so on. And I think obviously the Templeton Foundation likes all of this, because this is part of an emerging conversation. It’s not just me; it’s also my colleague the astrophysicist Adam Frank, and a bunch of others, talking more and more about the relation between science and spirituality...

Read more at … https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/atheism-is-inconsistent-with-the-scientific-method-prize-winning-physicist-says/

GOD’S EXISTENCE & Stephen Hawking: Only the Christian View of God Makes Sense.

by Fr. Matthew Schneider, Pathos, 10/22/18.

There are many different views of God. Hawking tries to argue against God’s existence but ends up leaving the Christian view of God as the only possible one.

In his final book, famed astrophysicist and atheist, Stephen Hawking spoke about God’s relationship to the universe. Live Science published an article titled: “Stephen Hawking’s Final Book Says There’s ‘No Possibility’ of God in Our Universe.” It includes some key quotations and summaries from the book, “Brief Answers to Big Questions,” published this week:

“If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: What role is there for God?”

Hawking will argue for the universe existing at random:

“The universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature.”

Following this up, Hawking states:

“We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in,” Hawking wrote. “For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.”

Other God’s Can’t Exist

These lines rule out many conceptions of God but leave the Christian conception of God unscathed.

The Judeo-Christian God Can Exist

However, the God of Judaism and Christianity is exempt from Hawking’s critique. Hawkings assumes properly, “the laws of nature are fixed,” then notes that the universe could have just started existing without violating the laws of nature. So far I concur. However, he makes three mistakes.

All Material

First, he assumes God is the level of the universe. Hawking states, “If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.” However, the Christian view has never been a God at the level of the universe but one far above on a totally different level of existence.

All Temporal

Second, he assumes all causes are temporal. He explicitly states that God couldn’t have caused the universe as there was no time for God to exist in (3rd quote above). Even in science, some things would be simultaneous but causally related. We say gravity causes a rock to fall, but the force of gravity is simultaneous to the rock falling. Furthermore, time is the measurement of change but change indicates imperfection as it is a moment towards or away from perfection. Thus, the Christian conception of God is unchanging and thus outside of time.

Why?

Third, he forgets to ask why? Why is there anything, not nothing? Hawking just assumes it all just randomly happened but even randomness has a cause. The lottery is random but we all know that there is a cause behind the randomness.

In Christianity, we view God as the very act of being himself. In other words, God is IS. If you get this, you can pass Christian metaphysics 101. The idea is that “to be” doesn’t change the nature of a thing – we can think of a wookie even though no wookies are. It is God himself who maintains all – from quarks to humans to super-massive black holes – in existence. Each is insofar as God grants it existence. 

Conclusion

Hawking was an atheist and critiqued the concept of God, thinking it didn’t match physical reality. He, however, seems to understand God differently than orthodox Christians do. His critiques leave the orthodox Judeo-Christian view of a transcendent and intellectual God as the only possibility.

Christianity has two more concepts of God that are above reason but not contrary to it: the Trinity and the Incarnation. Hawking’s critiques of God don’t address these either for or against.

There is a reason science grew and developed most in Christianity: our rational view of God. Next time an atheist tries to argue against God, realize they often mean something other than God when they use the word “god” …

Read more at … http://www.patheos.com/blogs/throughcatholiclenses/2018/10/stephen-hawking-only-the-christian-view-of-god-makes-sense/

SPIRITUAL WAYPOINTS 16, 15 & 14: How to help people navigate their spiritual journey

Excerpted from Bob Whitesel, “Waypoint 16: No Awareness of a Supreme Being” Waypoint 15: Awareness of a Supreme Being, No knowledge of the Good News” and “Waypoint 14: Initial Awareness of the Good News” in Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey (2010).

Spiritual Waypoints [cropped top 1:3 65kb]

Waypoint 16: No Awareness of a Supreme Being

Actions That Help W16 Travelers

At Waypoint 16 a Christian must offer assistance to wayfarers via two avenues, intellectual engagement and social modeling.  Let us look at intellectual engagement first.

Action 16.1: Release Your Organic Intellectuals.

