Category Archives: Good Theology

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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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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God Told Me To Tell You To Read This

A classic from Bill MacKinnon: No Voices in My Head

Update– This is my favorite bit, and it hit me like a 2×4 when I first read it a few years back:

It is curious to me that if someone in a typical evangelical church stood up and said an angel spoke to him and told him that God wanted him to be a missionary to Africa, we would be very skeptical at best. Yet if that same person stood up and said that he “just really feel led to go to Africa to be a missionary”, the “amens” and applause would be deafening. Yet the former is biblical and the latter is not.

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Scot McKnight on “Kingdom Gospel”

This is excellent.  I want to track Scot down and make him my best friend.

A snippet:

Many readers of the Bible read the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel they believe and this is what that gospel looks like:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
But you have a sin problem that separates you from God.
The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins.
If you accept Jesus’ death, you can be reconnected to God.
Those who are reconnected to God will live in heaven with God.

Every line of that statement is more or less true. It is the sequencing of those lines, the “story” of that gospel if you will, that concerns me and that turns Jesus’ message of the kingdom into a blue parakeet. And it is not only the sequencing, it is the omitting of major themes in the Bible that concerns me. What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel. Who needs a church if this is the gospel? (Answer: no one.) What becomes of the church for this gospel? (Answer: an organization for those who want to do that sort of thing.) While every line in this gospel is more or less true, what concerns many of us today is that this gospel makes the church unimportant.

I believe this gospel can deconstruct, is deconstructing, and will deconstruct the church if we don’t change it now. Our churches are filled with Christians who don’t give a rip about church life and we have a young generation who, in some cases, care so much about the Church they can’t attend a local church because too many local churches are shaped too much by the gospel I outlined above. To be truthful, the gospel above is a distortion of Romans. More and more of us, because we are reading the Bible as Story, are seeing the centrality of the church in God’s plan and the gospel being preached too often is out of touch with the Bible’s Story.

I dealt with some related concerns here.

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N.T. Wright Videos

If you appreciate the Bishop of Durham as much as I do, you might want to check out this youtube playlist.  Good stuff.

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