Why Is It Harder For Younger Generations to Commit to the Church? (TGC Video)

A few months ago, I was asked to film a couple of videos with The Gospel Coalition on working with young adults. In this one, I try to answer the question, “Why Is It Harder for Younger Generations to Commit to the Church?” I also try to seem not-awkward when talking direct to camera. Not sure how successful that was. Anyways, here’s the video.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity – The 4 Loves: Affection

Mere FiThis week Alastair, Matt, and I consider the first of ‘the four loves’ that C.S. Lewis discusses, affection. I think it was a smashing discussion, but that may just be me.

If you do too, though, feel free to share this around, or leave us a review at iTunes. If you’re interested in supporting the show (with money, that is), you can check out our Patreon here. We don’t make any money, but it would be nice if Matt didn’t have to keep losing it.

Making Sense of God by Tim Keller (Reviewish Write-Up)

making-sense-of-godWhen I was in college ministry, I had a small budget for books and resources to use with my students.So for almost the entirety of those four and half years, I had a small stack of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God sitting on a shelf in my office, as well as one or two tucked in the backseat of my car to hand out to students. Ever since reading it right after college, I have found it to be the single-most helpful one-book, contemporary apologetic introductions to Christianity out there. I’ve led small-groups through it, handed it to doubters, skeptics, fervent Christians, and everyone in-between.

So when I found out that he wrote a prequel called Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I thought to myself, “What? Why would you do that?”

How Different Is It?

As it happens, Keller thinks that for some, the conversation needs to start farther back in the process than he does in The Reason For God. In that book, an interest (even if a somewhat hostile one) in Christianity is assumed. And on that basis, Keller proceeds to deal with some of the biggest objections and then making a positive case for Christianity. The way I used to put it was that the first half was for showing you didn’t have to be an evil idiot to believe, while the second half argues it may actually be smart and moral to believe.

In this book, Keller’s on the (gentle, welcoming, professorial) offensive trying to drum up the interest by raising some objections to, or just complicating any comfortable, self-understandings that secular people may be trying to live with. Instead of focusing on the rational case (though that’s present), he’s expanding his focus on the emotional and cultural argument for Christianity. And, of course, presenting the gospel all throughout.

One way of thinking about the book is to look at The Reason for God’s chapters on “Christianity as a Cultural Straightjacket”, the moral argument, and the problem of sin and spin those out at greater length. He tackles issues of science and rationality, argument for belief in God, Jesus in particular, and so forth, but for my money, the meat is at the center where he’s making the case that on the big questions of meaning, hope, identity, etc., secularism can’t deliver a coherent, satisfying vision of life. In that regard, it’s less like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (sans the profanity).

It’s a bit more than that, though. In some ways, it reminds me most of two of his other works, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and Counterfeit Gods. In Counterfeit Gods, Keller specifically goes on the offensive against the main idols promising us satisfaction and fulfillment. In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering he spends a solid third of the work showing the way secularism has a very high bar to meet when it comes to making sense out of suffering as well. It’s not just that Christianity isn’t overwhelmed by the problem of evil, but that it offers help for a universal problem that secularism never could.

Should I Grab it?

You might be wondering, then, if I’ve read The Reason for God and some of these other works, should I grab this book? Short answer: yes!

For pastors and preachers looking for preaching and apologetic points, this is a no-brainer. There will be a number of familiar moves and material, if you’ve been reading and listening to Keller for a while. That said, there is plenty of new material, or new examples, authors cited, applications, and problems that he’s working through in a way he hasn’t elsewhere.

For instance, on the issues of faith and science, Keller cites and engages with a surprising amount of work out of the critical theory of T.W. Adorno, Horkhiemer, Habermas, and the Frankfurt school. Or again, the fruit of Keller’s time spent with Charles Taylor’s works, not just A Secular Age, shows up throughout.

And, of course, there are the endnote-essays. If you haven’t realized by now that you always need to read the end-notes, repent, and go back and start scanning them. There’s a treasure-trove of references, analysis, taxonomies, and more.

