Category Archives: Church Culture

Book Review: Almost Christian

Book Review: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, wastes no time getting to the point of this bracing book. She opens chapter one by writing:

Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith— but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.

One more thing: we’re responsible.

Dean is not speaking idly. Drawing on serious and careful research, she shows that American Christianity is currently in crisis, although it may not be the crisis we think we have. Faced with ever bolder and more vocal atheism, many churches assume that our problem is that teens are rejecting faith due to pernicious outside influence. The reality is this: teens are not rejecting faith; they never truly had it to begin with. And the cause is not a determined hostile world; it is a weak and listless church. The sad irony of this moment is that, on the surface, American churches are devoting more resources to young people than ever before: dedicated youth ministers, consistent Bible class programs, vibrant summer camps, and global mission trips. It certainly seems as though we are doing all we can—no previous generation of young Christians has been given this level of supposedly spiritually formative resources. Yet we are reaping a harvest of mediocre faith that often doesn’t last more than a few months after high school graduation. What is going wrong?

The primary problem is that even young people who regularly attend worship tend to think of church as a valuable extracurricular activity, like their school’s band or sport teams—and churches haven’t given them much reason to think differently. While teens are inwardly longing for a purpose to which they can devote their lives, many churches fail them by offering “a kind of ‘diner theology’: a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice.” The ski trips and youth hangouts offer fun for while, but they aren’t acquainting teenagers with a holy God who calls them to lives of radical service. Worse, the things that churches do to try to build faith often harm the spiritual formation process by replacing traditional structures that were more effective at creating disciples. Faith is formed best in multigenerational communities where young and old serve, pray, and study together, yet most American teens have almost no opportunity to bond with faithful adults: their Bible classes, camps, and mission trips are often filled with nothing but young people and one youth minister, with perhaps a few adults sponsors present. They have almost no opportunity to see how mature Christians integrate their faith and their life, and so they struggle to see how Christianity speaks to their world. Lacking both clear theology and faithful examples, the religious framework of many young people consists of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton call “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” which says, in essence, that God wants people to be nice; the goal of life is to be happy and feel good; nice people go to heaven when they die; and God isn’t involved in my life except to help when I have a problem

If you have spoken about faith with many teenagers in the last decade or two, these beliefs probably sound familiar. They have taken root among American youth and shoved aside the core principles of authentic Christianity: that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, that his life modeled how we should live, that he died to cleanse our sins, that the work of the Spirit empowers us to continue in the divine work to which Jesus calls us. Rather than seeking daily to imitate the servant spirit of Christ through the Spirit’s power, teens are content to be “nice” and only call in God in a moment of crisis.

How does the church respond to this crisis? Dean calls for vigorous formative rituals: daily encounters with the divine through prayer and study, intergenerational work and reflection, a renewed sense of mission in the world, which makes demands of all church members, from oldest to youngest. Give teens a purpose and a calling and they will rise to the occasion. Show them through tangible behaviors what Christ has meant to us, and Christ will come to mean more to them.

Yet the most significant factor, by far, is not the sort of faith formation practices found in a teenager’s church, but those found in a teenager’s home. While there are always some young people who build a mature faith in spite of their parents’ indifference, and some who lose it in spite of their parents’ devotion, the number one predictor of enduring faith in a teenager is enduring faith in his or her parents. In her terms: “You get what you are.” The chief difference between an uncommitted teen and her parents is often that the lukewarm teen no longer feels the need to engage in the pretense of church attendance. “In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”

Almost Christian is one of the most important books I have encountered. At turns disheartening, pragmatic, and hopeful, it lays out clearly the spiritual crisis before us and, in its own prophetic way, call for revival—not among the teenagers whose fate so deeply concerns us, but within the parents and church leaders whose own shortcomings are being reflected in our youth. This book is a clarion call. May it not fall on deaf ears.

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A Lament

One of the students at our college recently suffered a truly heart-breaking loss, and I’ve been thinking about her all week, grieving with her as I grade papers and prepare lectures.  My life goes on; hers will never be the same.  I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to receive horrible news on a Saturday night, and go to some upbeat, seeker-sensitive attractional church Sunday morning.  I started to write an essay, but that wasn’t quite right, so I tried again as a homily, which was closer, but still not there.  It eventually wound up as a poem.  I don’t write poetry–not for years now, anyway–and I have a deep conviction that almost all amateur poets are awful.  This is probably awful, too.  But it’s the closest I can come right now to painting the picture I see in my mind.

A Lament

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.

The polished plaque is crisp brass,
with letters tall and even:
Sanctuary This Way
Around these words I see my reflected face:
unshaven, dark
I scrape down the hall, clad in
yesterday’s shirt, Friday’s pants.

Sunbeams stretch through stained glass,
making bold the jigsaw shapes of
wine and bread, sheep and shepherd
casting kaleidoscopes on a cool teal carpet.
I sit in the shadows, among the shades.

The drummer keeps a steady rhythm
Guitarists smile and strum.
And Jim, who I once knew in school,
Nearly laughs as he lifts his hands
“Let’s give the Lord a praise offering!”

I am stone.

Around me are the winners of the world,
The beautiful, the well-dressed
And they sing

God is so good
God is so good
God is so good
He’s so good to me.

They sing

You’re altogether worthy
Altogether lovely
Altogether wonderful to me

They clap and shout.
I clench my teeth.

