Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

The Question of Becoming

Okay, really short post today! I was reading in Clark Pinnock’s book, Most Moved Mover, when I came across this quote –

The element of risk may belong to the time of our earthly probation and our ability to choose may diminish; as choices become habits, habits become character, and character becomes our very being. In a sense, we are becoming our choices. (Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, Baker Academic, 2001, p. 171.)

I’m going to let this one simmer for a little while, but I will probably come back to this quote in future posts. In the meantime, I think it is enough to ask, “What are you becoming?”

 

 

Live and in Living Color!

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for – okay maybe not all of you, and maybe not THE moment you have been waiting for . . . but here it is anyway!

Thanks to my lovely wife and the talents and kind assistance of one of our members, here is a video of the latest attempt at a sermon by the ol’ Freightdawg.

Anyone needing (or just wanting) a new preacher – feel free to share.

Thanks, and as always, I appreciate your companionship in the fog . . .

Paul

Orlando – Outrage, but No Solidarity

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)

Trigger alert – for those who believe that Christians must “join in solidarity” with every group that experiences some misfortune, this post will definitely be damaging to your mental health. Continue at your own risk.

Literally within hours of the horrific murders in Orlando, social media sites were lit up with accusations against Christians, Muslims, and anyone else for that matter, who disapproved of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning – I’ve heard both explanations) lifestyle. The fact that no on knew any of the pertinent facts of the case did not stop anyone. Well known and highly respected “Christian” authors jumped into the fray, calling for the “church” to join in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and excoriating anyone who dared to disagree.

Well, I disagree.

I just have one question – a question that has not been answered by any of those who call for this solidarity – “WHY?” Is it because of the manner of death? Is being shot by a crazed psychopath a more horrific death than dying as your plane falls from 30,000 feet into the ocean? Is it because of the alleged religious background of the killer? Does being killed by a Muslim terrorist make you more vulnerable than being killed by a Christian terrorist – or even an atheistic one?

No – the only reason I can decipher from reading the quotes and commentary is that Christians should join in solidarity with the victims because – they practice forms of sexual deviancy that are clearly and emphatically condemned in Scripture! Not as, “we are all sinners” (which we are, note the above Scripture), but we should be particularly sympathetic – and even empathetic – to this group specifically because of their lifestyle.

As more facts emerge from this tragedy I feel like my head is on a swivel. First the murderer was alleged to have sworn allegiance to ISIS – the terrorist group that is wreaking havoc all over our world. But, then a funny thing happened. It has also been reported that the killer had an account with a homosexual dating app – and frequented the very club in which he committed this atrocity. Apparently he was a common visitor in a part of town known for its gender-bending clientele. (So much of this is allegation, early and mistaken reporting, and who knows what else. I doubt we will know the whole truth for weeks, if not months). If any of this is true it certainly casts a deep shadow over the “Muslim terrorist” angle. I am no Muslim scholar, but I seriously doubt that Allah would approve of one of his followers hooking up on a homosexual dating app.

I understand the outrage. I feel it myself. I feel it after every mass shooting, bombing, or other form of mass murder. It was a horrific act – make no mistake and the victims did not “deserve” their deaths (contrary to the stated opinions of many other “Christian” commentators) any more than those little children and their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school. As Christians I feel we have several responses that would reflect the love of Christ. Certainly we are to “bind up the wounds” and treat the survivors and the families of all the victims with love. I also believe that now is not the time to pull out the sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah or Romans 1. There is, as the Preacher once wrote, a time for weeping.

However, to suggest, even in the most innocent sounding or oblique manner, that the bride of Christ is somehow united or in “solidarity” with a community that flagrantly repudiates the beauty and wisdom of God’s creation is patently absurd bordering on obscene. Physicians heal, not by becoming one with the disease or the patient, but by standing over the patient and against the disease. Light does not become one with darkness, but light drives darkness away. The Son of God drew crowds of broken sinners to himself, not because he became one of their number, but because he showed them how to be reconciled to his Father.

