I freely admit that I can be a bit of an idealist at times. I resonate with expressions like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” So maybe it’s just an expression of my young, naive, and idealistic nature that I’m just plain weary of ideological labels.
Maybe you’ve come across two articles making the rounds this weekend describing the two sides of the liberal/conservative divide in American churches? The first article is, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, written by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. The second article was a response written by Diana Butler Bass for The Huffington Post entitled, Can Christianity Be Saved? Let me say from the outset that I’m writing this to offer another perspective because I think both authors miss the mark in a big way. Remember, I’m an idealist at heart. So you’ll have to forgive my picky ways.
Here are a couple of quote-worthy snapshots from both articles.
“This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital”
Later he writes:
“Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”
Now on to Diana Butler Bass:
“A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones…A quiet renewal is occuring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a 20th Century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.”
So let me try to fairly critique both of these articles for missing the mark in a major way for me…
Critique of Ross Douthat
Let’s begin by telling the truth about decline in American Christianity: Every denomination is declining. Let’s just stop playing the broken record of “conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are dying” — it’s not 1980 anymore. The fact is all denominations in America are in numeric decline. Diana Butler Bass rightly notes in her article that this is a thesis that’s been around since the early 1970s. The Church Growth Movement in America — which is largely responsible for the rise of what we now call “mega churches”– began arguing this in its theological literature 40 years ago. In 2012, this is no longer true. There are conservative denominations in decline now. The Southern Baptist Convention is a great example. So no, so-called liberal churches don’t need to be like their conservative counterparts in order to grow — no one is growing right now.
If so-called liberal churches have given into the social whims of the day, then their more conservative counterparts are guilty for selling into the consumeristic whims. If there was a day where more theologically and socially conservative churches were growing, it was often accomplished through appealing to consumeristic tastes in the name of being attractional. In other words, selling one’s reputation of faithfulness on the auction block of being appealing to the masses knows no theological label. We’re all guilty in some respect. One of the greatest flaws of American Christianity is that we’d rather be liked by others than faithful to our mission. The balance we need is figuring out how to be hospitable and welcoming while being faithful and challenging.
Critique of Diana Butler Bass:
Does Christianity really need to be saved? I know she was doing a play on words with the title from the Times, but my fear is that the body of her article actually reveals a position that we, as humans, have the power to “save” our faith. The truth is, the role of faith is to save us — not the other way around. It’s a theological error to assume we humans have the role (or power) to save religion.
Why do we talk about 21st Century forms of church and use 20th Century terms? How can we truly discuss a “new form of church” for the 21st Century while we’re stuck in camps of liberal and conservative? If the church of the 21st Century is to be new, then we need to blur the lines that have divided us for the last century. Her words on rethinking church appeals to me right up until I realize the church she’s talking about has a particular ideology rooted in a liberal worldview. As much as I might resonate with her views, her conclusion is a church I do not want to be a part of. Liberal fundamentalism is not the answer to what ails us in American Christianity.
I don’t want to come off as totally negative about either of these authors. Both articles had merits and both authors made points I agree with. They actually critique each other in good and healthy ways. However they both get it wrong for me because they continue to perpetuate a vision of the church where labels divide us. So the question becomes whether or not we should just accept the coexistence of liberal and conservative churches. I, for one, refuse to accept either as a truly faithful expression of church. Inevitably both sides will leave out necessary parts of faith in order to remain true to their respective camp. As a United Methodist, I’m reminded that the fullness of our Wesleyan theology is found in the combination of the very best from both the liberal and conservative views. We shouldn’t have to pick sides!
So yes, I’m an idealist. I don’t think it’s a faithful act to label ourselves as liberal or conservative. I dream of a church where we can leave our labels at the door when we come to worship. And maybe, if the worship is lively and faithful enough, and we’re sent back into the world in service, then we might just forget to pick up those labels on our way out.
I think many in the Church will agree that, by and large, we have a “young adult problem.” What’s the problem, you ask? Well, young adults are not coming to our churches.
There are all sorts of methods out there to get young people into coming to church. Many church leaders have made strides in adding to a body of work on attracting young people. Some of the material is really good — material that recognizes the world of 2012 is vastly different than the world of 1952 or even 1982. Other material is just plain bad — material that tries to bait-and-switch young people into church by selling a notion of volunteerism or bland utopian community while conveniently forgetting to mention the name of Jesus because it doesn’t play well for focus groups. While there’s no real clear answer on how to get young people into church, I think we can all agree on this simple fact: We’ve got a major deficit of young people actively involved in our local churches.
