I have been focused on millennials for several years now. In part, it’s an outgrowth of what I do for a living. Teaching Christian college students over three decades, I’ve been aware of how their interests and positions have shifted over time.
As I’ve examined these shifts sociologically, I’ve been struck by how a number of different sources seem to converge in telling separate aspects of a larger story. There is the perspective of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who sees the 20s as a period of Emerging Adulthood. This correlates with changing attitudes toward sexuality and later ages of marriage. It corresponds with a remarkable increase among millennials in likely to report no religious affiliation and a decline in traditional religious commitment. It shows up in the polling from Gallup and Pew that shows a truly remarkable shift in millennial attitudes toward same-sex marriage even over a two year time span. It shows up in David Kinnaman’s work on the previously religious who see the church as overly judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-doubt. It shows up in a generation whose economic prospects look very different from early generations, who may live at home for a season, but who seem more optimistic about future. It shows up in a generation that is more digitally adept than any before it, sifting information from a variety of sites and testing claims (even fact-checking sermons!).
As David Kinnaman puts it, this generation is “discontinuously different“. That difference deserves to be taken seriously.
So it baffles me when I read articles from leading religious figures arguing that there really isn’t anything to these differences. Or, if there are differences, it’s because the church has not been sufficiently firm on key issues. I saw a tweet today from Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention saying “the myth of the Liberal Evangelical Millennial is exactly that.” Others have pointed out that this depends upon what the meaning of liberal is (or, what the meaning of Evangelical is).
I grant that evangelical millennials don’t exactly mirror their general millennial peers in the issues I summarized above. By and large, they will skew somewhat more traditionally. But they are responding to the same social patterns, internet presence, and general anti-institutionalism the entire generation is responding to.
Here’s another example. Earlier this month, Rob Swartzwalder wrote a piece called “Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments Against the Conventional Wisdom“. To his credit, he recognizes that there has been some backlash among millennials against overreaching statements by conservative leaders. He also observes (quoting Bradley Wright) that we’ve seen younger people leave institutions before. He responds to a straw argument in a piece Carol Howard Merritt wrote four years ago about the impacts of sexism, intolerance, and conservatism. But he centers in on other reasons why evangelical youth might be leaving the church.
1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.
2. Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.
3. Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.
4. Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable.
In short, the solution to preparing today’s evangelical millennials to be faithful Christians is to go back to old separatist patterns of rhetoric.
I just finished Paul Taylor’s The Next America (pictured). Taylor, president of the Pew Research Center, summarizes a vast array of data on the generational differences separating the four living generations in America: Silents, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. One of the subtexts of the book is the inherent competition between Boomers and Millennials, especially in terms of economics, jobs, and social security.
He distinguishes, as do many excellent sociologists, between three different factors shaping generational differences: Life Cycle Effects, Period Effects, and Cohort Effects. For example, the first looks at how all 18 year olds of any era handle transition from parental structures. The second, looks at pivotal events that affected all generations (e.g., JFK assassination, Moon landing, 9/11). The third, which is his primary focus, examines how the social milieu surrounding a generation coming of age differs from those that came before.
Taylor’s book is very good. While we won’t have a great war over social security (because relationships trump policy for millennials), there are intractable changes afoot. And like social security, this will pit Boomer priorities against Millennial priorities.
If we keep characterizing this as a zero-sum game, there will be no winners. Instead we’ll see increasing populations shifting into the “religious none” category (which has lost its social opprobrium).
Why would religious leaders be so interested in denying the reality of millennial change? I’d suggest a couple of reasons.
First, having denied the ways in which the church has responded to culture in the past, they hold an exaggerated view of constancy. I’d argue that the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement was a direct response to the suburbanization of baby boomers who weren’t affiliated with evangelical churches. To legitimize millennial culture change is threatening to worldview arguments. It confuses life cycle effects with the other factors.
Second, their view of orthodoxy is maintained by stereotyping the younger generation rather than engaging it. I don’t know exactly what Moore meant by Liberal Evangelicals. With such a fuzzy label, he may be speaking of some group other than the evangelical millennials I know on the internet and in real life. But rhetorically, he’s able to say “they aren’t all like that” without responding to the very real shifts that are going on.
Third, as I’ve been writing for some time, the millennial generation privileges relationship over abstract principle. This embrace of diversity is disruptive to systematic approaches to apologetics. Hence, the retreat to slippery slope arguments. This is the key to the cohort effect.
