Friday, August 2, 2013

Rachel Held Evans and The Millennial Exodus [Part 2]

Anthony Bradley may puzzle over her popularity and I've barely heard of her, but there does seem to be a group of people that identify with Rachel Held Evans and share some of her concerns as articulated in this article.

Ms. Evans seems nice. I say seems because, as smiley as her picture appears, her patience and goodwill are selective. She and the generation she identifies with are armed with data, studies, an appetite for the high church traditions, a refined BS detector and an overwhelming desire to know Jesus without compromising their intellects. The simple church leaders respond with lattes, edgier music, hipper worship services, and a distressing commercialized homophobic science hating lack of Jesus. That's balanced.

Whether intentional or not, this characterization is dishonest. Her own narrative betrays that fact. Why exactly are all of these people inviting her to come and talk? The same reason that so many books have been written about this subject. The same reason that para-church ministries work hard to engage the younger generation while equipping youth leaders to answer tough questions. The same reason that some of the best minds in the Christian family devote themselves to giving college students the intellectual grounding they need to grow in their faith as opposed to away from it. All of these people genuinely care about the needs of the Millennial generation. They hardly resemble the shallow clueless buffoons she paints in her article and certainly offer a good deal more than pathetic attempts at being cool.

However earnest these efforts may be, it is entirely possible that all of these people miss the point and that Ms. Evans possesses insight that will help. Unfortunately, rather than an informative article offering her vision to reach Millennials more effectively, she chooses to offer a piece that morphs into an awkward manifesto with Ms. Evans as the de facto head of the movement.

I'm not a huge fan of her pervasive use of the pronoun “We.”. No single person speaks on behalf of all  Christian Millennials. Given even the most cursory look at possible motivations in my previous post, there are simply too many reasons that one would leave the church for a single person to talk like this. It is to her credit that she passionately identifies with a group of people that she discusses quite a bit, but this style gives the false impression of a unified movement with a clearly stated set of goals. As if we could meet her demands and then she could deliver the Millennial Christians back to us like a modern day Pied Piper  That's not what is happening. There is no organized en masse walk out. It it looks more like a massive disorganized wandering away.

Ms. Evans obviously strikes a chord with a particular group of people, so she can't be dismissed because I'm not a fan of the way she expresses herself. A desire for productive engagement demands that we give serious attention to her list of concerns to see if the meat of her article can be found in there. I am adding numbers and emphasis for my own clarity.

1 -We want an end to culture wars. We want truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for; not what we are against.

Let's say - for the sake of discussion - that what you stand for is the value and dignity of all human life. Wouldn't that then make you against actions that disregard or abuse human life? Once you stake the position that you support (are for) the dignity of human life you are going to naturally oppose (be against) things like abortion, sex slavery, euthanasia, eugenics, and perhaps capital punishment. They go hand and hand. 

Frederick Douglass wanted freedom and equal dignity for slaves (for) which made him one of the greatest abolitionists the world has ever seen (against). The distaste others felt for the bad feelings created by his opposition to slavery led him to say the following:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

Simply by virtue of being for something; you are right smack dab in the middle of a culture war. We are now at a crossroads. You can be for things and do nothing, or you can be against things by virtue of your principles and contribute to efforts to stop injustice in a respectful and impacting manner. Of course tension always arises when one group tells another that they are wrong. The greater the wrong, the more tension will be created by confronting it. It must come. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

I am curious about one thing. Does Ms. Evans not see her own criticisms of Evangelicalism as being against those views? Aren't her highly public efforts to change things a part of the culture war? Why are her own views and actions exempt from the Millennial angst that drives her to demand others to stand down?

As for the desire for a truce between science and faith, if she can get Dawkins and Dennett to dial it down a bit then more power to her. If not, then it seems a bit odd to ask others to not respond to attack pieces casting all those who believe in a Creator as stupid. (e.g. Dawkins' The God Delusion or Hitchens' god is not Great)

Has she considered that asking people who respectfully contribute to the debate like Jay Wesley Richards, Alvin Plantinga, or William Lane Craig to stop because of some desire for a truce would diminish our public discourse? The conflict forces us all to revisit our presuppositions and clear out any intellectual garbage. Some of the best material to read was written by those who disagree with us in response to theistic arguments. Forget the truce, however she envisions that. We need to learn to expose the ad hominem attacks and focus on the genuinely productive conversations.

2 – We want to ask questions that don't have predetermined answers.

If this is a general complaint against pat answers then I am in full agreement. I hate hearing someone ask an honest question and get in response what is affectionately referred to as a Sunday school answer. Ditto that on ramblings that fail to hide the fact that the person talking hasn't the slightest clue what they are saying.

