On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

<p”>Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

email

Should Sermons Be Published?

pulpit-319948_640

Today we live in a world where pastors of churches large and small post their sermons online almost immediately. Many live-stream and some churches even offer sophisticated viewing experiences allowing viewers to provide feedback. What’s more, the advent of smart phones and social media has made Sunday sermons an interactive experience. Social media on Sunday is filled with comments and quotes drawn from the church service. Christian conferences are chronicled live on Twitter with special hash tags, Instagram pictures, and commentary.

Some lament (link mine) this new reality. They say we are eroding the value of the incarnational experience of hearing a message. This is a valid concern, but pastors and church leaders must deal with the world that is: a digital conversation that is here to stay. So preachers must reckon with reality: when you walk up to the pulpit or lectern, you are not merely speaking to the room. You are speaking the outside world as well.

This reality shouldn’t change the substance of the old-time gospel story. But it should cause us to think through the content we deliver, knowing we are often speaking simultaneously to both the choir and to outsiders, some of whom are ready to pounce on every stray word.

So far as it goes, this communications advice Dan Darling offered to pastors on preaching in the age of podcasting is sound. If you’re a public figure who makes a living communicating, you should follow his advice unless you want to end up with a massive PR nightmare on your hands. Yet what’s troubling about the piece is perhaps precisely that point: I could give the exact same advice to any other communications professional without really changing any of it. Note how effortlessly Darling assumes that pastors do record their sermons and make them available as podcasts. The unjustified assumption behind this piece–left unjustified, one assumes, because no one bothers to argue against it these days–is that pastors should make their sermons available as podcasts. But why do we make that assumption so effortlessly? Why should we record and podcast sermons? There are, after all, very good reasons not to record them–we just have forgotten them.

Continue reading

When Churches and Parachurches Drift Apart

Peter Greer (@peterkgreer) is president and CEO of HOPE International. Chris Horst (@chrishorst) is the vice president of development at HOPE International. Together with the support of Anna Haggard, they coauthored Mission Drift and Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing. They wrote this essay with support from HOPE intern, Andrey Bobrovskiy.

Public perceptions about religious expression continue to narrow, with recent high-profile faith-based organizations facing scrutiny of all varieties about how they practice their faith.

At California State University, evangelical groups who require leaders to sign a statement of faith are close to losing their official recognition with the administration. At Vanderbilt, Bowdoin and dozens of other universities, religious groups have already lost their official standing over the same issue.

For faith-based campus outreach groups, Christian colleges, urban ministries, adoption agencies and global relief and development organizations, the question society is asking is this: Just what makes your campus group, humanitarianism, education and service “Christian”?

It’s an important question. And it’s a question leaders of faith-based organizations, specifically, should be asking. Because in recent years, the connection between the church and parachurch ministries has been weakening. And if we are unable to clearly articulate the centrality of our faith to our work, how can expect others to?

For centuries, the local church was the centerpiece of outreach and service. The rapid creation of separate parachurch organizations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Para, parachurch’s prefix, is Greek for “alongside” or “beside.” The purpose of parachurch organizations is to come alongside, to support, the local church.

These organizations flourished, in large measure due to the forbearance produced by their faith and by God’s good provision. In their book, Sacred Aid, scholars Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein state that organizations “driven by religious faith also might be more willing to endure hardship and personal sacrifice for a longer period of time.”

Following the wars of the early 20th century, Christians undertook concerted efforts to respond on a massive scale to the devastation in Europe and Asia grew. The result was the rapid increase of Christian relief and development organizations motivated by faith, but in many cases, largely disconnected from the local church. Parachurch ministries and outreach organizations worked beside the church, but some ignored her completely.

More significantly, a philosophical and subtle separation developed between the “works” of justice and the “message” of salvation. Slowly, the church was given the responsibility to share the Good News verbally while the work of restoration went to nonprofits. Our crumbling ecclesiology has created a fissure we ought to work hard to mend.

On Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, Jonathan Storment describes how the separation of parachurch ministries from their roots has dangerous implications:

The people who have started these non-profits or have tried to serve the world in Gospel ways through their business or parachurch organization are primarily people who have been formed in a local church. They have been taught to care about the world in a way that is in line with the nature of God, and adjust their bottom lines and values accordingly. But when we create a culture that is more in love with the fruit than the tree (and by tree I mean Jesus) we eventually lose both.

This has resulted in many parachurch organizations—including prominent once-parachurch organizations like ChildFund (formerly known as Christian Children’s Fund)—to divorce themselves entirely from the Christian faith of their youth. ChildFund was launched by a Presbyterian minister and initially was closely hinged to the church and exemplified robust Christian distinctiveness. But as ChildFund, and many other parachurches, grew, they have cut ties with the local church. As they’ve done so, they’ve secularized and abandoned their core faith convictions.

Cutting ties with the local church became like cutting the ropes to the anchor which enabled them to resist the cultural currents of mission drift.

As leaders of HOPE International, a Christ-centered microfinance organization, we know how messy partnering with the church can be.

“I know the church is described as the Bride of Christ in Scripture, but too often it acts like Bridezilla,” Gil Odendaal, vice president at World Relief, once remarked.

We’ve experienced these challenging realities as we’ve worked with churches in countries all over the world. It becomes quickly understandable why many parachurch organizations prefer to operate alone.

Despite the imperfections of every church this side of heaven, the church is God’s Plan A. There is no Plan B. His work continues through His chosen instrument. With a supernatural origination and divine mandate, the church is Christ’s hands and feet bringing the Good News as we love God and our neighbors. As parachurches, we remember we are the bridesmaid, not the bride. Our job is to gird and strengthen Christ’s church, not to replace it.

Parachurches cannot remain true to their mission without a rigorous ingratiation with Christ’s body—the church. Working under the authority of—or in close collaboration with—like-minded churches is perhaps the easiest way to stay on mission. When a religiously apathetic culture asks why faith-based organizations are any different than our secular counterparts, an adhesion to the church makes our response much clearer.

The reason parchurches should bind to the church is so they can stay aligned to their full mission. The church grounds all good works in the grander vision of humanity’s fall and God’s redemption. For organizations desiring to stay true to their mission, our question about partnering with the church should be “How do we partner?” not “Should we partner?”

We must remember that we are not just world-class humanitarians and educators and social workers, but Christians. Our faith compels us to serve the most vulnerable and to challenge the most powerful. We do this not as individuals and organizations divorced from Christ’s Church, but as vital members within it. The more visibly and practically we evidence this, the stronger our work will become and the clearer our picture to culture will be.

Mere Fidelity: On Sanctification

Update:  We are now on iTunes.  Download episodes and subscribe here. If you’re on Android or some other podcast streamer and need an RSS feed, you can get that here.

Two things of note:  first, we’ve been accepted into Soundcloud’s beta for an RSS feed and iTunes feed.  However, just after we were let in Soundcloud began having technical difficulties for it, so…we don’t have it quite yet.  I apologize for that, and if they don’t get it sorted early this week we’ll have a different plan in place for next week. 

Second: we’ve been talking internally about conversing about books and essays and the like in a way that will still be interesting for those who haven’t read them, but even more informative for those who have.  In two weeks, then, we’re going to start a discussion on the issues raised by Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?which turns 30 years old this year.

Yes, it’s an expensive book, especially since it clocks in at just 86 pages.  However, I’d note two things in its defense:  (a) it’s incredibly relevant and has the single-best theological analysis of trans-gender questions ever written, and (b) the fact that there are virtually no used copies available indicates how important of a book it is. You’ll own it your whole life.  So, join us.

This week:  we consider the doctrine of sanctification, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has been following the Christian blogging world.