 Most faith communities are weak at explaining their belief in God to someone who has rejected the very notion of God’s existence.  However, in such communities of faith there are individuals that are skilled at intellectual analysis and engagement.  They are the ones who gleefully teach Sunday Schools and Bible Studies, for the mental stimulation of the task.  The Bible mentions around two dozen “gifts of the Spirit” (c.f. Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28, Ephesians 4:11) and these people may have the gift of teaching (Romans 12:8, 1 Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11-14, Acts 18:24-28).  The gift of teaching has been described as an ability “to communication information … in such a way that others learn.”  Yet, the gift of teaching is not the same as entertaining oratory or cheerleading, for the last phrase “that others learn” reminds us that listeners will gain knowledge.  Michael Griffiths states, “traditionally too much Christian teaching is pulpit soliloquy and nobody ever checks up to see where anyone takes notice of whether teaching produces any action.”

In the field of political science such gifted communicators are called “organic intellectuals” for they naturally understand people and are able to help the average person understand difficult concepts.  Antonio Gramsci, the political activist who coined the term organic intellectual, emphasized they were not just academics, but were playwrights, media professionals, novelists and journalists.

C. S. Lewis was an organic intellectual who is best known as an eloquent champion and writer on Christian themes.  Yet, in his memoir Surprised by Joy he tells how he began life as an atheist.  It was through intellectual analysis and mentorship (via Christian fantasy writer George McDonald and friends like J.R.R. Tolkien) that Lewis became a passionate advocate of Christian belief.  His, Mere Christianity has been heralded as “…not the shouting, stomping, sweating, spitting televangelist fare so often parodied; Lewis employs logical arguments that are eloquently expressed”  While some of his writings were directed at mostly Christian audiences (e.g. The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer), Lewis wrote many books for people without an awareness of the supreme being (i.e. God in the Dock and The Pilgrim’s Regress).

And, through Lewis countless young people have been introduced to the rationale for Christ’s sacrifice through the childhood eyes of Lucy, Edmond, Susan and Peter as they witness the savage death and resurrection of the kindly, yet kingly lion named Aslan.  In a similar organic fashion J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy exemplifies to adolescent readers the nobility of sacrifice, obligation, lineage and inter-reliance. 

I knew one such organic intellectual named Linda B.  She has risen to the top of her profession: president and general manager of a large television station.  As such, one magazine named her the “most powerful woman in Minnesota.”  Her gift was communication (after all she was in the media business) and in her church she started a Bible study that grew rapidly due to a sharp intellect and easy to understand style.  However, most of the attendees were Christians.  Now, there is nothing wrong with such gatherings.  But, often we keep our best intellects ministering to Christians and do not release an equal number to engage our mission field.  

If your church has leaders possessing organic gifts of teaching, whereby they can readily and convincingly explain difficult concepts, it is time we send them out to start book studies, readings and discussion groups with people that are, as C. S. Lewis once was, “very angry with God for not existing.”  Libraries often host book studies and are looking for communicators, service organizations have leadership training and seek gifted trainers and poetry readings engage hearers with challenging yet prosaic ideas.  These are all valid venues for a church’s ministry.  But remember, when leaving the confines of cloistered halls, all opinions are welcome and appreciated. Such external venues are not a time to stifle opposing viewpoints, but to welcome them. The organic intellectual welcomes new ideas, and appreciates the skillful and probing mind that fosters them.  This is called fostering an ask-assertive environment, and we shall study it further in the following section.

Action 16.2: The A, B, C & D of Social Modeling

Social modeling is exactly what it asserts, modeling behavior that is inter-relational and social. Here we are speaking about Christians modeling the positive attributes that Christ exhibited.  The very word for Christian means “little Christs” and should remind us that when we use it we are envoys and ambassadors of Christ.  Even detractors such as self-avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens acknowledges the power of social modeling, stating, “the good effects of Christianity are neither to be denied, not lightly esteemed, though candidly I will admit that I think them overrated.”   It is toward ensuring that such modeling is not overrated, but authentically affirmed, that the church must set her sights.

While social modeling can be helpful at all waypoints, it is especially important at Waypoint 16.  At this waypoint a person has no awareness that a supreme being exists and thus social modeling can be the first encounter with Christ-likeness.  To be effective, social modeling has two premises:

 First social modeling must be based on a “mutual relationship.” This means that a two-way personal connection must be established before modeling has any power.  Research has shown when outreach is conducted in an impersonal manner that it can create three to ten times as much negative as positive response.

