Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

 

 

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No. You don’t want your uncle Jimmy to get ordained online to do your wedding.

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It is trendy to have someone you know buy an online ordination and do your wedding ceremony. Every year I have multiple (otherwise solid) Christians contact me to ask where and how to find the “least weird” way to be ordained. Here is my response:

It is an honor to be asked, and good on you for wanting to make it as right as possible. Unfortunatelywhat you are asking just isn’t. Would you ask a teacher help you get a “less weird” online teaching certificate? Or a doctor to help you get a “less weird” online medical license? Getting ordained through Billy Bob’s Online Church of the Twenty-Buck Blessing may seem like a good idea, but it overlooks the training and experience needed to do a wedding well. A teacher does more than pull off classroom management as a one-time substitute, and a doctor more than demonstrate mastery of the tongue depressor in a routine visit. In the same way, a pastor does much more than simply read a wedding service.

Your friend will be putting someone who has never done a wedding in charge of the single most expensive and important party of their life. Will they also be asking a friend who takes nice Instagram pics to be photographer? A minister is air-traffic control. They make all of the many parts and people move in coordination. Brides are under a lot of stress. They do not need a rookie at the helm.

More than that, a non-ordained friend doing the ceremony is a bad setup for the marriage. Marriage is a sacred act originating in the mind of God. Marriage is tough. It needs God’s participation to have more than a Powerball player’s chance of making it after you scratch the ink off and see what resides below the surface of each of us. There are important roles in a wedding a friend can handle, but when it comes to making the vows, you want to have every bit of oomph possible behind those promises. You want a couple, even ones without faith involvement, to say, “I promised God and God’s representative in front of all of my friends and family in that church that I will love this girl/boy no matter how bad a time I am having of it. I’d better make good on this!”

Do them a favor, ask them to find someone duly ordained. Probably not what you wanted to hear. 🙂

Matt

Usually my friends then respond with: That’s a lot to think about, but my niece/friend/neighbor is really important to me. I’m the only Christian they know and being connected to a church isn’t a priority for them. I think this is a great opportunity for me to ask some good, tough questions to her and her fiancé. Don’t you? 

I love your heart. You don’t want an online ordination.

You are wise to see your friends’ need for preparation. Marriage preparation from someone who is in a good marriage, like yours, is a good thing. But why not also connect them with someone who has helped lots of marriages? Good churches typically do a 4-6 session pre-marital course. Your friendship gives you traction to say, “Trust us, you want one more person involved: a real pastor…with their experience, preparation program, and the encouragement of other couples who will also be making new marriages work. All of that will be really helpful!”

On top of that, encourage them to try a church. You and I have both experienced the support and perspective that faith and a multi-generational church community has been in keeping the wheels from coming off our marriages when they might have otherwise.

Matt

The friend then generally responds with some version of: “Matt, you really don’t get the situation here. Our friend doesn’t going to church and they aren’t going to. She wants ME to do it and I want to do it because I love them.”
I have learned to have this part of the conversation in person because it looks so snarky in writing:

I have been at this a long time. I actually do know what is going on. 99 couples out of 100 come to clergy and ask for a “great wedding.” The fact that you think you are their best option for that, friend, reveals their need for an actual pastor. It feels good to be asked, and it feels good to give someone what they want. But that doesn’t really help them. Pastors do not to acquiesce to people’s whims and wants, but move naive couples off of the dime of “great wedding” to “great marriage.” The first is a one-off. The second is a lifetime.

I am not saying, “Let a friend down.” I am saying be a great friend: Give them a third party – one who can say things important for their life together, but hard for them to hear. Then you and your wife are free to take the role of wise old married friend confirming the ancient wisdom offered by that pastor.

Many have been burned by the church and ministers, or, not knowing or distrusting the church, have failed to engage. But, to bring this full circle, bad ministers and bad churches do not invalidate the help provided by good ones any more than being harmed by bad public school teachers or bad doctors invalidates teaching or medicine. Don’t fall into the trap of reinforcing the perception of irrelevance of some of the most potentially helpful relationships in their marriage: a church and qualified, called, experienced clergy. Make their circle larger: Include a real church and a real pastor.

