On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 6: Leaving and landing

In the course of writing these posts, I’ve been blessed to have contact and feedback from many readers, both through comments here and on Facebook, and through personal emails. Many of the responses I’ve received, at some point, have asked a question in the form of, “Where are you going now?”

Rather than spending time explaining where we are now and why we are there, I thought I would conclude this section of these posts by reflecting for a few minutes on my “ideal” church – characteristics I would want to see in large measure at any community I was a part of.

I start with the obvious recognition that the “ideal” church doesn’t exist, as if it were some Platonic form up in the sky. Church isn’t about ecclesiology detached from practice, but is intimately involved in the things that are happening on the ground in particular places and groups of people. And as such, the life and vitality of particular communities of faith tends to be very local. As one of my mentors once said, “There are churches that are alive, and churches that are dead, and the name on the outside and number of people on the inside don’t tell you anything about which is which.” And so, with the recognition that some communities do a better job of these things than others, here are three things I think are important for any church to embody, or at least be working toward.

A church that speaks rightly for God

“Christian” life consists of my living in the world and like the world,
my not being permitted to be different from it,
but my going occasionally from the sphere of the world to the sphere of the church,
in order to be reassured there of the forgiveness of my sins.
I am liberated from following Jesus by cheap grace.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In their book Soul Searching, Christian Smith and Melina Denton summarize data collected in 2002-2003 by the National Study of Youth and Religion. The survey included in-depth interviews with hundreds of teenagers ranging from age 13-17. Smith and Denton found the “creed” of most teenagers in the study (and one suspects many of their parents as well) was summarized in a belief system they called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. The five key beliefs in this “creed” according to Smith and Denton are as follows (paraphrased): 1) A God exists who created the world. 2) God wants people to be good and nice to each other. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. 4) God does not typically need to be involved in one’s life, unless needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

It’s not too surprising, really, that this is what teenagers believe, considering it falls broadly in line with what many churches teach (note: churches may have other teachings alongside this, for instance, “you need to be baptized”, but these are often incidental, functionally, to their core theology). The core teaching at many churches, on a week-in, week-out basis, doesn’t fall too far from what Smith and Denton outline. God wants you to be good. God wants you to be happy. And God doesn’t need to intrude into your life too much, unless he would be helpful to solve your problems. If you are a faithful believer, you’ll go to heaven. As Smith and Denton say:

This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping of the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace. It is about obtaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people. … It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary goal: to feel happy about oneself and one’s life.

And at many American churches, this is essentially the message you get: God loves you. He wants you to be a good person. And he wants you to be happy. And even if you aren’t happy now, you will be in heaven. Sermons tend to be focused around these pegs. How can you be moral? How can you be happy? How can you feel good about yourself? Aren’t you glad you are going to heaven? Church becomes a stand-in for moral instruction and therapy.

On the other hand, the first announcement we receive about what Jesus is doing in the world is a bold proclamation: “The time has come. The kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). This first proclamation in the earliest written Gospel presents us with a rather curious pairing – in particular, the pairing of the word “good news” (gospel) with the word “repent”. Which suggests, I think, that it might be difficult, as a member of the WASP demographic, for me to understand the coming of the kingdom of Heaven as “good news”. For me to understand correctly this “good news” that Jesus is talking about, there might need to be some change, some repentance in my heart, and in my life. It means, maybe more to the point, that I might be tempted, strongly, to read and interpret the words and the stories of Jesus in ways that are actually contrary to what God intends. It might be possible, unless I am careful, for me to conform the story of Jesus to my present life, rather than conforming my life through repentance to Christ’s story. It might be possible for me to see the story of Jesus as “good” in ways that are actually unhealthy, spiritually speaking.

It might, for instance, be possible for me to read the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10 and conclude that Christ’s words: “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, then come follow me” mean anything but “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, then come and follow me.” It might be possible to read the Sermon on the Mount and conclude that Jesus is being hyperbolic or exaggerating when he says to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, or to conclude that when Peter asks Jesus “how many times must I forgive?” Jesus answer implies that there are limits to forgiveness, however large they might be.

It might be my tendency, in other words, to construct a message of “good news” that doesn’t require much, if any repentance from me or my church – a message where I’m already “good enough” that there doesn’t need to be a change in the attitudes and postures of my heart. I might be naturally inclined to pre-filter the stories of Jesus such that the Christ I encounter demands very little of me beyond getting a job, paying my taxes, and attending church on Sunday mornings. It might be my preference that what it means to “be a good Christian” looks a lot like “being a good American citizen”. There might be a strong temptation to water down “good Christian behavior” to the sort of behavior that can be expected of everyone.

Which is why it is critical, really, to live among a community that speaks rightly for God.

A community that speaks rightly for God engages the full narrative of scripture, not just the bits that make it feel good, or that it finds “useful” for moral instruction and therapeutic purposes. It is a community that recognizes God’s special concern in Scripture for the poor, the outcast, the outsider, and the stranger. It is a community engaged in remembering that Christ’s words call us not to be good citizens, but to love our neighbors as ourselves; a community that takes seriously Christ’s admonition that “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”

A community that speaks rightly for God is concerned as much or more about what Paul calls the “powers and principalities” – systems which divide and oppress people – as it is about trying to post the Ten Commandments in schools. It is a community that recognizes and takes seriously injustice in the world, and seeks through its words and actions to bring about restoration. It points out when systems and organizations – whether they be economic, political, or religious – are complicit in the continued suffering of the poor, violence against other humans, or wanton destruction of God’s creation.

A community that speaks rightly for God is always open to the possibility that it might be wrong, that it might still need to repent. It is open to this possibility because it recognizes its heavy burden of being not only God’s hands and feet, but also his voice in a broken world.

It’s easy to be a church that preaches a message people want to hear. It’s easy to be a church that preaches a message that attracts people. It is easy to preach, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace”. “Grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit.” It is easy, Bonhoeffer says, to “[preach] forgiveness without repentance; baptism without the discipline of community; the Lord’s supper without the confession of sin; absolution without personal confession.”

It is a challenge, maybe more so than ever, to speak rightly for God.

A church that faithfully represents God to the world

You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.
As a result, you can show others the goodness of God,
for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
Once you had no identity as a people;
now you are God’s people.
-1 Peter 2:9-10

Thankfully, many churches today have gotten the message that they need to actually go beyond the walls of their building, and engage the community around them. But in practice, this doesn’t always play out in terribly Godly ways. Let me explain.

There are a couple of traps that I think churches fall into here. First, many churches take “getting involved with the community” to be another form of simple citizenship. Let me caveat what I’m about to say by noting that I think God has the capacity to work powerfully anytime we serve our neighbors. At the same time, many of the activities that churches choose to be involved with in the community (outside of monetary donations) tend to be very civic affairs. Using church property to host soccer tournaments or community yard sales. Using church auditoriums for hosting concerts. Offering low-cost Christian-based financial seminars. Passing out water in the local marathon. Etc.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these activities. I would certainly rather attend a church that participated in things like this than one that didn’t. But when you look at the community outreach programs of many churches, it would be hard to conclude that they are really focusing on “the least of these”. And I think that’s a problem. Anticipating my next characteristic a bit, I would say that most churches’ community outreach programs tend to reach out to people in their own socioeconomic demographic – which I think can often hinder us from following God into places where he is working in powerful ways. If our involvement in the community never extends beyond the comfortable circles of our friends and jobs – in other words, if we never serve anyone who doesn’t look basically like us, then we might question whether we are serving faithfully as a mediator between God and the world, or simply representing God to people who already believe, more or less, the same things we do.

The second trap I think churches have a tendency to fall into is what we might call “taking credit.” A church that is intent on taking credit is one that asks its volunteers to wear their church t-shirt to “easily identify” them as a volunteer when they are running the concession stand or cleaning up the trash after a local sporting event. Or, perhaps, insists on letting you know that they are giving you this bottle of water “in the name of Jesus” on a hot summer afternoon.

Churches which feel like they have to take the credit miss the point of service altogether. The point of service isn’t who gets the credit – even if you are trying to ascribe the credit to God. The point is the service itself. It’s not that you give a bottle of water “in the name of Jesus” – but that you give the bottle of water. Authentic service doesn’t seek credit for its own actions, or try to ascribe the credit to a lifestyle (“We wanted to let you know that we’re doing this for you because we believe in Jesus!”). It simply says, “You are thirsty. I have water. Have a drink.”

A church that faithfully represents God in the community remembers the words of Jesus: “When you give to the needy, don’t announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” A church that faithfully represents God in the community remembers and strives to emulate the criticism leveled at Jesus: that he was a friend to tax-collectors and sinners. A church that faithfully represents God in the community remembers that God’s love does not trickle down from the best and the brightest and most deserving, but rather begins at the bottom, offering full acceptance for the last, and the lost, and the least, and the worst. And the church that faithfully represents God begins there, opening its doors and its hearts to those who held a special place in the heart of Christ.

A church that reflects the diversity of the body of Christ

The stranger in Scripture is often the one who sees the story for what it is,
sometimes better than those who are devoted followers of God.
Congregational conversations in which all voices are heard and welcomed,
even the minority or odd voices,
indicates whether or not you are capable of listening for the voice of the stranger.

-Mark Love

In the book of Ephesians, Paul’s lays out a magisterial vision for the purpose of the church, which he calls “the mystery of Christ”. “This mystery”, he says, “is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson says:

For Paul, the church does not exist, at least primarily, to convince people that Jesus is Lord, but rather as a laboratory of the world’s possibilities. It is to be a test case as to how humans can live together as diverse, but unified – neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. If we live according to this vision, God can reform the world. The corollary of this is that if the church doesn’t do that, then it has no reason to exist. If the church itself becomes an instrument of division, then it has failed its mission. If the church itself is segregated, divisive, suppressive of diversity in the name of uniformity, then it loses its mission.

I touched on this in my third post as a major reason several of my friends have left churches – specifically that they feel like many churches are simply too focused on a particular demographic of people (e.g. young families with kids), to the exclusion of people who are even a little bit away from that template. Shortly after that post, Dr. Mark Love, who I’ve quoted at some length in previous posts, began a series on his blog outlining “new metrics for a post-Christendom church”. Not surprisingly, Love’s first metric involves how good of a job congregations do welcoming a diverse range of individuals. Love:

Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ. This may indicate that the congregation is more about honoring their own cultural values than participating in the broad welcome of God’s life. And it very well may be the case that homogeneous congregations grow faster than diverse groups. This is what the church growth people have been telling us for decades. The decision to be a community that functions as a sign of the coming Kingdom of God will prioritize diversity over numbers.

There are a couple of things I’d like to add to this. First, our tendency as churches is to counter the call to a diverse membership by appealing to market specialization – in other words, “Our church does a great job of connecting with X group, and therefore our congregation tends to be composed of people who are in X group. If we were to try to reach out to Y group, we wouldn’t connect as well with X group, so we’ll let another church connect to group Y, and we’ll continue to connect to group X. That way, both group X and group Y can have their needs met.” There is a certain capitalistic logic to this, perhaps, but it isn’t anything close to Paul’s vision of what the church is to be in Ephesians.

For Paul, the church is a sign of what God is doing on earth precisely because it is composed of people who, traditionally, were divided by a wall of hostility. Paul states that the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection, “was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God”. As Johnson says, the church is to be “the place where the world can see reconciliation as a reality.” It is easier to be Jews separated from gentiles, but it is that process of working out reconciliation which serves both as a sign and a realization of what God is doing in the world.

Second, diversity can come in a lot of forms. In the south, it can be easy to think that, for example, because we have black or Latino members, we are somehow diverse. But when we think of diversity in the church, we need to be a lot broader than that. How many people in your church are below the poverty line? On food stamps? Mentally ill? Is your church a place that opens its doors to the homeless? Drug addicts? And moreover, are these individuals truly welcomed, or merely tolerated? Welcome goes way beyond being friendly – people are friendly at the grocery store. What kind of seat do diverse members get at the table? Are they listened to, or involved in the congregation’s life in the same ways as the members who look like, think like, and live in the same circles as the church’s leadership?

This type of church and community is messy. It’s much easier to do church when everyone basically looks and thinks like you. It is difficult to fight the temptation to “join with other like-minded believers” and sequester ourselves from those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. But the call to follow Jesus leaves us with no other alternative.

 

In my next post, I want to bring in some other voices to the conversation – people who have responded in various ways, whose perspective is slightly different than mine, and can, hopefully, serve to keep me honest. Thanks for your responses and comments. I’ve been humbled by your words and your hearts, and pray that we may all help our churches become a reflection and embodiment of Christ in the world.

