My Trouble with Interactive Bible Teaching (on Sunday)

Three reasons to save those questions and comments until after the class.

Here’s a thought I’ve been sitting on for several years and haven’t been able to get rid of—Sunday morning Bible teaching should not allow for mid-sermon or mid-lesson comments from the congregation/class. This may sound weird because most evangelical churches don’t welcome comments from the congregation in the middle of the sermon, though I have seen that. On the other hand, very many Sunday school lectures, classroom Bible studies, and other church teaching times do allow for members to interject their own thoughts in the flow of the class time. I think this is a mistake that (usually) doesn’t serve the purpose people assume it does.

I realize that saying that a Bible lesson should not stop for contributions from those in the class sounds to some incredibly elitist and anti-democratic, maybe even sub-Protestant! But my thinking here is not that regular church members are incapable of shedding light on theology or spiritual wisdom. Far from it. Rather, it’s that the actual practice almost always, at least in my experience, benefits the person speaking far more than it benefits the others in the class. In other words, interactive Bible times that muddle the distinction between a teacher’s teaching and members’ teaching tend to obscure helpful truth for everyone.

Let me offer three brief arguments from this: one argument from Scripture, and two from experience/reason.

The Scriptural argument is that in the New Testament, “teaching” is not just something that incidentally happens in the church. It is a spiritual gift that invokes both authority and competency (2 Tim. 2:22). This is why the Holy Spirit intentionally gives teachers to the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11). The kind of teaching that God uses doesn’t happen spontaneously by aggregating the insights of the whole congregation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is some divinely engineered IQ or temperament that makes some people teachers and others people not. Any kind of person can teach (though there’s good reason for restricting a congregation-wide teaching role to men). But the one who teaches must be competent to teach, and that competency can be recognized specifically rather than generically.

When a person stands up, for example, in Sunday school to offer their two cents on the topic, they are, in a real sense, briefly assuming the role of teacher. There are contexts where I think this kind of contribution is totally good and valuable–midweek Bible study groups for example. But those groups differ than the Sunday morning class time in two important respects. First, those Bible study groups are groups rather than classes, and most people (in my experience) can intuit the difference between facilitator of group discussion and a teacher. Second, a Sunday morning class time is created and facilitated by the church itself, which means that the church leadership implicitly endorses the teaching competency of the class leader. A person who stands to offer a lengthy riposte or addition to the teacher is, likely unwittingly, functioning as an un-vetted, unaccountable teacher—something that I sincerely don’t believe the New Testament recognizes.

Finally, a couple arguments from experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a mid-lesson comment from a congregant during a Sunday school lecture or class that was genuinely helpful. I could be wrong. But I also don’t believe that I’ve ever given a mid-lesson comment that was actually helpful. In fact, as I look into my own heart, I can see that the vast majority of times that I’ve felt the need to interject in those times I have done so because I wanted the other people in the class to think I was insightful. Not only is this unhelpful for the other people in the room (who don’t care how smart I am), but it’s actually spiritually counterproductive for me—since motives matter and desiring the praise of other people is a snare (John 5:44). My guess is that this is a common motivation in these kinds of incidents. Wouldn’t it be helpful for the spiritual health of people like me if classes simply set aside enough time after the end of the lesson to ask questions and give feedback?

Second, I think one service the church should be offering Christians is a deeply counter-cultural reordering of our epistemology. What I mean is that the age of the internet has ruthlessly democratized information so much that a lot of people struggle to cultivate and apply wisdom merely because there are so many voices in their head (social media, Google, cable news, etc). A church teaching time that doesn’t make a sufficient distinction between the person with the competency and gifting to engage with Scripture and communicate truth clearly to the Body, and the people who stand to benefit from the Spirit’s gift in that person, is a time that reinforces the death of expertise and the myth of crowdsourced wisdom. Hierarchy is not a swear word, and there’s a lot that evangelicals can do to be salt and light in a wisdom-starved age.

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Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.

