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Theology for Children

A friend of mine went to visit his family in San José last weekend—he’s a particular favorite with his nephew, James (who can’t stand being away from him for more than five hours if he knows his uncle is visiting), and when James found out that “Buddy” would be flying in Friday night, he announced to his grandmother that he’d be coming over to spend the weekend. After breakfast on Sunday morning, Danny asked him what he’d be learning at church that Sunday. “God,” was the prompt answer. “That’s wonderful,” he said, “do you know who God is?” “God,” he said. While true, it wasn’t quite the answer he was looking for, so he explained a bit more about who God has revealed himself to be in the person of the Trinity.

“You’re teaching a five-year-old about the Trinity?” his mother asked him later. “How is he going to understand that?”

“Well, I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about it. ‘One essence, three persons.’ I don’t get how it works, but I know what it is—James can understand that.”

I sometimes wonder if parents think that teaching their children theology means plopping them on the couch, tossing them a copy of Bavinck and saying, “Good luck, Junior. Don’t go cross-eyed.” Contributing author (and mother of eight) Simonetta Carr took time out of her busy schedule to assure us that there’s a better (and easier) way to go about it.

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Half the Truth in ‘Halfway Herbert’

I love children’s books – I never would’ve made it through Moby Dick without the Great Illustrated Classics version.  They’ve proved invaluable when teaching my ESL students, too – Ivanhoe becomes a lot more palatable to new English readers once you’ve removed the polysyllabic words and anti-Semitism, and I’m convinced that even the most apathetic reader will pick up The Count of Monte Cristo if they’re sure they’ll be able to finish it in an hour (which they certainly will, considering that the five sub-plots are condensed into one).

This is the genius of children’s literature – taking wonderful stories and new ideas and making them comprehensible (and hopefully, attractive) to young minds.  Hence the proliferation of children’s Bibles and the VeggieTales series – we take the admonition to train our children up in the way they should go seriously, and we’ll use any and all means to those ends.  It behooves us, then, to be very careful about understanding exactly to which ends we’re orienting them.

In the afterword to his new book, Halfway Herbert, Francis Chan writes that he hopes parents will be able to use the story to “teach them [their children] the commitment to which Christ has called us,” and to exhort them to “raise a generation of children who understand what it means to truly follow Jesus.”  It’s a praiseworthy goal, and one which parents ought to take seriously.

The story is about a little boy named Herbert Hallweg with a viciously short attention-span that leaves him incapable of finishing any task, from hair and teeth-brushing to homework completion and soccer practice.  Eventually, his lackadaisical attitude creeps into his half-developed moral faculties and half-pushes him into the realm of sin, and one day (in true Pharisee-fashion) to tell a half-truth to his father.  The fully-brushed and meal-finishing Mr. Hallweg calls him out on it, admonishing his son that, “living [his] life halfway isn’t okay,” following up with the edifying maxims: “Jesus doesn’t want us to love Him halfway,” and “God doesn’t want us to live out of just half our hearts.”

Herbert may not be our go-to guy on personal hygiene or commitment-keeping, but his theology (as far as personal guilt is concerned) is spot-on.  “But I’ve never been able to do things all the way,” he cries.

Mr. Hallweg responds with a sort of prologue to a sinner’s prayer for help.  “God knows that none of us can love him all the way by ourselves.  So He gave us a friend called the Holy Spirit to help us live out of our whole hearts,” Herbert’s dad said.  “When we decided to follow Jesus all the way, God’s Spirit fills up our hearts and helps us obey God.”

I want to tread carefully here – as someone who isn’t a parent, it’s easy for me to sit on the pristine seat of emotional and physical detachment and wax eloquent on the need for sound theology in godly parenting.  My biggest child-rearing problem is deciding where to take my nieces and nephews hiking.  I sincerely admire the earnest wish to encourage children in their infant piety, and it’s because I believe it’s our (the church as well as the nuclear family’s) duty to nurture it that I think we ought to be careful in laying the proper foundation for it.  My problem with Chan’s book isn’t that it emphasizes our obligation to live righteously; it’s that it doesn’t acknowledge in any way the fact that Christ has already lived righteously for us – the imperative is given without the indicative; there’s law, but no gospel – which is only half the truth revealed in Scripture and half the message children need to hear.

When Herbert acknowledges his failure to keep the law to his father, his father’s response is more law – decide to follow Jesus all the way, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you.  Good advice, to be sure – but it must be prefaced with the blessed preface that Christ has fulfilled the law on his child’s behalf and freed him from his bondage to sloth and laxity, and that because of his obedience and the application of that obedience to Herbert, he’s made willing and able to implore the aid of the Holy Spirit, and make that decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly.  Mr. Hallweg’s response leaves the impression that the Holy Spirit is a reward for obedience; an aid given through the means of a request, rather than a gift that must be and is given.

