White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

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.

Easter for Atheists and Skeptics

“Turn your scars into stars and your cross into a stepping stone.” Trivializations such as these have now become a staple even in many evangelical churches at Easter.

A mainline Methodist tells the story of visiting a well-known evangelical church at Easter, hoping to hear the gospel. Waiting in anticipation, he says there was nothing in the service that pointed worshipers upward, to God and his saving deed in Christ. Perhaps it’s all in the sermon, he thought. However, his patience was not rewarded. The message was about how Jesus made it possible for us to come back from our losses even stronger than we were before.

Just a few hours ago a friend sent me this announcement from a local church in his area for the upcoming Easter 2012 service: “Join us for two special Sundays. The Living Lord’s Supper! A live re-enactment of Da Vinci’s Last Supper featuring drama and music.” The sermon: “How Easter Can Change Your Life!” “Pastor Jack Millwood will explain how the power of Easter can change you from the inside out!…This true story (i.e., Palm Sunday and Easter) has changed the world- it can help you make the changes you want to make in your life!”

On Saturday, March 26, atheists and skeptics gathered on the Washington Mall for the “Reason Rally,” where speakers and singers mocked religion. Richard Dawkins, the movement’s pop star, called on the 20,000 gathered there to “ridicule and show contempt…publicly” for the beliefs of religious people. The movement’s organizers take pride in being the “marines” for a new war on faith. War language was all over the place<—an "onward atheist soldiers" sort of theme. As USA Today reporter Cathy Lee Grossman reported, “Outrage was the parlance of the day, however, for many speakers, including David Silverman, Reason Rally organizer and American Atheists president. He reveled in the group’s reputation as the marines of atheism, as the people who storm the faith barricades and bring ‘unpopular but necessary’ lawsuits. Silverman may have gone a bit further in his rhetoric than he intended. In a thundering call for ‘zero tolerance’ for anyone who disagrees with or insults atheism, Silverman proclaimed, ‘Stand your ground!'”

Richard Dawkins Calls on Atheists to “Ridicule and Show Contempt” Toward Religious People

“I’m an atheist, Mom” was one of the more popular signs. In fact, one speaker was Nate Phelps. He is the son of Fred Phelps who leads Westboro Baptist Church, whose website is named, “God Hates Fags” (evidently, among others, such as Jews “who killed the Messiah”). To be sure, this has to be about the most ridiculous aberration I’ve come across yet, but it would be interesting to have surveyed the crowd for the number of militant atheists who came from conservative or even fundamentalist homes. A YouTube clip captures the exchange between a Christian evangelist and a group of atheists at the Rally. In the clip at least, the evangelist’s message doesn’t mention Christ but simply asserts God’s existence and demand for repentance, while rally attendees demand, “Prove it.” The evangelist responds, “Keep the commandments for 30 days and see if God doesn’t reveal himself to you.”

So what do all these stories share in common?

At least one thing they share is a lack of reason on all sides. It’s striking that in Athens, the Apostle Paul was reasoning with Jews in the synagogue and Greeks in the marketplace about the resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:17). His arguments attracted the attention of the philosophers, who invited him to address their debating society. Quoting Greek poets and philosophers, his speech, reported in Acts 17, reached its climax with the announcement of Christ’s resurrection. Many scoffed, while others said “we will hear more on this later,” and a few became believers. Throughout Acts, that’s the way it goes: reasoning in synagogues and marketplaces, some mocking and others confessing Christ. Public claims were made concerning events that had changed the world fewer than 800 miles away, in Jerusalem, only a couple of decades previously. Paul uses martial language, too. He speaks of “pulling down strongholds” and being at war. However, the “strongholds” or fortresses he has in mind are not civil laws or secular humanist organizations. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Paul knew nothing about a struggle between faith and reason, but only one between faithful reasoning and unfaithful reasoning.

Of course, most evangelicals believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. No doubt, that conviction will be asserted in many churches this Easter. However, will it be the message that Paul and the other apostles proclaimed?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not simply a historical claim that secures whatever we may wish to use as an advertisement for Christianity. Jesus Christ “was delivered up for our transgressions and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The effects are myriad, but the good news itself is that in the life, death, and resurrection of his incarnate Son, God has rescued us from his own just wrath and has made us co-heirs with Christ of every heavenly blessing. The horizon of this redemption is not simply the inner life (a “peaceful, easy feeling”), but objective peace with God because of something that Christ has accomplished outside of us in history (Rom 5:1). And it guarantees not only our present justification and renewal, but our own bodily resurrection to everlasting life when Christ returns.