Matt

Ordination is not a piece of paper. 

Ordination is a long process that begins when the community sees someone’s calling. A person confirms that call through a period of prayer and community discernment. Then the person endure rigorous preparation that typically culminates in a 3-year Masters of Divinity degree program. After seeing the faithfulness of the person in their faith journey, service, and spiritual preparation, then the church ordains them, setting them apart and asking God to make them, by His grace, up to the task of leading God’s people.

In ordination, the community of faith, below, around, and above invests in a person’s training, and then asks them to, as Eugene Peterson said, “Lash themselves to the mast of Word and Sacrament” on that communities’ behalf. Ordained people pledge to be the one whom, when the storms of life come, the community can count on. They pledge to be there when we are married, when our children are born, when they own their faith, and when we are ill and when we go and meet our maker…and every week in between. It is a sacred covenant between God, the ordained, and a community. Because of our relationship with our clergy: we have an awareness of the sacrifices they have made, and knowing that they literally risk their supper if they offend us, we trust that the occasional hard things they say and we don’t want to hear deserve a listen.

Googling an ordination makes a mockery of that process, real pastors, and the communities that call them. And it doesn’t help the people getting married.

Buying an ordination does two things well: It gives pastors lots of complements from people whose last wedding was officiated at by a bogusly ordained friend, and it feeds a side of the one buying it that really doesn’t need feeding. 

Photo from: wedding photo

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

Why are you here?

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Michael Phelps new commercial unlocks the secret of overcoming uncertainty.

 I watched Michael Phelps new Under Armour commercial today. A powerful testimony to the value of sacrifice, commitment, and repetition, it shows the most decorated Olympian in history preparing for his final Olympiad this summer in Rio. The tag line: “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.”

I have many meetings with people I refer to as “the uncertain.” Often the person will look up from their coffee or craft beer and say, “I guess the real reason I wanted to meet with you is that I don’t know what I should be doing with my life.” I listen and then politely ask them to back up and ask themselves a prior question, “Why are you here?” My question is generally met with a blank stare. So I gently push the issue, “Really. Why are you here? What were you made to do?” Confusion usually turns to frustration and the stammering of some version of, “I’ve got enough problems without you starting an existential crisis.”

The irony is that they already have the existential crisis. But the willingness to dig deeply enough to get at the root, like my desire to quick-weed my yard in Spring, prevents a true solution to that crisis.

Ultimate questions lurk beneath the question.

“What should I do” can only be answered in light of knowing why we are here, what we were made for.

In another bit of irony, we get at why we are here and what we are for backwards, by starting with what we do. Not our paying job, of course, but we we actually spend our private energy on. (To be clear, in the Christian worldview people are not valued based on human performance, but in the mercy of God based in the performance of Jesus, as seen in his life, death and resurrection for wandering humanity.) But what we spend our time doing points to why we are here and what we are to do.

That thing we do…

What is it we do? Answer: Worship. Uhmm, yes, our secular culture still spends most of its’ time and energy in worship. Worship is a contraction of the old English words “Worth-ship” – that which we value, that which we love, that which we long for. Isn’t most of what you spend your energy on love? We desire. We want. We long. We are worshipping creatures.

In the Old Testament the word that is translated “worship” means to “bow before.” Don’t we all bow before something? The question is, “Are we bowing before the right things?” Young people in American “achiever” culture face tremendous pressure to “bow” – to fit in…look “right,” get to the “right” school, have the “right” friends…act the part. Even among individualistic “meta-narrative rejecting” post-modern males, our “individualism” tends to look pretty uniform. I see a lot of plaid flannel, skinny jeans and untrimmed beards – a grown-up version of the eight junior high girls I once saw in a mall wearing matching “Dare to be different” t-shirts. Sure, we are individuals, as long as you hold to the correct politics and sensitivities of our age. But if what we “value,” what we “worship,” is indistinguishable from our culture, surely we will end up as nothing more than this generation’s shallow sellouts to the outward trappings of our culture’s vision of success.