Secondly, social modeling is only effective if the one modeling is admired, i.e. it is based upon a “positive and mutual relationship.”  The church that is reaching out at this waypoint will realize that it’s people must act in such a way that their lives attest to a belief in a God that is eternal, compassionate, loving … and just.   Therefore, let us look at four things a church can undertake to redemptively exhibit social modeling.

Action A: Truth telling.  This means telling exactly the truth and not embellishing it.  Communities of faith can become cultures of exaggeration and overstatement.  Such amplification often occurs when attendance figures are bantered about, or conversion statistics stated.  An organization can become so infected with exaggeration that budgets will be inflated beyond what is needed, because amplification is expected.  For example, truth telling is waning if a department always has to ask for two new employees to be assured they get one.  The entire organization often mutates into an unhealthy environment of overstatement and hyperbole.  To an outside word that is watching and having financial dealings with the church, it appears that we have no respect nor concern about the retribution of a God who demands truth telling (“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” Matthew 5:37).  The result is that churches say they believe in God, but by fudging on the truth give an impression to a watching world that His requirements and retributions do not really matter.

Action B: Fair dealing.  This is when a church has two sets of standards, dealing with Christians in a more honest and fair manner than they deal with people who are not.  By breaking contracts, not paying bills, finagling for the lowest price, etc. churches may feel they are stretching God’s money at the expense of the un-Godly.  But in actuality Christians are modeling a lack of fair dealing and equality.  People observing this behavior may conclude that because Christians are a reflection of God, then their God must be a deity that does not deal fairly.

Action C: An Ask-assertive Environment.  This is an environment where questions are not only welcomed, but also encouraged.  Churches that are reaching out to people who have little awareness of God will want to demonstrate God’s approachability by being open themselves to questions, and never offended.  In a church this environment may be manifest in questions arising from the floor during a sermon or on the street during the week.  It was C. S. Lewis’ questions that peppered his conversations with friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien that led Lewis to Waypoint 7: new birth.  Yet, in many churches questions, if allowed at all, are organized into tidy little segments after a long lecture.  The lecture format of most church preaching keeps this practice entrenched. Asking questions however is encouraged in an ask-assertive environment.  This is especially important since we model a supreme being who personal engages His creation from the Garden of Eden (where He was walking and conversing with Adam, Genesis 3:8-9) through the New Earth (Revelation 21 where He shall be among his creation again).

Action D: Imagery of Hope.  This final action is exemplified by Richard’s story.  This story captures the image of utilizing organic intellectuals crafting an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally engaging media presentation of the hope and help that God offers a floundering world.  Recall how the first half of Dick’s presentation emphasized the lostness and estrangement of the youth culture.  But, then the second half lauded how God provides hope and meaning.  This tension between despair and hope is reflected in the quote by C. S. Lewis that began this chapter.  Lewis lamented, he was caught in “a whirlwind of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.  I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.” Lewis was exasperated because the world needed hope and he saw none coming, until portrayed in the writings of fantasy writer George Williams.  Whether the fantasies of Williams or the light and music presentation of Richard Peace, the imagery of hope can be so powerful and so needed, that it will propel a traveler on their journey forward … and God-ward.

Waypoint 15: Awareness of a Supreme Being, no knowledge of the Good News

Action 15:1: Research Needs

The type of research conducted is important, for some research is more helpful than others.  Primary research occurs when information is gathered first-hand.  Secondary research is when someone gleans insights from another’s research.  Secondary research is helpful, but often pales in potency to primary research where a researcher is personally immersed in a local mission field.  How can a church gather first-hand information on the needs of its community?  Let us look at three actions that can produce primary research.

Action A: Live Among Them.  To ascertain community needs it helps to live among them, eating where they eat and shopping where they shop.  In fact, one of 10 major factors in halting church growth is when leaders become distanced from their constituency.   If this occurs church leaders will be only guessing at community needs.  

Action B: Meet With Them in Group Settings.  Informal gatherings, focus groups and Town Hall meetings are ways to connect with community residents. Often when people are interviewed one-on-one, they hold back their feelings.  Research into group dynamics tells us that people will often expound more deeply … and expressively in groups.  If the purpose is to ascertain needs, then understanding can be enhanced by group intensity.  However, churches must be very careful to only solicit input and not to politic for the church’s viewpoint.  To do the later will result in immediate distancing and suspicion.  Guidelines for hosting effective focus groups are described in a previous book.  

