05 October 2006

Can evangelicals reproduce?

Among the top-emailed New York Times articles, this one caught my attention: "Evangelicals fear the loss of their teenagers." The alarm was sounded by Teen Mania founder Ron Luce: "I’m looking at the data, ... and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing." 

Ron Luce has organized urgent meetings among top evangelical leaders to consider the problem of the vanishing teenage evangelical. Of course (here I'm departing from the generally even-toned Times article) some of the leaders mentioned are three or four times the age of the people whose absence they're worried about. While I'm at it, these professional Christians are probably part of the problem rather than the solution. Their idea of evangelicalism is sometimes so uninspired and formulaic in content and totalitarian in its conformist expectations, and (at least in its white USA manifestations) so drenched in affluence that it is probably a good thing that kids are leaving the movement which claims such leaders as bigshots. 

Is this too severe? No, not severe enough. Too many of these leaders (including, sadly, Portland's own Luis Palau) have associated themselves with this country's corrupt leadership and its anti-biblical goals. They have supposedly had access at the highest levels of power, and what have they done with that access? Demanded social and economic justice? Denounced illegal "shock and awe" attacks and invasions? Thundered against torture? Given leadership on behalf of ecological sanity? Advocated global partnerships on behalf of peace and poverty reduction? Spoken out eloquently for racial reconciliation and against institutionalized racism? Personified a bipartisan spirit for realistic solutions to urban and rural problems? Opened the nation's doors wide for "aliens" and their children?


Judging by the statistics in the Times article, millions of young people are still idealistically, naively, or blindly involved in the affiliations that these evangelical leaders represent. I wonder if God will demand an account of their stewardship of the trust and idealism that still remains among those young people who remain, and of the disillusionment that drove out their brothers and sisters.

One of the most heartbreaking paragraphs in the article:
Over and over in interviews, evangelical teenagers said they felt like a tiny, beleaguered minority in their schools and neighborhoods. They said they often felt alone in their struggles to live by their "Biblical values" by avoiding casual sex, risqué music and videos, Internet pornography, alcohol and drugs.
How have their parents, pastors, and celebrity leaders helped them with these struggles? How have they helped young people befriend those who believe the hypnotic messages of our oversexed and overstressed culture? The slick materials I used to get from evangelical publishers when I was on the Reedwood pastoral team seemed worlds away from the actual struggles with addiction and denial that real people face. And, even worse, very little of it made connections between personal discipleship and issues of social, economic, and political righteousness. What does it profit your soul if you avoid casual sex and risque music (blues, for example?) and bless uncritically a government that converts our tax dollars into corporate welfare for Halliburton and bullets for Iraqi skulls? 

If you can make those connections for yourself and still stay in the youth group, perhaps you're in the right place. Otherwise: Get out now, and save your faith. To be truly evangelical is to love Jesus Christ, the crucified one who lives; to encounter truth in the Bible (I refuse to bow to the Stalinist demand for functionally meaningless but politically barbed formula words such as "inerrancy"); and to recognize the urgency of evangelism and hospitality, so that the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God can be available universally. To be evangelical does not require require surrendering your God-given brains to the heretical celebrities of the "evangelical" establishment.

I apologize if I sound relentlessly negative in this assessment, but it's where I am. Nor is the Religious Society of Friends, aka the Friends Church, stepping into the breach. We Quakers have an amazing message of seamless individual and social righteousness that ought to be able to capitalize on the bankruptcy of the larger evangelical establishment, but instead we're too often on our own obstinate march toward oblivion. One end of the Quaker spectrum of dysfunctions betrays Jesus and George Fox by hiding our Gospel roots, or finessing them with cerebral dodges of one kind or another; and the other end trivializes our hard-won heritage of holistic discipleship in favor of anemic imitations of generic Protestantism.

In the meantime, the end of evangelical celebrity credibility might actually be a wonderful thing: young people are reduced to the necessity of finding faith through the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit; through relationships with flesh and blood mentors; and by encouraging each other.

Today, one member of Reedwood challenged me to develop a Forum class on the topic of "Evangelizing a Jaded Culture." I have until November 12 to get my thoughts together. Got any ideas for me?

Somewhere on my recent travels, I saw these words in an ad: "For centuries, diamonds have been the ultimate symbol of love, desire, passion ...."

The ultimate??