Walking Through Infertility

By Nate Martin

Shared experiences are the foundation for empathy, care, and comfort. When Paul desires to comfort the Corinthians he reminds them that experiencing God’s comfort allows one to become a vessel of comfort to others, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all comfort, who comforts us is all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

In Walking through Infertility, Matthew Arbo, assistant professor of theological studies and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Oklahoma Baptist University, has shared the experiences and comfort of Patrick and Jennifer Arbo. By telling their story Arbo offers comfort to readers who might be struggling in their own season of infertility and equips readers to love, pastor, and care for couples longing for a child.

Central to Arbo’s counsel are the certain promises and presence of God. “The Creator and Redeemer of life has not forsaken the infertile but has instead given them a slightly different way of being a family, and thus of participating in the life and mission of God.” (20)

By surveying stories of infertility in the Scriptures, Arbo reminds readers that God is the giver of life. Couples struggling to get pregnant are free of guilt—they are not violating God’s creation mandate or being judged by God. Having children Abro writes is a “good thing to do, rather than an obligatory thing to do. No one is displeasing God by being unable to conceive.” (29) The biblical stories of infertility show that God’s covenantal presence is with the infertile. God has not looked away from the infertile, but has simply given them a different way of being a family to participate in God’s mission.

With theological reflections on discipleship, mission, and the church Arbo reminds readers that as Christians we are first and foremost followers of the Lord Jesus. Christians are to die to themselves and follow Christ by obeying his commands and joining in his mission. The family, then, is not ultimate. Rather, all disciples of Jesus are to obey God and participate in his mission whether married or single, fertile or infertile. The Lord in his wisdom calls his disciples in different ways. Like Paul’s reminder about singles in 1 Corinthians 7, so childless families have a particular call and can participate in God’s mission in ways that a family of five cannot.

As disciples of Jesus, the infertile always have a family to which they belong. God’s people in covenant community together, on mission together, under the Lordship of Jesus together, are a family who walk through infertility together. They weep when couples weep; they sit silently when words are too much and thus not enough, and when the pain of miscarriage shuts couples in for a season the church comes to them.

As Arbo tells the story of Patrick and Jennifer mourning their miscarriage, he also tells the story of the church who cared for them. This story teaches readers how to care for the hurting in ways that formal didactic instruction could not. As Arbo simply reminds readers, “When [Jennifer and Patrick]  hurt, the body hurt. They were the wound the body attended to.” (62) Readers who have experienced infertility and miscarriage will deeply resonate with how the church comforted the Arbos. No doubt, they will be able to smell the dinners brought to their door, feel the embraces on their couch, and hear the intercessory prayers in their ears. It was chapter three: the vitality and consolation of the church, that was the most difficult to finish. I remembered the pain of infertility and miscarriage, but also graciously remembered my local church, who loved and cared for me.

For four years my wife and I attempted to get pregnant with no success. The only positive test we saw was after the realization that my wife had unfortunately miscarried. To see a positive result under those circumstances was painful. During those four years we adopted a little boy out of foster care and were growing content with the way God had made us a family. It was just a few months ago that we learned that my wife was pregnant again, but I confess that the miscarriage still causes me pain and a fear that this too will not ultimately work out. My experience wasn’t as painful as some of my other dear friends, many of whom are still waiting. I pray that I can be a vessel of comfort to them the way that God has comforted me by his grace, through his church, and through Arbo’s new book.

Arbo concludes Walking through Infertility with an analysis of common infertility treatments. He examines the ethical implications of intrauterine insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and surrogacy. Important to Arbo’s analysis is the difference between expectation and consequences. He writes, “The moral tension…is the mismatch, common to human experience, between expectations obtaining prior to an action and consequences brought by that action.” (87) Although this review is not the place to discuss Arbo’s particular conclusions, it needs to said that given the brevity and clarity which they are presented and the increasing number of couples facing such questions, pastors and church leaders should not miss the opportunity to let Arbo help navigate them through these dilemmas.