Action C: Don’t Clone Another Church’s Ministry.  Unless necessary, don’t merely reduplicate ministry that other churches are utilizing.  To do so will rob you of a locally developed and contextualized ministry.  However, if your church is too small it can partner to expand its ministry.  Look for other churches that are reaching out at adjacent waypoints and partner with them.  Success often depends upon doctrinal and historical factors.  But, if the needs of a community can be met by collaborating with another ministry, then pursue this option.

Action 15:2: Design Your Ministry from the Bottom Up

As a consultant with church clients of all sizes, I have found that the most helpful ministries are those that emerge from a collaborative effort between church leaders and needy residents.  There are two elements for designing a contextualized ministry.

  Action A: Inclusion.  Include non-church goers in the planning and design of your ministry.  <any will reject this offer because they are not yet ready to volunteer, even advice. But those who are emerging out of lower need stages may be entering the Belongingness and Love level.  They will want thus to contribute, and at least give their thoughts.  Yet, a natural inclination of Christian leaders is to reject such offers, feeling that the emerging person needs more time to grow or to gain more secondary knowledge (e.g. book knowledge, theological knowledge or doctrinal knowledge).  But, once a traveler has had their physiological needs and safely needs met, they must be allowed to contribute, even minimally, to the ministry of a faith community.  Churches can help wayfarers by inviting them to participate in the ministry planning process, and this invitation must be extended much earlier and more earnestly that most churches realize.

Action B: Allocate Sufficient Money.  As noted in the first two chapters, churches customarily err on the side of either the Cultural Mandate (social action) or the Evangelistic Mandate. It was also shown that God’s intention for His church is a more holistic approach where a church ministers at many waypoints, rather than just in a narrow range.  Narrow ministry becomes entrenched because churches tend to budget based upon history, rather than forecasts.  A church that understands it should reach out at early waypoints will also understand that it must allocate sufficient funds to do so.  Churches must evaluate what percentages of its budgets are going to support the Evangelistic Mandate and the Cultural Mandate.  And, a plan can be brought about to create a balance, where roughly 50 percent of a church’s budget goes to support the Cultural Mandate and 50 percent goes to support the Evangelistic Mandate.  Regardless of intentions, these mandates will never be brought into parity until finances are allocated with equivalence.

Action 15:3: Connect Your Ministry to the Community.

For a community established to communicate good news, communication is one the weakest skills in most churches. Many congregations design fantastic ministries only to have them marginally attended because residents do not know they are available.  The following are three basic actions for successfully telling the community about ministries that can meet their needs.

Action A: Have a Trial-run. A church should initiate a trial-run with little initial fanfare. This will give the church an opportunity to try out the ministry without being deluged by community needs. To communicate that you are hosting a test-run, use word-of-mouth communication. 

  Action B: Use Indigenous Communication Channels.  Church leaders often do not understand how community residents communicate.  In one church’s community, fliers in self-serve laundromats communicated better than online advertising (few needy residents had regular or easy access to the Internet).  Each community has developed different communication channels.  If a church invites residents to participate in the planning process, then residents can share the veiled yet influential ways that news travels in their community.

Action C: Be a Good-doer, not a Do-gooder.  The difference between a do-gooder and a good-doer was revealed to me ten years ago.  Dan was auditioning to be the drummer in a worship team I led.  Though he was more than suitable for the task, I was confused because he looked familiar.  “You visited me last Christmas,” Dan responded noticing my bewilderment.  “Brought a lot of nice things for the kids.”  Each year our church visited needy residents, giving them gifts and singing carols. “You were nice enough to come,” Dan would say to me later.  Dan and I had become friends, and now our team was planning to visit needy households.  “You go, I won’t,” Dan stated.  “I want to be a good-doer, not a do-gooder.”  Further conversations revealed with Dan saw a difference between “do-gooders” and “good-doers.”  On the one hand, Dan saw do-gooders as people who go around doing limited and inconsistent good deeds.  He perceived that they were doing good on a limited scale to relieve their conscience.  Thus their good deeds were perceived as self-serving, insincere and limited.  A church that brings food a couple times a year to a needy family does little to minister to their long-term physiological needs or safety needs.  On the other hand, Dan saw “good-doers” as those who do good in a meaningful, relevant and ongoing manner.  And, he was right.  In hindsight I had been striving to do good, not trying to do good better.  Therefore, a church should connect with its community by offering ongoing ministry and not just holiday help.