As always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

 

Mere Fidelity: Is there a ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

First things first: we have a new name.  Thanks to everyone who provided suggestions last week, and to my friend Jordan Ballor who came up with the one we decided on.  Our aim for the name was to make sure we have the long-term flexibility we need when Derek becomes a famous radio host.

Second, thanks to everyone who has asked about the RSS feed and iTunes feed.  The short answer is:  It’s coming, lo, as quickly as the Soundcloud gods approve us for it.  My apologies for the delay on that.  We weren’t sure whether this would turn into an ongoing project, but at this point we’re going for it.

Finally, this week’s conversation on moral orthodoxy takes its cue from Derek’s very smart post on the same subject.  If there’s something you would like us to discuss in the weeks to come…drop us a suggestion in the comments. 

As always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

The Ethics of Jayber Crow

riverIn The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.

But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.

In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost

Continue reading

Casting Across the Pond: Do Calvinists worship another God?

Last week’s inaugural episode of “Casting Across the Pond” was so successful that Derek, Alastair, and Andrew turned around and did one again.

Two business items: first, we’re open to changing the name, if anyone has a better.  Put your suggestions in the comments below.  Second, many of you requested the ability to download them.  That’s now enabled for both episodes:  sorry for missing it the first time around!

This week’s conversation launches off from Zach Hunt’s open letter to John Calvin and Fred Sanders’s post at Scriptorium Daily.

As always, follow Derek, Alastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

A Conversation on Capital Punishment and the Old Testament

I’m pleased to introduce Casting Across the Pond, a conversation with three of my favorite young thinkers.

Alastair Roberts and Derek Rishmawy have both written for us here at Mere-O, and are well known in many parts of the blogging community.  Derek is one of the most irenic and thoughtful young writers I have read, while Alastair’s plodding and thorough approach to the world always turns up provocative thoughts and genuine insights.

Andrew Wilson first came to my attention several years ago for his epic and incisive conversation with Rob Bell, and since then has distinguished himself as one of the most astute theological observers around.  Having newly been justly awarded a monthly column in Christianity Today, Andrew is about to become a lot more well known to US audiences.

They recently gathered to have a chat about recent stirrings online about capital punishment and the Old Testament. The conversation is unadorned with bells and whistles, but full of good conversation.

Which, come to think of it, is precisely how we like it around these parts.

Some pertinent reading, for your ongoing education:  Brian Zahnd on Jesus and Biblicism, Andrew Wilson on the Jesus Tea Strainer, and Derek Rishmawy on how we relate the two testaments

The Future of Protestantism Full Roundup

Normally this would go up over at Notes, but we wanted to be sure that everyone sees the full roundup of responses (so far) to last week’s Future of Protestantism event at Biola. There figure to be more responses in the weeks to come so we’ll keep this piece updated as new responses are published.

Dr. Leithart wrote about some of the things he wished he’d said here. He then further clarified his views in three subsequent posts at First Things.

Dr. Trueman has written some brief reflections for Reformation 21 here and here as well as a lengthier piece for First Things here.

Dr. Sanders has written his own reflections on the event here.

Continue reading

The Death of Jerry Umanos: Filling up what is Lacking in the Suffering of Christ

Jerry Umanos (along with two other physicians) was killed last week, murdered by a police guard in the very hospital where he worked. Dr. Umanos was a pediatrician who served at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago for many years before he began to divide his time between Lawndale and a CURE hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he not only cared for patients directly but was heavily involved in educating Afghan doctors, nurses, and midwives.

Dr. Umanos’ faith clearly informed the decisions he made about his vocation in ways that are applicable to all believers. His life and death are worthy of discussion not because we should all be teaching medical providers in Afghanistan (though more of us ought to), but because one does not need to be participating in a heroic vocation to be faithful Kingdom witnesses. In an age where followers, clicks, sales, and converts rule even Christian psyches, it is instructive for us to reflect upon a contemporary believer whose ambition was the glory of Christ among the poor and whose service to Christ cost his life.