I’m told that parents suffer no incapacity in reminding their children about the need for active obedience – ‘Clean your room now!’, ‘Stop fighting with your sister!’, and ‘Come back here and finish your homework!’ are frequent injunctions imposed on youthful impulses.  In her book Give Them  Grace, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes that while we may know that we need to trust in Christ for our goodness, something happens when we apply that to our parenting.  “We forget everything we know about the deadliness of relying on our own goodness and we teach them that Christianity is all about their behavior and whether, on any given day, God is pleased or displeased with them.”  Foolishness certainly is bound up in the heart of a child, and the proverb truly says that the rod of correction will drive it far from him, but let the rod be tempered with the mercy of the gospel, lest we drive our children from Christ.  

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Perpetual Sorrow and Blessed Hope

Sex advice columnist and MTV-show host Dan Savage has come up against heavy criticism of late for his remarks about homosexuality and other eight-letter-words in Scripture. Thrilling as it would be to jump right into that tête-a-tête, the conversation has been had, with no words minced and little love lost.  Rather than reiterate what has already been said and discussed, we offer for your consideration an episode of ‘This American Life’.  Originally aired in 2009, it features Savage discussing growing up in the Roman Catholic church, mourning the loss of his mother, and his (then) ongoing struggle between his hope to meet her again in heaven and the finality of her death.

Savage is open in his disdain for the religion of his youth, and while he does pull a few punches, the knock-outs are still there – he can’t reconcile the images of the benevolent father with the righteous judge, nor the church’s dogmatic cling to tradition with the rational pull of contemporary values and social mores.  The tension is embodied in his description of his mother, who despite her piety and devotion to the church, not only refused to cast him out upon learning of his sexual orientation, but supported him in public and among their family.  Close to the time she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease, Savage began sporadically attending church – not mass, but simply visiting the church at different times during the week.  In a voice frequently halted by strong emotion, he speaks of ‘fantasizing’ about going to confession and the prayers offered up by his mother’s priest during her last rites; prayers that ‘filled the terrible silence and solemnized an awful moment’.  He recalls his mother’s final words – “I’ll always be with you – remember me in your thoughts” – and breaks down in tears as he recounts making his way into St. James’ Church in downtown Seattle after her death.

“The inability to reconcile death has not been good for me – I visit St. James like an addict drops by a crack-house for a fix.  To deaden myself to the pain – to lose myself in the momentary fantasy that she lives.”

While I don’t condone Savage’s coarse articulation of his opinions on certain cultural and cultic practices in Scripture, and lament the poor understanding of redemptive history that informs those opinions, the broadcast was a helpful reminder that there is reason behind his rhetoric, and pain beneath his anger.  “Being brought up in a faith built around a guy jumping out of his tomb?  That makes it difficult to reconcile oneself to the permanence of death,” he said.

It was this hideous inversion of the gospel that left me all but undone.  To hear the locus of the gospel – the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death; that blessed historical fact that brings comfort to the afflicted and hope to the bereaved – so tragically perverted was devastating.  What ought to have been his chief solace and consolation was spoken of as an almost-insuperable impediment; the hopeful acceptance of being parted from her for a time was lost in tearful frustration at his inability to accept her irremediable non-existence.  Truly did Paul write of Christ crucified as a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).

There may be tender wounds that are long in healing underneath the aggressive bravado and vulgar language of hostile antagonists, and the root of bitterness is often found in natural grief.  Beneath the sin and rebellion is a human being created in the image of God, and our Lord’s name is greatly magnified when we who have been forgiven much show patience and humility, being mindful that while we were yet sinners, Christ showed his love for us.

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Muscular Christianity

Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, made the news this week with his suggestion that physical pain was an appropriate way to correct effeminate behaviors in boys, as a way to stop sexual immorality before it began. He has since issued a clarification and a public apology, but as one of his more recent tweets suggests, nothing will be sufficient to stem the tide of controversy his sermon unleashed.

In my most recent article for Modern Reformation, I argue that biblical views of complementary gender roles are not only being rejected on the left, but assimilated on the right to a reactionary cultural ideology of caricatured stereotypes. Tragically, feminists and the LBGT community need these parodies of the traditional family, just as right-wing extremists need visible targets of social breakdown to justify their reactionary calls to arms. Both are unbiblical and deeply destructive of human identity and community.

It is hardly a newsflash that we’ve been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In “Young, Restless, Reformed” circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and “masculine Christianity” in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don’t feel comfortable in a “safe environment” that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don’t like “conformity, control, and ceremony,” so churches need to “adjust the thermostat” and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they’re “doers”). Men don’t like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.

I get the point about a “soft” ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It’s predictably and tediously “safe.” Get the women there and they’ll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it’s sure to bore any guy who doesn’t want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.

Click here to read the rest of “Muscular Christianity”

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Miller (Movie) Time!