The pastor is telling a football story.
A marriage story.
An old, old joke.
He recounts a scene from a sitcom,
The one about the pretty girl
“But not as pretty as my wife!”
And the lucky guys
“But not as lucky as we are!”

Laughter spills down the aisles.

I shut my eyes.

I wander inside myself
Meditating on horrible, hallowed images.
Twisted metal
Jagged wounds
The ventilator keeps a steady rhythm.

Amen, someone says.

The lucky ones clasp hands, slap backs.
In the lobby, there are coffee and donuts

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.
Not today.

I don’t have a praise offering.
I don’t have a testimony.

What I have is mismatched socks
A little whiskey on my breath
And a broken son on a hospital bed
A headstrong, rebel boy who vexes me
And who is more dear to me than my soul
A bruised and battered boy

A boy who can not wake.

But where can I go where someone else knows
What it is like to lose a son?


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Anger in the Church

Good stuff here by Debra Dean Murphy, especially this quote from Garrett Keizer: I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables.

I know well the pressure the be perennially nice in church–and the fear that if I wasn’t always nice, I would jeopardize my ministry career.  Looking back, I have too lengthy a list of times that I wanted to stand up and fight for some righteous cause, or do some much-needed rebuking, but smiled and nodded and said, “well, there’s another way to see that.” On rare occasions, “there’s another way to see that” does the job, but sometimes I failed to do what I was called to do by not knocking over any tables.

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The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

__________________________

Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

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Learning to Read the Gospel Again

Solid article from Antony Baker.  The most devastating line:

In the memorable words of Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, young people “look to the church to show them something, someone, capable of turning their lives inside out and the world upside down. Most of the time we have offered them pizza.”

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Of Myths and Monsters

I’ve been reflecting for a while on three different literary passages.  The first is from the Grapes of Wrath, a dialogue between poor tenant farmers and the wealthy land-owners and bankers.  The farmers have been trying to scrape a living farming a land that has been hit hard by drought.  The powerful wealthy folks are now about to remove them as tenants, and hire them as workers on larger, consolidated farmers.  Their small grip on autonomy is over–now they will work for wages determined by profit-driven land owners.  This is what Steinbeck wrote:

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came…Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained.

“You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.”
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes,they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.

The owner men went on leading to their point: “You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.”

The squatters nodded-they knew, God knew…

Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. “A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.”

“Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.”

“But-you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t cat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.” …The bank-the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

The squatting men looked down again. “What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop-we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.”…

The tenant men looked up alarmed. “But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?”…

“We know that-all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”…

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours-being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

The second is a speech from President Eisenhower, delivered in 1961–the speech where he coined the term “military-industrial complex.”

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

I have been reading those passages in connection with a third passage, from chapter two of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The monstrous bank. The misplaced powers of the military-industrial complex.  The elemental forces and authorities of this world.  In different ways, all three passages are warning of the same thing.  When humans combine in organizations, something sometimes emerges that is no longer human, and no longer cares about humans.  It’s made up of men and women, but it isn’t interested in them.  The men and women who keep it running, cogs in the machine, may even hate what they are doing, but still it gets done.  No person wants war, but munitions manufacturers need clients.  No one wants to remove people from their livelihoods, but the bank must turn a profit.  We gather together–bankers and analysts and manufacturers and generals–and together something is formed greater and more terrible than the sum of its parts.  The elemental forces.

You can name the forces easily enough: Money.  Power.  Adulation.  Strike down any one of these demons in one place and it will shift form and come back somewhere else.  You can’t destroy it, because it’s made of people–people who are each doing the thing that seems sensible at the moment, and who together are pillaging the world.

Such monsters, our modern idols, demand sacrifice, just as much as Molech or Baal ever did.  We must give the bankers their bonuses, and we must keep them afloat–they are too big to fail.  If we have to cut unemployment benefits or Medicare to do it–well, that is the sacrifice we make to feed the monster.  In return, the monster promises that this will somehow create jobs.  War is expensive, in many, many ways, but the monster need new planes and new missiles, and new brave young soldiers, and so we feed it.  In return, it promises to safeguard our freedom.

It is the nature of nations (and none more than America) to present themselves as gods.  We won’t let a president claim divine status (though sometimes we edge near that line), but letting America herself be our God seems like the right thing to do.  America, and Capitalism, and Our Brave Men and Women in Uniform Around the World–our holy trinity.

Gods appear where questions cease and myths arise.  America has many potent myths.  They have titles like “The Military that Only Fights to Protect Your Freedoms,” “The Greatest Healthcare System in the World,” and “The Land of Opportunity.”  To question is heresy; just bow and nod.  Write your check; send your sons and daughters.

Humans are highly susceptible to these myths and monsters.  If the powers tell enough people in the loud enough voice that Exxon shouldn’t have to pay any tax, because they stimulate our economy; or that mega-rich Walmart should get a subsidy from our city so that they can sell us cheap things, then we tend to believe and fall in line.  My gods provide the fuel that makes my car run.  My gods give me cheap toys from China and cheap shirts from Mexico.  Who am I to question their benevolence?  Cut their taxes again.  My gods kill people in Afghanistan so that I can have freedom of speech here.  How that works is a divine mystery, but it is the story we live.  Goodbye, my son; we thank you for your service.