As Andrew Wilson pointed out in his review, Keller’s form of response and maturity in handling the material has the feel of conversationally-honed insight, rather than a repackaged apologetic textbooks, which is extremely helpful.

Which One Should I Give My Friend?

For everyone else, you may be wondering, “Which book should I hand to my unbelieving friend first, if I had to pick between The Reason for God and Making Sense of God?”

Honestly, it depends on your friend. If they’re struggling more with issues like hell, the problem of evil, other religions, or more straightforward evidential objections, The Reason for God is still the way to go. If they’re chewing more on Christianity’s moral stances, cultural issues, and so forth, or they’re of a more existential, searching, inquisitive mindset (whether high existentialist like Camus and Sartre, or pop-“existential” like Elisabeth Gilbert and the Oprah book club), then Making Sense of God is probably the way to go.

So, if I was back in college ministry with my book budget, I’d probably start to stock up both and make the judgment call on which book to hand the student based on our conversation.

One last comment on general “feel.” While I’ve been a fan of basically all of his stuff, after writing books for something like 10 years now, I have to say Keller’s voice continues to pick up that book feel. I noticed it first in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and again in Prayer. This one has it too. Just a thought for those interested in that sort of thing.

Well, to wrap up, Tim Keller’s got a new book and (big surprise!) it’s good. I recommend it to people at all stages in their walk with Christ, whether seasoned believers looking to grow in evangelism, or those who haven’t even taken a first step.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Four Loves, Part 1

Mere FiC.S. Lewis’s work The Four Loves is a classic bit of moral theology and psychological observation, so Matt, Alastair, and I decided to discuss it. Our conversation today focuses on the first two chapters. In two weeks time, we will consider chapter three. So feel free to pick up a copy of your own and join in if you’d like. There’s still the majority of the book to go through with us.

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

If you’re interested in supporting the show (you know, with money), you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Becker and the Anti-Hero Church

beckerI finally got around to reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Denial of Death.  Wow, have I been behind the curve. I’m only through the preface and the introduction, but it’s already been an illuminating few pages.

In a nutshell, Becker begins to argue that humans desperately crave cosmic significance—we all need to be heroes who accomplish great deeds of worth and value in order to have a sense of meaning. Cultures, by their nature, provide hero-systems through which we have the framework to achieve that hero-status. In some it is great material accomplishment, in others it is physical heroics, or literary vitality, or religious holiness, and so forth. Cultures are relative in the way hero-systems are constructed, but they all provide them, nonetheless.

Of course, writing after the 1960s and heading into the 1970s, the question that loomed large was: what happens when the major cultural, hero-systems failed? What happened when they were exposed? When it turned out that you could be solid, honest, businessman working for a corrupt corporation? Or that you could throw yourself on a grenade to save your buddies in what ends up being a senseless war? Or that consumerism might just be rotting away at your soul, so that he who had the most toys when he does, dies a villain instead of a hero of industry?

This was the crisis of the youth heading into the 1970s—at least from Becker’s point of view. We all still need that sense of cosmic heroism—a way to achieve meaning in our lives that sustains, strengthens, and drives all our actions. But what do you do when the cultural, hero-systems of the day have all been unmasked?

And here he makes a potent observation about the Church and religious faith:

“And the crisis of society is, of course, the crisis of organized religion too: religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it. If traditional culture is discredited as heroics, then the church that supports that culture automatically discredits itself. If the church, on the other hand, chooses to insist on its own special heroics, it might find that in crucial ways it must work against the culture, recruit youth to be anti-heroes to the ways of life of the society they live in. This is the dilemma of religion in our time.”

-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pg. 7

Written over forty years ago, Becker is still on to something, for better or for worse. Religion and Christianity aren’t totally discredited in the “youth” today, but by most markers, it’s certainly down. Something like thirty percent of millennials identify as “Nones”, and even the more specific, religious confession among the rest is far squishier, syncretistic, and self-consciously peripheral to the core of their lives than in the past.