An interviewer asked Anthony Bloom, "...How do you assess the position of Christianity in the contemporary world with all that is going on in it?" His answer: 
It's a difficult question because what I want to say will be hurtful to many. It seems to me that today the whole Christian world, including the Eastern Orthodox world, has distanced itself terribly from the simplicity, integrity, and the joyful beauty of the Gospel. Christ and his group of disciples created a Church that was so deep and wide and complete that it could contain the universe. Over the centuries we've made the church into one human social group among many. We're now something less than the world we live in, and when we talk about that world coming to Christ, we are talking about everyone, as many as possible, becoming members of that limited social group.

That's our sin, it seems to me. We need to understand that in the Christian church, believers should become believers not only in terms of their worldview, but in terms of all of life, of their inner experience, and our role is to bring light to this world, even in places where it's dark and at times terrifying. In one place the prophet Isaiah says, "Comfort, comfort My people"--that was God's word to him, and, of course, to us. "Comfort My people" means get an understanding of the kind of sorrow gripping the whole world, both materially, in its confusion, and spiritually, in its lack of knowledge of God. It means bring the comforting touch of God, the love of God, the attentive concern of God, which must take hold of the whole person. It's meaningless to talk to someone about spirituality when he's hungry; feed him. It's pointless to talk about a person's mistaken perceptions when we don't bring to that person a living experience of God.

And so, we stand accused in this world. In its rejection of God and the Church, the world says, "You Christians cannot give us anything we need. You don't offer us God, you offer us a worldview. And it's a moot point if God is not at its core. You give us instructions on how to live, but they're just as arbitrary as the ones other people give us." We ourselves must become Christian--Christians according to the example of Christ himself, and his disciples. Only then will the Church obtain, not power, that is the capacity to coerce, but authority, the capacity to say words that make the soul tremble and that open up the eternal depths within any soul. It seems to me that this is our current situation and condition.

Maybe I'm coming at this situation pessimistically, but, really, we're not Christians. We confess faith in Christ, but we've reduced everything to symbols. So, for example, I'm always struck by our Good Friday service: instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy. In place of the cross we've substituted an icon of the cross. In place of the crucifixion, we've substituted an image. In place of a retelling of the actual horror of what happened, we substitute a poetic/musical reworking of the story.

Of course that reworking does reach us, but we so easily begin to get a taste for that horror, even deeply experiencing it, being shaken and then regaining our calm, whereas the vision of a living person who is murdered is something quite different. That remains as a wound in the soul, you don't forget it; having seen it, you'll never again be the same as you were. And that is what dismays me. In some sense, the beauty and depth of our worship must break it open, and must lead every believer through that opening to the terrible and majestic secret of what is actually happening.
The interviewer: "Yes, that's a very deep thought. Of course the contemporary world is oriented in such a way that, in principle, it could exist apparently without God, without spirituality. It rolls along obliviously, and you could comfortably slumber your life away and die." Anthony responds:
But what seems even more terrifying to me is that you can call yourself a Christian and live your whole life studying theology and never meet God. You can participate in the beauty of the worship, being a member of the choir or a participant in the service, and never break through to the reality of things. That's what is terrible. The nonbeliever still has a chance to gain faith, but this possibility becomes distant and indistinct for pseudo-believers because they have everything: they can explain every detail of the service, of the symbols of faith, and of dogmatics, but suddenly it turns out that they haven't actually met God.
Митрополит Антоний Сурожский, О встрече. Санкт-Петербург, Сатисъ, 2002, стр. 87-89.

Righteous links:

In stark contrast to the official Christians (and, truthfully, to me), the grieving Amish of eastern Pennsylvania these days are revealing another way of following the Lord.

Our Friends International Library project, the peace education book Power of Goodness, gets a mention in the Guardian.

How the world sees Americans: A different way of putting it, courtesy of Yakov Krotov.


Anonymous said...

<< (I refuse to bow to the Stalinist demand for functionally meaningless but politically barbed formula words such as "inerrancy")>

huh? I want to understand but you're loosing me in the emotion of your rant

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, David. Thanks for commenting. I assure you that was a cold-blooded and unemotional comment, not a rant. Most evangelical organizations have something about the infallibility or inerrancy of scripture in their statement of faith. (Example from the NAE: "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.") As I've said before in this blog, I think the Bible was co-created by God and God's people, and there's incredible authority in it but NO magic. Yet, in some evangelical circles, the first attempt to say something nuanced is denounced as liberalism. The words "inerrant" and "infallible" have become code words meaning "we're not liberal," and that is not a good enough reason to use them. They convey no intellectually respectable content. At least, that is true in the one-way communication channels where they're usually used; in the context of a dialogue they're far more useful.