On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 5: Brave new world

O Wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
-William Shakespeare, The TempestAct V, Scene I

I started this series talking about steam locomotives in a world of jet airplanes. It seems almost trivial to say the world has changed, and that technology and culture are shifting at faster rates than they have for a couple of centuries. Because we live in the midst of a shifting world, it can be hard to get our bearings. Culture is like the old story of two young fish swimming one day. As an older fish swam past in the other direction, he asked, “How’s the water this morning boys?” “Great!” they replied, then continued swimming upstream. After a few minutes, one of them looked at the other and said, “What the heck is water?”

Culture – and church culture is a part of this – is something we are born into, and have a hard time recognizing. We are so immersed in what is happening around us that it can be hard, even in the midst of dizzying changes, to really get a handle on how things have shifted, let alone take a guess at where they might be going.

I graduated high school fifteen years ago, which places me right on the border between Generation X and Generation Y (the Millennials). Consider a few of the things that didn’t exist when I started college: Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and “broadband” (let alone wireless) internet connections. Amazon was still a book store, and Apple Inc. was still Apple Computer, and it was almost bankrupt.  Over half of the top ten websites (by traffic) in 2012 didn’t exist fifteen years ago. When I went to college, cell phones only made phone calls, didn’t fit in your pocket, were expensive to buy, expensive to talk on, and most people didn’t have them. You didn’t call home to your parents every day. The only people who owned laptop computers were businessmen, since the cheapest ones cost $2,000.

The key to recognize here is that technology is not just something churches need to employ to “keep up with the times.” Rather, technology is something that fundamentally changes how people interact with the world around them. And furthermore it’s possible to have access to and even use technology, without understanding how the same technology is used by people who grew up with it. Think about the differences between how 70 year olds and 20 year olds use email/Facebook/texting. Technology changes the ways organizations function, most importantly by changing the ways people access information and connect with each other. This matters, from a practical perspective, because most models of how people do church evolved over years to be successful in a particular kind of world, and the world those models expect is increasingly divergent from the world we live in. And as a result, even churches which have done very well in responding to all of the issues I addressed in my second and third posts may find themselves in decline if their church models don’t take into account the way the world shifted. These churches aren’t losing members because they suddenly got bad at doing church – they’re losing members because the world changed.

As a word of caution, it would be easy to think the solution to “doing better church” in a world where technology has changed the way people interact is by employing that technology to do the same things we’re already doing, but in a more tech-friendly way. In other words, it’s the idea that a church will see more people show up events if they have a twitter feed. We cannot “fight technology with technology” – rather we have to understand how technological changes have fundamentally changed the game for what people need, and expect a church to be. The issue – still – is about identity. What does it mean to be a community of faith in the world we now find ourselves? Where have we come from, who are we, and where are we going?

I’d like to spend this post talking about two pillars of how churches have traditionally functioned, and how those pillars are challenged in the new world.

First, churches have long functioned as social gathering places. A large part of coming to church has always been about fellowship – to catch up on the lives of people you hadn’t seen in the previous week. Second, church was a place you went to receive information about God and salvation. If you imagine a person thirty years ago who didn’t know anything about Christianity, but wanted to learn, most people would say the best resource for that would be to go to a church building. Additionally, most churches in modernity have functioned as though their main role is to be a repository of information about salvation to a lost world.

And to be perfectly clear, those are all good things. I don’t have any problems with people having friends at church, or Churches lecturing about God. At the same time, a changing world means churches need to ask whether these functions still resonate in the same way, or if they look like a steam locomotive in the jet age.

How Facebook killed the church (as we know it)

Facebook isn’t replacing “real” relationships with “virtual” relationships.
It’s simply connecting us with our real friends.
And if you can do this without getting up early on Sunday morning why go to Church?
-Richard Beck

This analysis is deeply informed by Dr. Richard Beck at ACU, who authored a blog post in 2010 entitled, “How Facebook killed the church”. Beck points out that answers to the question, “Why are Millennials leaving the church?” generally, as in my previous posts, take aim at the character of the church itself. Beck specifically cites Barna Group research published in the book unChristian, where Millennials talk about their views of the church – too judgmental, too hypocritical, etc. He then points out that, to some extent, the church has always been this way. It’s not like the church suddenly became hypocritical in 1995, but was a faithful representation of Christlike virtue before. Beck:

The difference between Generations X and Y isn’t in their views of the church. It’s about those cellphones. It’s about relationships and connectivity. Most Gen X’ers didn’t have cell phones, text messaging or Facebook. These things were creeping in during their college years but the explosive onset of mobile devices and social computing had yet to truly take off.

So why has mobile social computing affected church attendance? Well, if church has always been kind of lame and irritating why did people go in the first place? Easy, social relationships. Church has always been about social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (“Let’s get together for dinner this week!”). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.

To some extent, Beck’s answer to the question, “Why are Millennials leaving the church?” is, “Because they are able to.” The advent of mobile communication means the church has lost some of its importance as a central social gathering place. As Beck says, “For [older generations] the church was Facebook!”

And here’s the thing – if church is only or even primarily about making social connections with your friends, then Facebook becomes almost what an economist would call a substitute good for going to church. And as any economist will tell you about substitute goods, when the cost of one good goes down, the demand for its substitute goes down as well. In other words, if the main reason I go to church is to connect with people, and I now have alternative ways of doing that, then if those alternatives are easier or less obtrusive in my life (they cost less), I’m more likely, from an economic point of view, to choose them over going to church.

I’d like to go a couple of steps farther than Beck does here, though. First, it seems to me that Beck simply assumes that one of the main reasons people come to church is to socially interact. Let’s start by acknowledging that a church where this kind of social interaction didn’t take place would be a failed church. There’s a good reason, in other words, that this has been a pillar of how churches function for as long as most people can remember.  And let’s also acknowledge that, if Beck is right, Facebook isn’t necessarily all that instrumental in helping people make the connections to new people, so much as it is in helping us sustain the relationships we already have in new ways. In other words, how did you meet all those Facebook friends you have? For many Christians, the answer is church. So even if church becomes a place where people may feel less need to attend on a consistent basis because they don’t need to connect with their “church friends” in person, this doesn’t completely eliminate church’s place in the social structure for forming those “real” relationships in the first place.

At the same time, I think for many older Gen X and younger boomers, the reality is that social interactions are one of, if not the main reason they come to church. A simple stroll down the halls of the church building during Sunday morning bible class should indicate to us that an alarmingly high percentage of members are not there to participate in what is going on with regard to spiritual formation or learning about God. The “coffee pot” class generally has as many, if not more attendees than bible classes taught by the best teachers. True, many of these “coffee pot class” attendees are also interested in making sure that their children are in children’s class, but this in itself should tell us something about why 18-35’s are leaving the church. If what they’ve learned from their parents is that church is primarily a social gathering spot, they will be more than willing to see church as “just another place” to connect with their friends. And, as Beck says, Facebook becomes a fairly good alternative for doing that.

In my first post, I said I wasn’t going to be big on offering solutions, but I want to deviate from that for just a moment. I think one traditional practice that could be helpful to churches here is the practice of confession. Confession is inherently social, in that you can’t really “confess” to yourself. Furthermore, the practice itself strengthens community bonds. However, it also transforms the social into the spiritual. In other words, when we engage in the practice of confession, we are all simultaneously entering into a place of vulnerability and humility. Our conversations in confession move from the mundane (sports teams, local politics, the best place to eat lunch or buy groceries) to the holy, allowing the penitent to release their burdens, and the confessors to practice the sacred exercise of forgiveness. I am fully aware that a dedicated time of confession is difficult to pull off, given most people’s expectations of what church is supposed to be, nor am I under the illusion it will eliminate conversations of the mundane – but it does provide a dimension of the social that is both inherently meaningful, and difficult to easily substitute in a virtual domain.

Data (and information) became cheap

Data is not information.
Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not understanding.
Understanding is not wisdom.
-Clifford Stoll

Not so long ago, data was expensive. Consider the statistics on marriage, divorce, and births I referenced in my third post. Fifteen years ago, if I’d needed that data, it would probably have required a trip to the local university library, a lengthy chat with a librarian, and an hour or so of skimming through very large reports – assuming the library had the reports at all.  By contrast, it took me less than five minutes of searching on the census bureau’s website to find the information I needed, all from the comfort of my couch while drinking a cup of coffee – and with the advent of smart phones, I could have looked up the data almost anywhere.

The internet fundamentally changed the value equation for people accessing information. In a span of less than 20 years, our society has been transformed from one where data was a relatively valuable commodity, to a society where data is almost free. In addition, not only has the internet increased our access to existing data, it has substantially increased the amount of data available. Consider this blog post. If I’d wanted to write about challenges facing Churches of Christ in 1998, what would I have done with it? An op-ed in my local newspaper? Chances they’d publish a 15,000 word missive? Pretty low.

This shift dramatically changes the way people interact with data and information. If data is hard to acquire, it is valuable, and a person who controls data has power. In an age where data is cheap, a person with access to data is no more special than anyone else with a smartphone. Another facet of cheap and readily available data is that the quality of data starts to vary dramatically. Sure, you can read incredibly thoughtful blog posts by preeminent Christian thinkers online these days, but you can also subscribe to the Westboro Baptist Church Podcast. And if you’re new to this whole Christianity thing, and you’re just “looking at the data”, these both count, right?

When data was expensive, the main problem was, well, finding and acquiring data. People who were really good at this and who had large amounts of data and information at their disposal were called “experts”. You went to an expert because they had spent the time, effort, and energy required to do the research. They functioned as a central repository of information, and in general could be trusted. This still happens in certain fields – if you want to get information about electrical arcing on low-voltage systems, I would be a pretty good person to talk to. But even in very specialized fields, the balance is starting to change.

When data is cheap, the problem is very different – specifically, the problem changes from collecting data, to assessing the quality of data. How do I sort through all of this stuff to figure out what is the most important? How does this mass of data turn into information? How do I know who or what I can trust? How do I know what to believe? And it turns out this doesn’t really stop at the level of data – it continues at least to the level of information. Can I trust what this source of information is telling me (think about the WMD dossier in the Iraq war)? When Google gives me search results, how do I know it’s not leaving important ones out, just to tell me what I want to hear?

Wasn’t this supposed to be about church, you say? Ok. Let’s think about how this changes things.

Most of our church services are oriented, whether we like it or not, on the sermon. And most sermons, like it or not, are oriented around information. And this made a certain kind of sense when information was valuable. The preacher was an “expert” who, at least in theory, spent time diligently searching for a message out of the data available to him, distilled to a few nuggets of importance that parishioners could take home with them. The preacher was likely to be the one person in the church with the good commentary set, the largest religious library, the most translations of the Bible – in short, the one with access to the most data and information on the topic. And sure, maybe he wasn’t an “expert” in a true sense, but comparatively, preachers and ministers were guys who had access to more information than their parishioners – whether that be original language resources or someone else’s sermon notes.

Many preachers today still function under this “expert” model, where their most important function is to dispense information to their churches. Preachers in this model face (at least) three challenges that I can see:

  • First, their parishioners no longer need them to acquire information. With online resources and Amazon.com, anyone in the pew can have access to the same amount of data and information as the guy up front. If a minister’s only value is to bring back a deep new idea he heard on the lectureship circuit, it’s likely that at least some of his church members have already heard it. And because people have access to more, and higher quality information than ever before, it’s possible – maybe even likely – that they will have heard the new idea before the minister. To summarize, twenty years ago, ministers could derive a lot of value from being the one person or group at a church capable of transcending the “information barrier” to access high-quality spiritual information. In the internet age, that barrier no longer exists.
  • Second, the information ministers dispense is no longer so easily trusted. That’s not to say that that nobody trusts the guy up front, but especially for Generation Y, it is no longer taken for granted that the information they receive – from anyone – is necessarily trustworthy. To quote the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” And because the critical skill in the internet age is not finding information, but vetting information, the sermon is critically scrutinized in ways it seldom has been before. And so, if a preacher in a sermon says, “This passage in Luke 10 is the only place in the Bible where someone asks Jesus what they need to do to go to heaven,” an increasing number of Gen Y’s would simply respond, “No it isn’t… and if you can’t get that simple, factual statement that correct – especially when there are reference notes in the text linking you to the other passage – why should I trust anything else you say?”
  • Third, it is increasingly simple to seek out other “experts”. Thirty years ago, if you didn’t like your preacher you were basically stuck with what you had. Aside from some television preachers with big hair and a propensity for asking for donations, you didn’t have a lot of options other than ordering tapes, via mail, from a far off congregation. Today, almost every lesson in every church in the country is recorded, archived, and placed on the internet, for download, usually for free. Why go to church and listen to a guy who isn’t very good if you can stay home, drink coffee in your pajamas, and listen to three or four of the best preachers in the country?

