My dilemma…

“In an article published in Christian Century, Jackson Carroll reports that a survey of the reading habits of evangelical clergy reveals that no theologian is among their favorite authors, no theology is among their most recently read books, and no theological journal is among their frequent reading.”  

This captures the predicament I often deliberate over: what happened to the pastor scholar?  Is education even useful in ministry anymore?  Does my desire to pursue more education simply guarantee that I will slowly fade into irrelevance as a pastor?  How can we bring together the abstract and the concrete?  Is the ability to think theologically even useful anymore in ministry?

It’s like we’ve casted our unique voice aside in favor of poor attempts to mimic the voices of others.

I like depth.  I have two books on ecclesiology sitting next to me now, plus one on my Kindle I just bought.  I guess I have been holding onto hope that the likes of Gilbert Bilezikian and Stanley Grenz might be at least as useful to me as Craig Groeschel and Steven Furtick.  But in a climate that predominantly measures a pastor’s success with words like “relevant” and “strategic,” things are not looking good for the usefulness of the former two names I mentioned.

I want to be a pastor who doesn’t stop believing that deep cries out to deep.  I want to be an artist that blurs the lines between heaven and earth.  

I believe that to do this, we must learn to think theologically again.

 

Wilson, J. R. (2005). Practicing Church. In M. Husbands, & D. J. Treier (Eds.), The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.

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Reading your Bible without missing the point (part 1): prescriptive versus descriptive.

I’ve decided to offer a few thoughts about some of the ways that those in my theological tradition often read the Bible.  I realize this might be a touchy subject.  Some readers, if they are thoughtful, might be challenged about the way they have interpreted some verses.  However, poor interpretation of the Bible often has a systemic result; not only does it harm the person who misinterprets, but it often harms the witness of the Church because it causes people to say or do things that misrepresent God.  There are times to take a bold stance on things; so let’s do our best to make sure our stances really do align with what the Bible is saying.

Today’s point is this: some content in the Bible is prescriptive, while other content is descriptive.  What’s the difference?  Prescriptive content is that which, after careful examination of the text, establishes a clear model for us to follow.  For instance, I would be quite comfortable considering Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19 as prescriptive of how we should behave, even today: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Notice, however, that when these words were originally spoken, Jesus did not say them to you or me.  He said them to the disciples at the time.  That means that before we decide that this is a prescriptive model for us to follow, there are other interpretive tools that need to enter into the equation.  For example, we might consider other scriptures, or the literary genre, or the historical context.  But these are issues for another post.  Thankfully, this often can be done by simply exercising common sense.

Descriptive content, on the other hand, is narrative material that is simply telling us what happened.  Sometimes the Bible just tells us what happened, and there isn’t necessarily prescriptive model attached to it.  When the Bible tells us that Judas hanged himself, it’s just telling us what happened.  That doesn’t mean we should go do that ourselves.  That might seem obvious, but I use it as an example to demonstrate the rule for situations that might be less clear.  For instance, the way that God deals with one person in the Bible is not necessarily the way that he will explicitly deal with me.  God dealt with Jabez one way, but it would be a misappropriation of scripture to therefore assume that he must also do the same for me if I can make the variables equal.  The text is simply telling us what happened (and revealing something neat about God!).  Similarly, when God gives Abraham a clear and specific calling, reading this too prescriptively can send us into theological turmoil.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart said that “Narratives record what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time.  Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral of the story” (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth, 2003, p. 85).*  So next time you’re reading the Bible, try applying this principle…and it may just help you hear God speak more clearly.

*I know that this is not proper citation.  But it’s my blog so I can do whatevs.  If I actually thought any of my professors read this, I might change it :).

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And then there’s this…

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Tubby time.

Grandmas, this is for you:

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Small groups.

In 1905, John Vincent (a leader in the movement we call “Sunday School”) made a prediction about the future of his movement:

“In the future the Sunday school will be less like a school and more like a home.  Its program will focus on conversation and the interaction of people rather than the academic study of the Bible or theology.  The Sunday school will be a place where friends deeply concerned about Christian faith will gather to share life together.”

I’d say the brother nailed it.

Westerhoff, J. (2000). Will Our Children Have Faith? Harrisburg: Morehouse.

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Alive inside.

Worship is about more than music.

Worship is about a life led.

Singing is just one small part of worship.

But perhaps music awakens something within us that nothing else can.

