Monday, March 17, 2008

The Next Breed of Evangelical Leaders

At the National Religious Broadcaster’s convention recently, Dr. James Dobson lamented the passing of several prominent Christian leaders who have been activists for several social causes. With the deaths of people like Ruth Graham and D. James Kennedy, and several others getting closer to the ends of their careers, Dobson wondered what was going to happen to broadly conservative Christian activism.

“The question is, will the younger generation heed the call? Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come? Who will plead for the Terri Schiavos of the world? Who’s going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today.”

Dobson, Kennedy, Colson and others have made great social strides in several ways, but more often than not their causes have either explicitly or implicitly been tied to political activism. According to some culture watchers, the younger breed of evangelical is less apt to align themselves politically, or at the least, less apt to openly associate with conservative politics. The article goes on to note:

Christian activists and other observers of the movement say that the next generation of leaders isn’t as interested in polarizing debates and wants to broaden the evangelical agenda beyond divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage. “Who in the next generation will be willing to take the heat, when it’s so much safer and more comfortable to avoid controversial subjects,” Dobson said.

Among that next generation of evangelicals is the emergent movement. If you follow it closely, you know emergents claim to have avoided the same political “errors” of their predecessors. But they have, in fact, committed the same error on the other side of the political aisle. If you are looking to avoid political entanglement, they are not much more help.

I agree with Dobson that our culture needs a new generation of evangelical leaders to stand up for the right things. Here are some thoughts on what ought to characterize those leaders.

First, they need to resist relativism in all its substantial forms. Epistemological and religious relativism are slow-acting poisons that destroy their consumers from the inside out. The Christian worldview needs some form of objectivism to really do its work.

Second, they need to be committed to Jesus Christ and him crucified: from behind pulpits, in vocation, in the public eye, in personal witness, and in family life. For instance, some have gone the route of substituting social justice for the theology of atonement, and are going the way of 19th century theological liberalism. We need to regain a full-orbed sense of being a Christian in this world (including social causes) beginning with the clear messages of the nature of Christ and the nature of humanity. Despite all appearances, those are not mutually exclusive goals.

Thirdly, the next wave of leaders needs to keep their kingdoms straight. Good theology will inevitably have social and political consequences. Political activism without good theology reduces to propagandizing. A major mistake Christians make (in both political directions) is treating parties and figures as surrogate messiahs. “If only Senator So-and-So is elected, then we can get some real work done for the Kingdom of God” is a confusion of kingdoms. In reality, the church often flourishes most when the powers that be are openly opposed to it. Maybe that is because in those seasons Christians have a better grasp on the true identity of their Savior.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no specific distaste for Christians making their views open to political debate and public vote. What I don’t like are the tendencies that sometimes comes to the fore when Christians get too tied to politics. The kingdoms of the world are fading away, but the Kingdom of our Lord will last forever.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Rise of the "Nones"

A recent survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life has made quite a splash in several circles. Among other things, the study shows that there are significant numbers of people switching religions or religious affiliations during their lifetime. One may grow up Baptist, but it is becoming more likely that they will spend most of their adult life as unaffiliated with a denomination or a religious title.

In USA Today, Stephen Prothero has some insightful things to say about how the religious landscape is changing, and aside from some rather silly political barbs, I think he has some important things to say. First of all, he is right when he notes:

The USA is rapidly becoming a culture of customization.

Not just with our careers, fast food and clothing, but with our own brands of spirituality as well. He also notes what may be the vital reality for churches to understand:

The key subplot here is the rise of "nones," a category growing faster than any other religious group. Of all adults in the USA, 16% say they are religiously unaffiliated, while 7% were raised that way. Moreover, 25% of younger Americans (ages 18-29) report no religious affiliation at all.


What does the rise of the "nones," particularly in Western states and northern New England, demonstrate? Not the sickness of religion in general but the health of a new kind of religion — a more personal and less institutional form often parading under the banner of "spiritual but not religious," an option that, among my Boston University students at least, seems as popular as the smoothie stand in the student union.

So the “nones” are not committed to nothing, or even to atheism, but to not being committed to a denominational or religious structure. Due to whatever sets of reasons—dissatisfaction with the authenticity of churches and pastors, recent moral scandals, the way churches spend or don’t spend money, or just the raw individualist drive—more and more people are avoiding close association with churches.

But there was another finding that Prothero noted:

Another story buried in the data of this new survey is the power of evangelical Protestantism, and particularly non-denominational churches. Of those surveyed, 44% called themselves "born again" or "evangelical" Christians, and among religious options non-denominational Protestantism is one of the fastest growing.

So there may be some bright spots in this after all. But the question needs to be posed and answered well: what is a church to do in this kind of atmosphere?