So what other ways could we think about sermons which might be more constructive?

I think the first step is the recognition that, for many Gen Y’s, faith is no longer simply a cognitive assent to a few key beliefs. It’s not “looking at the facts” and making a decision about them, or “evaluating the data about God.” Rather, as I’ve stated before, for Gen Y’s, faith and belief are intimately tied to one’s identity. In his compendium on the parables of Jesus entitled Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass put it this way when discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Our fear of earning salvation has led to the idea that Christianity is a religion concerned only with what one believes/thinks, not what one is, but this is a shallow understanding of belief. The parable, like most of Scripture, is concerned with identity. In effect, when people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.

One way to think of a preacher’s task, then, is to think about identity formation. And for many Gen Y’s, identity formation is largely wrapped up in the idea of narrative, and story. George Lindbeck, in his book The Nature of Doctrine, says, “To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book on ethics, After Virtue, makes essentially the same point: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself apart?’” Preaching, in a new age, then, is not a matter of dispensing information or providing people with useful life lessons so they can make it through their week – it is about faithfully telling the story of Christ, and helping people see Christ’s story as their own not only through a monologue on Sunday morning, but more importantly by demonstrating a life which has been changed and shaped by the story of God.

This may sound astonishingly simple, but it’s shocking how seldom preachers spend time actually telling the story of Israel and the story of Christ. I don’t know if it’s because they think it is too boring, or they think everyone already knows it. My casual observation is that most preachers seem to think we will tune them out unless they are talking about us and our lives. But the way to engage people and really change their lives is not by telling them what they are supposed to do, but by reminding them of what God has done and is doing. When preachers turn sermons into series on “how to deal with depression” or “how to be a servant” or “how to have a stronger family”, they are subtly implying that the good news of Jesus and the inbreaking Kingdom of God isn’t really good enough news for us to care about.

Belief in the Kingdom of God doesn’t change your life by giving you four simple steps to “Dealing with Worry” – it changes your life by asking you to trust and participate in a story where God raised Jesus from the dead. And if you really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, then that opens new possibilities and ways of life. It sounds crazy to do things like turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – unless you believe that God’s power to raise your life is greater than your enemies’ power to destroy it. That is a story that is different. It’s a story that makes sense of the world in a new way. It’s a story that, when lived, says, “I will respond to greater measures of anxiety in my life not by increasingly trying to control my circumstances, but by trusting in the power of God for new life.”

Brave new world, Brave new life

The vision of Ezekiel 37 dares to say
“It doesn’t matter how dead you are…
there is always the possibility of new life in the Spirit of God.”
-Mark Love

The world is changing, and the way people see the world is changing. And in many ways, that is probably a good thing. Many Christians lament the idea of a post-Christian world, but many of us believe this new type of world may help us see more clearly what it means to truly follow Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship:

The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

In his later work, Bonhoeffer wrestled deeply with what he called his central question: “what Christianity is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.” And that, really, is the question for churches at a crossroads: who will Christ be for us, today? In this time? In this place?

We might do well to remember Bonhoeffer’s words in Letters and Papers from Prison – “God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” In this brave new world he reminds us that, “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within our reach in any given situation.”

We will find life in our story – whether it be our individual lives or the lives of our churches – only insomuch as we align our stories with the story of Jesus. And to align ourselves with the story of Christ, we must first hear the story of Christ – not as a set of abstract propositions, but as the God who lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto a cross; the God who trusts in God to not abandon him to Death, but who, through resurrection, undoes the very power Death holds over us.

Where, O Death is thy victory?
Where, O Death is thy sting?
Death has been swallowed up in victory.

On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 4: Megachurches, and actual statistics

I’d like to take a brief, unplanned detour from what I said I was going to talk about in my last post to briefly offer some thoughts on one of the most common responses to the topics I’ve brought up in my series so far (here, here, and here). I’ll apologize from the beginning for two reasons: first this is going to be a slightly technical post and second, it is answering a specific counter-argument that usually comes up at this point in the conversation, which I personally don’t find particularly helpful to the conversation. But in talking with various ministers and church leaders, this is the first objection that inevitably pops up. The argument basically goes like this: if what you’re saying is true, why are megachurches doing so well, and why do they seem to be attracting 18-35’s? The short answer is, “I don’t think they really are…” but understanding why requires that we look at some broader data about religious trends in the United States. If you stick with me to the end, I promise some relevant takeaways for Restoration movement churches.

I should begin by saying that I’m not a sociologist, and I haven’t done any polling on this issue. I have no particular training in this area, and I’m sure a real social scientist might take some issue with what I say. I might be completely wrong about this, and as far as I can find, the research I’d really like to look at to help answer some of these questions doesn’t exist. If you’re a sociologist and interested in these questions, hit me up.

I should also say that I’ll be using some slightly new terminology in this post, just to keep things a bit more clean. Specifically, I will be referring to Generation X, and Generation Y. In the terms of the previous posts, Generation Y represents current 18-35’s, whereas Generation X roughly represents those born from the early 60’s until the early 80’s. There is some disagreement about where to draw the X/Y line, but it generally ranges from 1979-1983. By way of disclosure, I am 33, born in 1980, and therefore sit right on the border between these two generations – which allows me, in some ways, to speak in the native language of both groups, while not really being a part of either.

Ok. Let’s start by laying some groundwork. This post is going to be a bit more graph and numbers heavy than the previous ones, but I think it’s good to try to put some pictures with this thing. A caveat about my data: I’m drawing the religious data from the 2008 Pew Center Religious Landscape Survey, and my US Population demographics from the 2010 Census. Unfortunately, these organizations don’t bin their data the same way, so I’ve had to make an assumption that the 15-19 age demographic has a uniform distribution, and specifically that 18-19 year olds represent 40% of the bin. Given the fairly uniform distribution between bins (a max of about 2% variation between 5-year bins up to age 29) this seems fairly reasonable. Also note that because this is 2008 data, the 18-29 age demographic is now 23-34. Thus the 18-29 group basically represents Gen Y, with 5 years of missing kids who would now be 18-22. The 30-49 group would now be 35-54, and roughly represents Gen X, and the 50-64 group roughly corresponds to the boomers.

First, let’s look at the distribution of church members by age in various demographics. This graph shows the distribution by age of four religious groups set alongside the age distribution of the total popdistpopulation of the United States (shown on the left for each group, in orange). So in other words, 22% of the total adult population of the United States is in the 18-29 age range. If a particular group’s bar is lower than the orange bar, that age group is underrepresented in that particular religious tradition. If the bar is over, then that particular group is overrepresented. Because this is a fixed population, all bars add up to 100 (or, well, two add up to 99, due to rounding errors). In other words, if you are overrepresented in one area, you will necessarily be underrepresented somewhere else.

So what are a couple of quick takeaways from this graph? First, all groups are under-represented in the 18-29 demographic, compared to what we would expect based on the US population. In fact, the only religious group overrepresented among Gen Y are traditionally black churches in the Pentecostal tradition (and frankly, there may be some small sample size issues there). It is certainly true that non-denominational and Restoration heritage churches look better here, but even for them, the message is not all roses. Non-denominational churches in particular (and most megachurches would fall into this group) seem to be primarily a Gen X affair, with some Gen Y involvement, and almost no people who are older than boomers. Particularly worrying is a trend among evangelical Baptists, typically considered the largest and most influential evangelical Protestant denomination. Evangelical Baptists show one of the worst representations among Gen Y outside of mainline churches, at only 14%. The only non-mainline groups that do worse are fundamentalist non-denominational churches and Evangelical Lutheran churches, both at 12%, and Evangelical Presbyterians at 13%.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out at this juncture related to Churches of Christ. The first, again, has to do with the issue of instrumental music. To be explicit, a capella churches of Christ draw better among Gen Y than instrumental Baptist churches, and equal to non-denominational churches, as a percentage of the members who attend. For what seems like the hundredth time in this series of posts, I will continue to beat the dead horse: instrumental music is not a silver bullet that will keep the Gen Y crowd in Churches of Christ. More on this later. Second, we should also note that Churches of Christ are the group with the largest overrepresentation among the “older than boomer” crowd. In other words, a lot of our members are, or will soon be dying off. This will rearrange the distribution of our various age groups, but will likely give the biggest “bump” to the Gen X crowd, not Gen Y.

Ok. Now is where I’m going to pretend to be a social scientist. Full disclosure: this is not my day job.

Let’s bring in a couple of concepts to discuss a bit more about what might be going on here.

We’ll start by defining a group of Christians present within each of these four age groups that we will call “consumer-oriented”. We can define this group roughly as “Christians who view church as a place where they consume religious goods and services.” It’s doubtful many people would say they believe this, of course, but I suspect we all know people who fit this mold. Phrases like “church shopping” wouldn’t make sense outside of this consumer oriented mentality. In other words, this group of people, when looking for a church, is, in a sense, shopping for a country club – they want to be a part of the church with the best benefits (worship, programs, ministries). To be clear, all of us do this to some extent, since nobody looking for a church tries to find the absolutely worst fit possible, but when I’m talking about someone in a consumer-oriented mindset, I’m talking about someone who is at least tempted to pack up and move the kids when a new church starts across town with a great youth group, or great preacher, or great band. Church is primarily about the goods and services I consume.

Consumer preferences are not the only factor at play here, though. There is also an issue related to mobility. By way of analogy, if you have a large house crammed full of stuff, there is a much higher barrier to moving than if you inhabit a two-room apartment filled with your furniture from college. In the same way that Gen Y’ers are more readily disposed to pick up and move across the country (which is easier to do if everything you own fits in your car), they have far fewer attachments to the institutional name-brands of their churches. Additionally, they haven’t (in general) built up years of history with a particular local community. I’ve met dozens of people in churches who have been a part of a local congregation for ten, fifteen, or fifty years who remain, not because they particularly like anything about what was going on in the church or the direction it is headed, but because of the personal relationships they have formed with other members of the church. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s just a reflection of the reality that once you’ve put down roots, whether in Peoria or Pine Grove Community Church, moving becomes much more difficult.

Let’s engage in a brief thought experiment. Imagine a city where there are 4 churches, each with 250 members. Half of the members in each church belong to a “consumer-oriented” mindset, and
churchesthe other half do not. Let’s consider a few scenarios related to mobility and market advantage. The trivial situation is when no church has a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and mobility is fairly high. In this case, we would expect things to basically maintain the status quo. There might be some movement, but not a lot. Conversely, if we increased the market advantage of one church until it had its run of the market while mobility remained high, we would expect to see almost all of the consumer oriented members flock to that church, as in this graph, creating, in effect, a mega-church.

Next, let’s think about the distribution of this consumer-oriented mindset within various age groups. Whether members of Gen Y are as consumer-oriented as previous generations is a matter for some debate, but there is at least evidence that Gen Y consumes in a very different way than previous generations. In the terms sketched out above, however, I think it would be fair to say that we would expect Gen Y to have a lower rate of “consumer-oriented” Christians than either boomers or Gen X. We’ll set aside for the moment how much lower. Regardless, we have noted that Gen Y is far more mobile between religious groups than Gen X or the boomers, primarily owing to life stage.

So if all of this is reasonable, what would we expect? We would expect some portion of Gen Y to be consumer-oriented, and because of their mobility we would expect the vast majority of that consumer-oriented group to end up at relatively few churches – the ones which enjoy a competitive advantage in a particular market. My suspicion on this is that the distribution would follow something like a power law, meaning that we might expect to see on the order of 90% of this consumer-oriented Gen Y group (across all denominations) in any given market split between one or two churches, and the remaining 10% spread across the rest of the churches. Which begs the question, “Just what percentage of Gen Y believers fit this consumer oriented approach, which tends to result in a megachurch?”

I don’t know that there are any good answers for that at the moment, but I do think there are some trends in the Pew Center data that may help us say some things. First, looking at the non-denominational (think: megachurch) data, it’s clear that the largest group within that demographic is Gen X. This isn’t terribly surprising, as the non-denominational movement was getting started in force right around the time Gen X was most mobile, from a “switching churches” standpoint. Given their more consumer-oriented tendencies, it’s not entirely surprising that these churches attracted mostly Gen X’ers and some boomers. If our mobility hypothesis is correct, we should expect that Gen X and boomers will be more likely to stay where they are at this point, unless they experience a major life change (death, divorce, new job, etc.). The barriers to moving are just too high.