Steinbeck and Eisenhower warned us, but it made no difference.  Everything they feared has come to pass, and more.  No one wanted it to.  The monsters are made of men, but they aren’t like a man.

What Christianity should do is provide us a myth to believe that breaks the power of the other myths.  When your story is “The God Who Rejected Power Even Though It Meant His Death,” or “The God Who Shows His Love Through Service To The Weak and Poor,” then the world-shaping abilities of the elemental forces have met their match.  What Christianity ought to do is give us an alternate story to live–the story of the cross.  And from the vantage point of Calvary we can see how sick and shameful the monster-idols of the world actually are.  We can expose the true names of Money, Power and Adulation: Greed, Oppression and Deception.  It may–may–be possible to do that without an alternative story, but I’m not convinced that there is any such thing as a person who isn’t living out a story, consciously or not.  And if we are going to choose a story, better to choose the one that stands against and breaks the power of the stories that keep breaking us.

And here the church has failed miserably, shamefully, horrifically.  Rather than rejecting and denouncing the monsters of national pride, military conquest and corporate greed, the church has partnered with them, supported them, and fought for them, spending so much time dining with idols that she has cheapened herself and drained her own power.  We set the flag on a pedestal beside the altar, pray for our troops and curse our enemies, support the machinery of torture and death, and do our best to be sure that we have our share of Money, Power, and Adulation.  Tacking Jesus’ name on to that prayer only adds blasphemy to the heresy we’ve already adopted.  By leaving the path of the cross, the members of the church become cells in the ever-expanding bodies of the monsters.  We may hate what they do, but they are us.

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William Abraham on Evangelism

I want to write something soon about how we move past the pervasive individualist paradigm in America, and what should replace the failed model of personal evangelism among our churches.  But the best things I have to say on that topic have come largely from trying the think William Abraham’s thoughts after he has already thought them.  The Logic of Evangelism is a brilliantly insightful book which has influenced me enormously.  (And I suppose I should add a positive review on Amazon to balance the fairly critical ones that are there.)  A good overview of his argument appears in his article “The Theology of Evangelism: The Heart of the Matter,” which you can read here in PDF format.  His general conclusions from that article appear below:

We now need to think through the connection between
evangelism and the evangel. How are the two to be
linked? If the gospel centers on the arrival of the
kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, how are we to construe
the relation between evangelism and the kingdom
of God? This is a pivotal matter.

The favored position for some time has been to
insist that the natural connection is through some
kind of speech act. Thus evangelism has again and
again been construed as the proclamation of the gospel.
In some cases this has been extended to include
teaching the gospel or persuading someone to believe
the gospel. In other cases it has been expanded
to the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.
In this instance it becomes natural for the actions of
the church, say, in education, medical work, social
action, and the like, to be construed every bit as much
as evangelism as does the verbal proclamation of the
gospel. Moreover, it is surely this conception of evangelism
that lies behind the enormous efforts currently
being made to evangelize the world through radio
and television. The warrant for the widely held conviction
that the world can be evangelized through
television is the claim that communication is of the
essence of evangelism. Evangelism is just the verbal
proclamation of the gospel; hence in our situation
the obvious tool for this is television.

We have already seen that the attempt to base
this on purely etymological considerations is precarious
in the extreme. However, even if the argument
about the origins of the term ‘evangelism’ were to
hold, that is, even if ‘evangelize’ originally meant
simply to ‘proclaim’, this would not settle the matter.
We also have to ask if this is the best way to
construe evangelism in our situation today. We must
explore how far it is appropriate to consider evangelism
in these terms in our context. In my judgment
it is imperative that we enrich our conception of evangelism
to the point where we move beyond mere
proclamation to include within it the initial grounding
of all believers in the kingdom of God. If we
make this shift, then, in fact, we actually come much
closer to what evangelists, ancient and modern, have
actually done, but, even then, the argument is not
advanced on purely historical grounds. The primary
considerations circle around the needs of our current
situation in our modern western culture. Here I
shall be brief and make three points, one negative
and two more positive.

First, continuing to think of evangelism in terms
of mere proclamation fosters the practice of disconnecting
evangelism from the life of the local church.
It nurtures the illusion that evangelism can be done
by the religious entrepreneur who can simply take
to the road and engage in this crucial ministry without
accountability to the body of Christ. To be sure,
there are lots of local churches who welcome this kind
of evangelism. It allows them to ignore evangelism
entirely as a constitutive element in the mission of
the church, for it can hand this responsibility to the
itinerating evangelist, or it can keep evangelism to
those seasons of the year in which it focuses on the
proclamation of the gospel. However, this is not the
really deep problem here. The deep problem is that
this way of construing evangelism has generally been
used to cut evangelism loose from the life of the
Christian community precisely because the responsibility
of the evangelist has stopped once the proclamation
has ceased. On this analysis, the evangelist
need not belong to a church; indeed if he does
not like the church in which he was brought to faith,
he can invent his own on the spot. Nor need the
evangelist be accountable to the canonical traditions
of the church; indeed if she does not like the canonical
narrative of the gospel, then she can invent her
own narrative at will. Nor need the evangelist take
any responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the
seeker or convert; this can be conveniently left to others,
say, in the field of Christian education. In all,
restricting evangelism to proclamation helps keep
intact unhealthy evangelistic practices which should
long ago have been abandoned. In a culture
mesmerised by the power of the mass media, the
church must recognise both the radical limits and the
dangers of proclamation in our current situation.