Action 15:4: Evaluate the Results

Donald McGavran called the church’s aversion to analysis the “universal fog” that blinds the church to her mission and effectiveness.  And, McGavran preferred the term “effective evangelism” as the best way to describe what we should be measuring.  The term “effective evangelism” has much to commend it.  Evangelism, as we noted in Chapter 1, means “Good News” or a heralding of “unexpected joy.” Thus, if we are embarking as fellow travelers and guides on this journey of Good News, shouldn’t we want to travel that route more effectively?  And if so, how do we measure progress?

 Some mistakenly perceive that counting attendance is the best way to evaluate effectiveness. Yet, there are four types of church growth mentioned in the Bible, and growth in attendance is cited as God’s task (and not the job of the church).  In two previous books I have looked at measuring these in detail, but let’s briefly examine four types of church growth and a Church Growth Metric that can measure each.

The Context: Acts 2:42-47.  Here we find Luke’s description of the church’s growth that followed Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Luke describes four types of growth.

Growth A: Growth in Maturity.  In verse 42 Luke notes that the followers were growing in a passion for the apostle’s teaching, fellowship and prayer.  Our first metric is to ascertain if, as a result of our need-based ministry, wayfarers are increasing in their participation in Bible study, fellowship and/or the practice of prayer.  One way to measure this is to measure if people are becoming increasingly involved in study groups, fellowship networks (i.e. informal small groups) and/or joining with others for prayer.  If these numbers are calculated as a percentage of overall attendance, growth in maturity may be estimated.

Growth B: Growth in Unity.  Verses 44-45 describe how the church grew in unity and trust.  This is much harder to measure, for it requires subjective evaluation. But, if people open up, much like Doug did about “do-gooders” then these and similar actions can indicate that ministry is creating deeper and more honest levels of communication.  Unity often results from deepening levels of communication.

Growth C: Growth in Favor in the Community.  Luke emphases that the church was increasingly “enjoying the favor of all the people.”  Here is a metric often overlooked, which asks: is the community increasingly appreciative of the ministry the church is offering?  Asking community residents for regular feedback is a way to accomplish this.  One church crafted an online survey and gave away coupons for free coffee at a coffee shop for those that completed the survey. This survey was not designed to augment the church database, but was used only to ascertain if community residents felt the church was doing-good better.  Another church regularly polled socially sensitive community residents such as school principals, public leaders, community organizers, business-people, etc. about how effective the church was in meeting community needs.  The results were that these churches could gauge effective ministry by observing changes in community appreciation.

Growth D: Growth in More Christians.  Luke concludes this paragraph about early church growth by reminding his readers that “…the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Luke was pointing out that because it was a supernatural intersection, it was God’s task to bring people to and through the experience of salvation.  But in the preceding verses Luke emphasized that it was the church’s role to grow people in the other three types of church growth: maturity, unity and favor in the community. 

Church Growth Metrics remind us that we are engaged in a task that is not about large cadres of attendees, but about the inner growth of God’s creation into 1) a deepening relationship with Him, 2) more unity among His children, and 3) in such a way that a watching world rejoices.

Waypoint 14: Initial Awareness of the Good News

Action 14:1: News You Can’t Ignore

Let us look at the last category of travelers first, the traveler whose initial awareness of the Good News results in a neglect of it.  There are two steps for helping someone deal with such a difficult issue. The first is to help the person grasp the seriousness of the subject, and the second is to visualize the future.

Point 1: The Seriousness of the topic.  C. S. Lewis, an organic intellectual, skillfully illuminated grand biblical themes.  Regarding the seriousness of the Good News he stated, “…Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”  What Lewis meant by this, is that if the claims of eternal life (John 14:1-3) are true, and if the parallel claim that only through Christ can eternal life be reached (John 14:6), then Christianity holds the all important key to infinity.