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Hey Baby Boomers, where’d you go?

George Barna recently did what George Barna does, and conducted a study of religious change across the generations in America.  Analyzing the Busters (1965-1983), the Boomers (1946-1964) and the Elders (1927-1945).  There was of course a lot of data in the study, much (though not all) of which indicated a decline in general religious fervor among Americans.*  The piece that struck me the hardest was the following little observation:

“While the Boomers have never been the generation most likely to attend church, during the past 20 years the percentage of unchurched Boomers has risen dramatically, jumping up 18 points! At 41%, they are now the generation most likely to be unchurched, surpassing the 39% level among Busters.”

The boomers are now the generation most likely to be unchurched.  And yet this concern may be overshadowed by the conception that it is the young adults that are giving the church the proverbial “peace out.”  Admittedly, the study does not account for those in their early and mid twenties (my own generation).  But perhaps this knowledge should help realign church leader’s concern back toward generations that they thought were “in the bag.”

What does this come down to?  Maybe we need to consider a few things.

1.  Let’s train up multi generational church planters.  I’m talking about seeing a new movement of baby boomers planting churches.  Perhaps the years of organizational leadership, business smarts, and life experience would make them good at it.  And hopefully it would fill in a gap that appears to have been created when the church turned it’s gaze almost exclusively toward planting churches geared for the emerging generations (which, by the way, I don’t think should cease).  And we might as well not leave it with the Boomers.  3 in 7 “Elders” are unchurched too.  Let’s cast our nets wide.

2.  At the same time, let’s revisit the tendency to segregate our churches.  I’m not saying that different generations don’t have unique developmental issues that should be addressed in discipleship.  But our emphasis should be more on what our church does together, not on what it does apart.**  I understand the values of different cultures worshiping in their mother tongue (and yes, I feel different generations could be considered different cultures), and in some sense this should be retained.  But we should ask how we can live in the tension between what makes more practical sense (i.e., having young people and old people have their own separate times of worship) and what appears to be the Kingdom reality (I don’t think the new heaven and new earth will be segregated).

But that’s a whole other conversation.

*Some stats that would depress most church leaders might be something of a blessing in disguise.  For instance, a decline in involvement in a local church might also be accompanied by an increase in finding out who Jesus was, and might be expressed through the advent of house churches or alternative gatherings.  Sure, I am a proponent of the local church, but any time people are interested in Jesus, that’s a good thing.

**I’m happy to report that this is a value among us at The Ransom that we’re continuing to flesh out within our young church.

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Were not our hearts burning within us?

It’s early Sunday morning, and two followers of Jesus of Nazareth are walking down the familiar road to Emmaus.  They were discussing “everything that had happened,” undoubtedly involving the tragic death of the man they had placed their hope and trust in to deliver them and their people.

A man walks up on them and asks them what they were talking about.  This man, of course, is the resurrected Jesus; but they don’t know that.  “We’re talking about Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.  “He was a prophet…”

Hold the phone.  A prophet?  What about Messiah?  What about the Christ?  Clearly it hadn’t taken long for them to re-catalogue Jesus as one like the prophets of old.  A significant man, of course, but now that he’s dead, he’s no longer worthy of the title “Messiah.”

You see, messiahs don’t get executed.  They don’t lose.  Messiahs win.  And getting crucified isn’t just losing.  It’s losing in the most shameful, despicable way.  In a culture that operated largely on paradigms of shame and honor (much unlike ours today), crucifixion was the worst.  It was rubbing your face in the dirt as they killed you.  And once they killed you, it didn’t end.  They put you on display so they could rub your family’s, friend’s, and follower’s faces in the dirt too.  Crucifixion wasn’t just physical torture.  It was emotional and psychological torture as well.

I am constantly amazed at how God continually shatters our paradigms of what greatness is.

 The two followers of Jesus continued to talk with him as they strolled down the road.  As they did, Jesus talked Bible with them.  They still didn’t know it was him, but they listened intently as he taught them how their scriptures did indeed paint a different picture of the Messiah.  The Christ must suffer – and it was there all along.

Once they finally sat down and broke bread together, their eyes were opened to who he was.  Imagine the shock that must have overtaken them.  And Jesus, far from sticking around to bask in his own glory, left them to wonder what in the world just happened.  Hey Cleopas, you didn’t see that one coming, did you?!