Secondly, restricting evangelism in this manner
cannot do the job that needs to be done in an
increasingly pluralist and post-Christian culture.
Evangelism needs to be expanded to include the early
phases of Christian initiation. The gospel must be
handed over in such a way that those who receive it
may be able to own it for themselves in a deep way
and have some sense of what they are embracing.
Proclamation is but one part of the process which
will make this possible. It will also require teaching
and persuasion, spiritual direction, an introduction
to the spiritual disciplines and the sacraments of the
gospel, initiation into the basics of the Christian moral
and doctrinal tradition, some orientation on the kinds
of religious experiences which may accompany entry
into the kingdom of God, and the like. Without
these the new believer will not be able to survive
spiritually, morally, or intellectually in the modern
world. In short, an evangelistic church will take responsibility
for the initial formation of Christian disciples
as an integral component of its evangelism.

Thirdly, the wisdom of this strategy is borne
out by a very significant recent study of spiritual
development in England. In that study careful attention
was given to about five hundred people who
had come to faith in recent years. The most pertinent
piece of information to the issue in hand is that
the majority of people studied came to faith over a
relatively lengthy period of time.
The gradual process is the way in which the
majority of people discover God and the average
time taken is about four years: models
of evangelism which can help people along
the pathway are needed.

Most “up-front” methods of evangelizing
assume that the person will make a sudden
decision to follow Christ. They may be asked
to indicate this by raising a hand, making
their confession, taking a booklet or whatever
is the preferred method of the evangelist. The
fact is that most people come to God much
more gradually. Methods of evangelism
which fit this pattern are urgently needed.
The nurture group and the catechumenate are
the best known at present, but others may
need to be devised. The use of one-to-one
conversations akin to some form of spiritual
direction may be one possibility. Another
may be a series of church services where
people are introduced to the Christian faith
over a period of time and given opportunity
to respond at each stage. Even more urgently
needed are means of helping non-churchgoers
to discover God outside the church building
in ways which enable a gradual response.

A useful way to capture this vision of evangelism
is to construe evangelism as directed fundamentally
toward initiation into the kingdom of God.
Achieving this will require both the activity of proclamation
and the work of catechesis. More comprehensively
we might say that the ministry of evangelism
will include effective evangelistic preaching, the
active gossiping of the gospel in appropriate ways
by all Christians everywhere, and the intentional
grounding of new converts in the basics of the Christian
faith. This in fact comes close to what evangelism
looked like in the early church.

In order to forestall possible misunderstanding,
note that this proposal assumes that no evangelism
is possible without the concurrent activity of the
Holy Spirit. It also insists that evangelism must be
rooted and grounded in the life of the local Christian
congregation. Finally, it expects that evangelism will
naturally result in the growth of local churches, but
this is neither the goal nor focus of the ministry per
se. The focus is the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus
Christ and the goal is to see people grounded in that
kingdom here and now. In short, evangelism is simply
the initial formation of genuine disciples of the
Lord Jesus Christ.

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Filed under Books, Church Culture, Evangelism, Good Theology, This Is Good

The Cult of the Individual

There is a certain kind of story that is I have heard again and again in America. I think it is particularly prevalent in our society, if not unique to it.  There are many variations, but in general it goes like this:

A young man is born to a family of adequate means, although they are far from wealthy.  He has a safe, warm home and good food to eat, thanks to his parents’ work and care for him.  As he grows, he attends tax-payer supported public schools that provide him a good foundation.  His parents often have to leave for work early, but he waits with other neighborhood children at the bus stop, and a reliable school bus, paid for with taxes, picks them up.  The bus-driver, whose salary is paid by everyone’s taxes, takes him to school on smooth roads built and paid for by the government.

The boy is a sharp student and a good learner.  Through a state-mandated gifted and talented program that, by law, must be offered to students with his abilities, he gets specialized instruction that challenges him and helps him reach his academic potential.  Even though his parents have no more than a high school education, the (state-mandated, tax-supported) school counselor begins encouraging him to think about college.

Because of his excellent grades, solid SAT scores and modest financial means, he qualifies for a variety of college scholarships, some which ultimately come from government funds, others of which were provided by wealthy benefactors.  Advanced education is made possible for him because of these funds.  He finds a part-time job that covers his living expenses.  It’s manual labor, nothing glamorous, but the federal minimum wage laws ensure that he gets fair compensation for his work, and laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration make it very unlikely that he’ll but put in a situation that could cause him physical harm.  What little financial expense isn’t covered through scholarships and work he pays for with student loans, which are automatically granted to any full-time student, and are backed by the guarantee of the federal government.  No payment is expected and no interest accrues on these loans until after he leaves college.

He lives in a modest studio apartment in a fairly run-down neighborhood, but the police drive through frequently, and the one time he was startled by a fight just a few doors down, he called 911 and a patrol car was there within a few minutes to stabilize the situation.

By his junior and senior years the career center at his college has helped connect him with internships in his chosen field, where kind-hearted mentors show him the ropes of day to day life on the job, volunteering their time to encourage his interests, and even taking him to conferences at company expense and helping him to network with potential employers.

He graduates with a good GPA, applies to work for several of the companies where he has made connections, and is hired by one of them at a good starting salary.  Because of the knowledge and skills he has gained, he works his way up the ladder, learning more about his business and how to manage it.  In his mid-30’s he decides to go to work for himself.  He gets a loan at a good interest rate from the Small Business Administration, hires some talented employees, and is soon CEO of his own successful business.