You can follow Anthony Parisi at https://twitter.com/#!/anthonyparisi.

Legendary film director Orson Welles once said that “there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Portraying the complexity of our spiritual lives in a visual medium like film is a daunting task. Most stay away from dealing with religion at all while others try and fail. While we’ve been blessed with some incredible exceptions (think Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick), many sub-par, exclusively message-driven efforts by evangelicals dominate the attention of the American public.

Enter Blue Like Jazz, the newly released film adaptation of Don Miller’s popular book. Longtime musician Steve Taylor directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Miller and Ben Pearson. Their goal is not to offer gospel proclamation or heroic moral triumph but tell an honest story about the conflict of faith in the modern world. The book’s autobiographical introspection has been condensed into a simpler, coming-of-age narrative.

The story begins with young Don in his Texan Southern Baptist church. A smarmy youth pastor leads a prayer circle that quickly devolves into bowling watermelons and group games. Don is warned to avoid brainwashing by the “liberals” at college. In the next scene his deadbeat, hippie dad inversely laments the loss of his mind to the church. Later, a cross-shaped piñata showers communion cups on disappointed kids as a gospel illustration. These scenes culminate with a revelation that the (very married) youth pastor has been sleeping with mom, something the trivial atmosphere of the church hasn’t equipped Don to handle. He quickly snaps and flees to his dad’s alma mater, the famously liberal, agnostic Reed College. Here he begins to openly mock his faith as he considers leaving it all behind.

Amidst the fun, anarchic campus life Don encounters a diverse array of new friends. There’s a lovesick lesbian, a militant atheist in full Papal garb, and a (sometimes naïve) activist with a heart for humanitarian issues. Even though the satire is heightened, there’s enough nuance to stomach the clichés and uneven filmmaking. Self-aware of caricature, the film even invites discussion on archetypes and stereotypes as students debate the definitions in literature class. At the Q&A session following a screening in Irvine, Miller actually pointed out that some of the most suspect extremes (Reed’s mocking ceremony that crowns a campus Pope, a girl using the co-ed urinal, an atheist purging dorm room of religious books) were all from real life.

The filmmakers have a clear affection for each character. No one is unfairly demonized and everyone is given a voice at the table. This is a very rare quality. We meet hypocritical Christians and gracious, faithful ones. Churchgoing Penny fights for social causes but later admits to abandoning her suffering mom in an hour of greatest need. Agnostics air their jabs at religion but aren’t given a free pass either. On campus we see the champions of “tolerance” being anything but. As Don’s dad mocks the church he’s reminded that the congregation paid for groceries when he ditched the family. Taylor juxtaposes banal Christian bumper stickers “Are you following Jesus this close?” with their mirror image, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fondlers.” I can’t think of another movie that has captured just how sloganeering and prejudicial current talk about religion is. Moving past the hysterical put-downs, we’re shown how personal experience and emotion is often more formative than a reasonable argument.

Steve Taylor’s comedic sensibilities help steer the story away from melodrama. The personality that characterizes his songwriting is also felt here. At times the humor falls flat or grows tedious (like a sequence where a bear-costumed thief destroys Don’s bike) but the consistent energy enables Taylor to portray an inner, spiritual struggle in a strong and unique way. Knowing where Don has really come from and what he’s wrestling with gives the college wackiness a striking dissonance. All the fun, partying, and prank “activism” are colored by the lingering question: what will he do with God? The contrast of the upbeat soundtrack echoes how our externally happy lives often distract from or mask underlying turmoil.

The second half of the film grows somewhat disappointing, which is a real shame given all it has going for it. It’s often hard to believe that Don (who months ago was happily serving his church) would go to the extremes that he does. He gets increasingly mixed up with the Pope and his anti-religious antics, even helping place a giant condom balloon on top of the local Episcopal church. When he begins to realize how his behavior is beginning to hurt Penny and affect others, we’re never quite clear why Christianity remains existentially powerful enough to keep him on the fence.

A theism debate hints at our need for truth, love, and meaning that the strict materialist can’t account for. Penny’s passion for social justice inspires him. But we don’t see what’s specifically Christian about any of it. Don’s voice-over tells us that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Unfortunately, this is what we’re not quite shown. The best Penny can express is that she “likes Jesus” but we don’t really hear who he is or why she should. If Jesus is just one more guy who wants us to love each other, then what’s the big deal? Why not a thousand other prophets or self-help gurus, religious or secular, telling us the same thing?

In the end we hear Don describe how he tried to ditch God but can’t because “it’s like he’s following me around.” But some of the vagueness of Don’s wrestling with God undercuts the story. While it’s great that the movie doesn’t suddenly switch into sermon mode, a fear of being preachy or judgmental seems to hold it back from providing a more penetrating vision of Don’s journey or Christ himself. In interviews about the film, Taylor and Miller frequently talk about their intention to not be that kind of Christian movie. While I’m grateful they succeeded, I think this self-conscious defensiveness prevents the movie from rising to its full potential.