What are we church folks to do about this young adult problem?
Let me cut to the chase and say what we should NOT try to do: If you want to “solve” the problem of young people not active in church, you’re going to fail from the outset. This is not a problem you can solve. So if you’ve bought the latest material on how to magically attract young people after following 5 easy steps, take it back right now. You’re not going to find a recipe to attract young people. You can’t order a prescription from the local Christian resource center that will make young people beat your doors down. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some problems can’t simply be solved.
Instead of solving our problems, let’s try to look at them in new ways — maybe even as opportunities to learn.
Translation is Key
What we need are for local churches to become places of translation — not just interpretation. What’s the difference? Interpretation simply means that a church tells you what to believe and how to behave. But churches who take the work of translation seriously will also create ways to live out those beliefs and morals in community. When this happens, the church becomes less rigidly judgmental of others and more serious about the need we all have for redeeming and sustaining grace.
Let me offer a story to illustrate:
I heard another heart-breaking story last week from a young adult who refuses to go to church. It seems that she was marginally involved in a local church — some months were better than others for attendance. But she volunteered in the nursery some and helped with Vacation Bible School because if she didn’t really know what to think about church attendance yet, she knew it was important for her daughter. She started dating a young man who was a member of the church soon after she started attending.
But a few months into her tenure in the church it started. It seems a few of the members — some younger a some old enough to be her mother — caught wind of her “past life.” They began spreading stories around the church about her and her new relationship — much of which was nowhere near to being true. But truth is relative when perception shapes so much of how we think. It wasn’t long before a whole section of the church had heard these stories and it got back to the young woman and her new boyfriend.
Needless to say, they refuse to go back to that church and I fear they’re done with church altogether after that incident.
One of the reasons we in the church won’t ever solve our issue with young adults is that we think it’s really their problem. They want to come to church and be with us, they just don’t know it yet. So we need to invest in all sorts of attractional methods to help them realize this deep longing. Churches are not perfect — nor should we ever think they will be — but as long as church people do mean things to people who are a little different, don’t be surprised when no young people want to attend your church. This girl bears the burden of not wholeheartedly investing in the church. But that’s a process for many people, old and young alike. However she’s not at fault for the fact that some people decided her past was too risque for their taste and decided to spread rumors about it. This is the kind of caricature account Flannery O’Connor would write about. Instead, I’m afraid it’s a reality more common that we church folks would care to admit.
A community who takes the work of translation — living out the gospel, putting hands and feet on the love of God, etc. — might not have been so quick to judge someone who was a little different. A community of translators knows how hard it is actually live the morals and beliefs they profess.
What’s Wrong with Wanting to Solve?
What if the compulsion to solve our problems was a part of something that’s wrong with us — even sinful at times?
I recently heard a podcast with Dr. J. Kameron Carter where he had some striking comments about solving our problems. Dr. Carter suggests that “the impulse to solve is a part of a wider impulse to master.” In the church we see this very clearly in the collective impulse church leaders and strategists have to solve the issue of young adults not coming to church. What actually happens is we define our idea of young people based off of what we see around us and not a missional view guided by the Holy Spirit. Those in the church want young adults, but the truth is we really want young adults that look, talk, act, and see the world like us. We’re on a mission for prototypes of those already in the church — younger versions who care about the things good church folk care about and want to live by the same standards. Maybe this is just the residue of the missional attitude that helped colonize and conquer others as a means of spreading the gospel? Whatever it is, it’s a desire undergirded by the preservation of power and not guided by humility and love.
Why are young people not in church? I have no idea. I’m a young adult myself and I’m forced to live in the tension between a vocation in the church and relationships with my peers who either don’t see it as compelling enough, or worse yet, have been hurt so badly by well-meaning people who don’t understand them they’ll never grace the doors of a church again. It’s a tough place for a young pastor sometimes. However, I do hope the next time we say we want to “solve our young adult problem” we stand back and see the implications of that statement: Do we really want all young people in our churches? Or, do we really mean we want to preserve our values in a younger generation of prototypical images of ourself? And are we willing to make the gospel compelling enough by trying to actually live it?