Furthermore, the horizon is not only our individual salvation, but the restoration of the wider creation (Rom 8:18-25). Wherever Paul preached this good news, he appealed to the common knowledge of recent events surrounding the resurrection. Of course, the message was suited to the audience. To the Jews, the plot-line was already somewhat in place, so that he could announce Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. To the Greeks, he sought to expose the foolishness of idolatry and to show them that they are not even living consistently with what they know by nature. Yet in both cases, Paul’s aim was to get to the resurrection of Jesus as quickly as possible.

Wherever this gospel has spread, it has provoked controversy, mockery as well as faith. After all, it is a genuine historical claim. One can treat private assertions as interesting or irrelevant, but public truth claims, especially of eternal consequence for all people, evoke reaction and response.

What do people in our society today have to say in response to our claims when they are either merely dogmatic assertions or expressions of private therapy?

In reading Mr. Dawkins and other “new atheists,” I do not find any engagement with the central claim of Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they make light work for themselves by saying that faith is the opposite of reason. As Dawkins has written, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” And yet, they have the example of myriad Christian testimonies to undergird this assumption. This Easter many will sing, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” There is a widespread assumption that faith is merely a decision, a sheer act of the will, safely hidden away on the inner island of the self where criticism, history, and reason cannot disturb. And this is as widely assumed perhaps in Christian as in secularist circles.

This is not just about apologetics; it’s about the gospel itself. Do we really believe that there was a turning point not only in our individual hearts at some point in our life, but in world history around 33 AD? Did God really assume our humanity as a zygote in the womb of a Jewish virgin? Did he really fulfill the law, perform signs as harbingers of the new age, bear our judgment, and rise again as the beginning of the new creation? Did he really take our dreary history of sin and death into his grave and walk out of that grave as the mediator, guarantor, and first-fruits of the age to come? Is it really true that even though we suffer now, our bodies will be raised in glory, like Christ’s, to share in the wonders of a restored cosmos without the threat, much less the reality, of evil, pain, injustice, sin, and violence? And does everything in this gospel turn on the testimony of eye-witnesses?

To all these questions the apostles answer in the affirmative. More than anyone, their “personal testimony” could have been to the difference it had made in their lives<—morally, therapeutically, and experientially. While those effects are mentioned, though, their testimony was to public events:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have died. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all he was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am… (1 Cor 15:3-10).

Jesus does indeed make a difference in our lives, but only because he rose again in history and his resurrection secured something much wider, deeper, and richer than our own personal experience. He changed the face of history, not merely by his example or by inspiring others to great accomplishments in history. It is not because there are happier people, hospitals, and greater liberties, but because God himself accomplished in his Son what no one but God could have achieved, once and for all. Only because the horizon of this redemption is so all-encompassing does it have such a transforming impact for our own lives. But by reducing this vast, public, and all-encompassing announcement to the narrow confines of our personal decision, morality, and experience, we not only perpetuate the faith-reason split in apologetics but trivialize the gospel itself.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the arguments that make Easter good news to atheists, skeptics, and believers alike.

Reformation at Home

As some of our tag-lines suggest, we want our partners and supporters to apply the Reformation insights they’ve gleaned from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation to their own circles of influence. Recently, one of our partners in the Pacific Northwest worked with us to design and purchase space on a billboard near her home.


The billboard was a significant investment of time and money. Maybe you aren’t in a position to do something so dramatic, but you still want to see Reformation take root with your family and friends. Here are a few other ideas that our partners have developed as a way to bring the Reformation home:

  • host your own Conversations for a Modern Reformation: after a few of the guests on our recent cruise experienced a series of conversations about the challenges facing the church they began hosting their own conversations. What sorts of insights would you glean by convening a conversation made up of Christians from different churches in your town? Once you’ve identified some of the challenges, can you also come up with some of the answers?
  • sponsor White Horse Inn on a local radio station: some partners and partnering churches purchase airtime on a local station (sometimes for less than $75 per episode) and also include their own commercial for a church or study group before or after the broadcast. A few of our partner-sponsored broadcasts include: KDJS in Minnesota, KPXQ in Arizona, and WTIB/WNBU in North Carolina.
  • help lead a White Horse Inn discussion group: using materials from the White Horse Inn, these discussion groups allow you to join the conversation with the White Horse Inn hosts. Groups have been formed all across the U.S. Some meet every week, some meet less often. Do whatever works best for the folks in your group. Click here for more information on starting a group.
  • purchase and distribute bulk subscriptions to Modern Reformation magazine: a number of churches give Modern Reformation away for free on their book tables. Some Sunday school teachers develop lessons from previous year-long themes and copy articles to pass out to their class. Take advantage of our pastor’s subscription price of only $16, which includes a special bulk subscription deal.
  • do you know someone who needs to (re)learn the meaning of grace? Go through the 20th Anniversary edition of Putting Amazing Into Grace with them using the new DVD study. For groups of 1 to 100, this DVD will walk you through the main parts of Mike Horton’s best-known book. All you have to do is push “play”!