There also seems to be something of a generation gap going on. Younger generations are coming from a postmodern, pluralist context more than a fundamentalist one. At the evangelical college I attended, the common issue wasn’t judgmental ferocity but spiritual apathy and feeling-based mushiness. Throwing off the previous generation’s legalism sometimes led to biblical illiteracy and lack of serious discipleship. It was all “deeds not creeds” and “relationship not religion” but baby Jesus often got thrown out with the bathwater. After visiting a friend’s church where we took off our shoes and sang Coldplay for worship … I knew something had gone very wrong. Because of the changing landscape of evangelicalism, I feel Blue Like Jazz appeals to my generation but may do little to challenge it.

Still, it’s fantastic to watch a film about Christianity that’s characterized by grace and humility. The reverse confessional scene at the conclusion of the story is the film’s best. After a wild night where Don is crowned the new campus Pope, he finally stops wavering and comes out of the closet. Instead of hearing the student’s ironic confessions of sin, Don decides to apologize for himself and the ways fellow Christians have failed to be faithful witnesses for God. He takes the former Pope into the booth and admits to him that he believes in God, Jesus, “the whole deal.” He explains, “I came here to escape it because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that I’m not just ashamed of my strange church or its political views or all the hypocrites. I’m ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me.”

Taylor delicately directs the scene and both Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn give vulnerable performances. I was struck by how moving it was. You can feel that here is the heart of Don Miller and the moment rings with authenticity. Like many of us, his criticism of the church can often go hand in hand with trying to be relevant, likeable, and fit in. Here we see that the movie isn’t a cheap shot at conservatives or secularists or hypocrites. It’s a personal confession.

In the book, Miller writes of a moment where we stop “blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority” and start to face ourselves. He admits, “I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” Here is our age-old struggle to confess with the apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

As someone who doesn’t much care for the book or Miller’s writings, I expected to be unimpressed by this movie. Instead, I found a decently entertaining two hours at the multiplex. Even with its flaws and hang-ups there’s a lot to appreciate. In a pop culture world filled with cynicism and bitterness, Blue Like Jazz manages to express humility and open an inviting space for conversation. It’s a rare and welcome sight to see.

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Blue Like Jazz

When I was nineteen, my former pastor’s wife gave me a book called Blue Like Jazz. I had heard enough about it to be suspicious, but I went home, closed myself up in my library, and read it. I was completely confused. The Christian faith he was talking about bore enough of a resemblance to what I had grown up with to know that he wasn’t a heretic (not that I knew what a heretic was), but it also sounded suspiciously like the emotional, nebulous platitudes that liberal theologians loved to pass off as poetic insight.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer for the Blue Like Jazz movie. I was mildly disgusted, since my last interaction with Miller hadn’t been exactly incandescent, but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again. Something I’d neglected to do when I’d first read it was attend to the subtitle: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I had approached the book expecting a resounding affirmation of the solid Christian doctrine I didn’t have and didn’t understand, and instead got a story about someone who didn’t know what solid Christian doctrine was and had grown disenchanted with the Christian culture he had been taught was doctrine.

The book isn’t intended as a theological treatise, but as a reflection on the existential journey of a man with a genuine desire to love Christ, and who’s been disillusioned with the brand of Christianity he’s grown up in. He talks about his friends and housemates, his youth, the early days of his career, his life in the woods and in the suburbs of Houston with wit, verve, and charm, articulating the same doubts and fears we all have and illustrating the same foibles, vices and pettiness that characterize us. I was grateful for his humor, because it was still rather frustrating – although it’s true that Miller didn’t write it in order to expound a theological point, he did write it to talk about his understanding of who he is in relation to God, and it’s pretty hard to do that without bringing theology into the discussion.

It’s clear from the outset that Miller’s angst wasn’t with Christ himself, but with the brand of Christianity that so many of us are familiar with – the (here it comes) Christless Christianity that’s manifested by moralistic-therapeutic deism and the health-‘n-wealth gospel. He grew up thinking that God had a political and social agenda, and that if he (Miller) didn’t do his utmost to promote it through his own obedience to the cultural law, he wasn’t a true Christian. The ensuing culture shock following his matriculation at Reed College served as the catalyst for the exploration of what he believed about God and what he knew about himself as a creature made in God’s image.

Some of the things he comes to understand about God sound surprisingly similar to classical articulations of certain elements of Christian doctrine – original sin is a theme consistently woven throughout his interactions with his family and housemates (his resentment of his housemates’ existence intruding on the unfolding drama of his own life); there’s a hint of election when his friends Penny and Laura describe their conversion (they tearfully spoke of God ‘being after’ them); and the need for grace is beautifully illustrated in both his own attempts at keeping the law and in relating to his former girlfriend (he realizes his need for God’s charity in his failed efforts at hard-core piety, and the fact that he can’t accept his girlfriend’s love because he hasn’t accepted God’s). [i] It’s not explicit, but it’s there in an inchoate form.