I’m the first to admit that millennials are a diverse bunch. “They really aren’t all like that.” But their understanding of and commitment to diversity is the secret to their strength. It is in the messiness of that variability that God is moving.
To my colleagues who are concerned about excesses of the millennial generation, I beg you to engage the dialogue in open ways and leave behind the stereotyping and demagoguery for authentic engagement. I hear some of my evangelical millennial colleagues calling for that kind of open dialogue that leaves behind labeling and name-calling. This is a very encouraging sign and provides us with an opportunity to be the church at work.
My argument began with a call for us to separate Christian Faith from the cultural baggage we’ve assumed, whether that is the syncretism of political dynamics or the sacralization of cultural patterns. The second leg of the argument privileged religious practice, regardless of denominational affiliation, over issues of self-identification. These two components lead to a third part of the argument: the labels we toss around in our intra-Christianity fights are counterproductive and need to go.
It’s not uncommon for sociologists like me to try to make distinctions between forms of religious groups. We have labels like Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline, Spiritual But Not Religious, and Religious “Nones”. We are more likely than theologians to define these in terms people actually use rather than through some pedigree of intellectual history. But such definitions are as varied as the people who use them.
In fact, I’m coming to believe that the primary function of these labels is negative. Decades ago, Richard Quebedeaux said Evangelicals were “polite fundamentalists”. As I’ve written, certain mainliners want people to know that they aren’t like “those evangelicals with all their political stances”. Evangelicals distinguish themselves from mainliners who hold an “anything goes” mentality. The SNBR folks say that faith is important but don’t want anything to do with the corruptions of organized religion.
If I’m correct that the labels operate as negative referents, then we wind up doing serious damage to the way the church is viewed within larger social discourse. It’s easy to pick out extremists, to caricature positions, and write blog posts castigating others (or others as they exist in the author’s imagination).
For a long time, my social media feeds have been the window through which I could see these label battles play out. Someone will post something, others will respond, the initial poster or a supporter will write on what’s wrong with the responders, and the whole thing goes on ad infinitum. I’m not casting stones, here, just making sociological observations — I’m guilty of this as my next post is a direct response to things written about millennials.
But today, my social media feeds don’t allow me to distinguish between labels. Today, Easter Sunday, the communications are all about what the liturgies refer to as the Great Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Facebook is full of call and response: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!” In these historic sentiments, as well as in the creeds, we get the heart of the church as both theological and sociological expression. We believe in God, creator of heaven and earth. In Christ’s incarnation, passion, and emerging reign. In the Spirt who brings together “the holy catholic church”. In the mystery of the trinity, where all this is caught up together in the Godhead that I cannot begin to fathom.
As I was working on this post, Scott Emery posted the text of an Easter sermon N.T. Wright gave four years ago. I recognize that many of the themes therein were related to the ideas Wright later developed in When God Became King. The entire sermon is worth reading, but this passage stood out to me.
The resurrection points the way to a new sort of life, a new way of life, a way which is neither the brittle pseudo-correctness of a church out of touch with the people, nor the cloying pseudo-righteousness of a pontificating press, but the humble yet clear testimony that though we are foolish and ignorant, God is all wise and all knowing; that though we get it badly wrong, when we face up and say ‘Sorry’ God forgives us because of the cross of Jesus Christ and shows us how to live out the implications of that costly forgiveness; that though death, corruption and deceit appear to have the last word, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Too much of the church’s history and the church’s present has been caught up in determining who was in and who was out. But the focus has primarily been on those on the outside of the circles we draw. This may stem from old-fashioned status anxiety — if we can define right belief and practice by separating from some others we can feel more confident in our standing with God.
But this is a a snare. The more I look for reasons to think I’m more faithful (because I reject the idea of labels as all good Christians should) then I’ve shifted the grounds for my salvation from the mystery of the resurrection to my own efforts, commitments, and arguments.
What binds us together as people of faith are these simple declarations. He is Risen Indeed! Nothing more than that. To be sure, the farther we walk in faith, the more complicated the implications Wright addresses become. But we are walking together in this journey of faith. We don’t stand in superiority to others, looking down on them from our certainty. We didn’t win some cosmic battle with white hats and black hats. We are pilgrims walking by faith. Frederick Buechner puts it like this:
A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.