Call our office at 800-890-7556 or visit us online for more information or to take advantage of some of the great resources we’re making available to you.

How to Stay Christian in Seminary: Juggling Multiple Callings

Dr. Horton wrote this post in relation to a series done over at the Desiring God blog “How to Stay Christian in Seminary”.

Any seminary worth its salt is going to demand focused labor, time, and interest. In other words, it’s going to be a calling. That’s as it should be. After all, you’re going to be an undershepherd of Christ and you have to be a specialist in his Word. When I hear folks slight seminary education or suggest that it can be substituted with informal and mostly independent approaches, I ask them if they’d choose a brain surgeon who received his medical training in a similar manner. Do we really want our medical physicians operating on us while they are teaching themselves the taxonomy of pathologies? We are relieved to imagine that our doctors spent a lot of late nights preparing for the next day’s class, writing papers, reading journals, attending lectures, and observing veterans on their rounds. Anything worth doing is worth doing well and lives are at stake. What may seem like a routine paper you never would have written unless some rather uncharismatic neurologist assigned texts you never would have read for yourself might turn out to be “just what the doctor ordered” in an emergency room someday.

As important as our physical health is, we’re all going to die. In preparing for the holy ministry, we are preparing to prepare others for death and the life everlasting. Martha was a busy bee in the Lord’s work—”anxious about many things,” but her sister Mary was commended for having “chosen the better part” by sitting at Jesus’s feet for instruction. Disciples have to learn before they leap.

I arrived at seminary with the zeal of a reformer, already engaged in ministry. And it showed. My professors kindly challenged me to slow down. “You have a lifetime of ministry, but only three or four years to become a specialist in God’s Word,” Dr. Strimple told me. “Think of the health of those you’ll be serving—they deserve your best now, which is to be a student.” It was sage counsel.

I have seen a few tragic cases of burnout among students. In almost every one it was due less to the burden of studies than to the challenge of trying to balance multiple callings. I’ve had occasion to offer the same advice Dr. Strimple gave me.

Sometimes, dare I say, it’s the fault of the church leadership. I’ve seen a number of students whose sponsoring church funded their education, but only at the price of demanding unreasonable hours, especially in youth ministry, often requiring students to commute great distances each week. One of the benefits of residential seminary education is that the priorities are already set by sheer distance. You can’t do ministry with seminary on the side. Churches need to have a high enough value of what’s happening here in these few years to pay for seminary without any strings attached—except for regular accountability and encouragement. Being a seminary student isn’t just preparation for a calling, but a calling in its own right.

If you come to seminary married, your first calling is to your wife—and children, if you are blessed with them yet. Luther called the family “my little parish.” Sometimes men leave their wives in the dust. Their furniture is being rearranged. After a week of lectures, reading, and spirited discussions and debates with classmates and professors outside of class, their heads and hearts are spinning. They can’t wait to get onto the next discovery and the material is coming at them from all directions like baseballs. Then there are the daily chapels and prayer groups.

It’s easy to assume that because you are immersed in the Word and prayer every day, that is all you—and your family—need. It’s easy to hang out more with fellow students sometimes than to teach the faith to those closest to you. Certainly there is the importance of daily devotions together as a family, but you need also to consistently unpack what you’re learning in seminary so that your first ministerial call—your own “little parish”—is well-fed. Your calling is to be a disciple and to make disciples, so start at home. When they are part of your trials and wonderful insights, they will also be your cheerleaders and constructive critics for the rest of your ministry. Don’t leave them behind.

We also have a calling as church members. Where I teach, all full-time faculty members have to be involved in pastoral ministry in a local church as teaching elders/ministers and students are expected to be rooted in a local church where they and their families are served. Consistent involvement in a local church is key for keeping our priorities in check. Seminary is a servant of, not substitute for, actual churches.