Events such as these should cause us all to stop and reflect – to what extent are we guilty of prejudice, hatred, and, yes, even sexual sins that are just as clearly condemned in the Word of God as homosexuality. One of the most profound aspects of the faith and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that he openly confessed the sins of the German church in regard to the crimes of the Nazi party. But while he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect the defenseless, he never proclaimed himself to be anything other than a Christian. He could, and did, protect the other, the outsider, without claiming to be the other. And it was only because he maintained that separation that he could be an authentic witness to Christ.

That kind of behavior requires an enormous amount of courage – and a clear, focused theology. Our response to events like Orlando should come from Christ, through Christ, in order to bring people to Christ. Let us work to unite the world to Christ, not the church to the world.

Prayer

I shared last post about silence. Today I move from silence to prayer. Silence is the ground from which prayer is grown.

In my last post I attempted to stress the critical importance of silence. God created, God spoke, out of the primordial silence. Jesus was led into 40 days of wilderness before his speaking ministry would begin. “Be still (silent)” the psalmist directs, “and know that I am God.” If there is no silence, then speech becomes meaningless. It is silence that gives meaning to our words.

Silence, however, is not our highest passion. We are not called to vows of silence. We use the silence we are given (and that which we create) in order to move into prayer. Prayer is the proper goal of silence.

I know I am in the minority when I say this (perhaps the ONLY one who would say this), but I believe Christians have destroyed the gift of prayer. Christians have trivialized it, manipulated it, commercialized it, secularized it – and emasculated it. Far from being a path into the awesome throne room of the Almighty God, we have turned prayer into a perfunctory prelude before a meal, or worse yet, the opening rite before a disturbingly violent and utterly un-godlike sporting event. We use prayer to begin a legislative session in which women are given the right to murder their children, and where laws are passed to protect and even promote the deviant lifestyle of those who pervert God’s design for human sexuality. To salve our wounded conscience we declare one day out of 365 to be a “National Day of Prayer.”

National prayer for what? Have we never read Jeremiah 7:16ff and 11:14ff? Brothers and sisters, those are terrifying passages of Scripture! How can we be so hypocritical?

What then, is prayer?

Prayer is the path I take to align my bent and broken will to that of my Father in heaven. Prayer is the process by which I submit my heart and my body to the service of my Lord. Prayer is the method of communication that God has given me so that I can be at one time utterly human, and at the same time share in his transcendence. Prayer allows us to touch the infinite. Properly understood and practiced, prayer is the most powerful gift of expression that humans are allowed to use. Is it any wonder that when Jesus’ disciples heard him pray that they begged him to teach them how to pray? How many of us get down on our knees and ask God, “Teach us to pray!”?

This partially explains why we cannot pray today. Our world is so full of our words, of our noise, of the expression of our self importance, and even our own self righteousness that we cannot grasp the single most important component of prayer – the humiliating (making humble) and purifying presence of the gift of silence. We must listen before we can pray. It is then through the penetrating silence of God’s presence that we can begin to lift our own voice.

God wants us to pray. Jesus taught his disciples (and through their words, he has taught us) how to pray. The apostles commanded unceasing and fervent prayer. It is one of the great tragedies of the church that we have taken such a gift, yes, even such a command, and have turned it into something so base, so trivial.

Are we, as Christians, really serious about prayer? Maybe we need to begin by asking God to teach us, really teach us, how to pray.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, ESV)

Silence

Our culture has lost a great treasure. It did not happen quickly – in fact it has taken a couple of generations to completely disappear. Sadly, although the church should have been the caretaker of this precious commodity, we are complicit in its disappearance. What is it that has become for the majority of Americans a distant memory? Silence – the gift of utter and complete emptiness. The ability to be filled with the glorious sense of quiet.