I found Arbo’s positions to be mostly persuasive. I can’t interact with IUI, IVF, and surrogacy in this brief review. However, I want to discuss IVF briefly, given that in my experience, the infertile couples I know have considered this particular route. I agree that Christians should think seriously about whether the relationship between sex and procreation is a sacred part of God’s design. Procreation is not merely a clinical matter. The high expense of IVF likewise makes me suspicious that such money would be more wisely spent pursuing an adoption.  With these considerations and the added risk of clinical implantation, I would counsel against IVF (graciously). Ultimately, Arbo concludes, “If you are contemplating IVF, I pray you take seriously the risks involved and elect to forgo it…” (93)

Arbo communicates all his ethical instruction with love, grace, and compassion. He’s not out to shame readers who have come to different conclusions. Walking through Infertility treats a painful topic with a pastoral heart. Arbo, an ethics professor with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, spares readers from lengthy footnotes, charts, data, and academic dullness, and instead offers up a clearly written, theologically robust, and pastorally helpful book.

By telling Patrick and Jennifer’s painful story and the comfort God provided for them, Arbo has turned them into vessels of comfort for all those who are struggling with infertility. By sharing how they leaned on the grace of God and the “thereness” of the church, Arbo, to borrow Paul’s words, allows readers to be comforted with the comfort which they themselves have been comforted.

Nathaniel Martin is pastor of Hermon Baptist Church in Waxhaw, NC, and a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Have I Sinned Against Unbelief?

Why Christians should take suffering that inflames unbelief far more seriously

While reading a remarkable book titled Christianity: The True Humanism, I was bowled over by this passage by J.I. Packer and Thomas Howard:

It is clear that many humanists in the West are stirred by a sense of outrage at what professed Christians, past and present, have done; and this makes them see their humanism as a kind of crusade, with the killing of Christianity as its prime goal. We cannot endorse their attitude, but we can understand it and respect it…

We, too, have experienced in our own persons damage done by bad Christianity—Christianity that lacks honesty, or intelligence, or regard for truth, or biblical depth, or courtesy, or all of these together. No doubt we have sometimes inflicted this kind of damage, as well as suffered it. (Lord, have mercy!) We cannot, however, think it wrong for anyone to expect much of Christians and then to feel hurt when they treat others in a way that discredits their Christian commitment. Since Christianity is about God transforming us through Jesus Christ, high expectations really are in order, and the credibility of the faith really is undermined by every uncaring and uncompassionate stand that Christians take. Loss of faith caused by bad experiences with Christians is thus often more a case of being sinned against than of sinning and merits compassion more than it does censure.

I instantly realized this was close to the opposite attitude I have had for many years. Instead, I’ve often been so occupied with undermining unbelief, with critiquing the spirit of the age and tearing down the intellectual and existential reasons people give for not following the Christ of the Bible, that I have utterly failed to take seriously the connection between being sinned against and unbelief. If Packer and Howard are right—and I believe they are—this is a major failure.

Why have I been failing here? I can think of two reasons.

First, there is a palpable cultural mood that reduces everything about life to the sum total of one’s experiences. This is the “my story” epistemology that I’ve written about before. Because there are no agreed upon central, transcendent truth claims in a secularized public square, the most truth that anyone can arrive at is their truth, and their truth is often deeply subjective interpretations of relational and social events. This mentality is powerful, and it is destructive; it blinds people to the absolute nature of our most important questions. It empowers confirmation bias. It can make people unteachable and difficult to reason with. It’s bad news.

So I think I’ve been caught up in refuting this mood so much that I’ve lost sight of the legitimate relationship between experience and objective belief. I’ve tried to swing from the one extreme of “experiences are all that matter” to the other extreme of “You should be able to think and live wholly independent of what people do to you.” Both extremes are logically impossible, though one feels more Christian than the other at this cultural moment. But Packer and Howard get to the heart of the matter when they say that unbelievers are right to have high expectations of people who claim to be actually reborn by the Spirit of Jesus. They have those expectations not because of Christians but because of Jesus! Thus, to ignore the failures of people who say they are born again to image the One in whose name they are supposedly reborn is to ignore the moral glory of Christ himself.

The second reason I think I’ve failed here is that I have consistently underestimated the power of suffering. It’s an underestimation that comes straight from my not having suffered very much. But it also, I suspect, comes from my not having listened very closely to the testimonies of people who have suffered much. This is inexcusable, and I’m sure it’s damaged in some way my connection with others.

