Garrison Keillor, writer, comedian and fixture on National Public Radio, famously described his fictional Lake Wobegon as a place where every child was "above average." It's a very funny line simply because it can't be true. Not everyone can be above average.
I'm preparing for my speaking role at the 2013 Verse By Verse Ministry Grace and Truth Conference to be held in October. My topic for the conference will be Tickling Ears in Times of Biblical Illiteracy, and this week I've been researching statistics and trends in the church seeking illustrations to support my teaching from 2Timothy 4:
Paul warned the church that in the last days believers would no longer tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, the church would seek to have ears "tickled," meaning the church will seek an environment where it may do and think as it pleases, according to its own desires. I suspect most VBVM readers hear Paul's words and assume his warning describes someone else. We assume we don't suffer from itchy ears, because we're above average. Think again. We can't all be "above average."
In my research I came across a 2010 study by the Barna Group, which documents the growing biblical illteracy among all Christians and its detrimental effects on church life. Barna's research found, for example, that though most Christians surveyed knew Easter was a religious event, only a minority understood that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In another example, Barna reported a majority of Christians believe the Holy Spirit is merely a "symbol" of God rather than a living Person in the Trinity.
We're tempted to roll our eyes at these responses forgetting that a majority of our brothers and sisters suffer from such ignorance, but it's only a symptom of a greater problem. Barna attributes today's sharp decline in Bible knowledge to the Church's de-emphasis on sound doctrine and theology and our congregations' lack of interest in such things. In other words, we may not share their symptoms, but we do suffer from a common disease.
Congregations, denominations and church leaders everywhere are de-emphasizing Biblical education and the doctrines of our faith while relying on popular culture and other ear tickling devices to fill the void. In the wake of this change, Barna found a confused and ignorant church vulnerable to false theology and harmful practices that might have been rejected with better discipleship.
Anytime orthodox Christianity waivers in its commitment to foundational biblical principles, the faithful are set adrift with an "anything goes" attitude regarding church beliefs and practices. Today, many congregations are embracing a diversity of views and tolerance for a range of lifestyles and practices, while becoming increasingly intolerant of strict biblical interpretations and moral imperatives.
Like the proverbial frog doomed to die slowly as the pot is heated, the church is oblivious to its growing spiritual weakness (see Hebrews 5:12-6:2) and unfamiliarity with sound teaching (see 1Cor 3:2). Already, Barna sees evidence that our pot is simmering: a majority of Christians are ignorant of key doctrines of the faith, and many appear willing to embrace – and even encourage – sinful behaviors within the church body. Soon, we will be powerless to escape the fatal effects.
This is exactly the trend Paul warned Timothy to guard against, and Barna has helpfully documented the chain of events that bring about Paul's unfortunate vision. First, disinterest in Bible teaching allows immature beliefs and practices to go unchallenged. Next, spiritual immaturity develops into an intolerance for sound doctrine. Finally, intolerance for sound doctrine drives the church into the arms of false teachers who tickle ears, leading to more unbiblical teaching – and the death spiral accelerates.
In any particular congregation, the cycle can be hard to detect at first, and often we won't sense we're in danger until damage has been done, but the opportunity to reverse the cycle depends on a return to sound teaching, as Paul taught one verse earlier:
Have you embraced the postmodern value of tolerance? Could you be feeding this cycle in your own church, or have you assumed you are "above average?"
Ask yourself these questions: do you prefer fellowship over Bible study? Do you believe a loving, accepting community is more important than a holy people? Do you value exciting music above sound teaching? Have you ever permitted poor doctrine, bad theology or unbiblical practices to go unchallenged in your church? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are paving the road that leads to 2Timothy 4:3-4.
And what of your church congregation? Has your church adopted what Barna describes as "a tolerance for a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophiesm?" Barna's findings tell us that most churches have already fallen victim to this trend, so how likely is it that your church has completely ecaped? Can everyone be above average?
Be watchful for the early warning signs of itchy ears winning the day in your church, remembering that the early signs will be subtle. Have you noticed drama presentations and movie clips from Hollywood blockbusters replacing sound exposition of scripture from your pulpit? Church leaders publicly embracing immoral lifestyles and unbiblical forms of marriage in the spirit of not judging others? Ministry success being measured in terms of church attendance, campus size or financial giving rather than by personal evangelism, family discipleship and corporate knowledge of the word? Biblical precepts of love, mercy and justice twisted into worldly definitions of the same? If yes, then your church is traveling down that road.
Are you caught in the cycle of tolerance, concession and compromise in your church? How can you respond to the weakening of the church in these last days? Be sure to attend our 2013 VBVM Bible Conference (or listen to the sessions online) to hear the rest of my analysis.