An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer

Sometimes multiple needs coincide to offer solutions to one another. I suggest that the contemporary church faces just such a confluence of opportunities masquerading as problems.  The church needs help; resources are available.

The church needs ministers.  According to a study conducted jointly by the Barna Group and Pepperdine University entitled “The State of Pastors: Leading in Complexity” (https://www.barna.com/research/aging-americas-pastors/; released January 26, 2017; accessed 3/21/2017) the Protestant clergy is aging.  The chart below compares findings by a 1968 Barna study, a 1992 Barna study entitled “Today’s Pastor” and the most recent study, all concerning the age of Protestant pastors.

1968                            1992                            2017

Median age                                                     44                                54

Under 40                                                         33%                             14%

Under 45                     55%                                                                 22%

Over 55                                                           25%                             50%

Over 65                                                           6%                               17%

 

The “bottom line” reveals that, in comparison to 1968 when over half of those in the pastorate aged 45 and under, today over half of the same population is over 55.  Correspondingly, the median age of pastors has increased ten years just since 1992.

The Barna study did not examine the factors influencing this “aging” of the clergy, but commentators have speculated that two factors contribute to the shift.  First, probably for financial reasons (damage done to clergy IRA’s in the financial crisis of the early 2000’s, for example), clergy in significant numbers have delayed retirement.  Second, and more significant for the structure of the pastorate, young people have not entered the ministry in numbers sufficient to maintain a more healthy generation balance in the pulpit.  Reasons for this circumstance, in turn, seem varied:  the ratio of the costs of a seminary education (read “student debt”) and beginning clergy income, the diminishment in the prestige contemporary culture grants ministry (and many other “helping” professions, teaching, for example), and the much-discussed disillusionment with the church experienced by many “millennials,” to name but the most prominent.

If the only factor were “oldsters” postponing retirement, one could expect their ranks to be easily replenished by an oversupply in the pipeline.  The fact that younger generations are not entering ministry in sufficient numbers points to a more troubling problem:  young people are unhappy with the church.  Studies as such as the May 2015 Pew Research Center’s “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/; accessed 3/22/2017) have documented the phenomenon in detail.  According to it, over one-third of the millennial generation disavows affiliation with any faith (an increase of 10% in only eight years).  These “nones” now constitute close to 23% of adults with disproportionate representation by millennials; for comparison, evangelicals comprise 25.4%, Catholics 21%, and mainline Protestants 14.7%.

Like many, I have been pondering this situation for some time, unscientifically surveying blogs, books, and social commentators in an attempt to understand why younger generations have lost confidence in the church.  My conclusions, to this point, are that I share many of their concerns; in fact, for me, these concerns date to the beginning of my own ministry.  In those days (and since), I have argued that the church must both return to its roots in a vigorous Jewish Christianity while, at the same, engaging the modern world honestly and openly from the foundations of its faith.  The Protestant church, in my long-held view, must rely less on its status as ecclesia reformata and continue, instead, its renewal as ecclesia semper reformanda.

In this sense, the church’s problems themselves already point to solutions.  A few quick observations:

  • Commentators frequently note that the generation now coming of age has little trust in organizations/institutions (including, but not limited to the church). I have blogged earlier about how my generation seems to have bequeathed its similar mistrust/distrust to our children (Watergate, Vietnam, etc; see “Unto the Ends of the Earth” 4/20/16; “An Easter Confession” 3/28/16; and “Outside Agitators” 1/19/16).  Those familiar with the biblical roots of our faith know that Jesus called disciples, formed a community, and founded a church understood and described as “the body of Christ.” Jesus left us with the Beatitudes, not the By-laws.
  • Relatedly, social observers point to the heightened sense of the individual common among young adults today – a centrifugal force. At the same time, however, involvement in social media, ad hoc political actions, and a range of acephalous movements indicate that the need for intentional community, so characteristic of basic human nature, has not skipped the millennial generation.  Can the church be(come authentic) community, the body of Christ, a gathered family (again)?
  • As I have observed elsewhere (“Unto the Ends of the Earth” 4/20/16; “America First or Not My Problem” 2/21/17), local churches often exhibit an insularity (frequently apparent in local church budgets and their “edifice” complexes) and a sometimes aggressive inwardness of focus that make them seem selfish, cliquish, and exclusivist. If Jesus’ statement about knowing a tree by its fruit has any bearing, such local congregations give little evidence that they have heard, let alone answered, the inclusive call of the Gospel.  Can there be any wonder that young adults seek settings outside the church in which egalitarianism finds authentic expression?  This inward focus often resembles or excuses hypocrisy. Churches responding to the call of the Gospel will actively extend welcome and grace to the poor, those of another race, political opponents, young and old, male and female.  It has taken far too long for some in the church to acknowledge that the church’s resistance to advances in civil rights, for example, branded the church as, in fact, a sometime opponent of the principles of justice and love for neighbor at the heart of the Gospel message.
  • Arguably, perhaps the most important deficit in the life of the church can be considered an umbrella category for the issues mentioned above. It involves the need for the church to cease its reactive responses against culture and turn toward engagement with it.  The church can no longer afford to refrain from dealing with the hard topics of the day that require intellectual honesty, rigorous examination, and a spirit of humility.  The younger generation tends toward non-conformity.  Its members will no longer be satisfied with “because that’s what we believe.”  The attempt of major segments of the church to banish the problems raised by modern science, for example, by ignoring them altogether has only made the church, indeed Christianity, seem incapable of dealing with the real world.  It seems, sometimes, that the church thinks that by enforcing a scientific naiveté the challenges of integrating Christian faith and a modern world-view will simply fade away.

