Monthly Archives: July 2013

Millennials Don’t Find Jesus There?

I’ve read upwards of 1100 comments across the blogosphere on the Rachel Held Evan’s blog post on the Millennials. Within her post, she has the controversial statement, “we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.” Um, ok…

In reading all that commentary, certainly there were a number where it seemed that Jesus was the last thing on folks minds… some suggested that the we need more morality and OT stuff in church in Sunday school and if we have enough fire, brimstone, and condemnation folks will come back. Others thought way cool, we can have more liturgy, the old organ hymns, and all sorts of high church stuff and get out of our financial bind. Others seemingly blamed everything on LGBT folks, evolution, and critical thinking. A few were pretty blatant and told folks they were not wanted, and should go away. In some cases, the comments were so extreme, it makes one wonder where the fruits of the spirit are or if something else is there…

As such, it does seem pretty reasonable to come to the conclusion that Jesus isn’t there, or as some have said. “Jesus has left the building”

On the other hand, when you have that the 2 or 3 are gathered thing,  the word is being preached thing, to say nothing of the omnipresence thing, Jesus is there… Alas, just because He is there, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that folks are listening… much less acting on His words.

In part, it seems the seed scattering thing may apply. Seeds don’t always take root, some wither away, some seeds get eaten by birds… which then may get re-scattered with fertilizer in another location (Hat tip to Pastor Steve on that one!)…  but this is only a part. It explains much of the off the wall, non fruit of the spirit stuff in the blogosphere, but it would be an exceedingly rare church where no seeds took root at all.

More so, I wonder if Jesus not being there thing is a framing issue on the part of the congregation and projection issue on the part of the millennials.

Many evangelical churches focus on the individual more so than the communal, but do so in a tribal like manner. Things like personal piety, holiness, purity etc end up as as huge deals, in some cases, perhaps swinging into Ecc 7:16 territory as to over-righteousness when they become idols… Rachel Held Evans had some good depth on this with Sex and the Path of Holiness a while back.

A few of the vibes I picked up from social media seem to lead some credence to a more Sermon on the Mount / Matthew 25 focus among the millennials than individual piety. Homelessness, food shelters, poverty mitigation, and wealth disparities seem to rank pretty high on the hypocrisy detection meter of millennials… Ie, if you preach on sexual abstinence, Dave Ramsey, and patriotism but not on poverty, global hunger, or the least of these, its reasonable for the projection and framing not to align, with the result that Jesus appears absent.

Another aspect of framing, is the lack of intellectual rigor, sort of the reverse of Ecc 7:16. More than a few millennials came to the conclusion that Jesus is not there as he doesn’t exist. While one can debate whether Christianity is intellectually viable, it seems far too many churches take the stance that it isn’t, more so by actions than by words. Canned and know it all answers, bad apologetics, and in general philosophical ineptness set the stage for this. Its not evolution, science or critical thinking that’s the problem, its a problem of our own making.

Lastly, I think a timing issue is involved. Jesus did a ton of ministry in a lot of places over a very short time frame. Millennials having recently come out of university experiences where you go from knowing no one, to hard core discussions of theodicy in a month are not conditioned to wait… This shows up in a soc media where folks are making yea or nay judgment calls on communities with only a one or two visits.

Bottom line, Jesus is there… but there is a sort of hiding of Him going on.




Half Dead Guy + Zero Tolerance

I took a brief look at the text of the Good Samaritan a couple weeks ago and how he dealt with the half dead guy. He left 2 Denarii (20 or 32Asses depending upon conversion factor) with the innkeeper to take care of him. Initially I was going whoa, a fleet of donkeys, but no, it was the coinage of the era. A Denaris was equal to about a days wages, a barber visit, or a couple lbs of grapes (conversions are iffy, its not like they had a consumer price index calculator back then).

It would seem that the innkeeper guy showed significant mercy to the half dead guy, and also put a ton of trust in the Samaritan… If you were running a inn, would you trust some foreign dude from a country you don’t like to make good on the account of a guy that might end up dieing in your place?

Perhaps even more so, if your cultures religious practice held to dead guys being unclean, its likely you probably ascribed to a zero tolerance policy. Ie, if you touched a dead guy, you’d have to hoop jump due to the purity laws. We don’t know diddly about the innkeeper… but it seems there is a lesson there as well. He sure exhibited a lot of trust and of mercy, and if he was religious, he apparently didn’t buy off on the zero tolerance thing.