Juggling these callings can be exhausting. That’s why, at every point along the way, it is so crucial to bear in mind that lectures, papers, and exams (and, of course, grades) are not ends in themselves, but means to the end that every believer’s calling shares: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. If that’s true for you and your closest parishioners now, it will be true for many others for the years of fruitful ministry that our gracious Lord is pleased to give us.

The WHI in WI!!

If you live near either Green Bay or Appleton/Oshkosh, Wisconsin you can now hear the White Horse Inn every Sunday evening at 9:00 PM! The Family Network has picked up the WHI on a number of their stations:

  • Green Bay: WEMY (91.5 FM)
  • Appleton / Oshkosh: WEMI (91.9 FM)
  • Fond du Lac / Ripon: WEMI (101.7 FM)
  • Two Rivers / Manitowoc: WEMY (91.5 FM)

This is a great opportunity to tell people about the WHI so tell your friends in the new listening area. If you would like to see the other stations that we are on across North America (and the world!) check out our Radio Stations page. Of course you can always listen for free via podcast, on our website, or from our archives.

WHI-1095 | Seeking First the Kingdom (Part 1)

How are we to understand forgiveness? Does God forgive us only on the condition that we forgive others? What does Jesus mean when he calls us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God”? On this special edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience in Miami, Florida, the hosts will discuss these questions and more as they interact with Matthew 6:14-35 in their continuing series through the Sermon on the Mount.


Creeds & Deeds
Michael Horton
Thine is the Kingdom
Michael Horton


Zac Hicks


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In God’s Name

A great question, in response to yesterday’s post recommending Michael Gerson’s article:

March 30th, 2012 at 8:33 am


I have been wondering a lot lately on the Christian’s attitude towards politics while keeping things balanced with a Gospel centered approach to it all. How much involvement should a Christian have in political discussion and engagement? I tend to find Christians who are either too hardcore about it (which leads to depression and a lack of eternal perspective) or they are laissez faire about anything that doesn’t immediately affect their wallet. I wish I heard a little more about this from a Biblical perspective. Seems that Christian leaders either go overboard or they avoid it. Could you give me some feedback, scripture, or a resource?

Here are a few reflections. In all of these points, the key is to make distinctions without oppositions:

