Negative Church Growth
Peter BeckPeter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
- 2009 Mar 26
There’s a lot of issues facing the church. Baptisms are down in many denominations. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80% of all Protestant churches have plateaued or are in decline. The average age in many congregations hovers around 70. Those things don’t bode well for the immediate future of the church.
Those issues and a myriad of others just like them, and all probably closely related, have been the subject of untold books and conversations. Another problem, just as big, goes largely overlooked: gluttony.
Look around many churches and this is a huge problem. We’ve got overweight members. We’ve got rotund children. We’ve got pastors in the pulpit who are wider than the pulpit. Many have gotten so large that the can no longer button their coats. Clearly gluttony and the baggage that accompanies it is a big deal.
Obesity often comes to church hand-in-hand with another big issue: hypocrisy. Like so many other matters that strike so close to home, the topic of obesity/gluttony is painfully personal. We can talk about the biker culture with little reservation because we’re not of it. We can lambast the liberal media for their godless reporting because they don’t come to our church. But, we don’t talk about divorce because the person sitting next to us in the pew has been divorced. And, we never talk about overeating because that one hits far too many of us where it hurts, just below the belt (or maybe I should say over the belt since a lot of us who are carrying too much weight wear our belts lower every year).
My point is this: as Christians we are quick to point out the problems and moral failures of others. We rightly preach against drugs, sex, and … well, not rock and roll, I still like it. But, you get my gist. We have a host of sins that we expect our pastors to roast from the pulpit. Yet, we rarely hear a sermon on the sin of gluttony because many of our pastors (and even more of our members) like roasts. To preach against that one would require the pastor to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
We’re all aware of the physical dangers of obesity but let’s consider the spiritual ones. Once considered one of the seven deadly sins, this sin is silently killing our churches, one member at a time. Moreover, the hypocrisy of the obese criticizing others who struggle with another physical sin is staggering. We are hurting ourselves and we are hurting the church when we preach the new birth and ignore our fleshly girth.
I’m not saying that obesity and gluttony are sins that are unforgivable. Nor am I saying that overeating is on par with mass murder. I would be foolish to suggest that and you would be foolish to caricature my argument in that way. I am saying, however, that gluttony is a sin that the church has too long tried to overlook.
The proverbs are always good for a zinger or two (no, I’m talking talking about Little Debbie snack cakes). Consider Proverbs 23:20-21. “Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaterss of meat; for the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty … .” Or, 28:7, “But he who is a companion of gluttons humiliates his father.” Okay, neither are direct condemnations of overeating but they paint a pretty unflattering picture.
The Bible addresses this issue in other places and ways as well. In Deuteronomy, Moses connected heavy drinking and gluttony as well (Dt 21:20). The old priest Eli died when he fell over and broke his neck because he was obese (1 Sam 4:18). Paul told Titus that the spiritual leaders of the church are to be self-controlled (Titus 1:8). The lack of which was grounds for passing over a would-be overseer. Surely that applies to food as well as the other vices we expect our pastors to avoid religiously.
One last text that we must consider is one we quickly bandy about when we want to outlaw certain behaviors that we deem unacceptable — 1 Corinthians 6:19 (12-20 actually). Consider the things often condemned with this text. Don’t commit adultery, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Don’t drink, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Don’t get tattoos, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Body piercings? Forget it.
According to 1 Corinthians 6:19, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So, should we assume the physical abuse we heap upon our bodies with our second and third servings of grandma’s gravy have no bearing on the temple of the Holy Spirit? No! Obesity and the damage it does weigh heavily on the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Everything that we do with and to our bodies, Paul says, has spiritual ramifications. If I overeat and then complain of another’s physical sins, I am hypocrite. If I gain weight precipitously, I shorten my lifespan and limit my effectiveness for the
Our churches are suffering under the weight of many burdens. Let’s make every effort that our own weight does not add to that burden. Let’s do all things to the glory of God, including eating.
Please note, I readily acknowledge weight control is a serious problem for many people. Many suffer from ailments and medical issues beyond their control. To them, I say, you're in my prayers. However, many others are like myself capable of changing, if only they truly desired to do so. To them, I say, join me in guarding jealously the temple of the Holy Spirit.