Now he’s 40 and rich.  Frequently in conversation he tells people that he is a “self-made man.”  He believes that all it takes is skill and hard work and you can get anywhere in life.  You just have to “believe in yourself.”  He gives large contributions to politicians who promise to lower his tax rate, even if it means cutting funds to the schools, structures and programs that he depended on to get where he is.  He loves to quote Ronald Reagan’s line that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  And he has no sympathy for the “lazy bums” he encounters sometimes who grew up in poor neighborhoods with dangerous schools and little access to the programs that he was able to utilize.

Asking an American about individualism is like asking a fish about water.  It’s the environment that we live in, and it’s so pervasive that it’s hard to get perspective on it.  There are hundreds of thousands of people in our society like the entrepreneur above. Their entire life was a gift from others who donated to the cause, but they sincerely think of themselves as strong individuals who made their way to success because of their own determination.  They are literally blind to the fact that their life is only possible because of functional community systems–family, school, government, business networks, protective agencies, and so on.  While no doubt part of the entreprenuer’s success is due to personal characteristics, another man with exactly the same set of gifts and personal traits who was born in Rwanda or Nepal or Peru would have had a very different kind of life.

The American church has been enormously affected by the surrounding culture of individualism.  The scriptures are almost invariably focused on communities–kingdoms, clans, tribes, families, households and churches.  When there is a prolonged focus on an individual, it is usually because that individual has a role to play in blessing the larger community.  Abraham is the archetype in this–chosen by God because through him “all peoples on Earth will be blessed.”  The most famous line in scripture is John 3:16, which tells us that “God so loved the world.”  Scriptural images for believers include the household of faith, the kingdom of priests, the chosen nation, the family of Jesus, the people of God. Ephesians depicts the cross as the instrument that has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between warring ethnic factions (Jew and Gentile in this case) and created one united humanity, which is a witness to the cosmos of the power of Christ.  To be saved, in scriptural perspective, is to become part of a larger community.

But the overwhelming scriptural emphasis on community and the communal work of God doesn’t play very well to individually-minded American audiences.  Rather than standing as a healthier alternative to the typical American viewpoint that has elevated the individual to center place, the church–especially the conservative evangelical church–translates the gospel into me-speak.  The primary evangelistic message is not “come join the community of the saved,” but rather, “Jesus died for you,” and “he has a wonderful plan for your life” and he wants you to accept him as “your personal savior” so you can have a “personal relationship with him.”  You might be able to make a case that “Jesus died for you” is a Biblical message, with the proviso that you are one of billions that he died for, but the other phrases are utterly absent from the New Testament.  There is no promise that he has a wonderful plan for your life, and even if that were true, it would only work for definitions of “wonderful” that include the isolation, poverty, torture and death that have been the fate of many believers across the centuries.  There is no scripture that asks you to form a personal relationship with Jesus, but many that ask you to bless Jesus by blessing others.  See, for example, Isaiah 58:

 1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Much the same sentiment is more famously expressed in Matthew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Asking someone if they have a personal relationship with their personal savior

I own this book. Jesus died just for me. Sorry the rest of you missed out.

Jesus who has a wonderful, personalized plan for their life is a far cry from asking whether they are willing to take up their cross and join the community of self-sacrificing priests who are pouring out their lives for the sake of the world.  And even if the evangelizer truly means to point to the cruciform life of the disciple when asking those questions (which I doubt) the object of the evangelical efforts certainly won’t read all of that subtext into a pitch that seems to promise that Jesus is standing by to make your life an endless procession of puppies and rainbows if only you will let him.

This evangelical me-speak has carried on to such an extent that it often doesn’t just receive more emphasis than communitarian language, it replaces it entirely–sometimes in ways that can’t be reconciled at all with the scriptures.  I once preached at a church that gave every visitor a complimentary copy of Max Lucado’s little book entitled He Did This Just For You.  (There’s also an “He Did This Just For You” New Testament.)  There’s no way to interpret that title that makes sense–a plain text reading of it sounds like I, precious unique individual that I am, happen to be the only person that Jesus died for.  Even if you can squint really hard and turn the book sideways and somehow find a way to make the title a true statement, it is certainly less clearly true and in need of many more caveats than a scriptural title like “God so loved the world.”  By the time we are saying “He Did This Just for You,” we have moved beyond translating communal language into me-speak and crashed wholly into upending the gospel message to make Christianity one sub-sect in the larger religion of Me and My Best Life Now!

The aspect of American life that is often most in need of repentance is the relentless focus on me, and “what’s in it for me?” and “what have you done for me lately, anyway?”  But rather than call people to something better, richer and deeper, we far too often just cower in the shadow of the temple of self.  Christianity can overturn the worship of Jupiter and Roma, but it is helpless to tackle my steadfast devotion to me and my own well-being.

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Filed under Church Culture, Evangelism, Ministry, Theology

…Or Your Money Back!

Prayer Drop Box, Guaranteed ResultsHere’s a picture that has been making the rounds recently.  I think it started as an “iReport” on CNN.com.  It’s from a church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

I assume the fine print is on the back.

Results include the following:

What you pray for happens: God said “Yes!”

What you prayer for doesn’t happen: “God said “No!”