Some of the conclusions he arrives at are decidedly problematic – his articulation of the gospel made salvation dependent upon man, and had little do with Christ’s propitiatory work on the cross.[ii] Another distressing moment came when he wrote that he realized that “[…] there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.”[iii] The idea of man’s nature being morally repugnant to God and yet possessive of something that compels his love is as popular as it is theologically unsound, so Miller’s adoption of it is perhaps less to be wondered at.

Miller is open in his dislike of institutions and the church, and considering his background, that’s not surprising. However, I got the sense that he couldn’t dissociate the one from the other, as if the church were little more than a Machiavellian machine, rather than a sinful, rebellious bride being redeemed by her bridegroom. This may be why the book garners such harsh criticism from some circles – while he acknowledges the presence of loving ‘conservative’ churches, he appears to dismiss them on personal rather than principled grounds. One doesn’t like to disregard the very real pain that those hurt by the church suffer, but neither is it wise to separate oneself from Christ’s visible body and the stewards of his oracles because of a few offending members.

Miller has since written other books, none of which I’ve read, so it’s entirely possible that his understanding of the gospel and the church have changed – Blue Like Jazz is a chronicle of a chapter in his life; not a profession of faith, and it ought to be interpreted as such. While we may (and ought) to read it thoughtfully and critically, with an eye to the theology inherent in the story, it behooves us to read charitably, being mindful of the fact that it’s still a story about a man’s search for God and his place within the greater drama of redemptive history.


[i] pp. 18, 180, 52, 81 and 231-232

[ii] p. 124

[iii] p. 238

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Horton & Olson conversation with Ed Stetzer

Last month, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research interviewed Dr. Horton and Dr. Olson concerning For Calvinism and Against Calvinism on his The Exchange broadcast. The video is below:

To purchase For Calvinism click here.

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Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 2)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on some of the concerns surrounding youth ministry as it is often practiced in Evangelicalism today. To read part one click here.


Some Practical Suggestions for Ministering to Youth

For those who may be weary of the extraordinary and want to invest more energy in rethinking how we engage in the ordinary ministry for all generations, including the next, here are a few suggestions. I’m sure others, more experienced than I, can come up with others.

  1. Turn the youth group into a nursery for faith. In our culture, the “youth culture” is in the driver’s seat, with the goal even of older people to be “forever young.” According to the Scripture, though, sanctification is all about joining the rest of the church in “growing up in Christ” as our head, through the ordinary ministry of pastors and teachers (Eph 4: so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:10-15). In The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers notes how children learn at first by parroting. This stage is perfect for rote memorization, building the stock of Christian grammar that they will use the rest of their lives. Then they begin to question things, looking for the logical connections between different beliefs and reasons for them. (We call this being a teenager!) Finally, they enter the “rhetoric” stage, where they understand, express, explain, and live the faith for themselves. We shouldn’t let our culture’s child-centered educational philosophy keep us from emphasizing rote memorization. However, we also should be ready to accept and even to encourage the questioning stage, so that they can embrace Christ and his Word for themselves.
  2. Are we preparing younger believers for the communion of saints? When do they actually share in the public service, learning in growing stages to participate in the corporate prayers, confession, praise, giving, hearing, and receiving the Supper? When we include them in the service from the earliest possible years, they grow from fidgety toddlers to gradually appreciate what is happening and that they are equal sharers in it. We should not create alternative services for different age groups during the ordinary worship service, but bring them into the service and worship of the Triune God with his people.
  3. In the teen years, supplement engagement with the catechism with serious apologetics. What we believe, why believe it, and why it matters for our lives: these are always the coordinates that we have to keep in mind together especially as people enter emerging adulthood. If we show them why these questions are important and invite them to press us on the reasons, they won’t even wonder why there isn’t any pizza and they haven’t gone to Six Flags in months.
  4. Don’t inculcate in them a fear of the world, but show them how their faith encourages them to engage widely and deeply in the arts and sciences, to reflect on the way technology shapes their lives, to open their eyes to the needs and opportunities in the world. If they go to a secular college—even many Christian colleges—they will be surrounded by a naturalistic worldview. How do you work back from that eventuality to where they are now? Don’t ignore now the challenges that they will certainly face when it comes to questions like creation and evolution. Are Christians afraid of science? How they answer that as college seniors will depend in large measure on how such topics were treated in church and at home. Engage these issues without simplistic and dogmatic assertions. And while exposing the irrationalism of a naturalistic worldview carefully and over time, be wary of basing the Christian faith on precise conclusions about matters on which orthodox Christians differ among themselves. Too many college students have given up their faith at least in part because they were told that Christianity stands or falls on the age of the earth!
  5. As they become more interested in sharing and defending the faith that they now own for themselves, offer concrete “courses” in how to do it. A great resource is Greg Koukl’s Tactics, where he provides a masterful way of explaining Christian claims and exposing the inconsistencies in alternative worldviews in a winesome and persuasive manner.
  6. What are the priorities our children have seen in our own lives as they were being raised? When we moved, did we consider where we’d plant ourselves in a local church? Did we go with anticipation, expecting the Father once again to meet us in holiness and grace in his Son and by his Spirit? And did we take this faith seriously enough to commit to regular patterns and habits of family prayer, Bible reading, and catechism in the home?
  7. Above all, we trust in the Triune God to fulfill his promises to us and to our children through the ordinary means of grace. No more than Finney’s “new measures” can the ordinary means of grace be treated as magical techniques that work simply by doing them. God is sovereign. Covenant heirs, richly bathed, fed, and clothed with the gospel each week may disengage for a while. Some may not return. However, we cling to Christ’s promise to work through the means he has ordained and to bring wandering sheep back into his fold. Pastors, elders, deacons, parents, school teachers, youth leaders, and fellow church members have their distinctive role to play, but only the Spirit can bring sinners to repentance and faith through the Word.