So we are worshipping creatures, made to worship. And we need to worship beyond ourselves. Redirecting our worship outside of ourselves, at the one who made and redeemed us, gives one a center and a grounding that our culture alone cannot. This is because it is worship rightly directed that fulfills your design, fulfills God’s plan for you. Worshipping God is the first step in identifying what one should do with their life.

Wait a moment: You are telling me that going to church is going to help me figure out a career? Are you daft? But better than questioning my sanity would be the question, “How does one best worship beyond themselves?”

Worship in the Christian worldview has been grounded in a vision of God’s two-fold nature revealed in the Old and New Testaments. God has many more characteristics, but the two foundational ones in historic Christianity have been that God is both perfectly holy and perfectly loving.

Holy yet loving. …Transcendent yet immanent. Awesome and out there, yet intimate and desiring to indwell us by the Holy Spirit. Out of God’s nature comes our need to worship. (Col 1:16, Eph 1:11, 1 Pet 2:9, Is 43:6-7)

God’s holiness reveals God as the grandest being in the universe. A being who spoke the universe into existence. God is a worthy of worship in the glory of God’s being. A being we should bow before.

God’s love: The Greek Orthodox have the idea of “perichoresis” Greek for “rotation.” The idea is that in the Trinity we have the One God in a divine Three-Person dance. God in love and unity, created humanity to invite us into the dance of eternity. “For God so loved the world” that he breathed it into existence. Then, when we had wandered away into sin and death, he “he gave his only begotten son” as “an offering and a sacrifice unto God.” (Eph 5:2)

These two foundations to God’s nature are revealed time and again in Scripture. Yet, much to our shame, the church has had a difficult time holding these two truths in tension.

Up Next: Part 2: How Reshaping Our Desires Redirects Our Destiny

The Polarization of America: Whatever happened to Average Joe?

 

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Thoughtful author and mega-pastor, Tim Keller, describes a seeming contradiction: How can conservative evangelicalism be experiencing slow growth when the wider culture is growing noticeably more secular? Keller’s answer: It is an indicator of an increasingly polarized America.

“…the number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion in the middle…

I have been saying this for years. But finally somebody with a big-boy microphone said it – the middle, if not gone, is going fast.

“You don’t so much see secularization as polarization, and what is really disappearing is the middle.‘”

Here is how a disappearing middle plays out… 

-Politically-

In Arizona one would think that Republicans vying for their parties’ nomination for governor were the Hatfields and McCoys. For six months my inbox has been the sawed off shotgun of spam – Republican on Republican attack ads in every direction. And then the emails from the Democrats arrive. Both sides making sure we know the truth – “those guys” are ruining America! Accusations are fired indiscriminately, like buckshot. Want to win a political race? Run to a partisan sideline and attack your opponent. The middle disappeared.

-Religiously-

This loss of common ground is occurring in religion as well. It is seen on university campus’ as the forces of puritanical secularism rally to deny religious freedoms on even broad creedal bodies. A prominent clergy friend once said, “Twenty years ago I was decently left of center. Now I am the exposed right flank and wondering if there is still room for me.” A once self-proclaimed liberal the exposed right flank? What happened? In his church the “right” may have “quit,” but the middle disappeared.

It is true politically. It is true religiously.

It is also true socio-economically…

-In Our Neighborhoods-

When I was growing up the difference between the wealthy and middle class was a fourth bedroom and room for a second car in your carport. The poor lived in two-bedroom homes two blocks away. Rich or poor, no one was really too far from the middle.

Americans once shared a lot of common ground: Most folks went to church. Most kids went to public school  – even if the school was not good. We all bought clothes at the same mall and food at the same grocery stores. Parents stood together in the streets after work and talked about “our” kids. It was a community of the middle. We were all “Average Joe’s.”

Today in that same neighborhood the children of the one car carport/three bedroom homes are on free and reduced lunch and the parents can’t afford to water the lawns. In the two car/four bedroom homes most of the kids are in $15,000 a year private schools. They do 6 figure remodels of those homes every seven years. (Now before you light me up for being anti-wealth let me assure you that I have nothing against wealth. Neither did Jesus, by the way. Jesus was not anti-wealth. He was pro-generosity. What I am having issue with is the disappearance of Average Joe.)