  Point 2: Picture the future.  But, how does a congregation emphasize the importance of the topic.  For most travelers it will not be enough to just logically explain (as Lewis did) that eternal life if a possibility and attainable.  Instead, most people will need a mental picture. Alister McGrath analyzed how the Bible and Christians have looked at heaven and summed up, “The Christian concept of heaven is iconic, rather than intellectual (heaven is) something that makes its appeal to the imagination, rather than the intellect, which calls out to be visualized rather than merely understood … It is much easier to reflect upon an image than an idea.”

This fact was driven home to the American medical community when a study on heart patients found scaring patients into changing their behavior did not work.  On the one hand, when future illness was graphically described only 10 percent of the patients changed their behaviors. On the other hand, 77 percent changed their behavior when they were given a mental picture of a healthy future life (e.g. enjoying life with their family, friends and grandchildren).  In other words, describing the poor health associated with heart disease only motivated one in ten people to change.  But, describing a bright future enjoying children and grandchildren was almost 80 percent effective in helping patients change their lifestyle.  And thus, when sharing the Good News a depiction of a happy future may be more powerful that depicting a fiery doom.  The church should focus on the penalty and punishment of hell, but in today’s world only about 10 percent of the people will change their outlook because of scare tactics.  But, if Christians focus on the bliss of heaven and the wholeness of a Christian life, then perhaps up to 80 percent may change their outlook.  

The Bible is replete with Scriptures that visualize eternal joy.  Jesus underscores the communal and residential nature of heaven when He states, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” John 14:1-3.  Peter knew the Jewish people pictured their “promised inheritance” as Canaan (Numbers 32:19), but Peter suggested they visualize this everlasting inheritance as eternal life, stating “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). And, throughout Scripture it is emphasized that Jesus is the only way to this bliss.  When Thomas asked Jesus to clarify the above statement about “going to prepare a place” (John 14:2b) Jesus decisively and authoritatively responded, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

How then can Point 1 and Point 2 be fostered in our churches? A good place is in what we read and discuss.  Many popular books today are inspirational guides aimed at Christians, and there is nothing wrong with this.  But, when a church wants to engage travelers at Waypoint 14, the church may need to recast its reading lists.  There are many books that give descriptive and positive images of heaven and/or Christian life that could become book studies in our churches and our community.  C. S. Lewis’ books The Chronicles of Narnia (especially the last book), The Great Divorce (especially the sections on heaven) and The Space Trilogy (again, especially the last book) are but of few of his books that paint inspiring pictures of the future.  Lewis’ friend and Christian mentor, J. R. R. Tolkien, painted pictures of an idyllic world where good triumphs over evil, sacrifice leads to nobility, and ultimately humankind and nature conspire to overthrow evil (The Lord of the Rings). John Milton’s classic Paradise Regained illustrates in luminous words the worlds that lie ahead (and in Paradise Lost those luminous realms that lie behind).   Even modern stories such as Trudy Harris’ Glimpses of Heaven: True Stories of Hope and Peace at the End of Life’s Journey, and Piper and Murphy’s 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death & Life can help travelers at Waypoint 14 focus on the promise of the Good News.

Action 14:2: The Good News That God Cares

A church also must understand and articulate a theology regarding God’s concern for His creation, if its congregants are going to help people move beyond Waypoint 14.  Yet, a theology of creation must be a holistic theology and include not just God’s creative activity but also humankind’s woeful response. For in response to God’s gracious creation of a paradise on earth, humans chose a selfish route disobeying God’s directives and forfeiting paradise.  Thought there are many elements to a theology of creation, let us look at five points that bear upon our current conversation.

Point 1:  Injustice, poverty, etc. are the result of human activity, God does not desire it for his creation.  When Adam and Eve forfeited the paradise of Eden, they embarked upon a journey of selfish arrogance. The Scriptures tell us their journey led to self-centeredness, injustice and greed (Genesis 3-5). Ron Sider reminds us that this disappoints God, stating “the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that God is at work in history casting down the rich and exalting the poor because frequently the rich are wealthy precisely because then have oppressed the poor or have neglected to aid the needy.”

Point 2:  This injustice was not always so.  God provided Adam and Eve an Eden of goodness and wholeness in every aspect of their life.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann pointed out that the Hebrew word shalom comes closest to describing this “wholeness in every are of life, where God, creature, and creation enjoy harmonious relationships.”  God had warned that disobeying him would result in a  loss of this life of shalom (Genesis 2:15-17).  But, Adam and Eve picked selfish choices putting to an end this world of  balance, bless … shalom (Genesis 3).