This is why I see a warning here for the current church, going in two directions.

First, there’s a warning about the danger of a sort of Christian traditionalism that sees itself conserving more traditional culture, almost out of sheer inertia. The kind of “good, old days” golden-ageism that rightly praises the holy elements of cultural, hero-systems of previous generations (stable families, long-term company loyalty, visible religious confession, etc), but tends to be rather myopic about the various, short-comings of its compromises along economic, racial, gender, or social lines.

I’m painting with a broad, maybe unfair brush, but the longing for a return to the days of our parents or grandparents without a critical edge to the various accommodations and failures of the Church as a prop of civil religion, or the “moral, Evangelical, suburban lifestyle” will not help us here.

Of course, the danger we’re likely to be less aware of when reading Becker is of latching onto the next wave of culturally-approved, heroic-meaning-achievement. Seeing that the Church has been identified with older, hero-systems that don’t connect and even drive off the youth, there’s a rush to jump on any bandwagon and the ideologies attached to it, in order to show that “Christianity really does get (insert issue X)” so as to catch the wave. And that may work for a while.

But in the long-run,  there’s got to be something distinctively Christian about the way the Church invites people into a meaningful life that doesn’t simply end up being a version of their neighbor’s meaning-system with a Bible-verse attached to it–because when that goes (and it always goes), so does the Christianity that’s attached to it. Or, even more—if Christianity just presents itself as another version of the currently-appealing hero-system, then why bother with it? Today’s progressivism may be (and likely will be) tomorrow’s traditionalism. And given the vagaries and inconsistencies of history, some hero-systems considered regressive today, may end up making a comeback in the near-future.

So, for instance, it’s right and good to show that Christianity has a deep logic to it which funds the work of activism for broader racial and social justice. The gospel does have social implications along those lines. But when you do so,  you have to do the hard work of showing the way these currently common values are rooted into the distinctively Christian story of Christ and him crucified, or the way that the Church offers certain distinctive ways of approaching reconciliation and truth in ways that might run counter to the dominant, activist, hero-system. Indeed, that they’re not even really part of a typical hero-system, in that sense.

Otherwise, what happens when people get burned out by that system? What happens when you’re a failure within it? When you just don’t measure up? Or key personalities within the movement end up exposed? Or someone hijacks the cause for personal gain? Or the acids of deconstructive suspicion begin to eat away even at the struggle for justice? At that point, are there distinctively Christian practices and theological values of grace, forgiveness, Sabbath, or truth-telling, rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ, that continue to fund this work in the Church even when the rest of the world has moved on to the next, big thing?

I’m not sure that will happen, but as with so many of the great, meaning-imbuing causes of the last few centuries, it’s a possibility. Christianity needs to have a message, then, that does one thing that Becker hints at and another that he doesn’t.

First, it needs to cultivate—at least in some areas—what Becker called an “anti-hero” ethic. This is often what some refer to as a sense of being “counter-cultural.” I say that with trepidation, mostly because of the sort of criticisms my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has noted with the cheaper appeals to it. But all the same, that sensibility of knowing that Christianity stands apart (even at those moments when it stands in solidarity with!) the meaning-systems of the world is important if it is to not get dragged down into with them when they sink.

Of course, even more obvious than engaging those areas we do share in a distinctive way, we’ll be required to simply refuse to go along with others. We will have to stand apart not only the way we do things, but in what we do and advocate altogether. The rush towards reinventing every aspect of sexual and gender ethics seems to be only the most obvious example. This is one of those areas where, yes, progress in understanding can be made to a degree, but unsurprisingly we will likely have to stand almost entirely apart and inhabit the freakish space the early church did in this regard.

