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What’s behind declining church attendance? One researcher thinks he may have discovered a pattern among congregations that have been losing members and stopped growing. Thom S. Rainer, the CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, has posted an interesting new piece, in which he explains that after 25 years of researching churches, a notable factor has emerged in “declining churches”: They are too inwardly focused.

He writes:

The ministries are only for the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of the members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get things their way. You get the picture.

Though the piece doesn’t give exact numbers correlating “inward focus” (which would be sort of difficult to quantify) and drop-offs in attendance, Rainer is an expert on church growth in the U.S. From 1990 - 2005, his consulting group provided growth insights to more than 500 churches and Christian organizations, and he’s written more than 20 books on the topic.

However he also identifies a few interesting warning signs, that show if an “inward focus” is taking over (“The past becomes the hero”; “Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires”; “There are very few attempts to minister to those in the community”; etc), so problems can be corrected and identified.

You can read the whole post here. Discuss

Pope Francis hosted some special guests for lunch on Thursday. According to the Vatican, the pontiff dined with 21 Syrian refugees who have relocated in Italy from a refugee camp in Greece—some of whom were given a ride on the pope’s private plane back in April.

It sounded like a pretty touching scene. Along with dining with the Syrian families, the pope exchanged gifts with the children: He brought them toys, and they made him drawings. Discuss

Here’s one of the weirdest church-related stories you’ll hear this week.

Last summer, six men were arrested after they began to heckle Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen during a sermon, calling him a “liar.” Each had theological issues with Osteen’s message. Their disruption reportedly frightened many in attendance, and Osteen told the court he “could sense hostility in their tone.”

All of them were removed from the service by security.

This week at a criminal trial in Texas, charges of trespassing were dismissed for four of the men and they were found not guilty of "disrupting a meeting or procession." (Charges against the other two are still pending).

The case is an interesting one, because the six sermon-interrupters aren’t just trouble-makers—they were raising theological concerns. But, the hecklers themselves are members of an extremely controversial Texas church.

Though one of the hecklers called Osteen a “false prophet,” many say they are the ones who are leaders of a dangerous cult.

Each of the men are from a small, extremely controversial congregation known as the Church of Wells, which many say is a fundamentalist cult. In addition to regularly engaging in intentionally confrontational street preaching, they’ve also been accused of brainwashing young women into cutting ties with their families to join their one “true” church.

Discuss

Pope Francis thinks culture has a marriage problem. Responding to a question from an audience member at a conference, the pope addressed what was called a “crisis of marriage.” The leader of the Catholic church said that people today—particularly young people—don’t understand real biblical commitment.

We live in a culture of the provisional … It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know …

It’s a social issue, and how do we change this? I don’t know.

Though commenting on culture’s broad idea of commitment isn’t all that controversial, suggesting that the majority of Catholic marriages are invalid, has raised some eyebrows and caused a significant blowback among some leaders. Ross Douthat, a well-known Catholic writer for The New York Times called his statements “extraordinary, irresponsible and ridiculous.” The editor of the Catholic magazine First Things, Matthew Schmitz, said the pope was flatly "wrong and irresponsible” to call marriages “null.”

In a written transcript of the audio, the Vatican also reportedly changed the words “the great majority” to “some.” Discuss

Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz will appear in an upcoming episode of Oprah Winfrey’s spiritually focused talk show Super Soul Sunday. The series—which runs on the OWN channel—features extended, sit-down interviews by Winfrey with a variety of spiritual leaders from different backgrounds and outlooks. Former guests include Deepak Chopra, T.D. Jakes, Brené Brown, Maya Angelou, Anne Lamott, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, Eckhart Tolle, Joel Osteen, Malala Yousafzai and dozens of other well-known activists, writers and leaders.

Lentz posted an image of himself with Oprah to Instagram, announcing that he was filming the special. He wrote about the experience, saying,

What struck me most about her, was her ease and kindness. She told me her key was "waking up each day and thanking Jesus for loving me and thanking Him for all he has done." That practice, in that order, is one to be copied.

...

I'm grateful that she opened up her platform to talk about Jesus unapologetically and without borders. It's literally impossible to "say all the right things" in interviews like this. I don't even remotely try to. My goal is to always say the one thing that matters eternally, and by Gods grace, we are able to at least do that!

It’s not the first time that the pastor of New York’s Hillsong Church has received high-profile mainstream exposure. He’s been profiled in publications including GQ and The New York Times, posts photos of himself hanging out with pop stars and athletes and has been a guest on talk shows including Katie Couric and The Nightly Show.

In a recent Instagram photo of himself with Justin Bieber and Lil’ Wayne, Lentz explained his philosophy of reaching everyone—including influencers—with the gospel:

We desperately want to classify people in our minds. The picture above, demonstrates this well. Because these individuals are "well known", immediately it will elicit reactions..mostly harsh, because it's easier/lazy to classify that which you can't fully understand, than to pursue depth and reasoning. Projecting insecurity and bad motives is a full time job for too many people..If they were not "well known"? Much more palatable for people! Why? Because we classify that as well and are not threatened by things that fit neatly into our ready made classification prism. My point? We can't dispense grace or love how WE WANT. We must as GOD SAYS!

I for one, am grateful for that. Don't deserve an ounce of the ocean of grace God has given me...Somebody once told me "humility is the great mediator. It will always be the shortest distance between you and another human being." Should make it really easy for all of us who claim to follow Jesus, to show grace and love exactly how we were given it: freely and quickly, regardless of our SHARED, INHERENT "class". Sinners... grace?? It changes the story

What should happen if a pastor has an extramarital affair? That’s the question the group LifeWayResearch asked 1,000 Protestant pastors across denominations as part of a new study.

Overall, just 24 percent “support a permanent withdrawal from public ministry” if a pastor has an affair, though 31 percent said they should step down for a period of 90 days to a year. The vast majority—86 percent—believed that congregations should be informed if one of their pastors receive church discipline for misconduct, though very few (13 percent) said that initial allegations should be told to the congregants.

In the study, LifeWay Research executive director Ed Stetzer said,

The Scripture says pastors must be above reproach. So it’s not surprising that some want to see fallen pastors banned from ministry. Still, pastors are also people who talk about forgiveness regularly and, by and large, they want to see those who fall have a chance at restoration.