While inner-city Chicago and Afghanistan are very different places, they are both in need of quality physicians. They also tend to be challenging and risky places for physicians to practice. Medical training in particular tends to make it very hard to commit oneself to a particular place; the intense competition for medical school and residency slots often forces trainees to move every 3 or 4 years as they progress in their education. Yet every institution that Dr. Umanos was involved with along the way spoke of his dedication and service– a clear example of a man making the most of every opportunity along the way to be a part of his formational institutions. Furthermore, though his service was divided between Lawndale and Kabul, his affinity for institutions committed to the empowerment of his neighbors is evident. Lawndale’s work in developing leadership among the urban poor is well-known, and training health providers is a growing field crucial to making inroads against enormous health disparities while advancing the Gospel. Dr. Umanos’ example shows just how powerful the relationships we form in our vocations can be when we are intentional and consistent.

This is not just a principle that is applicable solely to Christians who work in elite professional fields like medicine. Certainly the privileged have opportunities that allow them to produce more visible acts of charity– we might surmise that the man in Jesus’ parable who began with five talents had a greater chance of getting to ten than either of his counterparts. The challenge for every person who claims the name of Christ is relying on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to produce in us the discipline necessary to be fruitful in hard places. The lesson of Dr. Umanos’ life is not that he was a special Christian who did things no one else could accomplish, but that he chose to faithfully pursue things that few other people were doing in a manner that anyone who trusts in Jesus can.

Secondly, we can see that Dr. Umanos made calculated sacrifices for the sake of following Christ. This Washington Post article details how he asked for a residents’ salary when he started at Lawndale, which meant that he probably gave up about $60,000-100,000 per year that he could have earned working at a less difficult job. Yet he perceived a calling from God and an affinity to a mission that was worth far more than a few thousand dollars. Many other believers have given up far greater sums of money or larger percentages of their income to serve others– but the point is not about the money, but about the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of faithful ministry. This sacrificial spirit is foundational to our faith and should not be limited merely to finances (for some may even be called to make greater sums of money that they can give away or use for some other good purpose.) Rather, we should each reflect on the gifts that each of us have been given and consider how they might bless God and others if we gave of ourselves at a level that is costly.

Dr. Umanos made some intentional sacrifices but he also took some intentional risks. While we should avoid excessively fetishizing suffering or martyrdom, it is crucial to recognize that, as Bonhoeffer said:

“…It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man and his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his won will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” (from The Cost of Discipleship

Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of Heaven make clear the question of cost: following Him is worth far more than what we have, and in order to follow Him we must surrender all that we have. It is clear that there is a significant cost associated with the further proclamation of God’s Kingdom (masterfully exposited by John Piper):

” ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.’ Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world. His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.”

While for some the death that we are called to is primarily spiritual or emotional, we should not take lightly the weight of the testimony of either New Testament witnesses or millions of our worldwide contemporaries suffering physical and material loss for Jesus’ sake. By contrast, it is shallow to suppose that this is a call for all to go to Afghanistan or the inner-city (although, again, there are not nearly enough Christians in Afghanistan to give the peoples there access to God’s Word!) The sacrifice and risks we are called to are unique to each person who has tasted of new life in Jesus. We all must reflect on Christ’s incredible sacrifice for us and not shame ourselves with overwrought explanations for why we are avoiding the cross He calls us to bear with Him.

It is only when our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our hearts satisfied by the delight of His love that we can look upon our very lives as worth risking for the sake of advancing His Kingdom. The only way to do this, of course, is through the slow and steady spiritual formation that takes places when we are learning from and giving to our local institutions, most especially our local churches. The life of Jerry Umanos demonstrates the effects of formation on someone who has been thus shaped, leading him to a place where even the risk of violent death was not enough to discourage him from proclaiming Christ in word and deed.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.