Some suggest that zero tolerance is why both the priest and Levite guy passed on the other side… Its not that they were self absorbed jerks, they just didn’t want to risk becoming un-pure. Sadly, I’d guess a lot of half dead guys often become fully dead due to those folks idolization of purity.

Its also interesting to note that the start of the parable was based upon questions from a lawyer dude… and good lawyers never ask a question they don’t know the answer to. I imagine he was not expecting a double shock with the Samaritan guy being the neighbor and the purity stuff being rolled… and then on top of that being told to do likewise.

It seems Jesus upended a lot of “zero tolerance” things. People want the easy way out, they don’t want to struggle with grey, and they want to be on the safe side. Alas, just like we see today with the zero tolerance blowups in the news media, the unintended side effects can be pretty brutal… and in reality, zero tolerance is a lot less safe than its sold to be. Jesus presented a better way, will we go and do likewise?



Luther and the Flux Capacitor, Blooms Taxonomy

Luther was knocked down by lightning… perhaps to the tune of 1.21 Gigawatts on July 2, 1505. There is no record of him achieving 88mph, but somehow or another he appears to have made it to 1955 and then returned to his own time period.

The thinking behind this, is Luther presents Bloom’s taxonomy in 1529… roughly 427 years before Bloom published it.

Image from University of British Columbia Wiki
Blooms Taxonomy

Luther was upset with the then current problems with Christian edu as evidenced by the following from the preface to the small Catechism.

The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.

Luther goes on to present a solution… which mirrors much of Bloom’s taxonomy with a bit of Thorndike and Skinner thrown into the mix. Granted, he also goes go into salty sailor mode and into some off the wall stuff too.

So…. major edu problems were addressed ~500 years ago, and yet we find Biblical literacy is still not good, being often more culture driven than church driven. I wrote a bit on this before with God Helps Those Who Help Themselves Not!.

Doctrinal literacy is likewise pretty bad… as is the shredding of Christian liberty. Just ask most young folks about Christianity and more likely than not, you some form of moralistic law thing rather than grace.

I think there are 3 factors at play as to why this is the case.

1. Behavioralistic learning (Thorndike, Skinner) plateaus pretty easily except for the most driven students… often times folks reach the first or second step on Blooms taxonomy and that is where it ends. Consider that many pretty much end their formal Christian edu when they get confirmed… some of that is cultural, some of it is plateau driven.

2. Christian edu has a puritanical cultural component almost ascetic in nature… In some cases it seems as if it was intentionally designed to make the scriptures and Christian life as boring as a board and then some. Consider devotional reading… it puts me to sleep in a flash, on the other hand, give me something to chew through and I may be up until 6AM. Zukey Jones presents his views on this as a pastor.

3. Culture drives Christian edu more than the church does. We see this in the news media, in the movies, and in the Christian Industrial complex… Such makes a boat load of money for a few, but it often takes great liberty or even goes against the scriptures in the pursuit of mammon.

As far as whats the answer… that’s a tough one as there are additional compounding factors that change the landscape. The ever declining size of Sunday School makes critical mass difficult. Likewise, the loss of Christian privilege equates to more and more sports and academic schedule conflicts as far as Sunday goes. Its too bad Luther didn’t make it to 2035 prior to writing the small Catechism.

On the other hand, we’ve identified where the problems are. We have tools that Luther only could dream of, or even the folks back in the 50’s and 60’s when Sunday schools were full. Consider that an individual Sunday school teacher could flip their class, provide midweek encouragement and review for almost zero incremental costs with only a modest additional time investment. The doors are open for some amazing things to happen.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!


Proof Preaching to the Choir and the World

A recurrent theme of some sectors of Christianity is a need to reinforce their beliefs, perhaps even more so in light of the world having significantly different ones. The most obvious of this is the whole creationism/evolution debate, but there are many others, existence of God, historical existence of Jesus… the whole Evidence that Demands a Verdict type books etc. Some folks tend to think that just as they believe, so should everyone else and see said proof preaching (more commonly known in Christian circles as apologetics) as a means of evangelism.