Second, the even more radical move that Becker does not suggest is to show the way that Christianity up-ends the normal modes of cultural hero-systems altogether. In the cross and resurrection, Christ delivers us from the elements of the world—the typical, socio-religious systems of meaning-creation—and hero-systems our world offers us to achieve our own identity, our sense of cosmic worth, by introducing us into a new cosmos altogether.

In that cosmos, it is not we who achieve our meaning and significance, but Christ from whom we receive it by faith. By faith we are united with Christ and so participate in his life, death, and resurrection which reform the world altogether, imbuing it with its true meaning and purpose.Ours is a meaning and purpose derived, dependent, and secure in his.

Yes, we are invited into his kingdom, into his Church, into a truly meaningful way of living in the world, but all the same, when we preach that message, we offer people a Christianity that stands truly apart from all the meaning-systems of the world. It is a distinctive faith with a distinctive life drawn from its distinctive center—the Lord Jesus Christ. We are different because he is different. We are invited to embrace “anti-heroes” to the ways of life of the world precisely because Jesus, our hero, was crucified by them, rose, and conquered them in himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Stages of “Being A Protestant” (On Not Feeling Guilty About the Reformation)

martin-lutherWhen I was a kid, you could say I had an ecumenical instinct in some respects. It was common at the time (I’m thinking 6th-12th grade) to ask, “Are you a Christian or a Catholic?” meaning something like, “Evangelical or Catholic?” or “Catholic or something else?” depending on who was asking it. This was true of the Roman Catholic kids too. I—being me—took special delight in pointing out that technically they we were all Christians and, really, it was a matter of sub-branches. Beyond that, I didn’t trouble myself too much. I knew we had the Bible and they had the Pope, so there wasn’t much to worry about.

Oh, those were the days.

Of course, things begin to change and get more complicated once you get a bit older and especially when you start studying doctrine and history. I got to thinking about this yesterday after a conversation with a friend, so I figured I’d briefly (and roughly) explore this a bit.

In my experience, there are something like three stages or modes of being a “consciously” Protestant—where you adopt your theological stance with a fair amount of awareness of other positions, traditions, etc. Or, at least, there have been three modes that I’ve sort of inhabited.

Unreconstructed Triumphalism – The first is sort of the unreconstructed or un-conflicted joy of discovering you are the heir to the great Martin Luther with his hammer, who put the Papists in their place, rediscovering the gospel again after it had long been buried under Papal dogma. This is often accompanied by a general sense that there was no church between Augustine (maybe even Paul) and Luther. What’s more, Roman Catholics are obviously likely not saved (or maybe by the skin of their teeth). Luther was a hero, Calvin had no blemishes, and there was no blood on our hands in the whole affair. I’m painting with a broad brush here, but you kind of get the feel—the ethos—so to speak. There’s no guilt about it, but there’s also sort of arrogant myopia involved. Protest on, bro.

Begrudging Embarrassment – Then there’s the second kind or stage: a sort of bashful, apologetic Protestantism that’s fairly conflicted about the whole thing. This conflicted stance can come from any number of sources. Sometimes it comes with studying a bit more of church history and theology and coming to appreciate the riches of the broader tradition. Start reading the Fathers and a little Anselm or Aquinas, or some spiritual masters, and you begin to realize the Holy Spirit might have been doing a few things during that gap between the Fathers and the Reformation. This new appreciation for history might occur while simultaneously looking at the worst excesses of pop-culture Evangelicalism and getting the sense that they’re the natural outworking of Reformation theology.

Some have drunk deeply from the wells of recent narratives of decline that lay all the blame at Protestantism’s feet (ie. Reformation –> Modernity and Bad, Bad Things). Sure, there may have been some excesses in the Medieval period, and Luther and Calvin had a point on justification, but…was it all worth it? I mean, are our beliefs that different? Are beliefs even the point? Was all the blood, the division, the dis-unity really the unalloyed victory for the truth it’s painted to be? Can the solas, especially sola Scriptura, be sustained in our day anyways? This is often accompanied by an unspoken (often unrecognized) premise that unity is supposed to be of a certain, more clearly chain-link, institutional sort and is scandalized by the thought of (30,000!) denominations the Reformation has apparently left in its wake. (BTW, that’s a myth that’s been debunked even by Roman Catholic apologists).