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Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 1)

From books like Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, we were led to believe that this generation born after 1982 was more altruistic and socially-minded than baby boomers and Gen X’ers.

Not so, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education

The study by sociologists Jean M. Twenge, Elise C. Freeman, and W. Keith Campbell shows that there is actually a decline in civic interest, concern for others, and being a part of something larger than themselves. If anything, Millennials are more individualistic than their boomer parents.

Jean Twenge published a book on the subject, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. In fact, she discussed her conclusions in this book on the White Horse Inn a while back. “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.” They’ve been raised in a culture that places “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” according to Twenge. “‘The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special,’ she says. ‘It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.’” Individualism certainly encourages more tolerance, but it undermines a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. “‘Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems of the nation and the world, are generally good things,’ she says. But Ms. Twenge does not believe this is happening. People are ‘more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t bode well for society in general.’”

There is always a danger in carving society into generational niches and stereotypes. However, these findings are substantiated elsewhere and it’s evident in church trends.

Back in 2007 USA Today (8/6/2007) reported a study showing that “7 in 10 Protestants ages 18-30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30.” Reasons? “Many don’t feel engaged or welcome.” LifeWay Research’s Ed Stetzer reported that those who stay or return later in life had several things in common: they were raised by parents had both been regularly involved in church, there were meaningful and engaging sermons, “and church members who invested in their spiritual development.”

‘Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza,’ Stetzer says…These findings fit with those by other experts. ‘Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt,’ says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow…Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are ‘significantly less likely to believe that a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. This life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.’

Over the last two decades, self-identifying Protestants (mainline and evangelical) have fallen in the US by over 10%.

In 2006 the Barna Research Group reported its findings. The most startling among them was that of those reared in committed church-going families, 61% were “disengaged” from church. Only 20% of churched teens are “spiritually active” by 29, although three-fourths say they were involved in some sort of pagan spirituality (“witchcraft”) in their teen years. As many as four-fifths say they attended church for at least a 2-month period as teens, but evidently did not find it compelling. This matches similar findings by others (here and here).

According to Barna director David Kinnaman,

Loyalty to congregations is one of the casualties of young adulthood: twenty-somethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they ‘cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.’ They are also significantly less likely to believe that ‘a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.’ These attitudes explain other anomalies of twenty-something spirituality. Much of the activity of young adults, such as it is, takes place outside congregations. Young adults were just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. Interestingly, there was one area in which the spiritual activities of twenty-somethings outpaced their predecessors: visiting faith-related websites.

In terms of beliefs, affirmation of key evangelical tenets falls steadily with each generation: 12% of those over 40, 6% of twenty-somethings, and 5% of today’s teens. And yet, 44% of those over 40 say they’re “born again,” with 36% of young adults fitting this description.

From the data, Kinnaman concludes,

Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole- heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.

Ministering to Youth vs. “Youth Ministry”

Youth ministry is about 150 years old. Arising at first as a way of reaching out to troubled teens especially in highly industrialized urban centers, parachurch ministries like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sought to provide safe activities and education in basic reading along with evangelism. Throughout the nineteenth century, parachurch organizations mushroomed. Attempting to create a Protestant Empire that transcended confessional differences, the Bible societies and Sunday School movement increasingly supplanted the ordinary structures, resources, and content of particular church traditions. According to the movement’s leaders, it’s what all evangelicals profess that matters, not what distinguishes Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and other denominations. Of course, there had always been catechism instruction for the young and new Christians. Now, however, Sunday school increasingly isolated the younger generations not only from the older but also from the wider confessional tradition to which they belonged. The Sunday school curriculum shared by all Protestant youths, not the catechism, shaped faith and practice. The “youth group” emerged as its own “church-within-a-church,” distinct from the public ministry and worship.