Average Joe, and his wife Average Jane, were America’s sane, moderate middle. They paid taxes, worked the same job until retirement. They raised nice kids who got in trouble a few times, but who would surely grow up and follow in their average parents’ footsteps.

But along the way Joe and Jane’s kids surprised us. The kids grew up into Katie Cause and Kevin Consumption-polarized and polarizing. Perhaps it was economic pressure. Or fear of change. Or political winds. Whatever the causes, Katie and Kevin picked “sides” in the culture wars and retreated to them. We could have not have done a better job of rearranging our lives around our socio-economics and our politics if we had set out to. Last week a thoughtful clergy-blogger, Fr. Tony Clavier, worried out loud that our religion has become mere cover for our political aspirations.

-The Disappearing Middle-

But here I remain. In the increasingly empty middle.

And I am not leaving. I’m compulsive in my centricity.  I even joined a church who calls itself the “via media.” But I am looking around. And from here the “middle way” looks like the no man’s land between the trenches in the Verdun. Nothing but bullets, bodies, and folks running for cover.

There are some benefits to being in the middle, of course. Occasionally one gets to be a bridge. Which isn’t always as fun as it sounds. Bridges get walked on. And in times of war booby trapped.

And Yet…

Before my cynical soliloquy sends you to the medicine cabinet in search of antidepressants, let me assure you that I actually have hope for a renewed common ground. It comes from our young adults – those misaligned Millennials. At their best, they have the ability to hold deep convictions but without the need to coerce into their camp those who don’t share them. Among the over thirty the word “tolerance” is generally code for “progressive.” For many young adults, who have grown up in diversity, it means, gasp, the ability to have real, actual friendships with those with whom they disagree.

Average Joe and Average Jane are gone. I am fairly certain they are not coming back. But look who is beginning to move into the neighborhood! Their grandchildren, who are less interested in consumption and, although they care deeply for their causes, have a distaste for demonizing others.

And, if you are tired of living on the fringes and looking for a new friendlier place, there is room here in the middle of our block for you…

Millennials still in the church: What do they have in common?

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I had an interesting conversation with a millennial today. This young man was part of a vibrant youth ministry in a large, fast growing church. He described the youth program as “fantastic!” It was led by a gifted and godly leader, a person I know and hold in high esteem. “Hundreds came through and at least 60 of us had genuinely transformative faith experiences in that group,” the young man told me. Then he dropped the bomb, “But five years later I only know of four of us that are still in church.”

Think about those numbers. Even if you only count those who had a conversion experience, that is still a staggering 94% drop out rate!

Survey after survey has told us this is going on in the White evangelical world, but these millennials went to a Spanish language church – churches that we are told are immune to this phenomenon.

My young friend was visibly discouraged so I changed the subject and we spent a few minutes thinking about what the four of them who “made it” have in common. Here is what we noticed:

The young adults who stayed…

1. Read: Regularly, even (gasp) daily.

2. Listen: They spend regular time alone listening to God (you know, prayer).

3. Learn: They have learned the historic answers to the basics of the faith and the church. This is not being able to argue Calvinism vs Arminianism or defend inerrancy, but what used to be called “catechesis.”

4. Reflect: They apply the Scriptures and the catechesis they have received to the issues in their lives.

5. Gather: They regularly worship with other Christians to grow in their faith through song, Scripture, sermon and Sacrament, in a format (and this is important) designed for the training of Christians.

6. Follow: They are in active relationship with a mentor who spends time with them…who loves and challenges them.

7. Lead:  They are in active relationships with people they are mentoring. People they know and spend time with…whom they love and challenge.

8. Lean: They are surrounded by a community of others who are doing the same – people they “do life” with and lean on.

These things are both internal and external: Internally the ones who remained have built up reserves of Scripture, prayer, study, and worship. They know the “whats” and “whys” of the faith, and have a method for dealing with questions and struggles in their lives.

And at least as important, Externally, they have a leader above, a community around, and a group below that depend on them.

An obvious question formed: Is there anything on our list that is different from what “built” a young Christian in 1914? 1514? 514? 114?  