HT: Albert Mohler

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"New" Sins

The Vatican has issued an updated list of sins.

I first became aware of this news item the other day, and what impressed me the most about it was the seriousness with which the Vatican is taking bioethics and the frontiers of biotech. Among the expanded list of mortal sins are: genetic modification and carrying out experiments on humans.

This raises at least a couple of really interesting issues. First of all, in what sense are these “new” sins? I might be wrong, but the tag “new” seems to be something that has come from the reporting and not necessarily from the Vatican, but it is, after all, an updated list of sins. And in that sense at least, they are “new.”

It might be that the action of genetic modification is new. We just didn’t have those technologies 50 or 100 years ago. But humans still “sinned” while experimenting on other humans and enacting eugenic projects on large or small scales.

While it may be true that humans have sinned in these ways in different forms in the past, I think it is important to these new technologies to be labeled the same way we would label the Nazi experiments on prisoners. The way human experimentation was done decades and centuries ago wrenches our emotions and sympathies when we see the brutal and bloody equipment used and the grainy photographs of the horrible results.

Now, we can experiment on humans in very clean and clinical environments that illicit emotions of friendliness, reason, and progress. The photographs of the humans are tiny, unrecognizable circles of stuff in petri dishes that fail to arouse our sympathies.

Thus, it is important for theological organizations like the Vatican, to label these actions for people.

The second issue is a bit broader. More and more denominations and church organizations should be just as clear about these things. We all need to be doing the work of exegeting culture and applying the timeless truths of Scripture and the Christian faith to the important issues of our day. Before the technology goes too far to be stopped (some may say we are there already), we need to apply real and critical reflection to the technologies and consequences.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Attitudes on Tithing

This article is an interesting view into the world of church finances in our local newspaper. The premise is that tithing and giving are down in local churches, and it details a few reasons why that might be the case.

First of all, there really are several statistics that show this to be the case across the board. Fewer and fewer people are giving to churches. One reason detailed in the article was:

Young people don’t give as regularly as their parents might have, and many people of all ages are giving to charities rather than to religious organizations.

There seems to be a “bang-for-your-buck” mentality on a certain level. It is easy to see the impact of a food bank or a clothing give-away, but young people may not as readily “see” the benefits of giving to a church.

This raises the question of why Christians give. Do we give to churches because we expect them to be social welfare programs? Churches should not shirk their responsibility there, but that is not why believers ought to give.

Another anecdote in the article:

“If your church is going to have a bigscreen TV, what is the point?” Cruz said.

This church-hunter was growing tired of the opulence of megachurches. I can certainly see his point, but it is a point that should be pressed. How much spending is too much for a church? A bigger TV for the youth group? A $10,000 bank of stage lighting? Really comfortable chairs in the sanctuary? My sense is that Mr. Cruz’s tolerance for spending would be different based on what he personally found beneficial to his family. Who really wants churches to go back to wooden pews?

Again, there is nothing wrong with churches being good stewards, but, again, this raises the question of why Christians ought to give. Do we give so we can tell a church board how to spend our money?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Good Short Discussion on Truth and the Emergent Movement

This is a great video of three very solid thinkers discussing postmodernism and the emergent movement. They say several things that need to be said and heard about the necessity of truth (what Schaeffer called “true truth”) for a Christian worldview and the inability of the emergent movement to handle it.

Much of the emergent reaction I have seen to this clip is a little silly. Many accuse the presenters of having never read any of the basic emergent literature when they, in fact, discuss what they read specifically in the clip. I have also found that to be an emergent tactic when you find a soft spot—“you didn’t really read what he wrote.” And even more emergenty is the smarmy sigh of disappointment that the presenters were not irenic or circumspect in presenting their views on the matter.

But this is one of the core problems with an emergent point of view. Because of their postmodern commitments, they are unable to take a serious stand on anything except a stand against anyone who takes a stand on anything. To them, a catch phrase like “irenic” is synonymous with, “you can’t make judgments.” And that, to be sure, is a really bad place to begin building serious and life-transforming theology. Not only is it a view that commits suicide (it is itself a judgment), it is not what any emergent thinker actually believes or practices.

What the world needs is not more fuzzy thinking about god-in-general or spirituality-in-general. It needs Christians who know how to speak the truth in love—beginning with the truth, and also beginning with the love.

I read a commentary on Mark 8 the other day that I thought summarized well one of the places where the emergent movement is going wrong. In the context of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus’ acceptance of the title, Jesus’ description of his life and then his description of the life of the disciple, the scholar wrote, “A false view of Messiahship leads to a false view of discipleship.” In other words, if we are unable to come to grips with the truth Jesus spoke about himself, our life of following Christ will miss the mark.

But that doesn’t sound irenic to me.