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

Why The Church Actually Needs Dogmatics

man-praying-in-churchSay whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.

Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.

Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).

He continues on:

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite un-theologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.

No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.

Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.

Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!

But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.

How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?

Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:

Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.

If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.

This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can I Drag That Into Church?

snow bootsThis last Sunday was the first time I ever went to church in the snow. Chicagoland had its first snowfall of the season on Friday night continuing into Saturday, immediately transforming the landscape, covering the last vestiges of autumn red, gold, and hints of green, into a dense carpet of white powder. For a California boy, it was all a bit magical. I’d never seen snow fall before–certainly not outside my window.

Of course, that also means I’ve never dealt with snow as a reality of life. Because it is a reality of life out here. So much so that you have to get special gear for it. Not only jackets, gloves, and boots, but gear for your car like ice-scrapers for your windows and shovels to move the all the snow the snow-plow pushed up against your car in the morning. And there’s not just one kind of snow, the lovely white powder. There’s also slush. And Ice hiding under the powder and slush. And the salt, that gets poured out to get rid of the powder and the slush and the ice.

Needless to say, it can get a bit messy, especially when you’re trying to walk indoors. No matter how hard you try, or how good your boots or doormat are, it’s difficult not to track your mess inside, without taking off your shoes altogether. And even then, if the snow has been kicked up on the legs of your pants, it’s just inevitable.

Which brings me to church.

Every week at church one of our pastors leads us through a time of corporate confession of sins and an assurance of pardon. This week my pastor Jason noticed the tentative way people were walking into church. “Are we allowed to come in like this on the clean wood floors? Is all the salt, slush, dirt, and powder too much of a mess for church this morning?”

He pointed out that’s the way all too many of us walk into church every week: “Am I allowed to come in like this? Is this mess okay in here? Can I come sit in the pews with all the slush, grime, and filth from my life? Is this sin too dirty to clean up? Is my mess going to stain the carpet? Do I have to make sure I’m gotten every single speck off before I walk through the door?”

The good news of the gospel is that God’s church is a place of welcome because the God of the Gospel is a hospitable God. Our forgiving Father does not require you to clean up your mess to come through the door. In fact, in the gospel, he has sent his Son out into the highways and byways to collect you from the cold and the slush you’ve been wearily trodding in. In baptism, he himself gives you a new set of clothes–his own garment of righteousness to clothe you. And he sits you down to be warmed by the gift of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Finally, in the Lord’s Supper, he feasts you on the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant.

So to answer the question, “Can I drag this dirt into church?” Yes! Of course, you can. That’s the only way anybody ever makes it through the door.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (TGC Review)

searchingforsunday_229_350_90Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 288 pp. $16.99.

Disclaimer: Rachel Held Evans is an “internet friend” of mine, meaning we’ve never met in person but over the last couple of years we’ve laughed online, shared prayer requests, and encouraged each other in difficult moments. We’ve also argued, publicly disagreeing in articles and on Twitter about important issues. So I hope this review is read in that spirit: one of affirmation and critique from a friend.

While her first book (Faith Unraveled, 2010) tackled issues of doubt, science, and faith, and her second (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, 2012) examined problems with, well, “biblical womanhood,” the title of her third entry, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, similarly says it all: Evans shares her story about leaving and finding the church again in a new way. Arranged in seven sections corresponding to the seven Catholic and Orthodox sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, marriage), she chronicles the various glories and pains of growing up in a conservative/fundamentalist evangelical tradition and offers an apologetic of sorts for leaving(?) for the mainline when the incongruities of the former proved too great. It’s a story about death, and yes, resurrection.

Beyond that, Searching for Sunday is purposely presented as an archetypal story (xi). According to the stats, millennials are apparently leaving the church. Evans’s own story of departure and return aims to articulate some of the millennial experience to a confused church: their doubt that won’t be satisfied with easy answers; their fear of exclusion; their burnout from the culture wars and the marriage of evangelicalism with conservative politics; their fatigue once the strobe lights, hip music, and gimmicky youth games didn’t distract them from their burning questions or the pain of their LGBTQ friends. Evans also aims to point the way to a Christianity—a church—with arms open wide enough to draw them back, just as it has drawn her—questions, struggles, and all.

You can read the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Evangelical Church Listicles Waiting to Be Written

There’s a certain kind of self-indulgent listicle that keeps being written about nearly everybody. You know the kind. “18 Things Only Introverts Will Get.” “95 Reasons Whovians Are Imaginative Flowers.” “13 GIFs to Explain Why Left-Handed Shamans Are the Best Spiritual Advisers.” They’re mostly harmless bits of “Hey, someone else gets me too!” Buzzfeedery, if a bit narcissistic. My problem comes when these types of articles are written with an air of revelatory gravity.