How do these problems converge to produce a solution?  The church desperately needs a cadre of talented, well-educated, young leaders.  Leaders who both know the tradition at depth and understand the world as it is instead of longing for a simpler time.  They must understand the Bible in order to recognize its continued relevance and in order to interpret it as a complex text with specific, but limited, purposes.  They must know the history of the church in order to avoid historic pitfalls.  They must take science and sociology seriously while affirming that faith answers questions and needs for which science is entirely unsuited and announcing that God calls human society to a better way. They must know the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, between Shi`ah and Sunni Islam, and between Gnosticism and Christianity.  Otherwise, the church cannot navigate the complexities of contemporary pluralism without alienating those to whom it would bear witness, on the one hand, while maintaining its identity, on the other. They must lead the church to prophetic engagement with culture and politics while reminding it that the will of God can be achieved fully only in the Kingdom of God.

This is my appeal to a new generation.  It is also my prayer to God.

Spring Break

I will be taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks to tend to some pressing professional and personal concerns.  Look for something new the week of March 20.

Until then, keep following Jesus.

Mere Christianity

Lately, I have read about and heard directly from pastors who have been accused of being political from the pulpit although they thought that they were simply preaching the Gospel. We live in a time when people on both sides of the political spectrum stand ready to take offense.

Given the total claim of God, the all-encompassing scope of the Gospel, Christian claims will inevitably impinge on politics, of course, even when the claimant does not intend them primarily to do so. Only when the kingdom of God has come will the “political order” perfectly reflect God’s will.  Until then, no government, no political party, no public official will escape the prophetic message of the Gospel.

Prophets and governments have always been antagonistic toward one another, even in biblical Israel.  Saul had his Samuel (1 Sam 13:14), Solomon his Ahijah (1 Kgs 11:30-39), the Omrides their Elijah (1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 1) and Micaiah ben Imlah (1 Kgs 22:8-29), Jeroboam II his Amos (7), the “rulers” of Israel and Judah generally their Micah (3:1-4), Ahaz his Isaiah (7), and the last kings of Judah their Jeremiah (26).  These prophets always met resistance.  Indeed, Jesus described Israel’s historical relationship with prophetic critics as a history of the persecution of prophets (Matt 5:12) and places himself in that history:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37 RSV par. Luke 13:34).

It may be better to say that that Christian claims will always be critical of contemporary culture.  For just over five years of my graduate study, I lived and studied at the Rüschlikon Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Amsterdam, the Netherlands).  My first year, the forty-seven students represented forty-three nationalities.  In many ways, living and studying with Baptists from all over the world was a crucible experience for all of us.  We learned what part of our values structures were Baptist and what part Southern/Spanish/German/Indonesian/Brazilian, etc.  Eastern European Baptists, who were naturally suspicious of anything even remotely related to socialism, and Latin American Baptists, who were influenced by Liberation Theology (and thus, indirectly, by Marxist analysis), found it necessary to acknowledge that the basis of their common Baptist identity was the assertion that the church consists of baptized believers. Over five years, I became acutely aware of my “southern-ness,” which meant that I came to appreciate the value of other cultures, of other ways of being and doing.  At the same time, I gained a vantage point from which I could affirm the valuable components of my heritage while also criticizing its shortcomings in relation to the call of God on my life.