Our world is dominated with noise – but not just any kind of noise. Our world is filled with the noise of words. From the time our alarm clock goes off in the morning until we finally collapse exhausted in our beds at night we are drowning in a toxic quagmire of words. Many of these words are verbalized, either in the form of speech or songs. Perhaps even a greater number of these words are printed – showing up on billboards, on posters, in newspapers and magazines, and always present on our computers, tablets and phones. We exist in a stagnant, putrefying, poisonous ocean of words.

The irony is that as you read this, you are reading . . . words! Christians gather on Sunday mornings to sing songs of praise to our God. We collectively lift up prayers to God. We expect, even crave, to hear words of encouragement from the eternal Word of God. I want to suggest, however, that none of these words will have any significance at all if we do not enter into our worship (either solitary or collective) out of the purifying quality of silence.

Before there was anything, before there was even time, there was God, and –  silence. God spoke his first creative word out of the creative silence. In John’s mystifying vision of the future, amidst all the praise and worship that constantly surrounds the throne of God, there is the sound of awe inspiring silence. In order to hear God’s voice, there must first be silence!

Most westerners (Europe, England, the Americas) are terrified of silence. We do not understand those “mystical” people from the East who can sit for hours – alone or in a group – and do or say nothing. We even shy away from enclaves of silence within our own noisy culture, the Amish and the Mennonites and the Quakers, and those weird monastics. We may admire them from a distance, but we hope that we never catch their disease of quietness. Sad thing, really. Why are we so afraid to be silent, unless we are afraid to hear . . . God?

One question I hear almost constantly today is, “How could the United States fall so far from its founding principles is such a short period of time?” I’m sure that many answers could be given. I think, however, all the answers have a common root. I believe we have lost that fundamental ability – and necessity – to “Be still (silent) and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

Here is a crazy idea: inoculate yourself with 30 minutes of silence every day, and see how much more clearly you can hear the voice of your God.

Churches of Christ – The Road Ahead

In response to my last post I received another good question – “So, where do the Churches of Christ go from here?” It seems to this feeble mind that I had already penned an answer somewhat close to answering that question, but I cannot find it – so I guess I did not. Anyway, since I clearly pointed out two reasons for what I would refer to as a “descent” into “cheap grace,” I will begin where I left off.

The first answer is so laughably easy to type, and so insanely hard to implement. You might even say, “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” But, to be utterly simplistic, Churches of Christ are going to have to change their culture. We are going to have to give up the victories we have won and the gains we have made in cultural accommodation. The first few centuries of Christianity clearly illustrate that the church was at best only tolerated, and frequently quite viciously hated, by the dominant culture in which it was placed. It is one of the great ironies of our movement that we look back to the first century as our polar star and at the same time try to move heaven and earth to try to be accepted by our 21st century hedonistic, secular culture. When a congregation can say, “you don’t have to change to be a member of this church” then you know that “the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.”

Second, the Churches of Christ are going to have to rediscover the Bible. Yes, I said it. We are going to have to stop leaning on our professed affection for Scripture, and we are going to have to start using Scripture the way in which it was intended. The Bible was never meant to become an idol. The Israelites were guilty of thinking they were safe if they could utter the mantra, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4). Contemporary Churches of Christ have modified that statement to be, “the Bible, the Bible, the Bible.” The word of God is a sign and a path, NOT a destination. One of the things you learn when you step outside of your own tradition is how other traditions have used what you thought was your own possession, and sometimes with much more accuracy and perfection than you have. Many churches claim to follow the Bible only. We have been claiming to do so for right at 200 years now. I have to ask in all honesty and conviction – where is the proof? Do members of the Churches of Christ love each other, and their neighbors, more than any other group? Are members of the Churches of Christ willing to go to prison for their convictions? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most charitable among all the other Christian churches? Are members of the Churches of Christ more willing to share the story of Jesus with those who have never heard it? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most hospitable of all religious groups? I think I could go on. The point is we love to love the Bible, but I am just not too sure we love the core message of the Bible. And I have been and am a continuing part of that digression.