As we spoke, it dawned on us that the four had received essentially what disciples in every generation have received from the church: Internal scaffolding to support them in their faith, and webs of external relationships that weave them together. Together these tend to produce people who go through life singing in the key of Jesus.

It became obvious that the ones who are “making it” are exactly the ones we would expect…the ones who learned to love doing the things Christians have loved doing for 2000 years. Wasn’t this what was going on in Acts 2:42-47? Maybe ministry to millennials really isn’t rocket science…unless, of course, we stop doing those things the church has historically done.

My guess is that if you look at the young adults who are in your church, the chances are good that they are specifically the ones who have not just had preaching and programs, but whose lives are intertwined with others, giving them these webs of relationships to go with their faith scaffolding. What would happen to millennials if the church stopped giving students “relevant” curriculums and programs, segregating them away into youth rooms, spending piles of money on lights, fog machines, and xboxes, and simply went back to incarnating the Gospel? The Great Commission is strikingly simple: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Let’s try that and see if, “lo” and behold, it isn’t just Jesus who is “with us till the end of the age“, but a generation of millennials as well.

 

By the way, the millennial was Julio Torres, our music leader. The other three are a youth director, a children’s minister, and a youth volunteer. …Which, come to think of it, validates my contention that if you want a millennial to stay in your church, give them a task

Mean people suck. But that’s not why millennials dropped the church.

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An open letter to Lead Pastors.

Do you hear that sucking sound? It’s the sound of young adults walking out the back door so fast that you can feel the breeze from the pulpit way down at the front of the sanctuary.

Young adults have always been a bit shaky in their church attendance during college. But then a new trend emerged: They stopped coming back. No one worried much about it at first. But as the return rate continued to plummet, the Millennial abandonment of the church became the stuff that keeps pastors up late at night. Millennials are, after all, the ones whose attractive fresh young faces make people say, “Oh, this place is doing really well!”

A few churches are still doing really well with young adults, of course. But multiple studies, such as this one from Pew Research, show that young adults now attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents at their age. One in three young adults now characterize themselves as  “nones” – religiously unaffiliated.  If you haven’t noticed your church greying yet: fear not, you will.

What is going on with those Millennials? 

According to the narrative, the church is full of narrow, nasty, fearful, bigots. If you are smart, hip, or have a pulse, you should drop the church like a hot rock for something more helpful to your life…like spending Sunday morning playing games on your iPhone at Starbucks, or puttering in your garden, or just pulling your covers up over your head and grabbing another hour of shuteye.

David Kinnaman, in his interesting book, “You Lost Me,” provides a stark articulation of this meme. His team conducted research with more than 1200 young adults. According to the compelling stories he recounts, young adults dropped out because they found the Church to be:

Shallow, with easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans.

-Overprotective and repressive: Sexual mores feel stifling to young adults.

Exclusive. Christian claims to exclusivity are a hard sell in a pluralistic culture.

Doubtless. The church is fearful and dare not risk allowing them to express doubts.

Antiscience.

In other words, the church is mean. 

If you talk to folks between the age of 20 and 35 about the church you have probably heard all of the above statements. However, these don’t necessarily paint a complete picture as to why Millennials left. They tell us why they SAY they left – how they have interpreted their experience. So, although Kinnaman’s book has become the “Bible” on Millennials, there is…

Another piece of the puzzle…

It appeared in last April’s edition of Atlantic Monthly: “Listening to Young Atheists.” Alex Taunton interviewed college students who self-identify as atheists and asked them to “tell the story of your journey into atheism.” What he heard was not what he expected – which always makes my ears perk up. To his surprise, young atheists did not wax eloquent about their intellectual difficulties with Christianity – the anti-science, anti-gay, theologically rigid, “easy believe-ism” stuff we all hear about (apologies to my more progressive friends). Neither did they talk about a desire to engage in sinful, frowned upon by the church, lifestyles (apologies to my more conservative friends). Here is what young atheists told Taunton…

1. They had attended church The number one source of college atheists is, wait for it, Christianity…as it was modeled to them.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague – rather than too much catechesis, they received too little. They were not given an intellectual frame for their faith.

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive  In the middle of forty years of enormous investment in youth ministry, high school is when atheist millennials embraced their unbelief!

