Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is the Church Shrinking?

A recent article posted on the BBC’s website reviews a scientific paper about the trend away from religious affiliation. To read the paper go here. In their research, the paper’s authors put forth the hypothesis that sophisticated mathematical tools can be used to analyze social phenomena, among which is the trend away from religious affiliation in Europe.

No one I know would say that the church in Europe is healthy; most would recognize that European church attendance and affiliation have declined markedly, and nowhere more so than in our new home country, the Czech Republic. I have no argument with the BBC or with the original scientific study in their statement of these facts. My problem lies with the conclusion they draw from the facts. To quote from the paper, “The model indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion.”

My problem with their conclusion is simply this: the growth of God’s kingdom is not dependent upon regional or even worldwide trends, but on God himself. In the second chapter of the book of Daniel, the story of King Nebuchanezzar’s dream is told. The king demands of his wise men that they tell him what the content of his dream was before they give him their interpretation of the dream. No man is able to know the mind of another, so all the wise men fail and fall under the king’s threat of death. God reveals to Daniel that he has given the king a sweeping vision of future history. The most significant aspect of Daniel’s God-given understanding is found in verses 34 & 35: "You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” Daniel later interprets this “stone that becomes a mountain” as the indestructible kingdom of God (see vs. 44, 45).

It is true that the observable growth of God’s kingdom has historically appeared to be in doubt – sometimes over wide regions and through significant periods of time. But the long term prospects and the final results are not in doubt at all. Although the present prospects for growth here do indeed look bleak, there will one day be a number that no man can number shouting with great joy before the throne of God. We are sure that there will be Czechs among those who shout that day.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How Pickpockets Change Your Priorities

Last week on the final day of our vacation, a pickpocket got my wallet. It was a classic rip-off: I was tired, distracted by trying to validate some bus tickets, and in an area with high tourist traffic. There were at least two, maybe three guys that pretended to be getting on the bus at the same moment I was; they crowded around me so closely that I could hardly move and in an instant, my wallet was gone. I didn’t notice until several bus stops later.

We were rocked back on our heels – dazed by the sudden change in our situation. The money we had gotten from an ATM to pay for our hotel was gone; all the credit cards were gone along with my driver’s license and all the myriad of stuff that gets into a wallet over 10 years. We had to make new plans, find some more cash for the hotel, call the banks, and rethink the remainder of our day.

There are some pretty obvious lessons that grow out of an event like this: don’t travel with a wallet in your pocket; watch out in big cities where lots of tourists are found; be more aware of your surroundings, etc….. While these practical lessons are good to consider, there were some other thoughts that came later, after the panic and sense of being violated had subsided a bit. Why do I imagine that I am in control of things, even the things that I call “mine”? Why do I try so hard to manipulate people and events so that things turn out the way I like them? Why do I worry so much about everything? When I give myself to worry, or when I manipulate the people and events around me I am saying to God: “I don’t trust you to take care of these things. You probably won’t handle them the way I want them handled. So, I’ll just do it myself, thanks.”

So, God let me “take care of things” that day. In doing so, he helped me understand that he is far more trustworthy than I am. Maybe, just maybe, I can turn over to him some of the stuff I fret about so often. Maybe I can start putting my trust where it really belongs, and not in myself.