As an aside, it is probably worth thinking for a moment about where this overrepresentation of Gen X within non-denominational churches came from. Non-denominational churches contain about 35% more Gen X members than we would expect based on their US population frequency. The data for Protestant denominations in general show that Gen X is slightly overrepresented (38% vs 36%), but this is most likely related to the relative underrepresentation of Gen Y. In Restoration churches, however, Gen X is significantly under-represented (36% vs 31%). Correcting for relative US population frequency, there are actually fewer Gen X’s remaining in our churches than Gen Y’s. Another way to say this is that there is indeed some wisdom to the idea that a significant group of people wanted more progressive worship services, and indeed have already left to find them. It’s just that those people aren’t Gen Y’s – they’re Gen X’s. And as we’ve discussed above, they have, for the most part, settled themselves in new traditions.

The final part of the data I want to point out deals with Gen Y’s in non-denominational churches, the category in which most megachurches are grouped. As we’ve already said, non-denominational churches are great at connecting with Gen X. But it doesn’t seem like they’re having the same success with Gen Y. Once we correct for population frequency, we see about a 29% decline from Gen X to Gen Y in non-denominational churches. In other words, while non-denominational churches may be more successful in attracting and retaining the Gen Y crowd than mainline congregations or evangelical Baptists, there is nonetheless a 30% generational decline in their effectiveness when it comes to reaching “young people”.

So what are a few takeaways?

First, in my opinion, the issue of megachurches reaching 18-35’s is a red herring and a misinterpretation of the data. It’s a red herring because, if the population distribution of churches follows the population distribution of cities – and there’s no real reason here to think it doesn’t – then megachurches are not the future, at least for most of us. It would be analogous to Des Moines secretly harboring an ambition to become as large and influential as New York City. For the vast majority of us, we won’t be a megachurch, even if we want to be. For every 20,000+ person church in America, there will be dozens or hundreds of 2,000 person churches, and for every 2,000 person church, there will be dozens or hundreds of 200 person churches. By and large, megachurches succeed because a) they have a competitive advantage in the marketplace of Christianity and therefore “attract” consumers looking for the highest quality provider of religious goods and services or b) they were the “first to market” and were able to capture a segment of people before anyone else was there. As a secondary aside, I would also point out that many megachurches are built around individuals who are uniquely charismatic (in a good way). Leadership transitions in these organizations are generally not smooth, making their long-term future a matter for some debate.

Furthermore, raising the specter of megachurches in the 18-35’s debate simply ignores the available data, which suggests that they are mostly a Gen X affair, with a significant falloff (almost a third) from Gen X to Gen Y, once relative population frequencies are taken into account.

Finally – and, hopefully this is viewed as good – the situation Churches of Christ find themselves in at the moment is, relatively speaking, fairly positive. When it comes to Gen X, there are a lot of “statistics” within our fellowship. But, at least so far, Gen Y has remained, remarkably, reasonably engaged (present company notwithstanding). And so, in a sense, the tradition is at a crossroads – not unlike, I would guess, the one that occurred shortly before the departure of a large section of Gen X from our ranks. My prayer would be that leaders in all churches – Church of Christ and otherwise – would have the wisdom to not address the issues that caused previous generations to leave, but would deal seriously with the issues causing the current generation to leave. We would do well to keep in mind what Dr. Jeff Childers reminds us – “big” is not a virtue. To paraphrase Dr. Chris Flanders, since Jesus commanded us to make disciples, and not attenders, we do not need to worship bigness as a marker of success.

Lord have mercy.

In my next post, I will, actually, talk about some ways the world has shifted, and hopefully brainstorm about how a changed church might connect with a departing generation.

Next: Part 5: Brave new world

On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 3: a road to nowhere

In the first two posts in this series (here and here), I tried to suggest that, while they are easier to conceptualize and act upon, technological shortcomings (e.g. worship styles, visitor parking, new ministry programs, etc.) are not the main reason people in the 18-35 year age demographic are leaving Churches of Christ. Said differently, you could have Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman leading worship every week along with the best programs and ministries that money can buy, but if you have a church where the message is generic and the atmosphere inhospitable, you are not going to see massive long-term numerical growth among young people. As Mark Love would say, the era of, “if you build it, they will come,” is over – or at least seems to be something that doesn’t really connect all that well with the younger-than-boomers crowd. Keeping 18-35 year olds in your congregation requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume (side note: What kinds of assumptions about a group of people are required for a church leadership to think that this type of approach would be successful? It seems profoundly disrespectful, treating 18-35’s as extended adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments.). In my opinion, retaining 18-35’s will require serious interaction with fundamental cultural dynamics inside the church.

Or as I said in the last post, it’s not about innovation; it’s about identity. And interacting with identity is hard, and uncomfortable. Examining our identity means we might have to change more than the outside window dressings. Challenging our identity means that there might need to be some actual repentance – some turning – in the lives of our churches. It means wrestling with the idea that maybe we’ve been wrong about some things in the past, and in some cases maybe we need to ask forgiveness. It might even mean, in some extreme cases, that our churches as we know them need to die. Try running for leadership, or staying in leadership – or even interacting with leadership – based on that platform. That kind of change is hard. That kind of change is inconvenient, for everyone involved.

Because we are a bit removed from the first post, I think it’s probably important to issue a couple of reminders. First, since we’re talking about statistics, the most important thing to remember is that, strictly speaking, this blog is an n=1. In other words, I’m speaking from my experience here, rather than trying to tease out a statistically valid sample that would make a pollster happy, much less trying to represent this as everyone’s story. Certainly the reasons people leave are deeply personal, and unique. At the same time, my experience, while anecdotal, isn’t exactly insignificant either. I’ve spent a lot of time working with this age group in a pseudo-ministry capacity, and I’ve talked to dozens of people who’ve walked away over a period of ten to twelve years. I may be summarizing here, but there are real faces behind it, and not just mine.

Second, I want to affirm that many of these issues are not only problems faced by Churches of Christ, though we do have our own unique flavors of them. Some of them resonate with our heritage more than they would in, say, a mainline denomination. In other words, I want to make clear that I am not trying to single us out, and point out “all of the things that are wrong with the Church of Christ.” There’s plenty of dysfunction to go around in American Christianity, and I’m just pointing out the parts within Churches of Christ that I’ve either seen with my own eyes, or spoken to others about in detail.

Finally, and I feel this is particularly important given the scope of this post, my intent is not to be mean-spirited or overly critical. It’s hard to talk about leaving a faith tradition without sounding a bit critical, and maybe even bitter, but my intent is to be honest, and hopefully analytical more than disparaging. I am deeply grateful for my heritage, and as I said in the first post I want badly for it to succeed. I hope this may start discussions which can help with that process. Certainly I am not unsympathetic to many of the challenges churches face, and as I mentioned in the first post in the series, I know as well as anyone that there are no quick fixes to these problems. To borrow an analogy from the first post, “solving” these issues looks a lot more like therapy than it does engineering.

And so, what kind of identity do you find in Churches of Christ? If you’re a long time (or short time) Church of Christ member, I’d encourage you to stop, and take a minute before reading the rest of this post, and try to answer the following three questions, first from your own perspective, and then from the perspective of your congregation (think here about how your minister or elders would answer for your church too, if it’s different from how you would answer for your church):

  1. Who do I/we believe that God is?
  2. What do I/we believe that God is up to in the world?
  3. If God is doing something in the world, what should my/our response be to that?

My guess is that if you are a long time Church of Christ member, you probably didn’t have the easiest time answering those questions with something other than Sunday-school responses (“God is love!”). And there’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with Sunday school responses – so long as the quick answer isn’t a reflection of the level of depth behind it. If you had a hard time trying to answer the three questions for yourself, my guess is you had an even harder time coming up with what your congregation’s answer to these questions would be. And that’s really sort of the point. If we as followers of Christ can’t articulate basic identity forming beliefs for our own lives, and if our congregations don’t have these kinds of questions on their radar either (or in some cases, give really, really, strange answers), then it’s not entirely surprising that some Churches are on the path they are. As they say, if you don’t really care where you’re going, you’re certain to get there eventually.

I could talk a lot here about how our fundamental Christian beliefs (or lack thereof) shape our experience, likely more so than the other way around, but this post is already going to be long. Perhaps in another, if there is interest.

So what is the trajectory of many Churches of Christ that worries me, and many other 18-35’s – enough so that we’re willing to get off the boat? I’d like to spend this post discussing four broad areas that for me are the most concerning:

1. Secularization and sectarianism.

I’m more and more convinced that Christianity isn’t appealing to outsiders
not because we haven’t made it *attractive* enough,
but because we haven’t made it *strange* enough.
Mark Love

If you are even passingly familiar with Churches of Christ, you are probably aware that they have a strongly sectarian history. The common view among progressive members (and some more traditional members) of Churches of Christ is that this sectarian strain was a corruption of the early ideals of the movement’s founders. After all, wasn’t one of the original slogans of the Stone-Campbell movement was that we are “Christians only, but not the only Christians”?

In truth, however, the tension between sectarianism and ecumenism has always been present in the tradition, even from its founding documents (Last Will and Testament, Declaration and Address). Even today, many Churches of Christ on the more sectarian side of the spectrum would have no problem affirming Barton W. Stone’s final Item in Last Will: “Finally we will, that all our sister bodies read their Bibles carefully, that they may see their fate there determined, and prepare for death before it is too late.” (Note: A. Campbell makes similar sectarian statements, but is far more verbose about it, leading to difficulties in finding an appropriate quote that doesn’t take up its own paragraph.)

If we’re honest, the sectarian playbook didn’t work so well even in the 1950’s, and it certainly doesn’t work very well today. A world which increasingly places the 18-35 demographic in contact with different ideas, cultures and beliefs renders a posture of, “We’re the only ones going to heaven,” – or even, “We’re the ones with all the answers,” – as strikingly discordant and unsustainable. That isn’t to say that churches don’t exist today which embrace the sectarian history of our past – they certainly do, and ironically my personal opinion is that, for a variety of reasons, these churches will survive longer than churches who have rejected sectarianism in unhealthy ways. But it is to say that strongly sectarian viewpoints are a major turn off for a significant portion of the 18-35 demographic, and churches which maintain a sectarian stance will have increasing difficulty attracting and retaining members.

Eventually, people in churches began to realize that the sectarian playbook wasn’t working, and some of them tried to implement a variety of technological changes to modernize the way the church did business. They softened stances on some traditional hot button issues. They tried to make church more approachable and less formal. They tried to make it more attractive, more “relevant”.

But in many cases, they weren’t really all that careful with how they went about it. It turns out that there are multiple ways you can address the problem of sectarianism, and many churches responded to the problem not by becoming more ecumenical, but by becoming more secular. In these churches, the good news about Jesus became, in essence, one more version of the good life, or simply another path to the American Dream. Teaching about the story of Christ was slowly and subtly replaced by a mix of pop-psychology and self-help, with Jesus mixed in only so much as was necessary to maintain the credible appearance of “church” instead of “social club”. Lessons became not a challenge to find your place in God’s ongoing story, or a reflection on what God has done and is doing, but “practical” five point plans to help believers “get something out of the Bible,” so they could deal with the day-to-day problems they encountered in life.

As Brian McLaren once noted, the contemporary gospel that most churches teach is “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an even smaller footnote about social/global transformation.” This type of gospel doesn’t need repentance. It doesn’t require any change or turning. Most people can accept and believe this gospel just the way they are. After all, if the good news of Jesus means life after death and an increase in personal happiness and success now, with only the requirement that I generally attend church and hang out with people who are like me, sign me up!

The problem going forward, though, is that this type of gospel rings a bit hollow to many 18-35’s. For many people in this group, this brand of Christianity fails, as the quote at the beginning of this section states, not because it hasn’t been made attractive enough, but because it hasn’t been made strange enough. If there’s no tangible difference in the substance of the content I hear at church and at the Kiwanis club (and I’d encourage you to take a minute and look at their values), then why not attend the one where they have pancakes at their meetings (or is that the Optimist club… so hard to keep them straight)? Said differently, for 18-35’s, a community of Christ cannot be simply self-help and pop-psychology with a sprinkle of Jesus on top – they won’t waste their time with something that is seemingly so self-interested and narcissistic – nor can it be simply another philanthropic social club – there are plenty of those with better hours and fewer moral entanglements.

In his book Good News for Anxious Christians, Phillip Cary suggests – and I think he’s absolutely right about this – that a good model for where this trajectory eventually leads a church is the Unitarian-Universalist denomination. Cary: “Once you think that way about Jesus, you lose what is distinctively Christian about Christianity – though you may not realize it for a while. For generations, in fact, many Unitarians insisted that they had a better, purer form of Christianity than churches that were committed to incomprehensible doctrines like the Trinity. … [Today, t]hese post-Christian congregations have arrived at an important level of clarity and self-knowledge: they know now that they don’t want to be Christians anymore, and thus no longer have an interest in claiming the label ‘Christian.’ This really is an advance, spiritually speaking, because now they are in a position to recognize that the call to Christian faith is a call to change their minds and embrace a set of beliefs they don’t already have.”