I’ve said before that virtues like modesty and chastity have attending practices that can help us grow in them. This how I feel about stuff like the Billy Graham Rule, for example. But I think I’ve neglected the fact that empathy is also a virtue, and that like other virtues, it too has practices that must be picked up if the virtue is going to flourish in my life. What if one of those practices is not arguing all the time? What if another one is listening carefully to people who may not validate my assumptions?

Now here’s an important point. I don’t think the main reason to cultivate empathy is to become less decisive or more “open-minded.” The problem with open-mindedness is that it’s not a virtue. Its desirability depends entirely on what is trying to get into the mind. But empathy is a virtue that cuts across whether people are right or wrong, whether people believe or disbelieve. Rejecting the claims of Christ is wrong. Yet it is possible to compound a wrong by sinning in response to it. It is possible to drive a thorn deeper. Neglecting or minimizing the power of suffering, or lowering bar of expectations for believers, are both sins against unbelief. To the degree that I have done so, I’m sorry, and by God’s grace, I will grow in this.

One final thought. All of this applies very much to the way we Christians talk to people about the suffering of others. If we minimize trauma or excuse a lackadaisical response to it, for the sake of making some tribal theological or political point about someone not in the room, we are broadcasting a false view of God to the world. We are propping up a graven image in people’s minds. We are, in other words, acting in the same unbelief as those we are trying to convert.

The Sea in Which You’re Drowning Is Not All That’s Real

On (not) writing about sin.

Recently I’ve had multiple offers, all from friends representing publications and ministries I greatly respect, to write articles about pornography. I’ve declined all of them. After I wrote a piece on this for Desiring God in July, I made a resolution with myself that I wouldn’t write about pornography for the foreseeable future. For the past several years I have written thousands of words about it, encompassing everything from my personal testimony to American culture. It’s time for me to leave that topic alone for a while.

Because I’ve said all there is to be said on it? No, of course not. There is much more to be said. Because my views are changing? Definitely not.  Because it’s not as important as some people think? Hardly. If anything, it’s more important than most people think. Why then am I putting myself on a moratorium on this issue?

Because the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real, and realizing this is crucial for those struggling in the fight against lust.

When you’re in the throes of addiction, nothing seems real except your addiction. Incremental victories over your addiction don’t necessarily change this. In fact, such victories can actually make this perception worse. Every heartfelt prayer becomes a prayer for God to deliver you. Every sermon is “really” about your struggle. You see all of life through the lens of this one sin that you are, by grace, making war against. It becomes the main metaphor of your life, the fact that stands like a ghost between you and every relationship, between you and every ministry opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Christian culture, at least evangelical culture, offers much to fight against this. There’s a profound streak in evangelical discipleship of reducing the Christian life to the number of days you can go without sinning. This kind of mentality inflames the sense that beating porn is all that matters. The tragedy is that this mentality blocks many of the very strongest graces that Christ offers in the war against lust, graces like fellowship with other believers (not just “accountability”!), the beauty of nature, losing oneself in an honest pleasure, etc. These are graces that are hard to see for the person who feels like their entire Christian existence is about defeating pornography. A one-note emphasis mutes the other sounds of the symphony of redemption.

The reality is that one of the most effective things a person who is struggling with pornography can do is get their mind out of the perspective of them and their computer (or phone). Look at the broader picture. Look out the window, up into the clouds. Realize how much God has created and how much God is doing in this massive, amazing universe.

So I don’t feel pressed to talk more about the sin of pornography right now. Rather, I’m pressed to take a larger view and infatuate my heart with Christ and all that he is and does for me.

I am convinced that the only people who see lasting, significant healing from the bondage of pornography are people who feel in their bones the grandness and the glory of God, a feeling that transcends (but does not exclude) the tug-of-war. The tug-of-war is important, and failing to tug has eternal consequences. But the water in which you’re drowning is not all there is, and the first thing you must do to stop drowning is to swim upward, towards the air, towards the light, where you know there’s a shore.

Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


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Don’t Argue Like Those Who Have No Hope

Christians seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as unbelievers. This is tragic.

“Mansplain.” “Feminazi.” “Social Justice Warrior.” “Colonizer.” This is the argumentative vocabulary of the world, which has no hope of ultimate reconciliation, atonement, or New Creation. These are words designed to make people feel chained to an errant identity and undeserving of serious attention and care. They’re precisely the lingo we should expect from those whom Paul describes as “without God and without hope in the world.”

What’s surprising is hearing them on the lips of those who do have that hope.

Even before I write these words, I know that many Christians will be revving up their “whataboutisms” to show me how much of a hypocrite I am. Don’t I know how condescending males can be toward the opposite sex? Haven’t I read the latest ridiculous diatribe from a leading feminist? Don’t I believe in justice? What about, what about, what about.

This kind of thinking is like a carousel. It will just go around and around and never reach an exit. We can signal our political ideals, compare and contrast each group’s relative suffering and indignity, and drag out sordid examples of the opposing tribe’s worst instincts all day long (especially on Twitter). There will never not be evidence against them and evidence against us. Trying to arrive at truly transcendent truth by playing tribal politics is like trying to drive an SUV through the ocean.

But this is the only way many unbelievers know how to think. In a secularizing culture where it is increasingly possible to go through one’s entire educational career without hearing one inkling about God, nobody should be shocked at the size of our political golden calves. We are “incurably religious” people being herded away from religion and toward social micro-identities. If we won’t love God, we shall love ideology. If we won’t hate Satan, we shall hate immigrants or straight white men.

Thus is the experience of many in America. But what about in the church?

The spirit of the age has found partnership with too many of us believers when it comes to how we talk about those with whom we disagree. I used to think the Bible college dorm-room debates over Calvinism represented the low point of evangelical discourse. Then I got a Twitter account. Then Donald Trump was elected president. For my money, the problem is not just that Christians aren’t nice enough toward one another. The problem is that we seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as the media moguls who stand to make a pretty penny from the coarsening of American public life. There is a continuity not only between what evangelicals and what unbelievers say, but between what captivates our attention and stokes our emotions. This is tragic.

Here’s an example. In a widely praised evangelical book about race published last year, I find the following line: “White privilege means that even if you’re the unluckiest white person born in the United States, you were still born into a fortunate race.” Now, the assertion on its face is questionable. But ask yourself this—what would the relational dynamics be like in a congregation that was preaching and teaching and structuring their benevolence ministries according to the dictum that even the poorest, most vulnerable white members were inherently better off (and thus, in less need of help) than their minority brothers and sisters? What would be the state of unity and gospel fellowship be in a local church that was committed to pigeonholing an entire ethnicity in their congregation as permanently “privileged”?

I’m certainly not interested in castigating any and all efforts to recognize the racist practices of American history as “cultural Marxism” (another dog whistle of a noun that should disappear from the mouths of serious Christians), nor am I veering toward a vanilla call for “unity” that is really code for “Stop talking about my brothers and sisters in Jesus whose experiences make me politically uncomfortable.” What I am suggesting is that too many evangelicals seem comfortable simply transposing the ideas and taxonomies of secular society into the community of faith.

But the gospel is too violent on our intuitions for that to succeed. We can’t simply baptize the excesses of intersectionality in order to correct the God-and-country Republicanism that led to a morally bankrupt Religious Right. The identitarian, truth-diminishing, Bible-ignoring lingo that some evangelicals have tried to program into Christian conversation is a sign that we’re trying, and failing, to do just that.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul has the audacity to suggest that there is a wrong way for Christians to grieve the death of their loved ones. This sounds unconscionably insensitive to modern ears. But Paul’s intrusion on our emotional lives is a glorious one: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In other words, there is a way to grieve that acknowledges that one day a risen Jesus Christ will call all the dead out of their graves and death itself will be conquered forever. So, Paul says, don’t just grieve. Grieve like that!

To which I would add: there is a way to speak to one another and debate one another and learn from one another that acknowledges that some day we will all know as we are known, and we will all be one in an endless mutuality of love. So don’t argue like those who have no such hope.