But I'm less concerned about these words than about the conformist culture that insists on them. In my experience, fear and self-censorship, as well as heavy-handed denunciations, inhibit that necessary dialogue. Just look at the abuse to which evangelical Friend Richard Foster has been subjected for advocating meditation in a Christian context. Or the politics that went on around a proposed inclusive-language version of the NIV Bible translation. On second thought, if you're not already familiar with these stories, don't look. It's not a pretty sight. And it is hardly the sort of relational, humane, encouraging approach that (at least in my fantasies) would be more likely to keep our teenagers.

Joe, that mission statement sounds like a dream come true. It reminds me of my own description of Friends, which I posted on someone else's blog yesterday: Friends are people who want to live as close to Jesus as possible, and who organize to help each other fulfill this desire, including its ethical consequences.


Johan Maurer said...

PS to Joe. I looked up that website you mentioned, The Simple Way, and found a link to a familiar network, the Christian Community Development Association, on whose board John and Vera Mae Perkins serve. I wrote about John Perkins back here.


Anonymous said...

Evangelizing a Jaded Culture.

I grew up in Costa Rica. I heard a few sermons by missionaries that turned out to be written earlier, in the US, about situations that did not exist in Costa Rica.

When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s“Poisonwood Bible” I was reminded here and there of missionary families I knew in Costa Rica. Much of their preaching, much of it unconsciously, was Cultural colonialism. Don’t get me wrong. I still count among my examples of good Christians some of those same missionaries.

But, with foreign missionaries, some of the issues foreign to the gospel message were easier to recognize. So much of what is currently preached in church is culturally based. So much is based on long forgotten discussions that have no bearing on The Good News of Jesus Christ.

I have read with interest Bishop Spong’s books, where he explores what a post-modern church could/should look like. So much of his ministry has been toward the group he calls the “church alumni association.” Part of my problem is that, like so many of us ex-pew-warmers, I would much prefer to have someone else figure these things out for us, so we can follow a tried and true formula.

So we go back to basics: What do we want to preach to a Jaded Culture?

God is speaking to many of us so much more powerfully through Obi Wan Kenobi, Neo and Harry Potter, than through the Gospel of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

So, let’s pull a “St. Paul,” and preach about this unknown god.

Evangelical churches don’t do “teen-age” well. The role of teenagers is to throw out all rules, check each one carefully before internalizing the ones that make sense to them. (“Check everything out, Keep the good stuff.”) When you thing about it, that was the modus operandi of the Church in Acts.


Patrick J. Nugent jr said...

No apologies needed for "cynicism." You are right on target. Yet . . . yet . . . there is hope. Check out Randall Balmer's book, "Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament," in which he chronicles and and cries to heaven about the ways in which the evangelical world has been hijacked by the religious right. In my extended visit to the US, I am seeing sincere Christians who realize that the evangelical leadership has led us down the garden path, and away from any kind of concrete obedience to Jesus and his teachings. And people like Dallas Willard and Tom Wright are forcing us to do what we always claim but rarely ever do--read the Bible on its own terms and find the truth that it there, apart from our fixed theological orthodoxies. People are responding to this, because evangelicals, deep down, are as hungry for Christ--and as unsatisfied--as everyone else.

Johan Maurer said...

Ricardo, I agree that it is normal for many teenagers to begin making independent assessments of family assumptions and affiliations. To some extent I worry more about those who (according to statistics) don't make that assessment than about those who do.

That's part of what I mean when I refer to the leaders' stewardship of their followers' trust and idealism. At the moment I'm thinking of a young adult who works full-time and is also a full-time Bible college student. This person, for whom I'm committed to pray daily, is full of joyful energy. Let that enthusiasm not be betrayed!

Hello, Patrick! We're eager to see you next month. Thanks for your comments, too. I quoted from Balmer's book back here.

Joe--you're welcome. By the way, the question in your current blog post, "Is it possible to worship with a multitude of 'transcendents'?", touches on the dilemma that eventually contributed to a famous Russian Quaker's decision to stop attending Quaker worship and return to the Orthodox church.