And so it has become increasingly easy for one to go from the nursery to children’s church to youth group and on to college ministry without having actually belonged to the local church. Young people may still drive with their family to the church campus, but from the parking lot they scatter to their own target-marketed groups. For many, the church is more a cafeteria of ministry offerings than a communion of saints. So is it really surprising that a good local church doesn’t figure into things when deciding upon a college and many don’t even join one because, after all, they have their campus ministry? I know of some instances, in fact, of such groups holding their meetings during the regular time of Sunday services.

From childhood, many have never know what it is like to go from catechism to profession/confirmation and first Communion with all of the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Their memories of church are actually recollections mainly of youth-oriented (i.e., fun, exciting, entertaining) substitutes of the ordinary public service that their parents and grandparents attended on the same property. Is it any wonder that they feel alienated from the church, that they sense a lack of investment by older people in their spiritual growth, and that they do not know what they believe or why they believe it? Are they really dropping out of church in their college years? Or did they every really belong?

“Generation Me” is alive and well in our churches. Narcissism cuts across the generations, of course, but if in our own churches and families we are worried about the individualism that isolates young people and cuts them off from genuine community—with its attendant responsibilities as well as treasures, then should we really blame them? I don’t think so.

Nor can we place all of the blame on youth ministers. Some are doing a terrific job. Besides, it is as lazy for us to drop our children in their lap and expect them to do all of the Christian nurture that families and churches provide. Yet, it’s not just that we are not operating here on all cylinders, but in many cases, not even on one.

We are living off of the legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Believing that salvation is in our hands, Charles Finney naturally thought that the only criterion for the methods we use is “whatever is fit to convert sinners with” or “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” As Sunday school replaced catechism, Finney’s “new measures” replaced the ordinary means of preaching, sacrament, and pastoral care. Once upon a time, the pastor (his name doesn’t matter—it was his office that counted) taught you catechism, made regularly-scheduled pastoral visits to the home, dropped in on Grandpa at the hospital, married and eventually buried you. I realize that a lot of social factors make this “so yesterday”: we are a more mobile society. The realities of life and work uproot us from the network of extended families and communities. However, revivalistic evangelicalism has made uprooting a spiritual imperative. Now the model for ministry was the efficient revivalist. Extraordinary “new measures” invented by clever entrepreneurs, not ordinary means of grace commanded by our Lord, became the new normal.

Writing against the “new measures,” John Williamson Nevin—a Reformed pastor and theologian contemporary with Finney, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” .1

Like the revivals of Finney and his successors, the “new measures” of the church growth movement have been treated by many as science, like the law of gravity. Those who fail to adopt these new models of ministry will be left behind in the spiritual marketplace. It is a small step to the view of Christ’s sheep as “self-feeders” who need a “customized work-out plan” and, finally, to George Barna’s celebration of the “Revolutionaries”—those now who seek their “spiritual resources” online, at Christian concerts and conferences, and in specialized groups rather than the local church. Narcissism, pragmatism, and individualism converge in a spirituality that is not only worldly but is unchurching the church.

In the next post I offer some suggestions for ministering to youth. Click here to read part two.


1. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (London: Taylor & Francis, 1987), 2-5. [Back]

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Mystery Through Manners

We’re heading up to Irvine tomorrow for a screening of ‘Blue Like Jazz’, so we put our resident film critic, Anthony Parisi , to work and asked him to share his thoughts on the film, fiction, and Christian interaction with art.  He also threw in some Flannery O’Connor references for good measure.  You can follow him online at twitter.com/anthonyparisi.

 

A film version of Don Miller’s popular book, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is hitting theaters next month. The trenches already seem to be forming between more conservative Christians and an evangelical subculture championing what they see as more honest, open-ended talk of faith. Director Steve Taylor, a longtime CCM artist and music producer, recently announced the indie film came under fire from Sherwood Baptist (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) during production. Now the distributor of October Baby is working to ensure the trailer will not play before their film.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Mike Cosper has written an interesting primer on the film. He explains the background and tries to identify some of what attracts burnt-out evangelicals and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive rather than prescriptive, believing we should address any issues we may have at “an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story, and the stories around him.” We should be receptive to the fact that Miller is giving voice to real problems and experiences in the evangelical world.

This prompted some great discussion in the comments. Matthew Anderson brought his characteristic insight, pushing for more options than this framework. While Miller’s storytelling is descriptive, “therein lies the problem: stories aren’t exactly a neutral medium, as I would bet good money Mike already knows. How we describe things renders certain approaches to the world more plausible than others. The Book of Judges is some pretty hot narrative—and an apologia, it seems, for a monarchy. Even if Miller isn’t self-conscious in this, it still matters.” A simple prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy makes “patient, confident, and appreciative critique” more difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. What seems to be missing is that while some Christians may be offended at depictions of “bad behavior”, others (like myself) find some of Miller’s embedded perspective problematic. Like any writer, his descriptive storytelling is necessarily bound up with specific ideas and beliefs. This kind of concern is different than the pious grandmother offended by scenes of dorm-life debauchery. Unfortunately, they can too often be lumped together.