This is the embrace of what C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, called The Deep Magic. The recognition that we have all benefitted from a truly incredible act. One that brings us together and allows us to live into the New Kingdom.
One of my all-time favorite sociology quotes is from Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology, written in 1963. Berger wrote: “Only he who understands the rules is in a position to cheat.” This sentence summarizes why I study sociology.
It also summarizes what it means to walk in a community of faith with people with varied theological presuppositions. We understand that we are connected to the reality of God’s plan as expressed in creation, covenant, exodus, diaspora, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, and emerging reign. We know the story and that allows us to live as brothers and sisters instead of competing factions.
Sharing that story without condescension will provide a bright path forward for faithful Christians in a world where religion holds less of a central role. That’s Good News for all of us.
This is my second in my three-part series thinking about the future of evangelicalism, especially in light of our current struggles with who owns the label (more next time) and what it means. My last post (or posts) was about separating the broad cultural assumptions surrounding religion from religious practice. My argument is that if we focus on actual religious behavior instead of the dividing lines we throw up we can learn something important about the nature of Christ’s Church in this complex, diverse, postmodern world.
Last month I described why Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw was so important to our thinking about a society that no longer fits our past cognitive structures. As they argued, we are now in some form of post-Christendom society.
Not that Christianity isn’t relevant. To the contrary, it is more important than ever. But what changed is the notion that we can’t simply assume everyone shares our values or language. This is why the cultural baggage post had to happen first. We have to figure out how to talk about Christian faith in ways that will be heard within the contemporary culture.
David and Geoff unpack a number of ways in which the faith can communicate in what they call “the far country”. By following the metaphor of the Incarnation, they offer serious vistas on how the Gospel comes to cultures that are not initially accepting. As their subtitle states, they offer “10 signposts into the missional frontier”: Post-Christendom, Missio Dei, Incarnation, Witness, Scripture, Gospel, Church, Prodigal Relationships, Prodigal Justice, and Prodigal Openness.
I’ve recently finished Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. I’m actually two books behind on her scholarship and her more recent work is focused on the nature of spirituality in America. Frankly, I read this particular book because it was on the shelf in the SAU library. But I was thrilled to read it because it opened my eyes to certain assumptions I was making about the nature of the religious landscape.
The book is the result of a three-year study, the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, funded by the Lilly Endowment. In the face of common statements about the accommodation of mainline congregations expressed in press, pulpits, and sociological scholarship, the project set out to examine “vital congregations”.
These congregations were different. Not because they had adopted conservative evangelical style or rhetorical schemes. Not because the pastors preached in jeans and layered shirts or wore hipster glasses. Not because the music was contemporary with lyrics projected up on the screen.
These were mainline congregations that embraced their mainline heritage and yet looked for authentic faith. They did it in ways that may differ quite a bit from the average megachurch and yet it had the same approach to being serious about Christianity.
Over the year or so I’ve been writing about the changing nature of evangelicalism, I periodically get comments claiming that my position is no different from mainline accommodationism. They are consistent with authors who have decried mainline religion as empty, embracing humanistic values in a desire to be accepted by the larger society. I’ve been troubled by these comments because they seemed so unaware of what real people in real churches were trying to do. The arguments seemed based on stereotypes of some mainline ministers from forty years ago.
I was thrilled when Diana’s first chapter offers a critique of an accommodationist congregation, one she knew as a girl. This, she said, was not the kind of congregation she was trying to understand. Instead, she examined ten congregations in depth (there were 50 involved in a survey instrument but the richest part of the book comes from these congregations). These churches were from Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations. And still, the faith present in these congregations was a far cry from the “anything goes” critique so often tossed toward mainline religion.
The individual chapters explore some common themes the contributed to the vital faith evident in these congregations. Shockingly, she also uses “10 signposts”: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty.
Two sets of “10 signposts” — both books deal with Hospitality, Scripture, Testimony, Justice, Diversity, Beauty, Healing, and Reflection. They may use slightly different words but their messages are the same. There is a vital faith present in Christianity that not defined by culture war arguments nor by blind accommodationism. It is characterized by authentic faith that is tolerant of multiple views and trusts in the Holy Spirit to assist understanding.
One book written to the evangelical community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. One book written to the mainline community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. Both finding similar metaphors to describe the elements of that faithful life.
It was a wonderful discovery for me. It speaks to the vibrancy of God’s work in our midst. But I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. I realize that I read a number of people who are clearly evangelicals and serve in Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran congregations. They certainly aren’t accommodating to the larger culture.