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional oneusually involving the loss of a trusted youth leader

Did you notice the seedbed that hatched young atheists? It was specifically a reaction AGAINST their experience of the church. Second, they didn’t become atheists in those evil, conspiratorially faith-stealing secular universities. We lost the Millennials when they were in high school – In our youth groups!

One student said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”

Our big fail?

“Meanness” is style. And apparently a style fail is the least of our issues. According to atheist millennials, we also have a theology fail, a program fail, and a leader fail. The atheists who grew up in our churches tell us that we didn’t:

1) Model love and authenticity during their critical adolescent years.

2) Disciple them. Not downloading information, but the time-intensive task of walking with them, life on life…teaching them Christian practices in a context of friendship.

3) Catechize: Provide historic answers to the historic questions.

4) Allow them to engage their doubts. Talking through doubts is how one gets through them.

5) Integrate them thoroughly into the life of the church. We gave them a soteriology without an ecclesiology:  A personal Jesus without a Body of Christ. We professionalized student ministry and segregated kids away in youth rooms. We let parents, the older generation, and anyone in the church staff not titled, “youth pastor” off the hook.

Students needed a web of relationships and an affiliation bond with the larger church.

But we shuttled them off into “youth services,” creating in-effect parachurch student ministries on church campuses with trendy grow-out-of-it-when-you-graduate names. And, often, by the time they get back from college, their pastor, the student pastor, is gone as well. In a “youth service” model, Millennials have never been in the sanctuary and don’t know those leading in there either. Add in the fact that the sanctuary reflects a ministry model developed for their parent’s generation and, for many, you have strike three, and the Millennials are walking off the field and hanging up their bats.

6. Give them a mission in the world. The doctrine of creation tells us that we were made on purpose for a high and holy purpose. When they were in high school did we give them something epic to do? Something unreachably heroic that they could only see and do with eyes of faith?

Will we listen to them?

Young adult atheists are telling us that we failed to give them a robust faith in the triune God…a faith they were asking us for. And this isn’t just a problem facing “liberal” or “conservative” churches.  While the Left gave them Social Justice Jesus, the Right gave them a truncated, topical Jesus who promises, “Your Best Life Now.” A Fuller seminary friend told me that in a recent survey of graduating youth group seniors the most common thing students, across denominations, wished they had been given more of in youth group wasn’t games, skits, or worship. It was “Bible Study.”

Lead pastors, you have served your mission field of busy 35-55 year olds nervous about cultural change by giving them practical content from fewer, trusted voices on video-venues. What might missionally engaging students in there changing context look like? After all, like you once said to your senior pastor when you were working with youth, “We cannot expect today’s youth ministry to use the models we designed for a previous generation.”

When you and I started in ministry, students came to the church hungry to be entertained. Today they come expecting a sense of the transcendent. Study after study tells us that Millennials long for spiritual practices, meaningful service in the church, and a mission to the world. They seek peer groups to support their faith. They desire older Christian mentors and multi-generational relationships. They come for Scriptural knowledge and, gasp, theology. They come to learn about the God who made them, redeems them, and has a purpose for the world. They come seeking God’s plan and calling on their lives to do something of true and lasting significance.

Yes, the world changed. But while that change occurred we kept giving them a simple Gospel message with fog machines, light shows, and games in which they stuffed their faces with marshmallows.

So they left. But not when we thought. Not why we thought. And not how we thought.

A way forward?

It should be obvious that what I am pointing toward is not less youth ministry but a redirecting of it toward a more robust form. A form more tied to the greater church. The solution to all of this will involve Lead Pastors – You are the source of vision, direction, permission and covering. Nothing changes without your endorsement. Will you allow your Student Ministry leaders to change your student ministry today so that tomorrow’s students don’t bail too? You were an innovator in reaching your mission field. Will you free your student ministers to innovate to a new generation? We all want Christians for life, not just for high school. Will you unravel programs when the data demonstrates that filling youth services today leads to empty sanctuaries tomorrow? 

The truth is staring us in the face. The stakes are too high to throw away another generation with sincere but ultimately unhelpful youth ministry.