I love their remarks to each other after Jesus disappears into thin air: “Were not our hearts burning within us as he talked with us…?”

This is the experience now of every Christian who walks this road of life.  Jesus is here, always, whether you realize it or not.  He is part of our struggles, sorrows, conversations, and joys.  He is alive.

It’s easter Sunday.  And I think that every Christ follower whose heart does not burn today in the presence of the risen Christ better make sure that their pilot light didn’t go out.

He is risen!

Luke 24:13-35.

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Not of this world.

One of Jesus’ most telling moments has to be in John 18, verse 36.  He’s standing before Pilate who literally holds Jesus’ life in his hands, and Jesus has the audacity to say, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.”

This statement is profound for endless reasons, one of them being the circumstance it’s uttered within.  Jesus is of course capable of calling upon legions of angels to come have an epic throwdown with Pilate’s guards and the chief priests.  But he doesn’t.  And this verse indicates that the reason for not doing so is more than simply a superior amount of self control on Jesus’ part (as though he really wanted to go Neo/Matrix style on them but just restrained himself for the good of the cause).  Rather, to do so would be contrary to the very nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  His kingdom is not like Caesar’s kingdom or any kingdom of our world, for that matter.  In Jesus’ kingdom, the King goes to the cross despite every opportunity for retaliation.  It is of a completely different essence than our rules of engagement.  And it should cause we who claim citizenship in Jesus’ kingdom to do a gut check.

Jesus is not saying that his kingdom is in some other country or planet.  He’s saying that his kingdom is of a completely different source.  Throughout the crucifixion narrative, John depicts Jesus as calm and composed while Pilate and the crowds are confused, anxious, and angry.  The flustered chief priests even say that which you would have never saw coming  – “we have no king but Caesar” (19:15).   It’s all one more way that John subtly points to Jesus’ supremacy.  And in this face off between two kings – one from this world, one from another – we find which kingdom truly has more power.

If there is ever a day on our calendar that sends off warning flares for Christians in a superpower like ours, it’s Good Friday.  Let us continue to ask ourselves: which kingdom do I reflect?  This one or Christ’s’?

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Parenting Emerging Adults: Myths and Realities

 This is an assignment I had to do for my master’s program.  I’m certainly no expert in parenting young adults, but maybe someone will find this helpful.  So here ya go!

Parenting Emerging Adults: Myths and Realities

I’ve never parented anyone between the ages of 18 and 23. In fact, I’m an age that could still be considered an “emerging adult.”  Nonetheless, I’ve been convinced that there is a significant trend going on in both the lifestyle and the beliefs of young adults and people my age that ought to be addressed.  I think that bringing parents into the loop on this whole trend is critical as well.

Christian Smith is a renowned Notre Dame sociologist who recently conducted a massive study of young people.  His findings revealed many important insights into the psyche and spirituality of this generation of “emerging adults.”  Drawing largely from his work, I want to discuss not only the situation that many emerging adults find themselves in, but also how parents can continue to have a positive influence on them.  So if you’re the parent of an 18-23 year old, I hope that you’ll find these insights helpful.

First, I want to start out with some myths about parenting emerging adults.

Myth #1: Now that my child is 18, I’m no longer relevant to their lives.

Smith’s findings revealed that nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, parents continue to have a profound impact on their child in this stage of life.  Smith remarks that “if there is one overriding message from our entire research project…it’s that the most important factor in the religious lives of young people are their parents.

This must be held in tension with the fact that our culture tends to say otherwise.  The message that once a child moves out, it’s all about peer groups, culture, and media is just not true.  Parents remain a vital part of their child’s formation during these critical years.  So don’t give up or check out!  Your child still needs you to be a positive, stable influence in their lives.

Myth #2: My child probably has the same understanding of God and religion that I do.

Every generation tends to correct what they perceive to be the shortcomings of the generation that raised them.  For better or for worse, your child’s spirituality is going to look different than yours.  We’ll get into the specifics of how this generation views God a little later, but for now just understand that trying to force your child’s understanding of God into a mold that you created may not be helpful.  Rather, parents should be a witness of Christ to their children, pointing them to the person of Jesus at all times, but holding onto subjective religious expressions in such a way that recognizes your child’s need to experience Jesus for themselves.

Myth #3: My child will probably follow a similar path as me in terms of graduating, finding a job, and settling down.