I also see a number of millennial evangelicals finding meaning and satisfaction in more liturgical, more diverse, more complex settings of faith found in some mainline congregations. To see them as abandoning faith is unfair to both them and the churches that attract them.
I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.
This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.
There was something about yesterday’s post that felt unfinished. It’s bugged me ever since I hit the “publish” button. So I thought it was worth exploring a little more about what I’m thinking (besides, I have papers to grade and this is more fun).
There were two concepts in the post that I used and didn’t quite do justice to either. I began talking about civil religion in the way that Robert Bellah used it in the 1960s and others have used it since. It specifically deals with quasi-religious beliefs about the nation. There are ideas that God is on our side, that there’s some kind of divine destiny for the country, and so on. This is part of our nationalist celebrations at baseball games — “God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand Beside Her and Guide Her/Thru the Night with the Light From Above” (written by the Christian Patriot, Irving Berlin!). It’s a vague sense of Exceptionalism with religious overtones.
I think some of the nostalgia imbedded in today’s political and religious rhetoric is an attempt to harken back to a time when Irving Berlin’s words were shared by all in the society. But that time never existed. Besides I have no idea what the lyric is supposed to mean! Does God Stand Beside America in ways different than he stands beside Canada? (Erik Parker, that was for you!)
So what I’m picking up with the slightly-incorrect usage of civil religion is the way in which our social assumptions about the world get “sacralized”. They take on religious tones and let us believe that we are acting for God because he would certainly support our values. This is Emile Durkheim’s take on religion in modern form.
It’s also what’s happening when we overlay religious imagery on top of existing social patterns. That’s the definition of my other concept: syncretism. Syncretism is well known to church historians and missionaries. We celebrate certain holidays when we do because the early church repurposed pagan holidays. Some aspects of Christianity in non-Western lands intermingle Christian faith with indigenous traditions.
This is what happens when we assume America is a Christian nation. We take existing patterns of behavior and bless them with the light from above. It brings me back to the polling data I mentioned. For decades, large majorities of the American public have reported a belief in God. But that belief is very diffuse, even more than Christian Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. I’d argue that it’s much closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd step (“believing in a higher power however you define it”).
Whether we’re talking about church as a central community institution or fighting about the latest Christian outrage on Facebook, we’re dealing with one of these two concepts. We are either celebrating free-floating definitions of what it means to be Christian or we’re Christianizing secular patterns.
The Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom of God requires that we get much better at distinguishing between God’s Story and the revisions we keep writing. Our version may make us far more comfortable and provide justification in light of changing social conditions, but it’s an exercise in either civil religion or syncretism. We have to do better if we are going to be the witnesses we are called to be.
First, thanks to all who read my last post imagining a form of evangelicalism that rises above our current divisive positions and presents a more attractive alternative to this complex, diverse, postmodern culture. I’ve very grateful for those who shared, reposted, and commented. Thanks especially to Zach Hoag, Doug Bursch, and Erik Parker for providing ongoing encouragement.
Based on that encouragement, I want to unpack some possible steps forward for evangelicalism. There are three components to the argument as it exists at the moment and I want to give each their due, so each will get its own post. But the thread of the argument began last year when I was writing for Respectful Conversation and has developed to where it is now.
I got a glimpse of the end point yesterday and wrote this on my Facebook page: “Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainliner are all social constructs that mask the richness of authentic Christian faith.” We spend far too much time defining/defending positions as opposed to those folks over there. I’ll unpack this in the third post.
The second post will be an exploration of a hypothesis I floated last summer. I argued that we’ve made far too much of the separation between mainline and evangelical churches and that they might be far more similar than our rhetoric would suggest. I wrote about David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s Prodigal Christianity last month. Their attempt to rethink some evangelical themes in light of post-Christendom was very helpful. But I’m also wrapping up Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006) which explores mainline congregations with vibrant faith. The parallels between Fitch/Holsclaw and Butler Bass are striking and suggest a possible convergence in how we think about faithful Christianity in postmodern society.
So why don’t we see the potential convergence these two excellent books would suggest? Because we keep getting mired in the issues of civil religion.