I don’t want to make light of this. There’s a real (and right) holy grief at this disunity for the sake of witness. And there’s something wise about the chastening of un-catholic pride.

Second Naïveté Protesting – Coming in third is what I’ll call (in a very snooty manner) Protesting with a “second naïveté.” The idea is that once you’ve kind of gone through this sort of chastening, self-critical phase, you push past it to something more constructive. In other words, you get tired of feeling guilty about being a Protestant, about some of ecclesial realities on the ground, and get on with the business of confessing the faith.

How this happens, I’m not entirely sure. I suppose for me it’s involved a few things.

First, there’s been a greater appreciation for just how muddled history can be. For instance, it comes with recognizing that the Reformation was, in many ways, dependent on the diversity already present within the pre-Reformation medieval scene. In which case, Luther with his hammer, and Calvin (with his…pointy beard?) weren’t coming out of nowhere, bursting in and overturning a serene unity that needed a tune-up. In many cases they were drawing on medieval theologies and patristic theologies to do the work of Reformation—because they did see themselves as Reformers of the church they loved.

This is where you appreciate their claim they didn’t leave the church, but they were left by it. In their view, they weren’t the arrogant ones, but it was Rome that had arrogated to itself an un-catholic and divisive authority over the whole of the church in contradiction to the Word of God. To see Luther and Co. as the dividers, the de-unifiers, is sort of already to concede the Roman Catholic point, then; it is to buy that story and buy their view of the doctrine of the church, sacraments, and salvation in general.

And this is at the heart of things. Did the Reformers have a point or not? Is Christ’s work alone the basis of the justification we receive by faith, not our meritorious works? Is there a right to assurance for the troubled conscience in the gospel or not? Is Scripture as the Word of God the ultimate authority (the norming norm) in matters of faith and practice for the church, or does the church rule over the Word? On and on down the line we can go (sacraments, worship, etc), but at the core of things is the question whether the Reformation made a recovery of a key dimension to the faith that threatened to be overshadowed or not.

In other words, is there something to “protest” or not? And I don’t mean protest in the modern sense of revolution—but in the original sense of making a confession of faith against abuse. If there is, then let’s get on with it. Because, I think, that if we truly get on with confessing these things, not begrudgingly, or with a shamed face, then many of the anxieties that plague the bashful Protestant will begin to take care of themselves.

Because the heart of the Reformation-gospel is not sectarianism, or pride, or disunity, or the things that make for skepticism and dissolution, but (for the most part) the New Testament call to one faith in one Lord who has promised by his one Spirit to make us one body according to his Word. To confess this gospel, then, ought not leave us complacent with ourselves, nor dismissive of the history of the church, nor other branches of the Church, nor proud and boasting against others with a sectarian spirit, unwilling to learn, grow and submit to the Word of God anew. Why should it?

But neither should it leave us anxious, guilty, and laboring with a bad conscience about being a Protestant. Fundamentally it is a message of humility and joy: humility before God and joy in what Christ has done before me and apart from me, now given to me by grace, and worked within me by the Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Forget Me Not (Twitter And The Fear of Death)

dark twitterHave you ever been worried you’ll be forgotten by a friend? Say they go on a long trip, or you move, and that nagging fear comes along: if I’m out of sight, will I be out of mind? Will they move on? Will our time together become just a background memory, recalled when triggered, but mostly left in the dustbins of our excess memory banks?

And the deeper question, of course, is “do I matter?” Because our thoughts are an indicator of what matters to us. If someone is thinking about us–if we are at the center, or at least the conscious periphery of their thought–then we matter to them in some way, right? If they care, then we must have value.