This is just not the case anymore.  Call it “delayed adolescence,” call it “failure to launch,” call it whatever you will, but the truth is that this generation of young people are taking their time to “settle down” and move toward what you might consider the criteria of traditional adulthood like a spouse, kids, home and a career.  Rather, more and more emerging adults are viewing the period of time after they graduate high school as an opportunity to explore, experiment, get to know themselves, or travel.  This time period, used primarily to focus on oneself, often lasts up to a decade.

We could spend a long time speculating as to why this trend is occurring.  Perhaps it’s the result of a failing economy where job opportunities are scarce and prospects of a flourishing career are less likely than what they once were.  Or we could point to the fact that young people are paralyzed with the thousands of options they’re presented with once they step off the high school graduation platform.  They’ve been told they can accomplish their dreams, and yet hundreds of thousands of dollars of college debt has a way of disillusioning one from the big aspirations they once had.  And then there’s the fact that the world is shrinking and we’re becoming more globalized, so the prospect of staying in one place is just less likely.  Whatever the case may be, it’s a fact that today’s emerging adults aren’t drawn to the same patterns that their parents were.

Now let’s talk about the spiritual state of emerging adults.

Sociologist Christian Smith has coined a term that is gaining more and more popularity among those who are trying to define the spiritual state of emerging adults.  That phrase is moralistic therapeutic deism.  Moralistic therapeutic deism, or MTD as we might call it, accurately describes the theology of many in this age range.  It’s a phrase loaded with meaning, so let’s unpack it.

Moralistic.

We say that this view of God is “moralistic” because there is a sense of right and wrong among those who espouse it.  In general, it can be summed up in the phrases, “good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell” or “people are basically good,” or “I’m a nice person, so I should be fine.”  The moral underpinnings of this view are evident, albeit a bit arbitrarily established.

Therapeutic.

Theologian Michael Horton helps us understand these terms from a theological angle.  He points out that for many, God exists essentially for their benefit and happiness.  Religion is a sort of therapy, which gives a person piece of mind and helps them get along better in life.  God is someone I can use to achieve what I want, and the central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

Deism.

“Deism” is the belief that God is real and may even be the creator of everything, but is largely uninterested and uninvolved in the lives of people or creation in general.  In this case, deism carries with it this sense that God is far away and removed, and therefore it doesn’t really matter what doctrine you adhere to.  One distinction between MTD and traditional deism is that MTD still insists that God is readily available when I need him, but in general, he is not in the picture.

So…what are you trying to say?  Let’s land this plane.

Indeed, for those of us adhering to historic orthodox Christianity, moralistic therapeutic deism sounds pretty bleak.  But we should also remember that the results of Smith’s study are just a generalization of what seems to be the trend.  No one is saying that this is what everyone believes.  In fact, Smith noticed a substantial minority – about 15% – of emerging adults who bucked this trend and sought a meaningful expression of faith within the church body.  But the point remains: we must find ways for parents to continue to nurture their children even after they are old enough to live on their own.

My suggestion is to have meaningful discussions with your son or daughter.  Chances are, issues of spirituality are some of the biggest things they are dealing with right now.  And nothing can take the place of making sure your own spiritual formation is on track.  You’ll have a hard time leading your child if you aren’t a disciple of Christ yourself.

As a resource, I’ve written some discussion questions that you might find helpful as you try to engage your son or daughter in meaningful discussion about God and faith.  I’d suggest that you each answer the question according to your view – but don’t try to argue over who is right or who is wrong.  Let it be the start of a healthy discussion.  Hopefully these will be helpful, but never forget the single greatest resource you have at your disposal: prayer.  There is no replacement for someone interceding on our behalf, so let us continue to get on our knees on behalf of our children!

Discussion questions for parents and young adults:

1.  How would you explain your view of God to someone who didn’t know about him?  How would you describe the Bible or Church?

2.  How important do you think it is to be a part of a local church family?

3.  What is your primary source of information regarding issues like God, faith, religion, or spirituality?  How do you know it’s reliable?

4.  What sorts of things to you think matter most to God?  How do you know?  How do you exhibit these things in your life?

5.  Is God someone that you can know personally?  If so, what does it look like to know God?

Further resources:

http://theresurgence.com/2010/03/01/what-is-moralistic-therapeutic-deism

http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/07/the-spiritual-state-of-the-emerging-generation-a-conversation-with-christian-smith/


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