Technically, when Robert Bellah wrote about civil religion in the 1960s, he was talking about a symbolic sense in which American nationalism had distinctively religious tones. Not in a Christian sense but in a transcendental faith in destiny and providence. But I want to expand that idea to include the religiousness of certain cultural patterns in society. We operate with certain default assumptions, largely unexamined, but taken as matters of faith. It is when we combine those elements of cultural faith with Christian faith that the messiness starts.
The picture above is Norman Rockwell’s “Walking to Church” published 61 years ago today. I picked the Rockwell because it combines three expressions that I think are connected to our current confusion. First, there is the notion that going to church is something that good people do. It’s kind of a sanctified Kiwanis meeting. Back in Mad Men days, people went to church because you were supposed to go to church. And you were supposed to be seen in your Sunday finest, to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in town, and to bide your time until the service was over. (To connect to my earlier posts, this is why the Simpsons go to church). In short, this reflects the caricature left behind by 1960s mainline churches.
For some socially active churches, the local congregation was a place to mobilize resources and volunteers to make social change. In Habits of the Heart, Bellah and colleagues interview a mainline activist who could just as easily have worked for a national labor union. Of course, this idea of banding together to create change isn’t something found on the “left” side of some denominational spectrum. The same patterns have been playing out on the “right” side over the past thirty years. It’s why it’s sometimes so hard to separate the religious sentiments from the political sentiments.
There is a second connection to the Rockwell painting. There is a contrast between the church-going family and the surrounding community. Of course, today we’re very unlikely to walk to church and our churches wouldn’t even be in those neighborhoods. We want the church to be a cultural oasis from those messy neighborhoods. We see the church as the place where values are right and pure, unlike the surrounding environment.
Third, the Rockwell painting is set in a particular time period. Civil Religion longs to go back to those early, simpler times. Back then we knew the value of hard work, had traditional marriages, and children knew their place without expecting trophies just for showing up.
But all three of these images are fictions. Things weren’t the way we imagine them. Narcissism is not new. Families weren’t happier. They are helpful to give us meaning but they aren’t necessary for Christian faith. Moreover, they often get in the way of Christian faith, outreach, compassion, and evangelism. We bring the cultural baggage with us and before long it’s intermingled into our religious practice.
One of the interesting things about Bellah’s original conception of civil religion is that we hold on to certain defining values, like freedom and opportunity and justice in spite of what we see around us as ensnarement and disappointment and unfairness. It is the faith in the values that is the heart of civil religious practice.
And it is precisely that blind faith that we have to learn to put on hold. When we find ourselves congratulating ourselves for being “those kind of people” we’ve trapped ourselves. When we isolate from our neighbors, we can be more certain in the purity of our activism but don’t know how to make our points clearly. When we think that we’ve got it all together, we trip over power issues or sex abuse controversies or financial largesse. We have to recognize that our faith demands that we acknowledge that we frequently fail to live up to our own claims and must rely on Grace to see us through.
There’s been an ongoing debate as to whether or not millennials are leaving the church. Those who argue that the concern is overblown say that the research data suggest that it’s not “real Christians” who have left. They were nominal Christians who rarely attended church. That may be a valid claim for the moment. But the data also suggests that the percentage of nominally religious is growing (that’s one interpretation of the “none” data).
This idea of culturally defined religion is why the Pew surveys can claim that large percentages of people created a literal Adam and Eve in current human form. It’s not that respondents really think that. But that’s what good cultural Christians are supposed to believe (similar data on the virgin birth made me want to pull my hair out). One cannot reconcile the level of biblical illiteracy in the society with these general patterns based on any kind of theological framework.
So maybe our first step forward is to admit that we go to church for lots of reasons, not all of them purely spiritual. Maybe it has much more to do with our assumptions about what good people in our culture do. But the surrounding culture isn’t our friend. Syncretism (the fusion of sacred and profane elements) is a temptation for all religious groups. A heightened degree of discernment might allow us to see Christ’s church in fuller form. That’s the point of the next post.
I really didn’t think it was time to write this post. I’ve been working toward constructing my take on the future of evangelicalism in a postmodern society and am still reading material that frame those ideas. But after last week’s WorldVision announcement, conflict, and retraction set off a raft of “end of evangelicalism” posts, I decided it was time to run with what I have and refine it later. As I was telling a friend today via e-mail, blogs aren’t good at nuance because they reflect one’s best thinking to date and there are space limitations. So we’ll consider this another run at the concept. I’ll keep unpacking in future posts, I’m sure.