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When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?

Leather Bound

Digital Bible apps are convenient, but physical Bibles are much more.

Recently I was sitting in a worship service and looked around me. For every physical Bible opened I saw at least one or two smartphones glowing softly. I’m not sure why, but this was surprising. Is the Bible app really that common in evangelical worship? I guess it is. Not long after this I took a more deliberate notice in my small group of who had Bibles and who had Bible apps. It was a much closer ratio than I had assumed.

Bible apps are unquestionably convenient, and of course knowing and obeying the words that are there is far more important than whether you’re holding leather or glass. I have to admit, though, that it’s hard for me to imagine ever replacing physical Bibles with apps. Aesthetic value would be lost, but something else would be lost too…a compact landmark of my spiritual memory.

For me, physical Bibles are connected to both time and place. A quick glance behind my shoulder as I write these words lets me see a row of Bibles on my shelf, each one provoking a vividly clear memory of where and when I got each of them. In several cases I even remember the individual who sold them to me. These Bibles’ physicality takes me back to a specific season of life, a process of deliberate remembrance that isn’t just nostalgia. It’s a spiritual exercise that awakens thankfulness (at least, it should!).

Opening the Bibles deepens this experience. Opening up the Bible I bought right after graduating college, I see the markings of a blue ink pen drawing attention to Psalm 4:4: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” My markings are almost certainly at least 4 years old. Was I feeling convicted about my anger? It’s hard to recall, though I do know that I underlined this verse before I married and had a toddler son who nailed me with a toy golf club just the other day. Even as I write this I feel ashamed at my ridiculous anger over a toddler’s mistake. Had I not opened up my 5 year old Bible I likely wouldn’t have contemplated this verse today.

I still remember my first Bible, a red faux-leather King James version that frayed at the edges after years of use in Sunday school and Bible drills. I remember bringing the Bible to a National Day of Prayer event with Dad and a reporter for the local newspaper taking my picture. I remember my “Adventures in Odyssey” Bible where I, a true Baptist child, underlined Proverbs 23:31. It’s not that these Bibles give me supernatural memory of my childhood. It’s that each Bible is somehow connected to something specific, so that the memories that coalesce around each Bible become a sort of memorial. In the digital age I continually feel my sense of time attacked. It’s as if physical Bibles carry antidote.

They invite questions. Why would I underline that particular verse at that particular age? Why would I write that in the margins? Sometimes these reflections open up powerful memories of traumatic and hurtful times. Sometimes they invoke a simple joy at the quiddity of life. Sometimes they make me laugh, sometimes they make me cringe. Not all are meaningful. But each one seems to have something in common with the others, a secret thread running through every adolescent jot and grown up tittle that binds the minutia of dozens of little purchased Bibles together. In the marginalia of these Bibles I see myself, and seeing myself, I somehow see God.

To hold onto a treasured leather-bound Bible is for me a way of holding onto awareness of God’s grace in my life. Yes, Scripture is universally true all the time, but the Bible I hold in my hands was given to me at a specific place and a specific time. Perhaps a struggle in my Christian life has been to see myself not merely as mooching off the extravagant kindness of Jesus that he gives to everybody else, but as a specific target of his sovereign love. Proverbs 3:5-6 is true for everyone, but it’s underlined in my specific Bible because it’s true for me. It’s one thing to know something applies to you. It’s quite another to know it was meant for you.

So I think I’ll go on being inconvenienced by physical Bibles. I’ll probably open up the app every now and again, and won’t feel one bit guilty. But, Lord willing, everywhere I go I’ll bring a Bible that I can’t turn off and I can’t resist marking up. And I’ll look forward to an unknown future where I’ll open up that Bible and see what I was reading, and more importantly, what it was reading in me.

My Latte, Your Chicken Sandwich, and Our Neighbors

The idol of politics must come down if we are to love our neighbors

Starbucks donates money to many causes with which I, a conservative Christian, strongly disagree. It supports Planned Parenthood. It supports various LGBT initiatives, the majority of which involve definitions of marriage and human flourishing that are incompatible with my faith. Based on public comments from Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, it’s highly unlikely someone with my religious and political convictions could ascend high up their corporate ladder. I could probably become a barista, maybe even a manager (if I played my HR cards just right). But if words mean anything, I could not represent the company at a significant level.