A big problem with this, is that often times the proofs aren’t anywhere near as solid as the folks who advocate them think. A given proof may be good enough for them, but to the world, its either so filled with inaccuracies, and/or bad philosophy, that rather than proving Christianity, it makes folks suspicious at best or disproves it at worst.

I tend to think there are 3 issues at hand with this.

First, is the level of evidence required. Some believers in Christ are likely not to need any evidence for said beliefs. Others might have come to Christ through something like Evidence that Demands a Verdict books and feel they need reinforcement. A few build doctrinal concepts (literal 7 day creation->100% textual accuracy of the KJV->Jesus is real)… If you push the creation idol a little bit, the whole faith structure shakes. Part of the error in this, (beside the Pelagian bit that we can come to faith on our own) is the assumption that all folks have the same need/same standards for evidence.

Second, many Christians are generally not skilled in the domain of philosophy and/or what they are arguing against, so they don’t necessarily know when they are going off into lala land. Philosophy is not the sort of thing one picks up with 1 semester of a university level course, much less a few Sundays worth of apologetics training. There’s also a tendency for closed ears, all the while a fervent belief that something is wrong and they can convince the world otherwise… often with arguments that fall flat to those skilled in a given field.

Luther is a prime example: Consider the following:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer [Copernicus] who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.

He should have known better, after all he also said… “All our experience with history should teach us, when we look back, how badly human wisdom is betrayed when it relies on itself.”

Thirdly, is the issue of do a little evil so good may come… Paul comes down on this pretty clearly in Romans 3, but the ends justifying the means is all too common. The mis-use of archutectural / historical / scientific evidence either by selective omission or bending words/sentences does a huge dis-service, especially when the full context can often be found via a bit of time with google.

While I understand the need to reinforce ones own belief system, there are some significant dangers in doing so via proof preaching.

The aspect of negative evangelism is a big deal… it sort of the reverse of “see your good works and glorify your father in heaven” especially as it takes so little light for the world to see a “do a little evil” type of thing.

In a similar vein, consider folks who put their faith in a geocentric universe as Luther did. The whole “God said it, I believe it thinking: doesn’t work out too well when we see scriptures dimly against a world with keener observation skills than those arguing against them.

A final aspect of proof preaching is that it can turn inward on itself and the rather than reinforcing ones beliefs, does the reverse. If one reads the following deconversion story of Rachel Slick, the daughter of a prominent apologist, the stage for deconversion was set early on. She put her views on Truth on a higher plane than the self authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit…. Dimly seen scriptures and doctrines of men often fail, either by experience or logic, and its a dangerous thing to elevate them over faith no matter how reasonable such a stance may appear.

My view parallels the late Rich Mullins.

If you want a religion that makes sense, I suggest something other than Christianity.  However, if you want a religion that makes life….than I think this is the one.” ~Rich Mullins





Christianity without Religion, Deus Ex Machina, Evangelism

I’ve been following @bishoponabike blog on ministry to younger folks and to the nones. One of the things which I found interesting was the references to Bonhoeffer and his discussions of Christianity without religion. While the language Bonhoeffer uses could easily come across as pretty controversial, I tend to think what he is expressing is a more expansive Christology. At the same time, I wonder how it would jibe with the contemporary Christian world without going off into “Whosoever gets his Christology righteth enough“.

Some beliefs lean towards a God who comes to rescue us, who is there in time of trouble that we can ignore 99.99% of the rest of time. A God who brings power and might, and if taken to extremes, leads to a sort of an legalistic piety beyond compare on the one hand, or a magic words prosperity sort of thinking on the other. On a third hand, some forms of easy believerism where in God is ignored may come to light, as well gnosticism. Bonhoeffer identifies this as deus ex machina  a term used in theater or film to describe a character that is lowered down onto the stage as an angel or a god in order to resolve some sort of problem or tension in the plot before being lifted back up out of the scene.

The thing is, at the base of these beliefs… things like the 2nd use of the law in Luther and Calvin, and the 4 spiritual laws and personal testimonies of redemption in evangelical Christianity are where many folks find answers and comfort as they walk with Christ. This is a good thing.

Where things go a bit off, is when the answers and comfort than many have experienced are used as a means of evangelism. This can manifest itself as Christianity coming across not unlike Hare Krishna’s in an airport…. Ie, the situations and solutions presented don’t line up at all with the experience of the individuals one is talking too. Its as if the Christian is on another planet.