Let me be clear that this is not just a Church of Christ problem – it’s a problem in almost every denomination, liberal or evangelical. But in Churches of Christ, it seems especially difficult to find congregations which do not represent one of these two extremes.

2. Brain drain.

In our time, by contrast, the popular view
is that the public nature of our witness
can be secured by wearing t-shirts with Christian slogans,
holding up banners with bible verses at football games,
or affixing witty religious bumper stickers to our cars.
If those around us take offense at our witness, however,
it is not because they have taken seriously the import of our beliefs;
they just find us annoying.
– Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom

Are there highly educated, thoughtful, intelligent people in Churches of Christ? Of course. Do Churches of Christ, in general, foster environments that encourage and cultivate highly educated, thoughtful, and intelligent people? No.

Churches of Christ need to be honest about this. We have always been the back-country cousin of the Restoration movement who prided ourselves on being able to get by without those fancy educations that our rich, city-folk cousins in the Disciples of Christ had. As an (admittedly anecdotal) example, take the following comment from a Church of Christ preacher on a blog post I read a year or so ago: “I’m a suburban boy. Never really paid attention much in high school, and I only experience [sic] college for a year. I really don’t have any interest in appearing intelligent, or knowledgable [sic]. Trust me, you won’t hurt my feelings by catching me on some misquote of a man-made book, or anything else. I only have one interest: bringing the lost to salvation. This means preaching the word of God in its sound, and healthy wholeness. … It didn’t take me long to discover your over-complicated interpretation of God’s word. When a guy has to play mental gymnastics with the text, he is up to something. And it’s never any good.”

I will certainly grant that the ferocity of this particular individual’s anti-intellectualism is not the norm. But it is rare within Churches of Christ – outside of the academy, or churches largely attended by Christian College professors – to find places where actual thoughtful discussion happens. It is uncommon, for instance, to find ministers who read books other than generic, mass-market Christian spirituality or apologetics. Difficult questions and different viewpoints are often dismissed or suppressed. “Intellectual” discussions, when they do happen, are largely oriented around proving various arcane doctrinal points (e.g. “Was the serpent in Genesis 3 literally Satan?”), rather than exploring deeper theological realities. Sermons are often preached with seemingly little care given to whether their treatment of the text is accurate. Classes and lessons are distilled into five-point plans or reduced to soundbytes – if they ever progress past the point of softball questions such as, “What does God expect of us?” Issues which ought to be far more nuanced receive a black and white treatment. And so on.

When is the last time you attended a Church of Christ where the ministers or leadership had read – or even heard of – top flight theologians like Hauerwas, Brueggemann, or Volf? Or for that matter, when is the last time you attended a Church of Christ where the ministers and leadership had read top flight classic American authors like Steinbeck, Hemmingway, and Fitzgerald? Before anyone objects, I’m not saying that every person in a church needs to have a Ph.D. in theology or American Literature, or that our adult classes need to slog their way through Resident Aliens and Prophetic Imagination. But my experience in Churches of Christ is that most congregations do not have people (ministers, leadership, or otherwise) who possess the theological, cultural, and spiritual vocabulary necessary to speak meaningfully about the types of issues their churches are facing. And when congregations lack the words and categories to articulate the cultural and theological challenges they face, they become, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, “unscripted anxious stutterers”.

The problem for these congregations, as it relates to the 18-35 demographic, is that our Christian Colleges and campus ministries are increasingly teaching our children how to speak and think about God in terms that are not simply formulaic, cognitive, or experiential. As students who’ve grown up in Churches of Christ leave college, they are increasingly fluent culturally and theologically, yet after they graduate, they find themselves in congregations largely comprised of unscripted, anxious stutterers. Unable to find a conversation partner, our best and brightest are moving to places where their speech is understood and valued, rather than misheard or ignored.

It would be easy to think that the “solution” to anti-intellectualism would be the sort of hyper-intellectualism that is now making its round in some churches. It is not. The problem is not just that Churches of Christ have been anti-intellectual for much of their history, but that anti-intellectualism has been employed to shut down discussion and enforce conformity. Unfortunately, my observation is that the brand of hyper-intellectualism which is replacing it in some churches has much the same effect. We cannot replace a culture which is functionally mute about critical theological issues with one which excludes all people who haven’t read the right authors. I’ll be completely frank here: I don’t know what this looks like when it is practiced properly. But the extremes are easy to find. My prayer is that we will all find the middle.

Members in our churches should not be punished and ostracized for thinking differently, or as is often the case, thinking at all.

3. Women’s roles.

I have heard the bible
and have learned that Eve caused man to sin.
Well, if woman upset the world,
do give her a chance to set it right side up again.
– Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I a woman?

This is the next big issue on the horizon, and it’s going to be a doozy. And to be fair, it’s not just a Church of Christ issue. But it is a Church of Christ issue, and it is a major contributing factor in losing 18-35’s.

Suppose you had a member of your church who wanted to participate and give back to the community. Suppose this person was a trained therapist with a decade of experience seeing couples in therapy, and was trained to teach one of the most respected and well researched marriage enrichment curricula developed in the past twenty years by the person who developed the material. And further suppose this person was willing to teach the marriage enrichment class, for free, to as many couples in your church who wanted to come.

Why would a church say no to an offer like that?

Because the person in the above example is a woman.

Of course, it would be fine to offer such a class if it were taught by a man, or if the woman was married and her husband co-taught the class with her. It would also be fine if she met with individual couples from the church and taught the material in a non-church setting, or maybe if she taught it as a seminar on a Saturday. But it’s certainly not acceptable for her to teach a class by herself, in a church building, during a Sunday morning class time, where men are present, even if she is clearly the most qualified person in the congregation to do so.

Can you see why this might drive some people in the 18-35 demographic a little crazy?

Here is the bottom line: we have encouraged our daughters to go to school, to excel in their fields, and to use the gifts God has given them. They have become doctors, lawyers, judges, and managers of corporations, psychologists and even professors at Christian universities. To cite an extreme example, my sister attends church with a Federal Circuit judge, who, in her professional life, is charged with rendering decisions about the way laws are interpreted in one of the highest courts of our country (she was even short-listed to be a Supreme Court nominee, at one point). And yet, in most churches, she would be told that the extent of her God-given role within the local congregation begins and ends with baking casseroles, organizing the nursery, and mailing sympathy cards.

I want to drive this point home a little bit more: within our fellowship, we are blessed with a woman who has excelled in her field to the point where she may be called on to make decisions about a variety of issues which the majority of conservative Christians in the country consider of vital importance to the moral fiber and fabric of our nation, and indeed the church’s survival (e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, etc.). Most of these conservative Christians would be proud to learn that one of the judges on the bench was a committed Christian, and would hope that her ruling would incorporate her understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is deeply ironic, then, that while the majority of conservative Christians would be thrilled beyond measure if she quoted scripture from the bench during oral arguments, they would be shocked and offended if she quoted the same scripture on a Sunday morning between 9 AM and noon.

We cannot continue to use narrow, misogynistic, black and white readings of what are, in all cases, nuanced and complicated texts as a means to preserve a boys club within our churches. More precisely, we can, but an increasing number of our 18-35 year old women are going to feel dissonance between the positive way their thoughts, views, and talents are valued in the secular world and the negative way their thoughts, views, and talents are ignored or unused in the church.

I recognize that this is going to be a major issue. I also recognize and affirm that there are Joan Brandwyns in our congregations whose desires and ambitions are to excel as wives and mothers instead of pursuing a career. At the same time, spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

4. Cultural homogenization, and lack of diversity.

The broader point (maybe) is this:
Churches of Christ, as they are at the moment,
are astoundingly bad at successfully connecting to people
even a little bit away from a certain template.
-Seth Martin, fellow 18-35 ex-CofC’er

In many ways, Churches of Christ are insider clubs. We have our own unwritten liturgy, and our own secret handshakes. But even when people have grown up as insiders and know the right things to say and do, they often find that congregations are simply not equipped to deal with them if they are not a “typical Church of Christ” person.

If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people in your life stage. You are, as they say, on the fast track for eldership.

If, on the other hand, you are in the 18-35 age range and you don’t fit this template, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you back on track. If you happen to be single, for instance, most Church of Christ singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because singles’ main goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or women who want to pursue a career and have children, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.

This is problematic for churches, because social trends over the past 40 years show that a) people are, in general, not getting married until later in life (the median age of first marriage increased from 23.2/20.8 M/F in 1970 to 28.2/26.1 M/F in 2010) b) married couples tend to be waiting longer after they are married to have children (average age of first-time mothers increased from 21.4 in 1970 to 25.4 in 2010) and c) couples, even within churches, are experiencing divorce at higher rates than in the past, and at younger ages (64 percent of divorcing women, and 50.5 percent of divorcing men are under the age of 25). In other words, the main characteristic that the 18-35 age demographic in 2013 shares with the 18-35 age demographic from 1973 is age, but almost everything else has changed. In spite of this, the broad message Churches of Christ continue to send to this demographic is that if you aren’t happily married with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.

Ironically, a survey of members of Churches of Christ isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most Churches of Christ would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy.

Unfortunately, this can quickly become a self-reinforcing narrative. People who “fit” this narrow profile in Churches of Christ find them to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding. But people who, as the quote above says, are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives do not fit the common pattern.

Worse still, this becomes a positive feedback loop. Why should we focus energy and effort on singles when so few of them attend our church? The majority of our young couples have children, and would really benefit from a parenting class, but we don’t have enough classroom space or teachers to dedicate a class to young couples without children. Why don’t we have two classes for parenting (one for parents with young children, one for parents with children in the youth group), and then one class for anyone who doesn’t want to attend a parenting class? And we wonder why people who don’t fit the template feel like they are less important and don’t “belong” in the life of the church.

I understand that there are real and practical constraints on resources within churches. I get that finding classrooms and teachers is hard, and particularly if your church has less than 1,000 members, maintaining a critical mass of people in all of these life stages is a real challenge. I understand that all churches have to make choices about where they are going to focus their effort and attention. My observation, though, is that almost all Churches of Christ focus on the same life-stage demographic of people, and try to “fix” people who aren’t in that life stage to get them back on track.

If church leaderships only “accentuate the positive” and “focus on what’s ‘working’, so we can do more of that”, instead of asking why 95% of participants in classes/ministries/programs fall into the category of “people with children” and “people who would be here even if the building was on fire”, Churches of Christ will continue to become less diverse. Moreover, not only will they not attract people who aren’t in those two categories, they risk losing the 5% who still remain.

In my next post in the series, I’d like to give a couple of perspectives on how the world in general has shifted, and what that may mean for churches going forward.

Next: Part 4: Megachurches and actual statistics

On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 2: why winning the worship war is a pyrrhic victory

In my previous post, I mentioned that my wife and I have recently left Churches of Christ, a heritage where we both grew up, and lived for many years. During our time in Churches of Christ, I was frequently asked about “why young people are leaving the church”, and what could be done to stop the bleeding.

Often these questions come in the form of surveys, which are distributed, collected, and never seen again. My personal favorite from one of these surveys was a well-intentioned question that asked, “How can we empower these brethren to feel a sense of belonging in our church?” My first response? We can start by not calling them brethren.

On one level, of course, that is a straightforward technological change (stop using a specific phrase). But the use of the term in the first place implies something about our culture that isn’t changed quite so easily. In a best case scenario, 18-35’s will roll their eyes and see the use of the term “brethren” as being old-fashioned, but not much more noteworthy than someone saying “thee” and “thou” in a prayer. But for an increasing number of 18-35’s – particularly females – the term “brethren” resonates not as old-fashioned, but patriarchal, offensive, and insulting.

To highlight the point I tried to make at the end of the last post, we can successfully address the technological change (don’t use the term “brethren”), and incorrectly think that doing so solves the deeper cultural issue (sending messages to females that they aren’t valued). Again, it’s easier to stop using a word than it is to grow a culture that truly values the talents and abilities of women (more on this in a later post). It isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make the technological change – in this case, we absolutely should, especially since it costs us nothing – but changing the technology without addressing the deeper cultural issue (i.e. “Why does the term ‘brethren’ offend some 18-35’s? And what does our use of the term (and the fact we don’t understand why it is problematic) say about the gap between our culture and theirs?”) may result in an iPad controlled locomotive.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores why “most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find out that Shangri-la isn’t what and where we thought it would be.” Gilbert’s details a variety of reasons why people make decisions they think will lead to a certain outcome (in his case, happiness), but for a variety of reasons, cause them to end up in a very different place. “We insist on steering our boats,” Gilbert says, “because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears [to us now].” In this post, I’d like to take some time to describe one particular technical issue – and the ways churches have responded to it – where I believe the future looks fundamentally different than many church leaders imagine, and then sketch out an alternate paradigm that hopefully reframes the challenge in a more hopeful light.

