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Archive for February, 2011

This is an article from the Wall Street Journal by Brett McCracken, shared with me by Robert Dilday who found it on John Chandler’s blog.  It’s been passed around a little, but only because it’s a provocative article that makes us think hard about the future of Christianity.  I won’t ask you to enjoy it, but maybe we can all learn something from it.  —Jim

‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.

As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn’t megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.

Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”-a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it-to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”-remains.

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular-and arguably most unseemly-methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like “Sex God” (by Rob Bell) and “Real Sex” (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called yourgreatsexlife.com to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (IveScrewedUp.com), and had a web series called MyNakedPastor.com, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church-who posts Q&A videos online, from services where he answers questions from people in church, on topics such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse.”

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes:”The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched-and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

Mr. McCracken’s book, “Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide” (Baker Books) was published this month.

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I got e-mail from a church member recently telling me how disappointed she had been in the way I handled the vote on the 2011 budget at the end of the 8:30 worship service last Sunday.  She said, “You told everybody that it was a done deal, that we had already voted on it, and that we were just giving our affirmation to a previous decision.  You asked for a show of hands if we were for the budget, but not if we were against it.  It made me feel like I don’t really have a voice in the decisions that are made at First Baptist Church. “

I wrote back immediately, saying: “Please forgive me.  I was confused.  I thought we had already voted on the budget at our last quarterly business meeting, and that we didn’t really need to vote on Sunday.  Then I looked down at my bulletin and it said, ‘Vote on the Budget.’  So I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to affirm the budget but didn’t give them a way to oppose it.  I blew it in almost every possible way at 8:30, but got it right at 11:00.  I’m very sorry.”

She wrote back to me and said:  “Thanks for the explanation.  That’s a very good explanation.”

The explanation of course is that I messed up.  I made a mistake.  I didn’t deprive her of her voice intentionally; I did it unintentionally.  But what she did was a perfect illustration of the sermon I had preached that morning.  I had said that if someone in the church does you wrong you should confront him, just as in says in Matthew 18:15: “If another member of the church sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault when it is just the two of you alone.  If he listens to you, you’ve won your brother back.” 

I wrote back to her, congratulating her on the way she had handled things.  “This is what you did,” I told her.  “I sinned against you.  You confronted me and made me aware of what I had done.  I listened to you, apologized for my mistake, and you forgave me.  That’s just what Jesus was talking about!  And,” I added, “I hope you’ve won your brother back” (smile).

“Absolutely!” she replied, and went on to tell me that she had appreciated the sermon very much, but after the vote she hadn’t been able to think about anything else.  Once we got that cleared up, we were free to move on to other things.

I wanted to share that story here, because it seems like a perfect illustration of how to make peace with someone who has offended you.  You don’t talk about that person: you talk to him.  You tell him what it was that offended you and why.  You give him a chance to explain, and perhaps even apologize.  If he does, then you forgive him and move on to other things. 

Doesn’t that seem like a better way than fuming about it quietly for days or even weeks, holding a grudge against the offending party until you can’t even stand the sight of him anymore?  Jesus understood: if you don’t go to your brother when he sins against you, if you don’t tell him his fault and give him a chance to apologize, then you lose your brother—not because of his feelings toward you but because of your feelings toward him. 

I don’t know about you, but I need all the brothers and sisters I can get these days, and for that reason I’m thankful that one of my sisters was brave enough to write to me and tell me my fault.  It’s not easy to hear such things, but believe me, it’s a whole lot better than not hearing them.

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The last session of the January Bible Study was cut short by our quarterly business meeting at First Baptist Church.  I had just a few minutes at the end of the meeting to try to summarize Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and didn’t get a chance to ask the question I had been wanting to ask. 

This one:

“If exegesis is figuring out what a text meant ‘then and there,’ and hermeneutics is applying that meaning ‘here and now,’ then what was Paul trying to say to the Galatians in this letter and what does this letter say to us now?”

The message “then and there” was clear: Paul had preached a gospel of grace to the Gentiles in Galatia, telling them they could be saved simply by believing in Jesus.  Some Jewish Christians had come along later and told them that if they really wanted to be saved, they would need to be circumcised and start keeping the Law of Moses.  Most of Galatians is Paul’s outraged response to that heretical notion, and when I say “outraged” I mean it.  The New International Version puts it mildly in 5:12: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

Look it up.

Why is Paul so indignant?  Because he had told the Galatians “Jesus = Salvation” and now someone else was telling them “Jesus + Circumsion + Keeping the Law = Salvation.”  As my brother Scott once said:  “Jesus + Anything = Heresy” when it comes to salvation. 

My brother Paul would agree.

In my preparation for this year’s Bible study I read Justification by N. T. Wright, the former bishop of Durham, England, and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars.  Part of the book is a careful exegesis of Galatians, in which Wright argues that for Paul justification is what makes us members of “God’s true family,” and that membership is ours not through circumcision or keeping the Law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and our faith in him.   

That word membership got my attention, as you might imagine.  For two years we wrestled with the question of who can be a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  In the end we decided that if you are a member of “God’s true family” through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and your faith in him, then you can also be a member of the First Baptist family, even if you come from another Christian tradition, and even if you haven’t been immersed.  We agreed that while baptism by immersion is a beautiful and powerful symbol of salvation, it does not save you. 

Only Jesus can do that.

That’s hermeneutics.  That’s applying the meaning of the biblical text “here and now.”  It’s not easy (as any member of First Baptist Church will attest), but it’s important.  I’d like to think that in the end we made the decision we did simply because we (Gentiles) know what it’s like to be welcomed into God’s true family, and we know that we were welcomed not because we were circumcised or because we faithfully kept the Law, but because God is good and gracious. 

As his children, we want to be more and more like that.

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