What you pray for doesn’t happen, and your house burns down, your girlfriend breaks up with you, and you are paralyzed in a freak diving accident: “God wants you to learn patience, faith and endurance!  He said said No to your request but said Yes to something even better!”

Results are guaranteed.

On a very related note:

A bit of random surfing last night brought me to the blog of Sam Isaacson, who I don’t know at all, but who seems like a nice, thoughtful person.  He writes about Christian living and faith-related topics, including prayer and suffering.

In a post from a couple of weeks ago called, “How God Helps When We’re Suffering,” he writes:

An analogy may help. Imagine that I promised that I would buy you a brand new car in one week’s time. Now, imagine that in one week’s time, instead of buying you a brand new car, I bought you a brand new house. Only a fool would refuse to take the house, saying, ‘but you promised to buy me a car!’ What I gave to you was worth far more, was better, than what I originally promised.

The same is true of God’s promise to answer our prayer. If, for example, I’m really sick and pray to God to heal me, and He does, then that’s a great example of how He has been faithful to His promise to answer my prayer. So…what if He doesn’t? Simples! In His infinite wisdom He has determined that the best thing for me is not to be well right now, He wants to use my sickness for a greater goal, whether or not I understand it.

God will either deliver me from suffering, or give me the strength to bear it – whichever is better. The judgment of which one is better, we have to leave to Him.

Simples!

How exactly this differs from the old Pagan concept of Fate is difficult to see.  But I think this has become the dominant Christian understanding of prayer, especially among American evangelicals.

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Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.

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The Advantages of Having an Uneducated Preacher

My old friend/colleague/mentor/thorn in my side Dan Bouchelle recently wrote a blog post titled “The Danger of an Educated Preacher” in which he says:

I was deeply disturbed when I first saw the studies that indicated that having a preacher/pastor with seminar training (M.Div. or more) was correlated negatively with church growth. Since I had finished my M.Div. nearly a decade before and was finishing up my D.Min. this was not good news. Of course, that was based on large trends that did not predict the outcome for any individual or church. Still, it was not encouraging.

I asked myself why advanced training in ministry would not be correlated with church growth. It seemed counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t the most educated be the most skilled? Wouldn’t the most skilled be the most successful?

Dan’s going to offer up his own hypotheses in future posts, but I’m going to offer a few of my own here (and then have fun seeing how similar or different they are from what Dan comes up with.)

Here’s why churches that want to grow are better off with a less-well-trained pastor:

1) Educated pastors will be less comfortable delivering popular messages that depend on simplistic readings of scripture.

At the last church we visited, we received a welcome letter from the pastor in which he told us that his favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  He went on to say that he believed that God had brought us to that church for a reason, and that it was all part of the wonderful plan that God had for our life.  At no point did he bother to mention that his favorite verse is from a letter that Jeremiah wrote to exiles in Babylon who had seen their county overrun by the enemy army, their leaders killed or shackled, their temple ransacked, their palace burned and their friends and loved one die from starvation or sword.  They are now going to live the rest of their lives in a ghetto in enemy territory.  When God says he has plans for them that include hope and a future: (a) that’s a message specifically for the Babylonian exiles, not for any random person who reads the letter in the future, (b) it basically means that things won’t get worse than they already are, that they’ll continue to eat and live, and someday their descendants will be able to go home to the ruins, (c) it was sent to them by a prophet who was repeatedly abused and left for dead, and was eventually carted off to Egypt against his will.

Now, I happen to really like Jeremiah 29 and think it is a passage with deep significance, but when I preach it, I preach it in context and talk about what it means for people of faith who find themselves in a society hostile to their values.  At one point, pre-seminary maybe I could have said that “God has a wonderful plan for your life!” but that just isn’t the case (and even if it is the case, Jeremiah is certainly not the book that you would lean on to support that message.) But the truth is, a lot of people want to hear the happy-clappy God-just-wants-to-bless-you stuff and Pastor Prooftexter is going to have an easier time getting an audience for his pronouncements than Pastor Professor.  That goes for a lot of super-popular stuff that depends on a willingness to ignore context: the immediate literary context, the greater canonical context, and the lived context of our actual messy lives.  Like, say, “The Prayer of Jabez.”  (A little part of my soul still dies whenever a friend of mine who would never dream of reciting the Lord’s Prayer–too Catholic!–goes on a month-long Jabez kick.)

People want to be told that it’s all simple, and the their life will be good (in the way that they understand goodness).  A real theological education won’t let a pastor say those things anymore.

2) For a lot of educated pastors, church growth just isn’t that big of a priority.

Part of what a good seminary will do is help you to understand how different faith traditions developed, and why they do things they way they do.  If you entered seminary thinking that your denomination was the One True Church with all the answers, and that all real Christians would join it, hopefully you’ll be well on your way to getting over than in second semester Church History.  (Obviously, some seminaries just reinforce the party line, but I’ll set that aside for now.)  When you come to think that folks are going to be in pretty decent shape whether they come to your church or the church across the street, or just worship at home, growing your particular congregation looks like a pretty narrow and maybe selfish goal.  I used to chat with visitors and give them a list of other healthy churches they might want to visit that could be a better fit for them than we were.  That probably didn’t always make my elders happy, but it seemed like the really Christian thing to do.