Another way things go quite a bit off the path is preaching to the choir apologetics… Look at the astroturfed “Million Year old Hammer” or read most any apologetics text in a family friendly Christian bookstore. In the reviews and commentary you will find many Christians all excited… but they cant understand, or are unwilling to understand why non-believers often discount, and/or actively discredit such efforts.

This is where I see the expanded Christology Bonhoeffer presents as pretty awesome… but how the faith community ties an expansive Christology with a history of deux ex machina leanings will not be easy.

On The Community and Identity Thing Part 2

Community, identity, and spiritual experience are not found exclusively in the Christian domain. Jill describes religion in the following way.

It’s a way to make sense of a hectic and confusing world, and to find people who are making sense of the world in the same way. It’s a gathering of your own people. It offers absolution. It gives us rules to live by and helps to create a set of the shared values and beliefs that keep a society functional. It can encourage academic and spiritual exploration. It offers hope and light when we feel alone and lost. It promises to answer “why,” to give us a reason for our existence and a justification for the hardships we face. It maintains traditions, sometimes thousands of years old, through which we can understand who and where we are, connect to a past and situate ourselves in the long trajectory of human existence.

This is bare bones human need… It doesn’t need a terrified conscience, manufactured or otherwise to shame people to Jesus. It doesn’t need a third use of the law to keep people in an assembly no matter how much a community fails them. Its a much much bigger deal than just deriving ones identity through community.

It also can be fulfilled quite well by any number of religions or even non-religious entities.

Even in relative isolation, spirituality can be experienced. Consider the following from Libby Anne in what is a church.

My husband Sean was raised in a religious family, but he has never had what he would call a “spiritual experience.” I tried to explain to him what it felt like to be so lost in prayer as to feel at one with God and through him the universe, or to be enraptured during a particularly moving hymn in church. Because he had never had them, he couldn’t understand what I meant by a “spiritual experience.” Then he and I went to a concert together and I watched as the music transformed him. We took a walk in the woods and I watched as nature thrilled his soul. I explained to him that the feelings people have when they have “spiritual experiences” are the same feelings he gets at a good concert or during a walk through a patch of wilderness, or while looking at the stars or studying physics. And then he understood.

Where the rubber hits the road and sets Christianity apart from religion is the incarnation, Jesus, the son of God in the flesh… but if we put so many barriers in place, how will people get there? How does edification of the fellow believers take place? How does discipleship happen?

I think part of the problem is that much of contemporary Christianity has a low anthropology quotient. We far too often gloss over the basic human need for religion, we lean towards a moralistic pietism, or swing towards gnosticism in the pew, and then wonder why folks end up leaving the community of faith.

I tend to think a fair number of folks are checked out, but may still be present. Ie, they compartmentalize and are present for an hour or two every Sunday for worship and in some cases Sunday school, but they walk separately for the other 166 hours in a week. I know this all too well, as I’ve done it myself sometimes by circumstance, sometimes intentionally. Some are likely to argue “the Gospel is enough and scriptures tell us not to forsake corporate worship, that’s all we need…” I think they are missing the point, but such is for a different blog post.

In years past, there was a reliance on communal identity as a means of retention, but it was a masking thing. It sort of parallels the reliance on birthrate evangelism rather than the making of disciples and the spreading of the Gospel. Taken to an extreme, it leaves the door open to abusive and other practices counter to the Gospel.

Such is why I see opportunities abounding as identity through community becomes less and less a factor within Christian assembly.

On the Community and Identity Thing Part 1

I came across the following from Zukey Jones and I think his analysis is spot on as concerns changes in community and identity.

When religious belief is tied to communal identity it is important to believe the same thing as everyone else in the community. This is the way religion has been for ages. But up to this point in history personal identity has been tied community. Today we live in a world that is increasingly individualistic and identity is found in things other than community. (This has been a long and gradual change in the Western world but now accelerating and becoming a global shift in the way we understand who we are.)

Macro level history seems to back up this premise quite well. Ie, if we roll back to the pre-Nicene era, we see multitudes of communal beliefs… albeit often tied to a teacher, and/or a region. If we roll back more recently to the late 1800’s, ELCA predecessor church splits were going on left and right. We can see clear evidence of this today with late 1800’s Lutheran churches less than 1/4 mile apart in some locations.