Cosper went on to elaborate some of his thinking that begins to get at a clearer way forward. He explains that he wanted to “illustrate that the way we engage stories is fundamentally different from the way we engage prescriptive and didactic works.” I think this complex reality lies at the heart of why Christians often talk past each other about fiction and art more generally. In conservative circles it’s common to see reviews reduced to a tedious game of Worldview Whac-A-Mole. Some of the worst film criticism I’ve read has come from theologians and pastors. The story is dissected into a simple “message” or worldview at the expense of the whole work and the empathetic engagement that culture exists to foster. While we can (and should) thoughtfully discuss and critique the ideas that live in stories, this has to be done in a different way than analyzing a logical theorem.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor can be a great guide to thinking about the nature of storytelling. In her brilliant essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (worth reading in full here) it’s clear that there is nothing new under the sun with these kinds of discussions among Christians.

O’Connor sees a fiction writer as someone who is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in concrete life. She points to Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that a work of art is good in itself. This can easily be forgotten by our pragmatic impulses. “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”

As Christians, we can have a very hard time with this idea. It’s easy to feel that fiction only has a place if it has some sort of moral uplift or pedagogical value. Unfortunately, “Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.” Certainly we know people who seem to have profited from a “sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better.” But this is true because God uses plenty of poor things in this world for good purposes. We need to leave that up to God’s sovereignty and not let it impair our judgment. “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

What is required of the writer is to create “the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it” and ensure that truth “take on the form of his art” and becomes “embodied in the concrete and human.” Mystery and meaning must be put into manners—made incarnate in human life. Here is where a Christian will begin to feel some friction. We live in a fallen world full of corruption and sin. How can we reproduce this? Shouldn’t we tidy it up to show what it ought to be? O’Connor asks, “Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and to the absolute?”

More fearful yet, there is the possibility that “what is vision and truth to the writer is temptation and sin to the reader.” Is it better that a millstone were tied around his neck? This is a serious concern for the artist “and those who have felt it have felt it with agony.”

Thankfully, we are free of ultimate, redemptive responsibility and shouldn’t burden ourselves “with the business that belongs only to God.” A Christian artist is free to observe God’s fallen creation and must feel “no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe.” To put it a another way: we are not bringing in the kingdom by our cultural activities. Art can glorify God because of the intrinsic good of creation, not because it has some transformative, redemptive power to usher in spiritual redemption. Instead of laboring under the burden of a salvific agenda (which Christ accomplishes), we are to focus our attention on producing a work of art that “is good in itself.” This is to be done for God’s glory and out of love toward others.

For O’Connor, the solution to all this “leads us straight back where we started from—the subject of the standards of art and the nature of fiction itself.”  Holding an artist to that standard is not at odds with moral or theological judgment. Why? Because the medium is (or at least is inseparable from) the message. Any moral or ideological failure will be bound up with an artistic one. A problem of vision or truthfulness manifests itself in the quality of the art. She writes, “The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

A current illustration of this is the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. This movie by the standard of movies may have failed to embody the moral sense needed for its proper, devastating effect. This article argues that there is an aesthetic failure to capture the brutality and reality of death. Restraint on violent imagery ends up downplaying the horror of the killing ritual. The hyperactive shaky-cam and rapid editing style distracts and derails necessary focus to the evil of what‘s happening. The director doesn’t frame the image of rising child warriors, thus missing his chance to startle and unnerve. The “manners are failing to embody the mystery” and so both end up being compromised.

What does all this mean for discussing Blue Like Jazz and movies more generally?

I think it should remind us that art is effective and compelling at the particular, incarnate level—not an abstract, didactic one. After having sat in over a hundred screenings of his film, Steve Taylor is convinced “the reason it’s resonating so strongly with audiences across the country is because, like the book it’s based on, it reminds us of our own experiences.” This is important to understand, especially for any of us who might be critical of certain ideas within the film. We need to interact with movies not as theological disputations but as works of fiction. Everyone connects with movies in emotional, personal, and experiential ways. Through concrete imagination, not abstract ideology.

How we discuss an artist’s ideas must proceed accordingly. Sometimes we can be in such a rush to “critique theology” that we miss our opportunity to learn and sympathize with another person. I think this is at the heart of what Mike Cosper was getting at. Culture arises from our great need for commonality, empathy, and shared understanding. Let’s be careful not to ignore the aesthetic, human, “real life” aspects that draw us to art in the first place. Otherwise we forget, as Flannery O’Connor puts it, that “we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.”

 

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