The Holy Grail, for me, consists of the listicles related to “millennials”, the church, and, of course, the failures of Evangelicalism. Often times they’re little more than performative exercises in show-martyrdom. Mostly fruitless, they tend to do little more than reinforce our over-weening sense of entitlement, aggrievement, and disaffection from the Church.

Even though they’re kind of paint-by-numbers predictable at this point, they’re still good one thing: getting shares and clicks for bloggers.

Now, maybe it was sympathy, or despair, but I reached a point today where I figured, “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em”, and so I decided to propose a few future titles on Twitter for a possible listicle of my own. I present them here for your approval. Also, because I probably don’t have anything else to write at this point.

And finally,

If you’ve got any suggestions of your own, go ahead and leave them in the comments. I just want to make sure if I write it, my list is the listiest and clickiest of them all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Review: The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White (9 Marks)

Let’s begin with a boring statistic: 8.1 percent. According to an American Religious Identification survey, that’s roughly how many Americans in 1990 were willing to identify themselves as having “no religious identification.” Fast-forward eighteen years to 2008 and that same ARIS study number becomes 15 percent. Give it four more years in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2012 study it becomes 19.3 percent.  That’s one in five Americans. In other words, in a space of about 20 years, the number of Americans willing to claim no religious identity has doubled and there is no indication that trend is slowing down. This is the fastest-growing religious demographic in America. The statistics aren’t as boring anymore, now are they?

Apparently, “Nones” are on the rise. As the body commissioned to preach the gospel to and disciple all nations, the question becomes, “What is the church going to do about it?”

In The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated James Emery White steps in to provide an answer, or rather, a vision for the American church to reach those Nones with the gospel of Christ. As the former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the founding pastor of Mecklenberg Community Church—one of the fastest growing churches in the nation—he seems particularly qualified for the task.

With a clear, engaging style, vivid illustrations, biblical roots, and a proper sense of history, White lays out a clear path for churches to make the changes necessary to deal with the shifting religious sands. The book breaks down into two parts. In the first, White tells us who the Nones are, and in the second, he lays out a plan to reach them.

You can go read the rest of my book review over at 9 Marks

Soli Deo Gloria. 

The Importance of a Genitive in Your Practical Theology of Church

thiseltonWhile it’s easy to gloss over the introductions to Paul’s letters in everyday reading, virtually every commentator would say that’s a disastrous approach to reading Paul. The Apostle is very careful in making every phrase count, setting the theological stage for his later corrections and encouragement to whatever church he happens to be addressing. The intros and thanksgivings are like theological overtures dropping hints at themes to be developed at length in the broader symphony of Paul’s argument.

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthian church in this way:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Though there are many riches to be gleaned from this particular intro, the phrase that caught my eye in my study this week was this little genitive ekklesia tou theou; the first thing Paul calls the Corinthian gathering of believers is “the church of God.” Anthony Thiselton notes in his massive commentary that this phrase is ‘possessive’. Paul will say many other things about the believers in Corinth, but the first thing he tells them is this: you are God’s. Thiselton continues:

The church, Paul insists, belongs not to the wealthy, or to the “patrons,” or to some self-styled inner circle of “spiritual people who manifest gifts,” but to God. —The First Epistle to the Corinthians (pg. 73)

It pays to reflect on that reality. At the risk of exaggeration, I’d say that most of the current pathologies plaguing our current church practices, or at least the worst ones–consumerism, over-authoritarianism, individualism, pragmatism, etc–have their root in the fact that we have forgotten to observe this little genitive: “of God.”

How often do think of the Church as something other than the body which God purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28)? How often have we thought of our church primarily in terms of the fact that it’s the place we’ve grown up? Or the church ‘I’ve decided to attend’? Or, the ‘building I helped pay for’? Or in terms of its denominational affiliation? Or how many times have we asked “oh, whose church is that up the way” with its pastor in mind?

Or even more, pastors, how often have we let that attitude creep into our own thought? Have we slipped into the attitude of confusing our call to a congregation with our possession of a congregation? Do we tend forget that we are but ministers of the Gospel, not its authors? Are we constantly remembering that we are but construction managers under the great Architect and Lord of the house? That we are under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd and owner of the flock?

Whatever else we might say of the Church universal, or the local body that instantiates is, Paul reminds us that first and foremost we must recognize it as God’s. Any other description insofar as it is uttered apart from this confession is thereby transformed into falsehood. We are his inheritance, accomplishment, and achievement. He has called us, redeemed us, and sanctified us for himself. The Church’s existence is to, by, and for Him.

Soli Deo Gloria