I have often been a critic of our concept of “Bible study.” This is somewhat of a caricature, but not too far off. It goes like this – a teacher is recruited about two weeks before a quarter begins. A workbook is quickly ordered from a “sound” Christian publishing company. It arrives, but remains untouched until the first Sunday of the series. Twenty minutes before class the book is grabbed off the bookshelf as the family goes screaming out to get in the car. Five minutes before class the book is finally opened as the teacher stands behind the lectern, greeting his class members to an hour of “Bible study.” He begins by reading the book in a monotone voice, never once realizing that no one is really paying attention to him. It doesn’t matter whether the class is the adults in the auditorium, the high school class or the 2nd grade class. The process is mind-numbingly common in all too many congregations.

I pray your situation is different. I pray you have a teacher that is on fire every time his or her class meets, and they end the class session drenched in sweat and even more excited about next week. I pray you have a teacher that teaches from a bucket that is overflowing with equal parts passion and information. I pray you have a teacher that both assigns homework and insists on the completion of that homework. I pray you have a teacher that demonstrates and expects world work as well – the faithful practice of the lessons learned from the text of the week. I pray you have a teacher that sees Scripture as a journey into the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy meet.

I have no illusions that the scenario I have described above will happen any time soon, at least not on a national scale. If it happens it must begin on a person by person, congregation by congregation basis. It is going to take strong elders who lead their congregations away from the siren song of American nationalism back to the vision of dwelling in the Kingdom of God. Those elders are going to have to have the backbone necessary to resist – and even confront – those who claim that the Stars and Stripes are equal to the stripes and the cross. The church is going to have to be led by those who see the church as a path to the future and not just a relic of some mythical ‘golden age’ here on earth. In the most simple terms, the church is going to have to become solidly counter-cultural, unapologetically apostolic, and deeply apocalyptic in order for all of this to happen.

It has happened before. It can happen again. But there is only one way in which it can, and will, happen: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

[In case anyone is interested, here is a handful of resources that have been helpful to me in this study: The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal 2nd ed., C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed (ACU Press, 1991); The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross Shaped People in a Secular World rev. and expanded ed., C. Leonard Allen (ACU Press, 2006); Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ both by Richard T. Hughes, (ACU Press, 2008 and 2002 respectively); Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, (IVP, 2003);  Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, David Augsburger (Brazos Press, 2006); Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed., Lee C. Camp (Brazos Press, 2008); Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why it Matters and You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith both by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007 and 2011 respectively); Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, (Augsburg Press, 2001). And, the coup de grace, the stunningly brilliant examination recently done by someone we all know and love, We Can Bear It No Longer: Toward a Confessional Theology Within the Churches of Christ (unpublished dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2015). Caveat emptor: with perhaps the last source as the only exception, I do not agree with every conclusion of each of these authors. Actually, I don’t always agree with the last author either. Read carefully and judiciously – and always compare what a human writes with the one Word of God.]

It Really Is Not About Us

Worship is not about us. Worship is about the One who created us, suffered for us, and redeemed us. Worship is not about style or place or who stands behind the podium. Worship is certainly not about the podium. Worship is about submitting ourselves to the  one who is worthy of our worship. When we measure worship by human standards, we remove God from the center and place ourselves on His throne. Worship can never be about us.

Prayer is not about us. Prayer is not trying to get God to align with our wants, wishes, and goals. Prayer is about aligning our hearts and bodies with God’s designs and goals. Prayer is about transforming our mind into the mind of Christ. Prayer is the path to sanctification. Prayer is not about us.

Evangelism is not about us. Evangelism is about the God who calls all of us to be reconciled to him. When we decide that we have to have a “method” or a “style” of evangelism, we make evangelism to be about us. When we are more focused on the “unchurched” or the “unsaved” rather than the God who calls all people into community and salvation, we have made evangelism about us. When we can list exactly how many people have been baptized but we cannot name a single person who has been discipled we have made evangelism about us. We can never make evangelism about us.