If you want young people in your church, go where they are. Learn what they do. Strike up a relationship and trust the Holy Spirit enough to let you know when it’s time to invite them to church. In the meantime, make sure your church is a place that worries about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). After all, that’s all disciples can hope to do.
–John Howard Yoder [quoted on p. 87]
Kenda Creasy Dean cuts right the heart of the problem with the American church in this chapter:
“Every church is called to be a ‘missional church.’ The fact that we have turned the word ‘mission’ into an adjective testifies to the American church’s frayed ecclesiology. A nonmissional church is not a church in the first place, but in a culture largely void of a theological vocabulary, this language has become necessary to remind us that the church exists not for ourselves, but for the world.” [p. 89-90, bold emphasis mine]
As much as we like to quote the Great Commission as the mission of the Church, I worry sometimes if we “get it.” How easy is it to assume “making disciples” is the same thing as making church members? How easy is it to assume baptizing and teaching are the primary means by which we grow the church? What about the mission of God? Does the Church simply exist for itself and those within its walls?
Participating in God’s mission intrinsically links us to the life of Christ — a life given as a most radical act of grace, a life so bound up into our lives that absolutely nothing can separate us from him — and we’re called to respond by linking our lives to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of this is how we know and participate in the mission of God. And by the way, for the church to be missional, we have to see mission as more than just a trip.
Dean uses the work of Andrew Walls to identify missional values consistent through Christian history. There are two main “missionary principles”:
The pilgrim’s job is to confess the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The pilgrim’s life is to become a testimony to the love and presence of God. The pilgrim’s job is to confess, not convince. This really challenged me when I came across this in reading this book. Maybe we ought to spend a little less time grandstanding on whatever the issue of the days is and spend a little more time authentically confessing the presence of God in our lives — a mysterious yet undeniable force that continually shapes us. The truth is, the more we confess, the better we’re able to see what we confess. As we practice looking for God’s active presence in our lives we gain new eyes to see the world around us and, eventually, new ears to hear the call to go further in the journey of discipleship.
Sometimes we’re called to faithfully wait as we hone these new eyes and ears. Being encountered by God is a big deal. It calls for a total life change in response. And this doesn’t happen over night. Even the disciples and gospel writers needed time to process what we heard and saw and how it transcended life as they knew it. As Dean puts it:
“It must have been part of what people remembered, and recounted, when they retold the story of that Easter night. In this moment of grace, of divine waiting…God remains with us. This paradoxical place, where Christ woos us as he waits for us, is marked by revelation, recognition, and rejoicing.” [p. 102]
Confession is not an easy thing. But we can’t get too absorbed by the temptation to convince others lest we forget that we don’t totally “get” when we’re talking about in the first place. It’s but for the grace of God that we’re able to even marginally comprehend what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
Recovering a Missional Imagination
“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination. In stark contrast to institutions colonized by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, missional communities do not exist primarily to perpetuate themselves.” [p. 104]
It’s a mighty bold thing to say the church exists for the world. And in a time of decline across the church, it’s a mighty risky thing to declare that you want to be a missional community whose sole goal is to continually give yourself away for others. Funny thing is, that’s precisely what Jesus did! One of the problems Dean notes is that we, as the Church, teach MTD to young people and while it’s understandable, it’s not very compelling. Handing on the faith to young people is not a matter of “giving them Jesus” [p. 105]. Jesus isn’t “ours” to own and he’s surely not ours to give to others. The presence of God in the lives of our youth is not dependent on us — God is already with them before we ever get there. This is why we believe baptism is a public confession to the presence of God’s grace already at work in the lives of people. It’s our job to help them see what’s already at work in them. And maybe in the process we’ll rediscover that same presence in ourselves.
Making disciples requires incarnation — not cultural adaptation. Being real and authentic about our faith is much more important than trying to communicate using whatever new, hip language tools are at our disposal. Christian communities throughout the ages share certain qualities: we learn from the same sacred writings, pray to the same Triune God, use bread, wine, and water in the same meaningful ways, and we claim to somehow, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be connected to these communities around the world and throughout the ages. Incarnation is not about being relevant as much as it’s about being real — being real about who God is, who we are, and who we long to be together.