I started thinking about this after reading some of Tony Reinke’s interview with Kevin Vanhoozer over the weekend. They delve into all sorts of fascinating issues of discipleship in a digital age, but the segment that caught my attention came at the end:

Two anxieties drive much of what we do today: status anxiety (what will people think of me?) and the newer disconnection anxiety, which is tied to FOMO (fear of missing out). Put briefly: I connect, therefore I am. The question, however, is: connect to what? I’m afraid that, for many, the answer too often is the empire of the entertainment-industrial complex. We live in what has been described as an “attention economy,” and the Sunday morning sermon seems weak in comparison to a Safari surfing session. The latter enables us to ride the waves of popular culture and opinion. The sobering question for the disciple is whether our attention is being drawn to something worthwhile.

Spectacles are ephemeral, which is why those who suffer from FOMO are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. Disciples who are awake to reality have their attention fixed on the only breaking news that ultimately matters; namely, the news that the kingdom of God has broken into our world in Jesus Christ. This breaking news demands our sustained attention and a wide-awake imagination.

There’s so much to comment on in this little chunk alone. Still, the “I connect, therefore I am” bit caught my attention, especially as a fairly engaged Twitter user.

Much of the drive to connect online is definitely filtered through and shaped by the attention economy. What’s more, that economy can be an economy in a very real sense for many of us on social media. Having the right opinion at the right time on the right issue can be lucrative in ginning up writing gigs.

But honestly, beyond the crassly economic dimension, I think many of us who spend a significant amount of time online for blogging, work, or communication purposes have felt that existential anxiety.We want to be noticed. We want to be recognized, seen, heard, and I would add, remembered.

This is everybody from the 13-year-old girl wondering if her Instagram post will get as many likes as those of the other girls in her class to the political analyst hoping for Retweets on her latest, insightful live-tweet about the recent presidential debate.

I have to confess, there are seasons and days where I’ve noticed a certain anxiety about not having written anything in a while, or tweeted anything semi-clever in a few hours. Am I a particularly vain person? Possibly. But then, that’s not the sort of thing you’re able to judge for yourself.

But I think there’s a level of fear at being forgotten involved. Sure, I actually love the fun and frivolity of much of Twitter. The GIFs. The jokes. The nested conversations. The reality is, though, deep down there’s part of me that’s scared if I’m out of sight, I’ll be out of mind and I won’t matter anymore.

In a sense, this is one dimension of the looming fear of death that most of us in contemporary, American society never want to wrestle with or name anymore.

When you’re dead, eventually you’re forgotten. Even if you leave a “legacy”, it’s on the truly rare individual who is immortalized in song, statue, or prose. But those are forgotten too. How much more likely are we to be lost in an internet age when every second there are millions and billions of bits of data (stories, articles, ebooks, photos, videos, etc) being uploaded and (figuratively) papering over our photographs on the walls of history?

Of course, Twitter’s one of the most absurd ways of trying to fight the fear of death. The internet is forever, they say, but we all know that’s usually only for terrible things. In a sense, life on Twitter is very much an Ecclesiastes sort of experience. Work hard. Enjoy. Laugh. But remember that you’re going to die and all the followers you built and the reputation you’ve acquired as an insightful GIFer will fade quickly. Invested with existential weight, it too is a vanity of vanities.

Instead, I recall the concluding admonition of the editor:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

As the Reformers were wont to remind us, we live life coram Deo–before the face of God. While it’s true that there is something of a threat of judgment–a call to remember the fear of the Lord–for those who are secure in knowing it through Christ that judgment comes (Rom. 2:16), there is a beautiful promise.

He is the eternal One who never forgets us, who keeps our lives ever before him–even those we fail to upload in perfect “Earlybird” filters. We are his creatures, his handiwork, and his adopted children who are never out of sight and never out of mind. Death is not the end, therefore. God will remember us into the resurrection and the age to come irrespective of our social media presence, but because of the presence of his Spirit of promise bestowed upon us in Christ (Eph. 1:13-14).

Soli Deo Gloria