Bible study is not about us. We do not study the Bible to confirm our prejudices or certify our phobias. Bible study is about learning the mind of God – through the mind of Christ. We do not worship the Bible, but we use the truths found in the Bible to lead us to worship the God revealed in those truths. We must never make Bible study about us.

When we make anything about us, everything disintegrates, because we are broken, fallible, human beings. All division, all sectarianism, all animosity of any sort has its roots in the fact that some person or group made some aspect of the church all about them. From the most arcane and virtually incoherent arguments about the nature of the trinity down to the whether women can preach or pass the communion trays, sectarianism boils down to one ugly little proposition: we are like God, knowing right from wrong, and we don’t have to pay attention to what God said, because we are at the very least as smart as God, and therefore we can direct our own paths. When everything is about us there is no room left for the Creator, and certainly not for the Crucified One.

What we see in far too many congregations today is tragically the result of making the church about us. We have put ourselves front and center, and worshipped our reflection in the mirror. As the culture around us becomes even more narcissistic, I fear the situation in the church will only get worse.

There is a solution – there is a remedy for this malaise. But we have to get one thing straight first.

It really is not about us, at all.

Our Guiding Star

The most difficult thing about flying in fog is also probably the easiest to identify: you don’t know where you are. You also do not know know how you are. That is, in fog or clouds your plane can be right-side up, or up-side down, or any attitude in-between. It is frightening just how easy it is to get disoriented when you enter a fog bank or cloud. That is why so many inexperienced pilots kill themselves and their passengers shortly after taking off into a low overcast. The pilot loses sensory perception, and at that point gravity and simple aerodynamics take over. If the pilot is lucky the result in simply terrifying. Too many do not live to tell the tale around the restaurant coffee table.

In order for pilots to fly, and land, safely in the fog two things are absolutely critical. The first is some form of navigational aid that is fixed in one place – immovable. For years this need was filled by land based navigational aids that generated radio waves that identified their location on the ground. Today those ground based facilities are still available, but increasingly technology has moved to using satellites locked in geosynchronous orbits – orbits that keep the satellite in one precise position over the earth. When I last flew an airplane our GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers were capable of picking up 14 of these satellites at one time. If your receiver had a lock on most, or all, of these satellites, you knew where you were to within feet, if not inches. Now, with the combination of satellite and ground based facilities, airplane pilots not only know where they are, but also what their altitude is, down to an amazing degree of accuracy.

However, the fixed navigational aid is utterly worthless if the pilot does not also have the appropriate navigational instruments in the cockpit of the airplane. All the fancy satellites in the world will not assist a plane built in the 1950’s with 1950’s radio technology installed. Today’s “glass” cockpits look more like the inside of the space shuttle than the planes I started to fly. Stated another way, it does not matter how many voices are out there telling the plane where it is and how high it is, if that plane that cannot “listen” to all those voices.

As more than just a casual observer of the Churches of Christ, and churches in general, my conclusion is that far too many of us have lost connection to that fixed point that allows us to know where, and who, we are. It may sound kind of harsh, but a person would be a fool to deny that our cultural situation today is as disorienting and confusing as flying into a fog bank is to a pilot. Culture is never anything but a morass of confusing and disorienting stimuli. That part will never change. However, I think what does change from one time period to another is how groups and individuals are able to navigate through that fog with greater assurance and safety. To use the image of the pilot and his plane, those groups and individuals are locked on to that fixed point in time and space and they have the necessary receptors in their lives that allow them to “listen” and interpret the message being sent from that fixed point.

What I hear, and read, from a disturbing number of “leaders” within the Churches of Christ lets me know that they are trying to get their bearings from the situation that has effectively blinded them. They are trying to figure out their position relative to their “ground,” but they are doing so by taking measurements from the cloud they are flying in. As any instrument rated pilot will tell you, that is a sure recipe for disaster. Clouds do not tell you where you are, and they certainly do not tell you if you are shiny side up or the reverse.