Dan points out that the denominations that require an M.Div. tend to be those that have been in decline for a long time, but there’s a chicken-egg problem there.  Is the reason that educated pastors don’t grow churches because most of the educated pastors are in declining denominations, or is the reason those denomination are declining because they require their leaders to be theologically literate?

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Finding a New Church Home

At age 38, I am looking for a new church home for only the second time in my life.

Up to this point, almost every time I have moved–about nine times as an adult–I’ve either had personal connections at a congregation in my new town, or I was moving to join a church staff. The only previous time I’ve had to look for a congregation to join was when I left to attend seminary. I found it a surprisingly frustrating experience. I had no idea how easy it was to visit a church, attend worship, and leave without making any sort of a connection with anyone else. Eventually someone from one of my courses invited me to visit her Sunday School class, and I settled into that congregation simply because I finally had some connection to another person, and once I had that, my base of friends grew pretty quickly.

On one hand, visiting churches is easier now. Families of four aren’t as easy to overlook as a single introverted man, and since my children are ridiculously cute, they tend to attract a crowd. And after all my years in ministry, it’s easier than it used to be to find the preacher and chat him or her up after worship. I’m less inhibited about that than I once was.

One the other hand, the field has broadened significantly. Until now, I was emotionally tied to a particular denomination, and now I’m open to almost anything. I even visited a Southern Baptist church last week, which quickly confirmed for me that although I love my dear SBC friends, I’m not going to join them anytime soon. I don’t resonate with the theological impulses or the cultural mores there.

We’ve visited two Disciples of Christ congregations. I’m drawn to them because I know their history well and I think I’m picking up on the culture. One was a disaster, but the other was a real possibility, except that there just really aren’t any other folks our age. I’m not one of those people who won’t talk to someone more than five years away from my own age–I really have strong inter-generational tendencies. But I do want some other 30-somethings (soon, 40-somethings) around, and, more than that, I want a group of preschoolers for my kids to befriend.

We’ve also visited two Methodist churches now, and both of those are real possibilities, if I can get over my antipathy toward pedobaptism. One of them, a church of around 100 in a town of around 1300, I really loved visiting. It had one of the strongest senses of community I’ve experienced, and although the music was fine and the sermon was quite good (and a little daring in ways that I appreciated), what really stuck with me was the laughter. Not from silly jokes or dramatic sketches, but spontaneous moments of real human connection–just people enjoying being with each other, and feeling free enough to let out a chuckle at one another’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. It felt as much like home as anything we’ve tried in months. At first I was tempted to just land there, and I’m pretty comfortable with Methodistism theologically, so I think we will go back there again.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how hard it is to look for a congregational home in a theologically responsible way. I’ve typed and then deleted the phrase “church shopping” a dozen times just writing this out, because I don’t like the consumer-driven mentality it implies and I sure hate church marketing. One of the quickest ways to make sure I never come back to your congregation is to try to sell me on it–how wonderful the children’s program is, how upbeat the music, how relevant the sermon. The last thing I need in my spiritual development is to be pandered to. But still, there is a choice to be made and it needs to be made somehow. No one ever trains people in how to find a Christian community that fits them.

I’m certainly open to learning more, and but here’s what I think I’m looking for:

1) authentic community
2) sacramental centrality
3) healthy balance of involved laity and respect for clerical authority
4) a sense of grounding in the ancient Christian tradition
5) a missional impulse that sends the church into the world, rather than inviting the world inside the cloister
6) a willingness to challenge visitors with a hard calling rather than woo them with the soft sell
7) a group within the church that will join and support me in my pursuit of spiritual disciplines (or, better yet, invite me to join them)
8) emotionally and intellectually engaging worship

I don’t know where that church is. Maybe nowhere near me. But I’m looking….

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Congregations Gone Wild

This editorial hits the nail right on the head. I don’t think I have a single quibble. Here’s a taste:

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

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Experiencing God

Having said (probably at too much length) that the phenomenon of “hearing God’s voice” is problematic because there is no scriptural precedent or teaching to support it, I do want to mention that I’m not completely closed to arguments from experience. If the people who tell me they are hearing God’s voice were getting messages that, in retrospect, were obviously true and beyond human capabilities, then I think I’d be the first (well, maybe the third or fourth) to say that there’s really something divine at work. But I’ve never seen a clear example of that and I’ve seen lots of examples of messages that turned out to be completely false–sometimes in very damaging ways.

In my single days, two different girlfriends told me that God had revealed to them during prayer that his will was for us to get married. Neither of those marriages happened. I broke off the first relationship, and my girlfriend at the time broke off the second one. I guess according to Susan, I stubbornly resisted God’s will for our lives, but I’ve always wondered what Melissa thinks about that situation now? If God told her in June that we should get married, but she dumps me in December, how does she process that? Does she think God changed his mind? I doubt it. Does she believe that she has disobeyed the revealed will of God for her life–that marrying me is a worse fate than being outside of God’s will for her? Probably not. I suspect that she probably decided that, upon further reflection and longer experience in the relationship, she must have misunderstood what God was saying to her. After all, he speaks in such subtle ways that one could think that he is saying “marry this guy!” when he is actually saying “DON’T marry this guy!” Since he speaks through inner impressions in one’s heart, important words like the emphatic “DON’T” can get lost along the way.