Point 3:  Humankind was put in charge of caring (i.e. stewardship) for God’s creation.  Yet early on in the Genesis story, before the fall of humankind from the era of shalom, God had given humankind a task, to take care of the garden and to be a steward of it (Genesis 1:26-30).  This requires Christians, to be good stewards of God’s earth and life upon it.

Point 4:  Humankind was put in charge of caring (i.e. stewardship) for the needy, oppressed and disfranchised.  Proverbs 19:17 says “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.”  Judah was punished in part because of her mistreatment of the poor, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.  What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? (Isaiah 10:1-3).  King David said, “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12).    And, Howard Snyder reminds us that “God especially has compassion on the poor, and his acts in history confirm this.”

Point 5: God requires his people to sacrifice for this task.  Adam and Eve were put in charge of caring and cultivating the garden (Genesis 1:26-30), and this required sacrificing their own will to taste the forbidden fruit.  From this beginning, serving a loving, creative God required self-sacrifice.  At this sacrifice, Adam and Eve failed.  In doing so they condemned their children and their children’s children to laborious toil, hostility, repression and ultimately death (Genesis 3:16-24). Still God’s desire is that His children serve and sacrifice for others.  Jesus stated, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors…. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).   This sacrifice for others is exemplified in the sacrificial actions of Godly men and women in the Bible, ultimately culminating in the sacrifice of Jesus for humankind’s disobedience.  

When a congregation grasps the five points above, wayfarers will understand that evil, oppression and the like are not God’s doing, but human doing.  And wayfarers such as James can see that God wants Christians to help the oppressed, disenfranchised and neglected.  The church must help travelers at Waypoint 14 see the Good News is that “…the sinfulness of the social order offends thoughtful Christians everywhere.”

Read more by downloading the chapter here (but remember, if you enjoy the input please purchase a copy to support the publisher and the author): BOOK ©Whitesel EXCERPT Spiritual Waypoints 16, 15, 14

Speaking hashtags: #Kingswood2018

SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION & A Case Study #WaypointBook

by Guillaume Bignon, Christianity Today, 11/17/2014

How a French Atheist Becomes a TheologianImage: Dan Bigelow

If French atheists rarely become evangelical Christians, how much rarer it is for one to become an evangelical Christian theologian. So what happened? One might argue that with 66 million French people, I’m just a fluke, an anomaly. I am inclined to see it as the work of a God who says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (Rom. 9:15). Hearing the facts may help you decide for yourself…

Read more at … http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/november/how-french-atheist-becomes-theologian.html?paging=off

RELIGION & Is religion’s declining influence good or bad? Those without religious affiliation are divided

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Chapters 16 & 15 in Spiritual Waypoints examine how to share the Good News with the growing percentage of Americans who consider themselves atheist or agnostic. A key research finding in that book is that atheist and agnostics are not growing in their hostility towards religion and the article below further confirms this. Thus, there may be ways we can connect those without faith by not being confrontative but letting our good works pave our way into conversation with them.”

by MICHAEL LIPKA, 9/23/14, Pew Research

We’ve known for some time that the number of Americans who say they have no religion has been growing. But while this group does not identify with a specific religious tradition or denomination, the “nones” are not uniformly against religion having a role in society, a new Pew Research Center surveyfinds.

Most View Religion's Waning Influence as Negative DevelopmentWe asked all respondents whether religion is gaining or losing influence in American life, and 72% of U.S. adults (including 70% of the religiously unaffiliated) said religion is losing influence. We then asked whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, and, not surprisingly, “nones” were much more likely than other major religious groups to say that the declining influence of religion in American life is a good thing.

The results, however, were not completely one-sided. In fact, religiously unaffiliated people who perceive religion’s influence as declining were split on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. About a third of “nones” overall (34%) said it is good that religion is losing influence, while a similar share (30%) said this is bad.

“Nones” include atheists and agnostics as well as people who have no religion in particular. Among only atheists and agnostics, half (50%) see religion’s influence as declining and see this as a good thing, while only 12% say it’s a bad thing. But among those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” 37% say religion’s declining influence is a bad thing and 27% say it’s a good thing…

Read more at … http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/23/is-religions-declining-influence-good-or-bad-those-without-religious-affiliation-are-divided/