On the positive side, I think that most people in church leadership desire to make changes which will retain younger church members, at least conceptually. Unfortunately, my experience is that these same people a) often don’t understand the types of changes required, or the cost of implementing them and b) aren’t operating from a leadership model that equips them to make those changes, even if they do understand them. And so, what results is that many church leaderships make the changes they want, in the name of “what young people want” – which in many cases results in a proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.

It’s not (really) about the worship.

“If we don’t change our worship style to be more progressive…
if we don’t have a praise team…
if we don’t add instrumental music…
then our young people are going to go somewhere else.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard this from a boomer in a leadership position, I’d be shopping for some new toys on Amazon.com right now.

Let me start by trying to be fair. I realize this was a huge issue forty to fifty years ago. I’ve been to places that still operate their worship service like it’s the 1950’s, and I’ll agree, there needed to be some changes. I also understand that, even more so than most technological changes, altering worship styles is a programmatic, straightforward adjustment (if the political will exists) that brings immediate, tangible “results.” Things look/sound/feel different!

I’ll also grant that as people of God, we need to constantly be evaluating and reevaluating our “technology” of worship. If our worship services are functionally places where we intersect with culture (aside: I think it’s worth thinking about whether they should be), then we need to ask ourselves whether, we are communicating in a medium outsiders can understand (and if so, what we are communicating). If our worship services are a reflection of ourselves and, in some sense, a way in which we communicate with the divine, then trying to slow change by saying, “This is the way we’ve always done things,” is not just bad justification, it is no justification at all.

But here’s the bottom line: moving to more progressive services or adding instrumental music doesn’t do a lot to retain the 18-35 demographic. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I can’t list them all, but here are a few:

  • Anyone for whom this is a serious, deal-breaker issue in the 18-35 age group is already gone. The lack of institutional loyalty among my age group means that we are not tied to a name as much as previous generations. And if we’re less tied to a name, then we’re more willing to leave and go somewhere else. And if progressive worship / praise team / instrumental music is a real issue for someone, they will have already left, because there are plenty of options (read: everyone else) that offer it. Jumping on the bandwagon simply means we are choosing to compete alongside and against everyone else in the “Christian marketplace”. Which means…
  • If we go instrumental (or simply try to imitate it), we won’t be good at it. Most Churches of Christ, no matter their size, simply don’t have the talent base, at least at first, to pull off a good instrumental worship service on a consistent basis, nor are they willing to pay professional musicians like other churches. And so, if we want to compete against everyone else in a common sphere, we virtually guarantee that we will become the lowest quality provider of religious goods and services. Which means…
  • If we are trying to compete in what amounts to a consumer-driven market, where people are searching for the best worship experience, and simultaneously we are the lowest quality provider of spiritual goods and services, not only will we not attract people, we actually may lose people because we no longer offer a distinctive worship experience – a market niche if you will. And we haven’t even started talking about how well that sort of thing goes over with the traditionalists. It is a situation with literally no upside.
  • And at the end of the day, after we’ve gone through all that pain, what we will likely find is that many – maybe most – people who remain in churches of Christ in the 18-35 age demographic don’t actually care that much about the style of worship. It simply isn’t the major driving issue for them. Case in point: the church we attend now worships using instrumental music. This really isn’t my preference – it’s not the way I would do things if I were choosing how things were done. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s a pretty small issue. I can live with it. I’ll remain in a place where the worship style really isn’t really what I want. And that’s exactly the point. Most people in this demographic find worship style as one of the first places they are willing to compromise – not one of the last.

I will acknowledge that there are people within churches of Christ who do care a lot about worship styles – but my observation is that most of those people tend to be 45 and 55, rather than 25 and 35, which is really a problematic dynamic underlying the worship wars and how they often play out in our churches. “We are losing young people because we don’t have progressive worship / praise teams / instrumental music” really becomes a cipher for church leaders to say, “We wanted progressive worship / praise teams / instrumental music when we were 25 or 35, and come to think of it we still do, so that must be the problem. Fixing it will keep our young people here.”

It isn’t, and it won’t.

Defining ourselves by worship styles – an activity which has consumed Churches of Christ for at least a couple of decades now – has not been a terribly productive enterprise. We have focused so much attention on changing or maintaining a particular worship technology that we have made external expressions of worship an end in itself. Even if you win the worship war, you really lose.

Here’s why.

It’s not a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of identity.

And because of our traditions,
every one of us knows who he is,
and what God expects him to do.
-Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

Even in a song about tradition,
it’s not about tradition.
It’s about identity.
-Mark Nelson

I’m not opposed to innovation. I think all of our “ways of doing things” ought to be up for debate, and in places where we can change, update, and modernize while remaining true to our core beliefs (who God is, what God is doing, how we participate), we ought to do that. I’m a fan of things like electricity, sound systems, and most importantly where I live, air conditioning. Sitting in the sweltering heat because, “We’ve always done things this way,” or “They didn’t have air conditioning in the New Testament,” sounds laughable. And it should. As the saying goes, the world changes, and we change with it.

But here’s the thing: most churches do a pretty decent job, technologically speaking, of innovating. Put a different way, if you look at most Churches of Christ out there, across the entire ideological spectrum, they are, generally speaking, doing church better than they’ve ever done it before. They’ve got great programs, great worship services, great multimedia presentations, and great children’s activities. The “technology” is better than it’s ever been.

And people are still walking out the door.

And churches don’t know why.

I’d like to propose one idea: innovative programs and “technology” may attract people to churches, but they don’t keep them there. For an increasing number of people my age, churches are not measured by their ability to innovate, but by their identity, and more importantly their ability to be identity-forming. In other words, people are less concerned with questions like “Does this church have a well-executed worship service and exciting, high-quality programs for me and my children?” and are more concerned with questions like “If I stay at this church for five, ten, or fifteen years, and if I take the beliefs and values of this church to be my own, what kind of person will I be at the end of that time?”

The trouble for many churches, as I see it, is that innovation is largely identity agnostic. In other words, you can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming, and at the same time have an incoherent and disconnected set of core beliefs and values. A church that finds itself in this situation will indeed attract members on the basis of its programs, but those people will, at best, always be susceptible to jumping ship for the next place that comes along with better worship, better preaching, better kid’s ministries, etc. Moreover, for an increasing number of 18-35’s, a church which appears lively and dynamic based on its innovative programs, but whose core identity is hollow or missing entirely is unattractive and unappealing. Put differently, if I go to the place in town that has the best worship and children’s programs, but staying there 10 years turns me into a shallow, uncaring person, is that really a place I want to be?

Tying these points together, I’d like to close this post with words I wrote almost three years ago, at the height of a worship-war crisis in the congregation I was attending at the time.

Our strongest belief, however, is that our external observance of worship is not an end in itself. We firmly believe that external changes in our worship patterns do not cause internal changes in our hearts. Singing contemporary songs about love does not make us more loving. Singing “Amazing Grace” does not make us more gracious. With or without instruments, singing “Jesus is Lord” does not necessarily make it so, nor does singing about Christ make us more Christ‐like. Instead of focusing on external observances, we believe our effort and energy should be focused first on individual and communal transformation. People whose lives are ruled by graciousness worship differently than those who simply know about grace. People whose lives are witness to God’s peace worship differently than those who subordinate peace to their own power or desires. We believe that as people continue to be transformed into the perfect image of Christ, both their attitudes about and practice of worship necessarily change. Worship becomes a practice in service of a larger end, and its ultimate success is determined only by its service to that end, rather than evaluated in a vacuum. We believe God’s desire for us is not that our worship be more contemporary or more traditional, but that our lives and actions would be more loving, more humble, more patient, more joyous, more faithful, more gentle, more kind. In that spirit, while we understand the strongly held views of those involved on both sides, we mourn the realities of suspicion, fear, pride, greed, disrespect, and lack of consideration for the other which have caused tension and conflict, and brought us to this point. We pray first and foremost for God’s mercy on our church as we move forward.

In my next post in this series, I’d like to talk about some specific cultural (as opposed to technological) areas Churches of Christ have largely tended to ignore, and why they matter, and why they have the potential to drive 18-35’s away.

Next: Part 3: A road to nowhere

On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 1: why technical changes don’t help churches retain young people

It’s official. I’ve become a statistic. I am now a part of the 18-35 age demographic that has left the church. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I’m not attending a church, it means I’m not a member of The Church, which may only be something you understand if you grew up in my background. What it means, for practical purposes, is that in the studies and surveys that are done, I now count, and not in a good way.

I grew up attending a Church of Christ (“The Church”), and until recently continued to attend a Church of Christ. It was a place filled with quirks and problems, but they were the quirks and problems I’d grown up with. They were my people. It was a place I wanted to stay because, let’s face it, if everyone leaves, who is left? Be the change you want to see. Etc. And yet, I now find myself elsewhere. So how did we get there?

It’s a story that isn’t quick or simple, and can’t be told in a blog post. Some of it boils down to the fact that when we moved, we became a part of a new place whose problems were not our problems, and whose history was not our history. And ultimately we found ourselves feeling like a square peg in a round hole.

But I have experience in Churches of Christ, and some insight into how their leadership works, and how change happens. And if my experience has taught me anything, it is that the group to which I now belong – the “young people who no longer attend the Church group” – is used to justify most of the change related agendas that crop up in churches. I also know that most of the time the things I hear proposed that “our young people want” are in reality things that have no bearing on what people who are leaving actually want. And so, on the rare chance someone in some leadership position reads this, I thought I’d take a minute to outline a few of the broad concerns that encouraged us to leave (or didn’t).

Before I begin, I feel like a couple of caveats are in order. First, I love my heritage, and I really do want to see it succeed. This discussion isn’t a case of, “How the Church of Christ is awful, and why I’ll never go back.” Indeed, if I found myself in a location with a vibrant and healthy Church of Christ that was dealing seriously with some of the issues I will discuss, I would desire to be a part of that conversation. It is also not a case of finger pointing. I don’t have any one place or set of people in mind when I write this, and in complete fairness these problems are not unique to Churches of Christ, though we do have our own interesting flavors of them. And this is also not meant to be an exhaustive list – if I sat down in a room with a few of my closest friends, I bet we could double my list.

This is also not meant to be an attempt at solutions. Pointing out problems without offering constructive solutions is generally bad form, but there are two reasons I’d like to refrain from that: 1) With many of the issues I am going to discuss, the question, “How do we ‘fix’ this problem?” is, at best, misframed. These are not problems that can be “fixed” like you would change a flat tire. A better model might be something like therapy – how do we transform who we are as a church to be more like the image of Christ? 2) “Solutions” – such as they are – are certain to be deeply contextual and local. In other words, there is not a “one size fits all” solution, or even a general set of guidelines for what these changes look like where you are. I can make some comments on my context and locale, but that may not – and probably will not – apply anywhere else.

So here goes. There’s a lot to say, and putting it all in one giant post seems like overkill. My plan is to take the rest of this post to talk about a 30,000 foot issue, and then get into some more specific concerns in follow-up posts.

Let me start with a broad observation: the main way that churches and church leaderships tend to think about problems related to a loss of membership or lack of growth is in terms of technology, and by that, I don’t mean whether or not your church uses PowerPoint or has a Twitter account. In the late 19th century, the great revivalist Charles Finney talked about the “technology of revival,” where he envisioned the human heart and mind as if it were a locomotive, full of dials and levers and buttons. Finney’s idea, which he used to great effect, was that if you learned how to pull the right levers and push the right buttons and turn the right dials, you could achieve the proper effect you wanted in people. For example, one of Finney’s techniques was called the “anxious bench”, where people considering becoming a Christian could come down to the front and receive prayer. Turning up the emotional temperature, long altar calls, and pointing out specific people in the audience by name were all fair game. Contemporary churches might call it coercion or even manipulation, but to Finney, it was simply technology. Cause, effect.

I would suggest that functionally, this is how many of us think about change within our churches. In other words, when we don’t like the direction things are going, our first tendency is to ask what buttons and levers we can manipulate to change course, instead of asking whether a steam locomotive is really the best means of cross-country transportation in an age of jet-airliners.