  • Distinguish Christ’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this age without seeing them as enemies. Although he is the Lord of all even now, Christ will make the kingdoms of the world his own realm of direct rule (without caesars, presidents, mullahs and tribal chiefs) when he returns. At present, the church participates in this kingdom in a partially realized way. Ultimate justice, righteousness, and peace with God have been established in the world through the new creation in Jesus Christ. As the Spirit unites sinners to Jesus by his Spirit through the Word, a colony of this kingdom is planted in this present evil age. The politics of this age can never bring about ultimate justice, peace, or righteousness. Just because earthly governments and other social structures (such as voluntary associations, relief agencies, schools, neighborhoods, etc.) can’t bring in the consummated Kingdom of Christ does not mean that they are not God’s means of contributing to the common good and preserving society with a relative order, justice, and peace in the world.
  • Closely related to this, distinguish common grace from saving grace. Radical Protestantism has often bred radical politics, which feeds off of a nearly Manichean opposition of light and darkness. On one hand, this makes us presumptuous about ourselves, as if non-Christians can only create darkness and Christians can only create light. It has never been that simple historically, because non-Christians are beneficiaries of God’s common grace and Christians are also still sinful. God’s saving grace comes to us in Jesus Christ through the means of grace ministered by his church. God’s common grace comes through the wisdom, vocations, education, and other gifts that the Spirit bestows on unbelievers as well as believers. These common callings cannot build Christ’s kingdom, but they are the means through which he loves and serves us and our neighbors every day. So enough of this Manichean dualism! Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The best works-and policies-fall short of God’s glory. Nevertheless, they are still commanded and are critical for the common good.
  • Distinguish between the church as institution from the church as its members. Abraham Kuyper expressed this distinction in terms of church-as-organization and church-as-organism. In the former sense, the church is Christ’s embassy of saving grace through the ministry of Word and sacrament. In the latter sense, it is believers-saved by grace-who are scattered into their worldly callings as salt and light. The institutional church is entrusted with the Great Commission, with no calling or authority to reform the world. Being shaped decisively by this Word, believers are called to serve their myriad neighbors in the world. Sometimes this provides opportunities for newsworthy impact, but that is not our concern. Our calling is to be faithful at our posts. Where the state has accrued a dangerous monopoly on cultural activity, politics is seen as the most significant sphere of activity. However, Christians can testify by their quiet faithfulness at their posts how essential are the daily and often mundane gifts. Ambition to make a noticeable difference in the world may be a God-given purpose and calling, but it can also be an expression of our pride and self-righteousness. It is easier to abandon the callings where God has placed us to love and serve our neighbors in order to “be somebody” and to be remembered for our “legacy.”
  • Distinguish between “necessary” and “good” consequences of Scripture. The Westminster Confession reminds us that our ultimate authority is Scripture: whatever is contained there explicitly or “by good and necessary consequences may be deduced therefrom.” One of the benefits of preaching through the Bible (rather than topically) is that we are forced to concentrate on the whole teaching of Scripture. By contrast, when we follow our own topical hobby-horses, we are prone to avoid some biblical teachings and to over-emphasize others. Some preachers manage to avoid texts that address sexual ethics or creation stewardship. Others may harp on moral and political issues, with speeches that could have been written if the Bible had never been written. What we need today more than ever is a rigorous submission to the Word, standing under it rather than over or alongside it. It’s not just that we can’t preach anything contrary to God’s Word; we can’t preach anything that isn’t required by it. Not only must our interpretation and application be a good inference; it must be a necessary one. Abortion-on-demand is an obvious example of a “good and necessary inference” from Scripture: namely, the prohibition of murder. Surely opposition to the modern slave-trade, whether in early America and the antebellum South or in current forms around the world, finds multiple sources of good and necessary application. Sound preaching and teaching over the years should shape people who think of creation as neither divine nor something to devour and destroy, but as the work of God’s hand. On many other issues, Christian preaching will shape the worldview that we bring to our lives and policy decisions. Nevertheless, we cannot require specific policies that are not required by legitimate exegesis of God’s Word.
  • Distinguish between the sufficiency and scope of Scripture. Scripture is sufficient for everything necessary for faith and practice. That does not mean that Scripture is sufficient for everything necessary for daily life. For example, doctors and auto mechanics have wisdom and knowledge that we need. God committed to Scripture what he deemed essential for our salvation and godliness. The scope of Scripture is the Triune God as he is known in Jesus Christ in the covenant of grace. Whatever in Scripture informs and directs our decision making in daily affairs bears divine authority. However, the Bible is not a manual for personal, domestic, and foreign policy. There are commands and promises, but they have to be interpreted and applied according to their natural sense and with sensitivity to their covenantal context. Everything we need for salvation and worship is given in Scripture, but the Bible’s purpose or scope is not everything we need for life. We should not be surprised when an unbeliever who is a trained economist is better-equipped to address sweeping questions of poverty in developing countries than a preacher armed with the Bible.

To conclude: Christians, of all people, should be concerned about the pressing issues in culture and society today. However, even in the same church, where people share the same faith, worldview, and values, there will be different applications, policies, and agendas. Where Scripture speaks, we speak; where it is silent, we don’t dare to speak in God’s name but as those who are attempting to apply our understanding of God’s Word and world to daily living in ways that are not explicitly or even implicitly determined by Scripture. Fundamentalists on the left and the right quote the Bible in a manner that can only be designated “taking God’s name in vain.” It’s no wonder that the public sense of God’s authoritative Word loses its credibility in the process. By all means, let’s preach the Word, embrace the Word, and live in the light of it in all areas of life. Yet let us never invoke God’s authority for decisions that we must make every day that are matters of Christian liberty.

Not Your Religion in Politics, but Mine

As secularists would have it, religious convictions should play no role in shaping the moral vision of voters and political leaders. Of course, this is itself a religious test. Violating at least implicitly the free exercise of religion, secularists assume that their own practically if not theoretically atheistic worldview should be the established religion. France tried this in the 18th century, symbolized by the unveiling of the goddess of reason in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. However, this has never been the American way. Ironically, in the nation that constitutionally disallows any establishment of a particular religion or denomination, people are free to practice their faith not only privately but in the public square.

At the other extreme, though, is the confusion of Christ’s kingdom with the United States—whether in its more liberal incarnation or as envisioned by the GOP. The rhetoric of a reinvigorated Christian right has turned off a lot of Americans who see evangelicalism more as a voting bloc engaged in identity politics than as a witness to the liberating King who has founded his own empire in his own death and resurrection. Former G. W. Bush speechwriter and policy advisor Michael Gerson offers some insightful analysis of this phenomenon on the campaign trail in recent weeks.

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.

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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