For more background, I recommend this piece I wrote to summarize my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho four weeks ago. My basic argument is that evangelicalism, between 1990 and 2010, has been focused on boundary maintenance, the protection of position and power, and orthodoxy. That stance has created a backlash among the millennial generation that has caused many to question if they want anything to do with evangelicalism at all, if evangelicalism relates to anyone outside the church, and if we need new models from which to express religious life.
Much of the reasonable response from these millennial bloggers has been somewhat reactionary. They worry about guilt by association with many who pride themselves in the kinds of posturing they grew up with. It reminds me of a conversation I had about my Christian faith when I started graduate school. My fellow students weren’t troubled by my identity as a Christian sociologist. They just wanted an assurance that I wasn’t going to be like “that guy” who chased people around the drink table at parties telling them that they were sinners. In short, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.”
I’ve heard various versions of the “that guy” argument over the years. It happens in Sunday School where someone wants to articulate theological grounding but doesn’t want to sound like their dogmatic cousin. It happens in churches where leaders demand adherence to their positions as a condition of continued affiliation. It’s not just the young who are having these identification issues.
But I’m not prepared to let the bad behavior of individuals or groups give them control over the evangelical label. I think it has a unique meaning (albeit one that’s broader than conservative groups or the media seem to allow).
I consider evangelicals as people committed to God’s Story (read N.T. Wright’s When God Became King for an elaboration), who hold to the full expression of Jesus the Christ (incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, kingdom-builder, and Lord), and who believe that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinful ways, calls us to turn toward the Kingdom around us, and instructs us how to participate in the unfolding of that now-and-not-yet Kingdom.
But living as evangelicals in a complex, diverse, postmodern world calls for a very different stance that we’ve used in past decades. We’ve been enamored with Empire when we should be focused on simply sharing our stories. We have been focused on abstractions and arguments when we should pay attention to the people who cross our paths.
This is why testimony is important. We allow the story of our walk with God, however messy, to intersect with the story of another. This is why the harder stories like those in Jonathan Merritt’s recent book excerpt are so important. They don’t hide behind platitudes but show God at work in the real issues of life. This shouldn’t be news to us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus shared their pain and met Jesus. Philip shares his story with the Ethiopian Eunuch once he’s led by the spirit to one considered unclean. Peter tells the story of his vision and the apostles celebrate Cornelius as a full member of God’s family.
My title today has two meanings. First, it suggests that there are some things that evangelicalism needs to give up, to get straight, to reorient. I’ll make some general suggestions of these and unpack them in future posts. Second, it suggests that we should come as little children when we follow Jesus. Not just in simple faith when believing but in the trust and collaboration that characterizes healthy children at play.
“Coming to Jesus” will require some significant changes to evangelicalism as we’ve known it if it is to ever be true to its potential. We will need to begin with assumptions of diversity instead of unanimity. I wrote in my last post that faithful religious groups can see things in different ways. We need an evangelicalism that affirms this reality, whether we’re talking to evangelical Episcopalians who have affirmed a gay bishop or talking to a writer who celebrates complementarity. We will have to live with the discomfort of knowing that we differ from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus said that’s what the world would be looking at. We will need to affirm the questions that arise from the lived experience of everyday Christians instead of making our faith about which big pastor-author we follow. That may mean the end of “influential evangelical” lists which would a blessing. We will come to value the voice of an individual blogger as a personal search for authentic faith without looking for litmus tests that are the equivalent of Steven Colbert’s “dead to me” board. We will need to be looking forward to the Kingdom Jesus is unfolding in our very midst and not looking backward at some glory day when we could assume everyone agreed with our position. I’m convinced that this look backward is really a type of Christian Civil Religion, where we simply assume people have faith because of where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining our own position. We will need to practice sacrifice, beginning with our demand that we be proven right. This is a central issue of faith. Rather than demanding our way or the validation of our viewpoint, we will need to put ourselves in the place of the other. This will call us to a position of compassion for others, especially those we think are unlikely. As Matthew 25 reminds us, they might just be Jesus.
In short, we need to come to Jesus as children. Trusting, open, engaging, happy to play well with others. There is a reason that Jesus celebrates their faith. He was trying to teach the disciples an important lesson. They were fighting with themselves about issues of power and dominance (“who will be the greatest?”). Amazingly, one of the key instances of this happens right after they say the transfiguration! They’re believing correctly in terms of who Jesus was didn’t keep them from the power games that were essentially self-serving.
