Each year in December, George Barna (leading researcher of churches and church trends in the United States) publishes what he considers the primary issues facing churches from the previous year. Early in January Mr. Barna posted the following summary on his Web site (www.barna.org) for the year 2006.
"There has never been a time when American society was in more dire need of the Christian Church to provide a pathway to a better future. Given the voluminous stream of moral challenges, and the rampant spiritual hunger that defines our culture today, this should be the heyday for biblical ministry. As things stand now, we have become content with placating sinners and filling auditoriums as the marks of spiritual health...
"The nation's adults deserve some credit for recognizing and acknowledging that God is not a top priority in their life. The challenge to church leaders is to stop pandering for popularity and to set the bar higher. People only live up to the expectations set for them. When the dominant expectations are that people show up, play nicely together and keep the system going, the potential for having the kinds of life-changing experiences that characterized the early Church are limited, at best. If churches believe in the life-changing power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, they must hold people to a higher and more challenging standard."
Morality Fading Fast
To have a well-known researcher declare that Christianity needs to "set the bar higher" and "must hold people to a higher and more challenging standard" is somewhat unusual in the midst of a "do what you feel to be right as long as it doesn't hurt someone else" type of society. The idea of morality or a code of conduct for Christians is fast fading in a religious world that focuses on tolerance rather than rejection of sin. Obviously tolerance can be a good thing, but if it lowers the expected standard of conduct, it becomes a bad thing and can encourage poor behavior.
In the Church of God, our goal must be to help people come out of sinful conduct and not condone such conduct. One can love the sinner but hate the sin. But it seems that most people in society would rather be tolerant of the sin. It is easy to be influenced by the world we live in and adopt a casual approach toward sinful conduct.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow." This is the thought behind the concept of "raising the bar."
A Sports Analogy
In reality the term comes from track and field. According to word-detective.com, the term has come into common usage but still maintains the original concept of a high jump bar.
"The term came into common usage in the English language through the track and field sports of high jumping and pole vaulting, where athletes run and jump to propel themselves over obstacles. In each subsequent round of competition, the bar which establishes the vertical height of the obstacle is raised, making the event slightly more challenging. The athlete who displays the greatest stamina and skill successfully crosses the highest bar (or series of them) and wins the event.
"As applied to life outside of the sporting world, raising the bar most often pertains to setting ever higher expectations of quality or quantity. These expectations may originate externally, imposed by others who are judging performance, or internally, as a method of self-improvement. Ideally, the two work in tandem to bring about a new level of achievement unseen in the context of previous measures of excellence."
The Process of Perfection
Take for example the words of Christ in Matthew 5:48. Christ speaks of being "perfect." This is a difficult concept in a world that accepts this as an impossible goal. Christ gave this as a lifelong goal and not something that is achieved immediately at baptism. If one is becoming perfect, he is constantly "raising the bar." The word for "perfect" means "mature" or "complete," which is a process.
Matthew 5 through 7 has much to say about Christian values. Consider the statements Christ made about adultery. Not only did He condemn the act of adultery as being a sin, but He condemned lust—that is thinking about adultery. In our society this would be considered strange—that one be labeled a sinner because of lustful thoughts. Many things in our society are based on lust—advertising, television, movies, etc. It seems that no one considers this a bad thing. Consider what Omar Bradley said about our society and the Sermon on the Mount.
"Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount."
The apostle Paul declared that as Christians we are to shine as lights (Philippians 2:15: "...that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world"). If our light really does shine, then we must continually be raising the bar.
Good conduct and good morals must be renewed daily. By growing in perfection, we raise the bar. As Christians we never remain static. We must always be moving ahead, building the character that will be pleasing to God.
In his book on values, Canadian Michael Adams defined ethics as doing the hard right things and avoiding the easy wrong things. Another way of defining ethics is simply "raising the bar." We have one opportunity to live our lives and become the lights that Paul spoke about. We can't change our past, but we can change today and tomorrow. However, it will only happen if we "raise the bar." UN