Since the 1970’s, one of the main trends in churches has been an attempt to manipulate technology to lower the barriers to entry for people who stopped coming to church because it was too stuffy, or formal. Many churches have tried to change their level of formality (e.g. “You can wear jeans at our church!”) or their style of worship (e.g. “We sing songs you hear on Christian radio!” or “We have a praise team!” or “We have instrumental music!”) or the style of the message (e.g. “Our preacher talks about really practical things!”). Now I’m not saying these changes weren’t, in some cases, necessary. I am saying that they are, at their core, technological changes. They are changes that are relatively separate and independent from our core identity as people of God. And on the whole, I’d like to suggest that people aren’t leaving because we need to push different buttons in the locomotive – they are leaving because they’ve grown up in a world of jet-airliners, and, while steam locomotives are nostalgic, they were designed for a world that no longer exists.

And to be fair, there is a reason why churches and church leaderships do this: it’s easy. Technological changes in churches tend to be evolutionary and straightforward, rather than revolutionary and intractable, and frankly technological changes are fairly easy so long as the political will exists. It doesn’t (usually) take a lot to get people on board with a change like visitor parking spaces, or a welcome center in the lobby. And honestly even technological changes on the scale of the worship wars are easy to conceptualize and implement, relatively speaking, in the scope of church change. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider trying to implement this change: create a broad culture of abundant generosity in your church. That’s not a technological change; it’s a paradigm shift. It’s learning to speak a new language, or be a new kind of people. And it’s not something where you can easily chart a roadmap from point A to point B, where a series of six innovative programs and ministry activities will get you where you want to go. In fact, it’s somewhat hard to know where you would even begin if you wanted to transform a congregation into a more generous reality.

And that’s sort of the point, and at the same time, the conundrum. Culture changes don’t usually come about as a result of programmatic and technological adjustments, but programmatic and technological adjustments are one of the few things church leaders have direct control over. And it’s certainly easier to teach (or attend) a class on generosity than it is to be a generous person.

The trick, of course, is that there are always technological changes that can, and should be made for the church to thrive as the world changes. The danger is that we only recognize the need for technological changes, and end up with an iPad-controlled steam locomotive. That’s better, perhaps, than one controlled by mechanical levers and dials, but it doesn’t help you much if you need to cross the ocean.

In the subsequent posts, I’d like to talk about some technical changes Churches of Christ have tended to dwell on, and some cultural changes they have tended to ignore, which contributed to our ultimate decision to walk away.

Next: Part 2: Why winning the worship war is a Pyrrhic victory

Apologetics v. the Masters of Suspicion.

I’ve written here before about apologetics. I’ve said more or less the same thing in surveys and classes for quite a while. In summary, while I was really interested in the subject for a while, after having the arguments and defending the positions, I realized that it just didn’t matter – at least, not to most people who actually walk away from churches. People’s dissatisfaction with religion generally stems – at least primarily – not from a belief that the universe can be explained without God (a.k.a. the evil college professor), but from their experience of interacting with people who call themselves Christians, who in their minds generally come across as self-centered, self-righteous, and in many cases, just plain mean.

With that being said, one of the many books on my plate over the past few months is Richard Beck’s recent book “The Authenticity of Faith“. In the prelude to the book, Beck makes what I consider to be a particularly insightful argument regarding why, to an increasing number of people, Apologists are answering the wrong question.

Beck begins by framing the status quo:

[W]hat we might call Classical Christian apologetics has tended to focus upon an epistemological formulation of the question “Why do people believe in God?” The classical, epistemological formulation asked the following of religious believers: “What are your reasons for believing in God?” This is an issue about evidence and rational justification. The question “Why do you believe in God?” boiled down, in classical apologetics, to “Do you have good reasons for believing in God? And if so, what are those reasons?”

So far, nothing terribly surprising. The task of apologetics is to give believers “good” reasons to believe – whatever that might mean. As Beck points out, these are epistemological reasons to believe – meaning apologists tend to be working on trying to justify religious beliefs as rational – why it’s rational to believe in God, why Scripture can be trusted, why the world was created in 4,004 B.C., etc. Give our kids good, justifiable reasons to believe that these things are true, and they won’t walk away. Mission accomplished.

Or is it?

The french philosopher and theologian Paul Ricœur famously categorized Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as “masters of suspicion” in his book Freud and Philosophy. A key theme for each of these thinkers can loosely be termed “false consciousness” – the idea that while our consciousness is telling us one thing about the world or ourselves or reality, in reality something else is happening on the level of society, or the unconscious – often something we are not even aware of.

So for Marx, our consciousness is shaped by social, political and economic history in contexts of domination. Religion, then, expresses false consciousness because it masks and mystifies the true origins of our suffering and domination with categories like “sin” or “salvation”. It focuses us toward the otherworldly, rather than allowing us to take seriously the problems we encounter in this world.

So what exactly does this have to do with apologetics? Beck, again:

Consider Marx’s famous formulation that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” How is Marx’s attack on faith any different from the epistemological questions found in classical apologetics? To start, note that Marx is not asking for religious believers to give an account. Marx is, rather, giving an account of religious believers. Marx is shifting away from the reasons for belief and focusing a spotlight upon the functions of religious belief: in this case, the sociological functions of religion (i.e., faith functions to keep the working class from seeking revolutionary change). This shift, from reasons to functions, is a radical and destabilizing change in the history of Christian apologetics. It has, effectively, changed the subject.

In classical apologetics, Christians might have been asked to justify their beliefs that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead. What justifies that belief? By contrast, in the wake of thinkers such as Freud, the question morphs and becomes something different, something like this: Why would someone be attracted to the idea of life after death? That is a different kind of question, a question that moves past the propositional contents of faith and begins to investigate the underlying, often subterranean, motivations behind belief formation itself. These questions are highly destabilizing because few of us are able to plumb the depths of our unconscious motivations. Is it possible that I believe in the Resurrection because I am motivated by a deep and unconscious fear of death? Honest people admit that this may be a very real possibility. If so, hasn’t my faith been rendered to be an illusion, a psychological system that helps me cope with an unsettling reality? Suddenly we are no longer talking about evidence, argument, and reasonableness. We are talking about psychological motivations. And if these motivations are called into question (plausibly so, for who does not want to live forever?), how are we to respond?

And here, really is the issue. Even if we are to give our kids the best apologetic training possible, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are trying to answer questions that fewer people are asking. As Beck notes later in the prelude, in this realm of discussion, the specific content of faith is generally not what must be defended, and can largely be ignored as being shaped by larger psychological and sociohistorical factors. Consider the following statement: “You say you believe in heaven because it is recorded in scripture, but the real reason you believe in heaven is because you are afraid of dying.” This approach does not much care whether the belief is true per se (i.e. does heaven exist?) as much as the way in which the belief is functioning – in this case, preventing anxiety.

If there is to be any value in teaching our children apologetics, surely it is to be found in preparing them to answer actual questions they may face. Increasingly, frontal attacks on traditional apologetic issues are either “easily refuted” through apologetic templates (though the matter clearly remains much more grey, for those who are actually thoughtful), or simply ignored (“if the Bible says the world was created in seven days, I believe it”). Questions of suspicion, on the other hand, are much more difficult to deal with.

 

What the Bible says about, and what the Bible says.

One way Christians interact with the text of the Bible is to assume that it is a sort of “instruction manual for life” – a book that contains all the answers to life’s pressing questions. As a result, if you want to know what your view should be on, say, the Harry Potter series of books, you can search the words of Scripture, find the “data” that speaks to your particular question, and get an answer, usually with a fairly nice bow on top.

In this context, one common mode of studying Scripture is to look for “what the Bible says about ______.” It’s not hard to find this in some form at most churches. “We’re doing a series on servanthood – come learn what the Bible says about being a servant.” “For the next five weeks, we’ll be talking about Biblical principles for money management.” “We’ll be starting a series next week on how you can have a stronger marriage based on passages in the Psalms.” “Our class this semester will be focused on dealing with depression from a Biblical perspective.” And so on.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that, on two levels, this mode of approaching the text often results in selection bias. Allow me to explain.

In statistics, selection bias occurs when you, for a variety of possible reasons, don’t take the entire population into account. One of the most obvious examples is sampling bias, where systematic errors are introduced by having a non-random sample. One often cited example are voting and issue polls which are conducted by telephone – such a sample excludes all people who don’t own phones, and if you don’t take this into account, you can end up drawing incorrect conclusions based on the sample data you collect. A more recent example involves the transition of television viewing habits among American households. Ten years ago, before most people had DVRs, television ratings were conducted exclusively based on what households watched live. As DVRs became more popular, more households began to faithfully follow shows, but tended to watch them at times that fit better into their schedule. Ditto with watching shows on the internet. Studios are still struggling with how to determine the popularity and revenue streams for shows when the ratings information they receive increasingly fails to reflect actual viewership. In short, selection bias often leads you to the wrong conclusion because you assume one thing about what you’re looking at (namely, that your sample reflects the actual population), while in reality, you have, generally unintentionally, excluded certain members of the population, causing the sample you’ve selected to not really be representative of the population as a whole. So what does this have to do with Scripture?

When we start with the question “What does the Bible say about _________?”, we commit our first selection bias by pre-selecting only the topics that we are interested in. It’s been a while, I suspect, since a church has done a seven week series on “what the Bible says about the virtue of poverty, and why we should sell everything, and give it to the poor”. Rather, the topics that are usually selected for classes and sermons generally center around what is “practical”, or “relevant to our daily lives”, or “problems that are facing Christians today.” The trouble with this is that much of scripture doesn’t fall into these nice, simple packages. It’s hard to take away a lot of nice, happy, “practical” images from the book of Obadiah, for example. And so, for the most part, difficult passages, passages that don’t seem to have a lot of immediate practical value, passages that are particularly challenging or difficult to read – in short anything that doesn’t fall into the category of something we find relevant is simply ignored. The ultimate effect is that Scripture isn’t allowed to say anything we might want to hear, since we are only looking into topics about which we do want to hear.

Furthermore, once we’ve pre-selected our topics and weeded out anything potentially challenging or confronting, we then get to engage in a second step which encourages additional selection bias: namely we decide which passages “apply” to the topic, and which ones don’t. This can be particularly problematic, even given our ability to do rapid word searches on the text, because searching for words and searching for ideas or images is a completely different thing. Consider the concept of “atonement” – a word that appears in most English translations of the New Testament less than a dozen times, yet is woven into the fabric of the text through many overlapping, and sometimes conflicting metaphors and images. Unless one is particularly widely versed in the breadth of Scripture, it is entirely possible to leave out verses which are absolutely applicable simply because one was unaware of them, and they didn’t turn up in a simple search. The problem is exacerbated by the reality that studying like this long term tends to reinforce certain passages to the exclusion of others – in other words, we tend to gravitate to the same passages, which causes us to forget or ignore others.

That’s not to say that we won’t commit selection bias if we read exegetically through books of Scripture, or that there aren’t potential problems with this approach. But it does mean that when we come to Scripture with questions of the form, “What does the Bible say about _____?”, we must be very careful. When we speak into Scripture and expect it to respond directly to our questions, we should not be surprised if the answers we hear back are our own.

“Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 ‘Practical’ Things You Don’t Have to Do”

I’ve been a fan of Phillip Cary for a few years now, so when I learned he’d written a more “popular” book aimed at dispelling myths of “practical” Evangelical theology… well, it only took me about 5 seconds to buy it.

For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Cary is a professor of philosophy at Eastern University, a small religious liberal arts school home to such notable names as Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. Cary wrote the book in response to questions his students were asking which, by his own admission, made no sense to him. Questions like, “How do I know what God’s will is for my life”, and, “How do I know that the voice I hear in my heart is God’s voice?”

Cary’s basic premise is this: “new evangelical theology” (as he calls it) masquerades as a set of “practical” suggestions, but in the end causes more harm than good. “They’re ideas that promise practical transformation, but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious – not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ.”

As a student of the history of Christian theology, Cary is uniquely positioned to critique what he rightly suggests are a variety of theological positions that didn’t exist only a couple of generations ago, but have spread like wildfire through the church. In his words, this “new evangelical theology” “is essentially a set of interconnected techniques or ritual practices for making god real in your life, establishing a relationship with God, and so on – as if all that kind of thing really depended on you. The techniques all have the characteristic that they turn you away from external things like the word of God, Christ in the flesh, and the life of the church, in order to seek god in your heart, your life, and your experience. Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God, it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself.”