This missional spirit — the incarnational presence of God among us — eventually drives us to be more concerned with sending people out rather than roping them in. I suppose that’s the true meaning of Great Commission’s first command to “Go…”
This is the liturgy for Holy Communion I’ve put together for Mulberry Street United Methodist Church to be used on July 1, 2012. The Invitation and Prayer of Confession follow the same pattern as the liturgy found on p. 12 of the UMH.
The Great Thanksgiving is largely based on a prayer found on the General Board of Disicpleship website here. The original was written by Hoyt Hickman and Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards [Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org used by permission]. I’ve changed some language so that it flows more with the wording found on pp. 13-14 of The United Methodist Hymnal — in case people want it to feel more like “the way we’ve always done it.” You’ll notice it has the traditional wording leading into the prompts for congregational response.
Invitation to the Table/Confession and Pardon
Christ our Lord calls to his Table:
all who hurt and are beaten down by the stresses of life;
all who love him and earnestly seek to live in peace with one another;
all who repent of their sin and long to follow the call of discipleship.
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
we confess that we have failed to love you most of all.
We have failed to fully be your church in this time and place.
We have sinned against you and each another
by things we have done and things we have left undone.
We have not loved our neighbors
because we have failed to see the Christ in others.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us to walk in the light of your grace,
and in full obedience to your will,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Hear the good news:
Despite our brokenness, Christ died for us that we might have life.
That proves God’s gracious love toward us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
Glory to God! Amen
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
Ruler of all nations, Judge of all flesh,
you have placed us, your people, in this land made rich
with rivers, forests, mountains, and creatures great and small.
Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation
an opportunity beyond measure
to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.
Here you continue to call your people,
freed from the law and baptized into Christ Jesus,
to be a sign of your reign in all the world.
For such a place, such a vision
and such a calling we give you thanks,
praying we may ever join afresh the dreams you set before us.
And so, with your people in every land on earth
and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join in their unending hymn:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Above all we give you thanks
for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ,
who sends us into the world
to declare the good news of your kingdom
to every creature:
Justice to all peoples,
good news to the poor,
release for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
and freedom for the oppressed.
On the night before he was arrested and sentenced to death
by the authorities of his own nation,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples,
and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”
When supper was over,
he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples,
and said, “Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the covenant
poured out for you and for many,
for the forgiveness of sins.”
And so we remember again as we proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
We pour ourselves out before you in praise and thanksgiving,
a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.
Pour out your Spirit
on us and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make Christ known to us in the breaking of this bread,
and the sharing of this cup.
Renew our fellowship in him,
that we may be for the world his body
poured out for the world
at this time in this nation,
and at that great banquet in the fullness of your new creation
where justice flows like rivers,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
where none shall hunger or thirst,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
By him, with him, and in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty God,
now and ever. Amen.
“A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” — C.S. Lewis [quoted on p. 25]
Trying to Be Relevant in a Culture of “Whatever-ism”
Dean reports an interesting indictment of the Church when she quotes the NSYR study where it says, “Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign ‘whatever-ism'” (p.28). It seems as though a good number of American teenagers will attend church, participate in youth ministries, and maybe even go to Sunday School. What teenagers lack, this report shows, is a depth of knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrine and how that doctrine translates into religious practices. Further, teenagers by and large lack a basic working Christian language. It seems as though we’re doing a decent job of putting our kids into formative classes and activities but we’re not teaching them the faith language that would form them into new people.
Maybe problem comes from a compulsion the Church seems to have in striving to be relevant? We spend so much time wanting to relate to others in terms of the language of the larger culture (a good thing at times) that we forget our own unique language in the process. Transformation cannot happen unless new language is taught and learned. Otherwise the church remains little more than just another extension of the larger culture.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a specific divine mission in the world. This false Christianity seeks to give us good self-esteem and solve all of our temporal problems. As Dean notes,
“It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is personal happiness and helping people treat each other nicely.” [p. 29]
Why is it that many teenagers practice such a watered-down form of spirituality? Frankly, they do it because this is what we’ve taught them in church. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no claim to change lives. It’s built on a low commitment system where the highest ideals are to “make me happy” or “meet my needs.” This is very different from a faith that seeks to bend people’s lives into patterns of love and obedience to God through formative teaching and practice.