15 And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”
Notice that Jesus isn’t rebuking the pharisees here. It’s not the religious and political leaders who needed a “come to Jesus” moment. It was Christ’s followers. It took a long time for them to get it. But the Holy Spirit led them to deeper understandings so that they lived and died as representatives of Christ. By having the faith of a child.
The events of the last 48 hours regarding WorldVision has created a disturbance within the religious world unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years. This was not some comment made by some celebrity or CEO that became a rallying cry for those who feel threatened by cultural changes. This was a disturbance resulting from a parachurch organization wrestling with the complexities of the post-modern world. WorldVision’s policy change regarded same-sex employees who could affirm the Apostle’s Creed, were legally married, and committed to faithful monogamy.
And then the divisions started. There were those who immediately celebrated the change as a major institutional move by an evangelically-related organization to respond to changes in state and federal law. There were those who immediately challenged WorldVision for not upholding biblical standards and encouraged faithful evangelicals to distance themselves from WV (which includes dropping child sponsorship — one estimate had it at 2000 cancellations). Forty-eight hours of blogs and tweets dividing Christians from a variety of positions, coming a close to calling each other names as is possible in 140 characters or less.
Today, WorldVision announced that they were reversing the policy change they had announced on Monday. They apologized. The voices that had dismissed them as unChristian on Monday now simply said “Thank You”. All, it is assumed, is well. Except that it’s not. The damage done to young evangelicals who are trying to find a place in the religious world is hard to overestimate. I read more than one post saying “I’m done with evangelicalism”. I’m sure there are other posts out that will simply say “good to see you go”.
Here’s what’s been bothering me through the whole thing. We’re suffering from a inability to see the church — not the church as we want it to be but the church as it is. There were two elements of Monday’s WorldVision announcement that particularly caught my attention.
First, they recognized the importance of their location in Washington, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2012. Furthermore, it is one of the few states where same-sex marriage was approved by popular vote (instead of by the courts or legislators). For those who have argued that majority votes are determinative in other states, this creates a different context.
Second, and more important, WorldVision acknowledged that as a parachurch organization, they worked with a variety of denominations. Three of those in particular (United Church of Christ, PCUSA, and Episcopalians) had acted within their denominational bodies to legitimize same-sex marriage. These two factors meant that it was only a matter of time until active and faithful church members, married within the church, might apply for a position at WV.
Today’s reversal announcement backs away from those very denominations. “What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs,” said Stearns. “We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.”
So where does it leave the Christians in that “small minority” of denominations who spent years in political and procedural turmoil wrestling with questions of responding to homosexuality, ordination, marriage, scripture, theology, and faithful witness? You don’t have to agree with their conclusion, but denying their efforts is not allowed. These are people of faith who have worked to be faithful to the Gospel as they understand it.
Where do our mainline sisters and brothers find support? Are they part of the Body of Christ or have we decided that the “real” Christian church belongs to our little circle? On what basis do we make that claim?
Over the years, I’ve been fascinated with issues of community. I’ve drawn on Paul’s imagery in Romans and Corinthians as he discussed the complexity of the Body of Christ. One passage that I’ve struggled to make sense of is in 1 Corinthians 8.
9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.
I think this passage speaks well to issues of Christian responsibility. It acknowledges that we have an impact on those around us. What we do and how we act matter. Even if we think our position is correct and defensible, that position could hurt others who don’t share the same commitments.
I’ve always heard these verses used as a defense of more conservative positions. Some may think alcohol use is okay, but that might cause others to stumble who can’t handle the temptation so better to leave it alone.
But what we’ve seen this week is a reversal of the Corinthian passage. It seems that no one is allowed to move from the defined conservative position. The tone of the WorldVision responses seems to fit the subtext of Paul’s warnings about eating meat.
If not holding the defined conservative position results in public attacks, who will be the ones to stumble? Not likely the ones concerned about protecting traditional marriage. But hosts of others.
The range of people damaged this week is pretty broad: the young evangelicals I mentioned earlier, those committed to supporting same-sex couples without turning their backs on faith, people who work at WorldVision, and the broader public watching all the drama play out. Paul would say if being so absolutely right causes others to stumble, was it worth it?
To move forward, we need clearer vision. We need to see the Kingdom of God unfolding in our midst, to see the church in its wonder, to open our eyes to complexity of modern life. Lord, give us eyes to see.