Cary notes that this is, “what you might call a ‘working theology,’ which is not an academic theory but a basis for preaching and discipleship, prayer and evangelism and outreach. It’s a theology that tells people how to live. It gives people practical ideas and techniques they’re supposed to use to be more spiritual.” Cary:

The techniques are named using familiar phrases that are now cliches in American evangelicalism: giving God control, finding God’s will, hearing God speak, letting God work, and so on. If you’re like my students, you’re already anxious about whether you’re doing this stuff right. And if that’s so, I figure you’ll feel even more anxious, not to mention guilty, when you think of not doing this stuff at all. But that’s what I’m going to invite you to think about in this book. What I’m telling you is what I tell my students: you don’t have to do this stuff. You might think: but wait a minute, isn’t this how you have a relationship with God? Don’t these phrases tell us something important about how to be Christian? And my answer is: not in the Bible they don’t. But it is true that in American evangelical churches today, this is what most people mean when they talk about having a relationship with God or being a Spirit-filled Christian.

The solution? For Cary, at the beginning, making sure people recognize that they have permission not to believe it. As he rightly notes, “[Life] is hard enough already without trying to apply these bad ideas to [your life].” When we are freed from this, life can become “about seeing the invitations in God’s word for what they are, so that our Christian life may be lived in cheerful obedience rather than in anxious efforts to get it right.”

So why have these “practical” techniques caught on, such that they are almost universal in churches today? Cary again:

Quite simply: they work. That doesn’t mean they make you holy or good Christians, but that when leaders use them and get others to use them, churches grow in numbers and retain their membership.

The new evangelical theology is essentially a set of practical ideas or techniques for living the Christian life. They “work,” but in a peculiar and not very Christian way. They make you anxious when you don’t use them, which makes you use them. That’s their real success: they reproduce themselves like a virus, until everybody has the virus – until everybody is using the techniques, saying the same things, participating in the same programs.

So what are these “practical” things? Cary’s chapter titles:

  1. Why you don’t have to hear God’s voice in your heart, or, how God really speaks today.
  2. Why you don’t have to believe your intuitions are the Holy Spirit, or, how the Spirit shapes our hearts.
  3. Why you don’t have to “let God take control”, or, how obedience is for responsible adults.
  4. Why you don’t have to “find God’s will for your life”, or, how faith seeks wisdom.
  5. Why you don’t have to be sure you have the right motivations, or, how love seeks the good.
  6. Why you don’t have to worry about splitting the head from the heart, or, how thinking welcomes feeling.
  7. Why you don’t have to keep getting transformed all the time, or, how virtues make a lasting change in us.
  8. Why you don’t always have to experience joy, or, how God vindicates the afflicted.
  9. Why “applying it to your life” is boring, or, how the Gospel is beautiful.
  10. Why basing faith on experience leads to a post-Christian future, or, how Christian faith needs Christian teaching.

The problem with these “practical” things, Cary notes, is that they are all about you. They are essentially techniques to keep you off balance, off center, thinking about yourself (or not thinking at all), instead of recognizing the beauty of the Good News – the Gospel – which is, after all primarily about Christ. “Listening to God’s voice in your heart” really amounts to listening to your own voice, “letting God take control” is really a way of absolving yourself of moral responsibility, “finding God’s will for your life” is trying to take a shortcut to real wisdom and discernment, and “applying it to your life” is a way of making faith about what you can do instead of what God has already done.

The end result? Cary:

The new evangelical theology promises you great experiences, but what it delivers is great anxiety. It makes your Christian life all about you and your experiences, which is not nearly so much fun as it pretends to be. The result is like being trapped in a bad party where everybody acts like they’re enjoying themselves, because they’re convinced that’s how they’re supposed to feel and they don’t want to let on that there’s something secretly wrong with them.

By undermining your sense of the reality of God – the reality of someone who exists outside of you – the new evangelical theology undermines your faith in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of learning what God says about himself in his word, you have to dance with shadows in your own heart and figure out which of them to call God. And when your experience with the new shadows disappoints you, you pretty much have to declare yourself disappointed with God. The new evangelical theology thus sets you up for a kind of consumer disappointment, when the elixir it’s selling turns out not to have the magical properties it claims. It doesn’t make your life turn out the way you want and it won’t make you immune from suffering and sadness. That’s not what the man on the cross promised.

Cary closes his book with a metaphor that he uses several times – the singing of old familiar Christmas carols, and the effect they have on our hearts. Preaching and hearing the Gospel, he suggests, is really like that:

And finally, the gospel is good for our spiritual lives. It may sound obvious when it’s put that way, but we often deny it in practice, thinking that improvement in our spiritual lives is ultimately up to us. The idea that we are supposed to “let God” do it is just one more way of making it ultimately up to us. The Gospel includes the good news that God has already done what needs to be done to transform our lives. To preach the gospel is to invite people to believe this startling truth, so that it might get to work in their hearts.

If you’re not sure what this kind of preaching sounds like, just call to mind a Christmas carol that gives you comfort and joy because of what it tells you about Christ, the newborn king. That’s what the gospel sounds like. We sing, “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.” This is not a set of instructions telling us how to feel or what to do to get to Bethlehem, but a word that gives us what it’s talking about – faith and joy and Christ himself. That’s what the gospel does: it tells Christ’s story in order to give him to all who believe. So words like “come ye to Bethlehem” bring us to Jesus, the baby lying in the manger who is the only begotten Son of God. When we believe the glad tidings these words have to give us, we receive this baby into our hearts. For what is accomplished by faith in the Gospel is not our practical activity but the work of the Spirit, who through the word of God gives us, once again, nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or possibly Karl Barth for the masses (Part 1)

In the last post, I mentioned that, in many ways, Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins is, in some sense, a repainting of major elements of Karl Barth’s theology for a much wider and more accessible audience. As a recap, Barth essentially overturned the Augustinian and Calvinist doctrines of Election by applying the doctrine not primarily to humanity as a whole, but specifically to Jesus Christ. God Elects Jesus Christ, saying both “No” and “Yes”, and through Jesus extending that “No” and “Yes” to all of humanity. Further, I claimed that Barth essentially “calls the bluff” of the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement by saying, “Are you so sure Christ doesn’t save everyone? What if he did succeed in saving everybody? Would that be such a bad thing?”

We don’t have to get farther than the first page to see Bell also questioning this “bluff”:

Really?
Ghandi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting us know?

Much of the first chapter of the book, in fact, is Bell, in his typically artistic style, showing just how much the Calvinist doctrine of Election really does look like Bad News, at least for the vast majority of people who’ve ever lived. Bell covers such a wide range of objections to the typical notion that “a few people go to heaven while the majority of ‘unsaved’ go to hell” that it’s not possible to cover them all without rewriting his chapter. A few of the highlights he mentions, though:

  • “[W]henever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed – and everybody else isn’t – why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in’? Have you ever heard people make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not part of that group?”
  • If there is such a thing as an “age of accountability”, and we could guarantee everyone ended up in heaven by prematurely terminating every life before, say, the age of 12, wouldn’t that be the best thing to do? After all, why run the risk?
  • If the message of the Gospel is primarily about going somewhere else (heaven) after you die, then it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say about this present life. “Is that the best God can do?”
  • If justification is all that matters, Christian’s “wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because [they] would believe [they] were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus.
  • The “Jesus” that most people encounter may not be a terribly accurate picture – for instance the Christian caricatures that are portrayed in the media depicting Jesus as “antiscience, antigay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people that they’re going to burn forever”. In Bell’s words, “Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don’t believe in, we quickly discover that I don’t believe in that god either.”
  • Looking back at my previous post, “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire?” Bell: “So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do – but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fund-raise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do?
  • We talk a lot about a “personal relationship” with Jesus. However, as Bell points out, the phrase “personal relationship” is found literally nowhere in the Bible.

Summing up part of his first chapter, Bell writes:

If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs?

And aren’t verbs actions?

Accepting, confessing, believing – those are things we do.

Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

In this passage, and many others, Bell further echoes a major tenet of Barth’s theology: that theology fundamentally begins with God, not with humanity. Our discussions about Heaven and Hell almost always revolve around us, which seems to sort of miss the point..

Bell spends an entire chapter (Chapter 4) revolving around the question “Does God get what God wants?”. As a basis for this question, Bell in effect uses an old objection from theodicy: if God is all powerful, and God really does want all people to be saved, “Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” As I’ve already noted, Bell is going to suggest, along with Barth, the possibility that God does not fail in the end, but doesn’t necessarily get what he wants either. Because this is, in my opinion, the fulcrum of the entire book, I want to spend the rest of this post talking about how I read Bell’s argument progressing, complete with multiple quotes.

Bell begins by painting two rival views around this problem. The first view is that, in effect, for love to be authentic, there must exist the possibility that it is rejected. Because we only have one life to live, we have a choice to make whether to accept or reject God’s love, and then the game is up. If God, at any point co-opts our decision, then he has fundamentally violated the nature of what love even is. On the other hand, theologians in times past (including Martin Luther himself) have questioned whether there is a possibility that people could turn to God after death. If we get another chance after we die, why not limit it to a single chance – why not let it run on as long as it takes in a sort of Christian re-incarnation type of way (though not necessarily on this earth)? The idea here is that eventually, the love of God would “melt every hard heart” and even the “vilest offenders” would at last turn to God. Bell doesn’t really like either of these positions at face value. But before he goes further, he makes two observations that I think are critical in the larger picture of what is going on with this book. Bear with my extended quote:

First, an obvious but unfortunately much needed observation: People have answered these questions about who goes where, when, why, and how in a number of different ways. Or, to be more specific, serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways. Or, to say it another way, however you answer these questions, there’s a good chance you can find a Christian or group of Christians somewhere who would answer in a similar way.

It is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in.

Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or another, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it… forever.

Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.

Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.

In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is a bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes.

Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it. We can be honest about the warped nature of the  human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.

Two comments on Bell’s observations. First, I think he is spot on with his commentary on the “bundling” that often occurs in post-Reformation Christianity. Specifically, as Christianity has become more “belief centric”, the specific nature and correctness of these beliefs has become increasingly important. After all, believing the wrong things may condemn you to hell. Best, then, to make sure you believe correctly, which for many has involved bundling all sorts of things into what it means to “be a Christian”. As I’ve posted many times, I do believe there are things which are properly “Orthodox”, but on this one I actually line up on Bell’s side – this is something we can have honest disagreements about (and some of us can be wrong about) without stepping over boundaries. This is not to say those beliefs don’t have consequences – Bell himself is adamant about this – but rather to say we can honestly disagree on this point and still call ourselves Christians. Obviously from the reaction to this book, that is not a universal opinion.

Second, Bell very effectively calls us to think about what the “best of all possible worlds” would be, and basically asks, “Do you think God can do that?” Whether or not we think God will do that is beside the point in this discussion – what is at issue is what we hope he will do. Like Abraham pleading on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Bell reminds us that righteous people hope for the best outcome – the story where everyone does get saved, regardless of what the actual, eventual outcome will be. And importantly, they don’t do this in an insincere way, saying, “Oh, of course it would be great if that happened, but obviously it isn’t going to.” Abraham takes up the case of the wicked before God, trying in essence to bargain with him – a notion that seems foreign to the way most Christian communities relate to the “lost”.

Bell spends a few pages painting some beautiful images of “a new heaven and a new earth”, “a city whose gates are never shut”, and a time when God announces “I am making everything new.” I won’t attempt a stick figure drawing of them – you really need to read them for yourself. However, Bell returns to the original question (“Does God get what God wants?”) in what is one of the more poignant passages in the book. But before that he makes a four line statement we all would do well to remember:

Will everybody be saved,
or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?

Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.

This simple statement is the largest piece missing in most reviews of the book, arguments against the book, and defenses of the book. The acknowledgement that these tensions exist, that we cannot resolve them, and that we must respect them is critical for this discussion to turn out in any sort of positive way.

I think it seems fitting to end this post with the ending to Chapter 4, because it ties so many themes together, and succeeds by changing the question altogether:

[T]here’s a better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future, which no one has been to and then returned with hard, empirical evidence, and brings it back to one absolute we can depend on in the midst of all of this, which turns out to be another question.

It’s not “Does God get what God wants?”
but
“Do we get what we want?”

And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.

God is that loving.

If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to do that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.

If, however, we crave light,
we’re drawn to truth,
we’re desperate for grace,
we’ve come to the end of our plots and schemes
and we want someone else’s path,
God gives us what we want.

If we have this sense
that we’ve wandered far from home,
and we want to return,
God is there,
standing in the driveway,
arms open,
ready to invite us in.

If we thirst for shalom,
and we long for the peace that transcends all understanding,
God just doesn’t give,
they’re poured out on us,
lavished,
heaped,
until we’re overwhelmed.
It’s like a feast where the food and wine do not run out.

And to that,
that impulse, craving, yearning, longing, desire –
God says yes.
Yes, there is water for that thirst,
food for that hunger,
light for that darkness,
relief for that burden.

If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.

That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced.

It always leaves room for the other to decide

God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.