Relevance is an unattainable goal. It’s a goal concerned with the church accommodating society in order to keep a foothold in the culture. We should always be skeptical and question those who would push us to “be more relevant.” More times than not, it’s a quest that’s more misguided than we might think. As Dean observes,
“The church’s accommodating impulse does not stem from God’s call to us to share our lives with the stranger or to share God’s love with others. Instead, it grows our of our need as a church to be liked and approved.” [p. 34]
The Difference Between Nice and Holy
I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t teach our kids to be nice. In fact, we adults could use refresher courses on being nice. But I am saying as strongly as I can that “being nice” is not the ultimate purpose of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Religion has become the great umbrella we go to hide from the world under. Religion in America is built much more on a sense of loyalty and allegiance through personal choice than it is on identity and relationship. If our culture is built on a consumer mindset that we can get what we want through personal choice in the marketplace, then it’s no wonder that a growing number of people are finding religion to be unimportant. Religion built on a sense of identity doesn’t care much for personal choice — mainly because God chose us before we choose God. My favorite brand cannot claim my life at this level because I can always shop for a new brand. But a faith built on the idea that we know ourselves to belong to the One who made us and who loves us too much to lose us claims our lives in ways Apple or Nike never will.
Let’s consult our author one more time:
“Perhaps young people lack robust Christian identities because churches offer such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary.” [p. 36]
I believe the great sin we need to identify and confess is that we as a Church have lost a sense of missional imagination. We’ve grown accustomed to believing that we’re here for ourselves. This in turn causes self-centered spirituality to grow and spread like a weed in a garden. We confuse Christianity with self-preservation — a sense of building ourselves and our buildings and our institutions up. And we forget that the witness of Jesus was one of self-giving — the call of disciples to lay down their lives, take up a cross, and follow the self-giving One wherever he may go.
Holiness is a word that implies justice, kindness, and humility before God (Micah 6:8). Dean reminds us this is what we mean when we say sanctification – a life conformed to the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who came into the world to save (and not condemn) it. A call to holiness is much deeper than a call to just be nice. Holiness requires everything we are and it forces us to live in a community where the common pursuit is how to be holy in such a complex world.
The good news is not all teenagers belong to this cult of benign niceness. Many are committed Christians actively living our their faith daily. But these are set apart from their contemporaries by 4 main religious characteristics: a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto.
So ask yourself this simple question: When was the last time you heard these four things together at church?
When was the last time you heard of a real hope — one that’s more concerned with transformative faith than trying to simply put “biblical principles” on life’s problems? When was the last time you were invited into a community that breaks line of family, gender, or maybe even race in order to form the Body of Christ? When was the last time you were told you had a specific call on your life from the very One who created you? And when was the last time you heard words of hope that defies the logic of our self-centered worldviews?
Needless to say, this book is amazing!…
As much as I was enthused leaving Annual Conference here in South Georgia, I do have one regret: I wish I had made a motion from the floor to define discipleship for our annual conference. You see, I counted some 70 times that the phrase “making disciples for the transformation of the world” was mentioned in one form or another. But not once was that phrase defined or elaborated on. Much of our business set as its goal the “making of disciples” but we never defined discipleship clearly. My great concern is that we endorsed a great deal of business on the premise that we all understood and agreed on a basic definition of discipleship.
So I regret that I didn’t follow my gut and propose a motion that would do 3 things:
Whereas, We admit that the greatest issue facing The United Methodist Church is a lack of depth of discipleship; and
Whereas, the local church is the primary and most significant location for the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ according to paragraph 201 of The United Methodist Discipline (2008 ed.); and
Whereas, it is necessary that we define discipleship as it pertains to life in the life of our local churches in the South Georgia Annual Conference and in the transformation of the world;
Therefore, be it:
Resolved, that the primary focus of ministry, proclamation, and life in the local church should be to praise God and form disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — all ministry should serve these two, conjoined aims.
Resolved, that the primary of location for discipleship are the local church communities across our conference — any conference-led initiatives towards the goal of disciple formation should be focused on how best to achieve this goal at the level of the local church.
Resolved, that discipleship is the process of being formed in the ways of Jesus Christ as taught in Scriptures and expressed in acts of justice, mercy, worship, and devotion under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit — all teaching and practice of discipleship should meet this criteria and it should be emphasized that such formation and practice is meant to be lived out both personally and corporately.