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.