I’d guess there was a significant element of pastoral gatekeeping and squashing of dissent to keep things at bay. J.G. Machen of Princeton Seminary (1906-1929) presented the following:

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.

Um… Hmmm…

If the Gospel is so weak, that it can’t stand on its own, we have a whole other set of problems, not the least of which is its man leaning lens that we can come to God on our own power. Without significant care in implementation, such approaches can far too easily concentrate spirituality on the church and pastor, rather than the flock….

Bottom line, I tend to believe the practices of the past created an illusion of homogenious community. Folks didn’t really have identical beliefs, but they did not dissent as their identity was so tied to the community. Such a system worked wonders for massive scale projects, schools, charities, hospitals, churches and seminaries…

When our identity is driven by community beliefs in unresolved conflict with our own… great works can be achieved, but I am not convinced such is conducive to discipleship.

In other words, this shift away from communal identity might well be a great opportunity, rather than something to lament over.

Part 2 coming soon

When the Incarnation Gets Hosed Up

I ran across something in my twitter stream that about knocked me off my chair. It was basically the most vile hateful 140 characters I’d come across in a long time… and right next to it,  the authors handle @****luvsJesus


Granted, the old Adam is still there, but this tweet took the cake, ate it, and then some.

A Pastor friend of another tradition was remarking the other day as to wondering why the really mission critical stuff ends up being put on the backburner all the while tons of energy gets thrown around fighting cultural wars. Some time back I remember thinking… what if a mere 5% of the energy folks put into protesting this or that were put towards the great commission?

Rachel Held Evans looks at one culture war as a numbers game.

While there are certainly important hermeneutical and cultural issues at play, I can’t help but wonder if something more nefarious is also at work.  I can’t help but wonder if biblical condemnation is often a numbers game.

Nate Pyle in the comment stream takes this a bit further in suggesting stirring up culture wars is a $$$ issue

….The money will come in because you dare to speak the truth.

But call out gluttony, materialism, divorce, and gossip and now you step on a lot of toes, and money isn’t given as quickly. There is a lot to lose in calling out the sins of the many. John the Baptist was beheaded, Paul started riots in Ephesus (which as a preacher I would like to have happen just once. If someone flipped a car after a sermon in would be awesome. Just sayin’), and then there is Jesus.

I’ve seen culture war stuff crash and burn before and tend to agree with them as far as numbers being contributory… but I think there is more, perhaps even more nefarious than tribal numerical bully behavior and $$$$.

Over the past few weeks, I come across a few bits that suggest deeper issues at the heart of things.

Richard Rohr presents the following idea as concerning the Apostles and Nicene creed as fundamentals and the fact they have nothing to say about morality.

The Creeds are more mystical, cosmological, and about aligning our lives inside of a huge sacred story.) When you lose the great mystical level of religion, you always become moralistic about this or that as a cheap substitute. It gives you a false sense of being on higher spiritual ground than others.

In some sectors, the cosmic, supernatural, outside time domain stuff of faith gets ignored or for some even denied… and often times pelagianism / moralism jumps into place so fast ones head can spin. On the other side of the coin, there are some sectors where gnostic leaning runs pretty strong, or even crosses the line into full blown gnosticism. A third side is NGOs with Christian sounding names for which other than history are pretty much 100% secular. Ultimately, any of these paths often end up flirting with a denial of the incarnation.

Pope Francis in an informal talk hit on something eerily similar:

“I’ll share two worries of mine. One is a pelagian current that’s in the church at this time. There are certain restorationist groups. I know them as I took to receiving them in Buenos Aires. And you feel like you’ve gone back 60 years! Before the Council… you feel like it’s 1940 again… One anecdote, only to illustrate this….

The second [worry] is over a gnostic current. These pantheisms… they’re both currents of elites, but this one is of a more formed elite. I knew of one superior general who encouraged the sisters of her congregation to not prayer in the morning, but to give themselves a spiritual bath in the cosmos, such things…. These bother me because they lack the Incarnation! And the Son of God who became our flesh, the Word made flesh,….

The incarnation, the trinity, the creeds… rip those up and the door is open for trouble.