When I hear that congregations have to change practices that have roots all the way back to the first century simply because “if we don’t our young people will leave,” then I get very worried. When I hear that “today’s generation does not understand the idea of acapella music, so we have to adapt our worship to speak to them” then I grow concerned. When I hear that approximately 2,000 years of biblical interpretation must be jettisoned because of an “enlightened” understanding of gender and sexuality, then I start to feel like up is down and down is up. Yet, that is exactly what I am hearing. “We are flying in a cloud, so let’s listen to the cloud. We don’t need to listen to the ground, or to a satellite – we don’t know where the ground is and we’ve never seen the satellite – but we can see this cloud and it is so soft and fluffy there is certainly nothing that can harm us if we follow this cloud.”

I learned a lot about theology from flying an airplane. In this respect it is quite simple. Pilots who do not have the capability of receiving, or who willingly refuse to receive, accurate information from ground or satellite based navigational aids end up killing themselves, and anyone else who happens to be unlucky enough to be in the airplane. Churches who insist on modifying their vision and practices based on the shifting wisps of culture are just as doomed to failure.

For Churches of Christ there can be but one guiding star – one navigational aid that is steadfast, immovable, fixed in both time and space and from whom there is no variation or deviation. That star is Jesus (Heb. 2:9, 3:1, 10:19-25). If we lose connection with Jesus, it will not matter how large, or energetic, or “contemporary” or well respected our congregations become.

Let us become what our name professes. Let us return to Jesus – to our guiding star, our only secure beacon in this confusing, and deeply confused, world.

(Note: this post has been corrected to fix a horribly confusing second-to-last paragraph. Sorry to those who read the earlier version, and I hope this paragraph makes more sense.)

Quantity, or Quality?

This is kind of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the church becoming so focused on not offending someone that it loses its sharp message. Related to political correctness is a belief that the church is to measure its success based strictly on numbers. That is a false assumption, but it drives virtually every mission that the church seeks to promote.

I have been a part of the Church of Christ for all of my life – and a paid minister for much of that life. I can attest that whenever a new mission is being evaluated, or an old mission is being reviewed, one of the most important questions that must be answered is, “How will this help us grow numerically?” The question may not be asked in such bald terms, but whether it is blatant or more covert, the question is still there. If we are going to invest dollars in a mission, we want to see numerical results.

This eventually leads to the problem I discussed yesterday – if we want rear-ends in the pews we cannot preach or teach anything that might offend large numbers of our target audience. If we are a large, up-scale, predominantly white and affluent congregation the talk of greed, avarice and selfishness must be banished. If we are poor, lower-class and predominantly dependent on government aid we cannot discuss that issues of envy or resentment. If a large percentage of our congregation is borderline obese forget hearing a sermon on gluttony. If we live next door to a military base do not even think about hearing a sermon on the evils of military aggression and the need to obey Christ’s call to lay aside the weapons of destruction. The point is the overwhelming majority of the content of our sermons and lessons is determined not by the content of Scripture, but by the location of our church buildings and the make-up of our congregational membership rolls.

Believe me, I have been both perpetrator and victim of this mentality. Much of my job security has revolved around the stability, if not the growth, of the numbers of the ministry I have been associated with. I have been all too much a promoter of the “we have to have more and more people here” kind of thinking. But, I have also been burned by the same mentality. You are not invited to speak at all the brotherhood soirees if your only claim to fame is that you drive people away from your building.

I don’t think Jesus was all that hung-up about numbers. In fact, he was just as willing to see the slackers and the hangers-on turn around and leave him as he was to see the faithful follow him. He lamented the fact people would turn their back on him, but he never promised to bring in donuts and coffee if they would stay.