American Christians too easily identify a certain version of American culture as an expression of God’s will:  American exceptionalism, which often means “America first” (both in terms of supremacy and priority, as it seems right now) and often suggests an “America, love it or leave it” attitude.  American Christians tend to baptize market forces, even within the church, and to idolize the American system of government, often by revising the history of the founding of the nation.  Former House majority leader Tom Delay, for example, once went so far as to claim divine inspiration for our system and for the US Constitution:  “I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles” (https://youtu.be/WxFp0TRgN7w).  Conservative talk-show host and provocateur Glenn Beck expressed a similar view in his 2010 commencement address at Liberty University: “It is God’s finger that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is God’s country; these are God’s rights. I have no idea what he wants us to do with them, other than protect them, and stand with Him” (http://freedomoutpost.com/american-government-divinely-inspired-bible/; cf. http://candacesalima.blogspot.com/2007/09/divinely-inspired-and-living.html).  American Christians can respect the United States Constitution as a human accomplishment designed to curb the lust for power through separation of powers and checks and balances.  It is not scripture, however.

In sum, just as I learned abroad the differences between my culture and the essence of my faith, today’s church must clarify its vision so that, through the haze and confusion, it seeks the kingdom of God above all else.  If our culture and our politics do not perfectly align with the call of God – they do not, never have, and never will – any truly Christian statement we make will constitute a critique of culture, including politics.

To be more precise, the values of the kingdom of God hinge around the two commandments that Jesus identified at the core of discipleship:  God’s absolute and exclusive claim to our love and allegiance – a claim with significant implications regarding our relationship to the nation and its interests – and God’s expectation that we love the other absolutely and without restriction – a claim with significant implications regarding our attitudes toward the poor, minorities, immigrants, practitioners of other faiths, “sinners” and “saints.”

The major questions for the church should concern not whether we act on these claims, then, but how best to do so. When the church recognizes that the state fails to pursue these claims – and we can expect to have this recognition frequently and regularly – the church must simply get to work, knowing that God calls the church to be light and salt in the world regardless, and often in spite of, what the state may be doing.  The extent of the body of Christ in the world does not coincide with any national boundaries; the purposes of the body of Christ in the world do not coincide with any national interests.

Preachers, keep on preaching the Gospel.  Congregants, if your preacher’s messages seem confrontational to you, ask whether you have clearly distinguished between your cultural heritage and the call of Christ.  More importantly, decide which will have your fundamental devotion.

America First or Not my Problem

Mark 9:37

For a couple of weeks now, I have been preoccupied with the perception that the public discourse influences even believers toward stridency, rigidity, and lack of compassion. Oddly, at the same time, I have been hearing again and again in my mind’s ear the lyrics of a children’s hymn I learned to sing in Vacation Bible School:  “Jesus loves the little Continue reading America First or Not my Problem

Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

“Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.”  The Grand Inquisitor, Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

President Trump has dangled the forbidden fruit before the church with his promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment that prohibits non-profit organizations, including the church, from taking overtly partisan political action Trump has complained that the effect of the amendment on religious institutions is that “their voice has been taken away.” To Continue reading Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

Confusion: Rights or Love

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor 14:33 RSV)

Last week’s blog included the sentence:  “Let the cacophony begin.” It has.

I have not intended to focus this blog on politics, but, like Moses’ experience with the burning bush, the current din of confusion in the political realm beckons me to turn aside to listen.  When I do, I hear that a significant component of the confusion involves the mistaken identification of national interests in self-protection with Christian motivations. Continue reading Confusion: Rights or Love

Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

“Do not trust deceptive words, saying ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these [stones]’.”  Jer 7:4, my translation

Sometime in the outgoing seventh century BCE, God sent Jeremiah to the temple in Jerusalem to warn the Judeans that, unless they changed their behavior, God would unleash the Babylonians to conquer. The venue for Jeremiah’s message proved to be as significant as the words themselves. Early in the sermon Jeremiah apparently quoted a Continue reading Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

Tireless Exertions

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Eccl 1:4 RSV

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

I was born in February of 1957, when the union still had only forty-eight states, three years after the US Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), and just a few months before the first nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Arkansas schools implementing the ruling.  Local sit-in campaigns began at a Woolworth Continue reading Tireless Exertions

What the world needs now is hesed, sweet hesed…

Matt 5:44-47

I “love” chocolate and I “love” my wife.  Clearly, the word “love” is almost too multivalent to be useful sometimes.

Two days ago, my phone rang at just after 5pm.  It was my youngest son.  He began, “Dad, I’m OK, but….”  My heart sank to my stomach, my pulse quickened, my mind simultaneously imagined possibilities and braced to hear the actual.  He had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck at highway speed on the interstate; his car had rolled and Continue reading What the world needs now is hesed, sweet hesed…

Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

The concept of “Christian values” is playing a prominent role in the public arena today, but my Facebook® feed lately suggests very little agreement among those who call themselves Christian concerning the identification of these values or the definition of them individually. No one should wonder that people outside the church view it with suspicion Continue reading Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”