If Melissa, a devout Christian woman who sincerely believes in the importance of obeying God’s voice, can completely misunderstand him on a matter as important as whom to marry, it seems to me that we need to look pretty skeptically on these “messages.” It also seems pretty clear to me that in the vast majority of instances, what God seems to tell someone is more or less exactly what that person wanted to hear at the time. In June, she wanted to marry me; in December she didn’t. God’s words in her heart tracked along with that pretty conveniently.

In the greater scheme of things, no harm done, I suppose. But there are instances where the belief that God is speaking and working in imperceptible ways does cause harm. In two situations that I have been close to, a young woman (one in her forties, one just past thirty) fell ill and died after a protracted stay in the hospital (one week; one month.) Both times, friends and family rallied around to “lift the woman up in prayer” and both times, every tiny improvement was taken as a sign that God was responding to prayer and healing the woman. The people close to her went for days or weeks trusting and proclaiming that God was gradually working a healing miracle, right up until the day that the final breath came.

I can tell you, it’s pretty awkward being the only one in the waiting room who doesn’t break out into applause and amens when some dear brother or sister proclaims that God is healing our friend–especially when you are the preacher! But on both occasions, the situation was pretty much what I thought it was–a beloved person was almost certain to die, and the collective response of the church was to ignore reality, clinging to the slim hope of a very unlikely recovery and calling their wishes “God.”

I’m not going to be critical of those people’s reaction in the moment. The were heartbroken and hesitant to accept reality, and I understand that, even though I’m not wired that way. But I am going to be critical of a modern church culture that, rather than emphasizing that because of the coming resurrection, we can face death–our own and that of our friends–with the genuine biblical hope of renewal and restoration, leaves families grasping for signs that God has given their friend a reprieve. And I am not happy when I interact with ministers who encourage such superstition rather than balance it. To me, that’s theological malpractice, if there is such a thing.

I could go on and on, but those examples illustrate them phenomenon well enough. In every case, sincere, devout, prayerful people were completely wrong when they claimed that God was saying or doing a certain thing, and in every case, they assumed he was doing just what they wanted him to do. They put their own hopes on display and called them God. That’s not really idolatry, but it is on the same supermarket aisle.

If I had any countervailing examples–some occasion where a bit of knowledge was given far beyond human wisdom that turned out to be true–I would say so. But I don’t. And I’ve been down this road a lot, as a lifetime church-goer and a minister. People tell me a lot of stories. Whenever someone says “God told me…” it winds up being either irrelevant or harmful.

It is usually regarded as either cruel or unspiritual to try to try to burst to bubble of the God-listeners in this way, which is part of why I’m blogging about it in such clear terms. Church folks who resist the tide are looked down upon or subtly disregarded, so maybe it’s worth it to know that there is at least one random blogger out there who is troubled by this, too. It’s not good for church communities to let the last word go to whoever claims most emphatically to have heard from God. Theological reflection is harder–but more firmly grounded–than that.

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God Can Do A Lot of Different Things

So, if you’ve been tracking this blog, you already know that I get a little grumpy about folks claiming they hear from God all the time. My biggest concerns with the whole “hearing from God” phenomenon are that (1) there’s no biblical precedent for it, (2) it redefines the voice of God as an inner impulse or coincidental sign that is immeasurably tiny and meager compared to the overwhelming kinds of ways in which God is actually depicted as communicating in the scriptures, and (3) it substitutes the firm foundation of a scriptural grounding for an ongoing quest to figure out what God wants of me in a way that smacks of pagan diviners looking for a sign to determine what the capricious spirits want of them each day. I consider that a step backward from the Christian tradition toward the more primitive cults that preceded it.

One of the most frequent responses to my line of thinking is something like “couldn’t God communicate through these subtle means if he wanted to?” That came up in the comments in the previous post, and I’m glad it did. It can from someone who is pretty clearly thinking about these issues in an open and healthy way, and they reminded me that I need to address that question specifically.

It reminds me of when I was a single preacher-wanna be back in seminary. I was good friends with the administrative assistant for the graduate school of theology, and I would drop by her office to chat between classes sometimes. Occasionally the conversation would turn to the latest person I was dating, or whom I wished I was dating (but striking out with), and Lynell would say “Don’t you think that God is big enough to choose your spouse?” My typical response was “God is big enough to pick up this whole building and shake it until we all fall out.” The question isn’t what God is big enough to do, but what he is likely to do, based on what we know of him from the scriptures.

In other words, saying “but couldn’t God do [this thing that I want him to do] if he wanted to?” is a response that could apply to anything, including thousands of things that the person who says that would never agree that God was doing. God could send me messages through the arrangement of letters in my alphabet soup. God could decide what the next step of my life will be based on this week’s “Dora the Explorer” map. God could consider tomatoes an abomination, such that he will damn to hell anyone who willingly eats one, and doubly damn the fast food workers who put tomato slices on my sandwich even though I told them not to. In my crankiest moments, I briefly hope that is true.

Sure, those are absurd examples, but “couldn’t God do that if he wanted to?” supports them just as well as it supports “couldn’t God decide to speak into my heart in subtle ways?” If we’re going to move away from having a Biblical foundation for our practice, it’s going to be hard to know where to draw the line. I understand that for a lot of people, God sending them signs makes a lot of sense, but, again, the Christian tradition says that we aren’t really supposed to relying on what sounds good according to our own reasoning. That’s the whole point of having the mind of God revealed in scriptures. We don’t need to try to work this out for ourselves.

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