None of this has convinced me to stop buying coffee there. Why not? Don’t I care about where my money goes? Yes, I do. But a public marketplace is populated by people, people who have free consciences and who will, in many cases, oppose my deepest beliefs. Making opposing beliefs the basis for severing a marketplace relationship only makes sense if the purpose of a marketplace is to match people with others just like them. But that’s not the point of a marketplace. None less than the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthian believers to have a free and open conscience about purchasing meat sold to them in a pagan storefront. Either Paul didn’t care about idolatry (he did), he didn’t think conscience mattered at all (he did), or else, he is working from a vision of civic life that is deeper than simply making sure Christians only do business with other Christians. It’s a vision that is deeply theological: The people of God do not belong outside the world, but in the world, representing a kingdom not of the world that will nonetheless come to the world.

What I’m beginning to realize is that religious architecture for seeing the world is crucial for having a functional vision of the public square. Americans who don’t have this theology increasingly fail to grasp any compelling reason why people with opposing political or religious views should interact at all.

Writing at Huffington Post, Noah Michelson rails against Chick-Fil-A, specifically decrying his fellow LGBT Americans who continue to patronize the restaurant. The problem is that CFA is owned by conservative evangelical Christians who have traditional beliefs about sexuality. Further, the owners give money to organizations that share these religious beliefs. For Michelson, CFA’s corporate partnership with traditionally evangelical organizations makes them unacceptable for right-thinking people:

Yeah, I know, I know ― it sucks that we can’t have waffle fries. But you know what sucks even more? Not having equal rights and contributing to the profits of a company that wants to ensure you never do because it believes you’re fundamentally disordered or unnatural or sinful or some delightful combination of all three.

Am I saying Chick-fil-A and everyone who works for it is evil? Of course not. The corporation has done a lot of good and even donated food to volunteers giving blood in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre (though, ironically, most gay men weren’t allowed to participate in that charitable effort).  But none of its generosity changes the fact that the chain has taken and continues to take an anti-queer stance and still donates large sums of money to anti-queer groups.

Note the careful wording. Michelson says that LGBT Americans ought not buy food from a company that “believes you’re fundamentally…sinful.” The problem for Michelson is not political activism or lobbyists. It’s the worldview of Chick-Fil-A’s ownership, which believes that homosexual sex is sinful. It’s their theology that makes them boycott-able to decent Americans.

It’s important to see that this is essentially an argument against people who disagree with each other interacting in the public marketplace. Buying a chicken sandwich is hardly a political donation, and the religious beliefs of CFA’s ownership does not mean that when Michelson enters the restaurant, he’s going to encounter direct hostility (he acknowledges as much). Since a fast-food transaction is impersonal, what’s the problem here? The problem is that Michelson doesn’t want to have anything to do with people who believe he is a sinner—and there’s no reason to think this standard begins and ends with owners of fast food chains.

How does this mentality lead us anywhere but a radically dysfunctional public square? It doesn’t, but for those who lack a vision of human dignity and human fate—for those without a transcendent moral framework of human relationships—political purity must play the role of divine judgment. “Come out from among them and be separate” isn’t just a parochial mantra; it’s human nature, an expression of our incurably religious sense of ourselves.

I pay for my Starbucks latte (too much) and drink it as an evangelical Christian because I do not believe that Starbucks’ political and social views have the last word. Like a Corinthian, I eat what’s sold in the market because I reject the idols that “blessed” my purchase. The idol of politics is a strong cult, and refusing to bow down puts one at risk of attack from many of the faithful, both Left and Right. But the idol must come down if we are to love our neighbors.

Jesus plainly taught that neighbor-love means nothing if by “neighbor” you always mean people whom you like and who like you. Neighbor-love according to Jesus is love of enemies, even enemies that would not hire you or buy your coffee or nuggets or vote for you. Neighbor love goes beyond political categorization…and that’s why only those who have a category beyond politics can love like this.

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