What Jesus was vitally interested in was the quality of the life of the disciple. If you said you were “in” with Jesus, he wanted to make sure you understood what that “in” meant. The cost of discipleship varied with the person, and Jesus would not expect the same effort from a 75 year old convert that he might expect from a 25 year old convert. But he would expect the same amount of love and commitment.

Churches of Christ are in a major quandary these days, as are congregations of virtually every religious stripe. Some of the issues confronting the churches have been created by our opponent, Satan. Some of the wounds we are seeking to heal, however, are purely self-inflicted. Part of the problem, although not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, is the fact that for several generations now we have been measuring success by the quantity of numbers in our pews, and not the quality of discipleship in those who sit in the pews.

In an odd sort of way, Jesus may be happier with us if we had fewer congregations made up of smaller memberships, if those members were fully committed Christians. The interesting thing is, if that were to happen, my guess is the numbers of the members of the church would grow exponentially. I believe people want to be a part of genuine Christianity. I think they are just sick and tired of the pseudo-christianity that is being peddled by so many number-hungry churches today.

Book Review – The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Thomas E. Bergler)

The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thoms E. Bergler (Grand Rapids: William E. Eerdmans, 2012) 229 pages and 37 pages of endnotes. 51+3XPP+nvL

I’m not exactly sure the process that encouraged me to read this book – I had a bunch of “irons in the fire” over the past couple of years, and a note indicates I bought this book in July of 2013 – so it has been a while since I have read it. It has taken me a while to get around to reviewing it, but that time delay does not reflect on the importance of the book.

There are some books that you read and you think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that.” Other books you read and you think, “I’m not sure I agree with that, or I do not think the author made his case very well here.” And then there are the books that you read and you think, “Wow. I agree with the author, and I really wish that he was not right.” Bergler’s book fit that third category for me. I have felt that Bergler’s thesis was true for quite some time, but I could not have said it as powerfully or as eloquently as Bergler does.

Bergler’s thesis is given on pages 4 and 8:

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American Church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.

And then this:

Adolescent Christianity is any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture.

The main point of the book is that due to the influence of the adolescent culture shift that started in the 1930’s, the American church is basically a church of adolescents. This is not something that can be undone, according to Bergler. Indeed, he states emphatically that his book is NOT a manual on how to eliminate juvenilization – and the last chapter is dedicated to “The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization.”

Bergler demonstrates how each of the major groups of American Christianity (Liberals andConservatives, Catholics and Protestants) have been affected by this trend. The one group that he points out that has managed to resist the process is the Black church. This is true because  Black Christians did a much better job of integrating their youth into the entire church and thereby fostered a greater degree of maturity as their youth matured.

In contrast, by creating, and by constantly re-creating age specific “youth groups” complete with their own “youth ministers,” the vast majority of the American church scene simply allowed their youth to stagnate in the period of life we call adolescence. The problem is that now “we are all adolescents” as the introduction is titled. Just think of the major issues in the American church today and you will find that at the root there is a systemic lack of Christian maturity. Everyone wants the church to be what they want it to be, not what Christ has called the church to be.

Having gone through adolescence in the 1970’s this book was a hard read for me. I loved the youth group that gave me so much strength as a young Christian. But I can see now how we have bent the church to try to match the demands of what can only be described as “adolescence” that we have lost sight of Paul’s instruction to “grow up into maturity . . . into Christ.” By allowing everyone to stay an adolescent, we have almost killed the church.

The one problem I have with the book is Bergler’s acceptance of the problem he identified. True, in the final pages he discusses how the process needs to be “tamed,” but I do not see how the issue he discusses can be dealt with short of ending it. Adolescence may be a necessary stage of growth for today’s young people, but in no way do we want them to stay stuck in adolescence. We want to move them to maturity – we want to move the church to maturity. We want, or maybe better put, we NEED to grow up!

I heartily recommend the book. It may open your eyes, it may challenge you, and you may thoroughly disagree with Bergler, but in my (humble) opinion you cannot disregard the issue that he reveals.

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