Here is the thing, though. Questions either have answers or they don't, but sometimes people don't want answers. They want to wallow in mystery or subjectivism. I encounter this quite a bit with both young people and adults. They make a statement that is factually wrong or ask a question that is easily addressed. They are then offered the correct answer or an accurate correction, and they respond with “We'll just have to agree to disagree.” This happens all the time. 

One guy kept insisting an issue that was settled at the Council of Chalcedon was a matter of my opinion. His reasoning was thus: (1) he had never heard of Chalcedon and (2) he was allowed to let the Spirit communicate truth to him directly from scripture without the traditions telling him what to believe. This isn't wisdom. These kinds of people don't want answers at all. They want the appearance of depth and introspection without honesty.

As challenges arise in my life, it is a comfort that great men and women offer their wisdom down through the ages to anyone willing to do the work to find it. That fact is encouraging; not distressing. Nothing under the sun is new to man, so why should anyone expect the questions they wrestle with to be unique to the human experience? Our doubts, fears, and struggles have been addressed before. Refusing to avail ourselves of the wisdom of our elders smacks of arrogance and conceit; not depth.

I agree that honesty is needed with regards to tough questions. It doesn't undermine the truth of Christianity or the kingdom of God to answer, “I don't know.” It's a good habit to develop. As G.K. Chesterton said in Eugenics and Other Evils, we can't be a specialist on the universe. There are always going to be things we simply don't know.

Conversely, we need to train young people to abandon the internet fighting mindset that believes if the guy in front of me can't answer right here and right now then there is no rebuttal. That may be a good way to bicker, but it is not arguing in good faith and does nothing to draw us closer to the truth.

3 – We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

OK. Then start one.

Not that I concede this point correctly characterizes churches. It certainly misses the mark on my own church and our pastor. My pastor, Bryant Wright, was the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, so he is no minor figure in Evangelicalism. Anyone who characterizes him as anything other than fully committed to the kingdom of God over politics or nationalism is a liar who doesn't know the man. Ms. Evans and her friends perhaps disapprove of his stance on insisting that homosexual sex is a sin, but you can't question his character or grace when he sits down with representatives of Christian homosexual advocacy groups to emphasize that he loves them. 

It is wrong to conflate the fact that many Christians are vocal Republicans with a larger judgment that "the Church" is part of a political alliance. Bryant Wright will not let politicians address our congregation at all. Including Pastor Wright in this charge of misplaced allegiance, or anyone else for that matter, without substantive evidence to support the claim is nothing short of a mawkish character attack.

David French wrote this piece on the misperception that Christians are overly focused on abortion and homosexuality. The evidence he supplies seriously undermines this complaint. Christians, both church leadership and laity, give an incredible amount of time and resources to the rest of the world. Their generosity just doesn't get recognized for various reasons.

That said, new churches are planted all of the time. If you have a vision for a new church go and do likewise. Put some action to those complaints and show us all the model you wish to see enacted more broadly. Otherwise this falls into the category of empty whining.

4 – We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith community.

As has already been pointed out elsewhere in this piece by Anthony Bradley at Acton, the United Methodist Church already does this. You will also find no shortage of churches in the Atlanta area that are welcoming to homosexuals. 

When asked by a college student last weekend how I felt about denominations. I quoted my pastor and told him that I'm fine with denominations but I abhor denominationalism. I fully support people finding a body that worships in the manner that makes them feel comfortable and helps them connect to a community.

On the other hand, it is arrogant to insist that all churches and church bodies adopt your view of scripture. For those who believe that the biblical admonitions against homosexuality are clear and applicable to our modern world, you offer only a dictatorial command that they fully accept your view against their conscience. I obviously believe that we must love our homosexual brothers and sisters, but I am not convinced that loving them means accepting either that (to borrow from Andrew Wilson in this great conversation with Rob Bell on “Unbelievable?”) Paul and Jesus and the prophets were all fine with homosexual sex or that Paul and Jesus and the prophets were wrong about homosexual sex. I deeply love all sorts of sinners already, and as a sinner am deeply loved by others including God. I can both (1) believe that homosexual sex is condemned as sinful in the bible and (2) deeply love and respect homosexuals.

If their LGBT friends feeling truly welcome in our faith community is predicated on everyone endorsing a specific view of homosexual sex then this demand isn't even attainable. Not because Evangelicals are homophobic (a weak ad hominem I detest) but because our tendency to disagree on important issues is precisely the reason we have denominations. We can't agree on Calvinism vs. Molinism vs. Arminian/Weslyanism, translations of the bible, orders of worship, divorce, capital punishment, and infant baptism, but you expect us to monolithically agree on homosexual sex being OK? Good luck with that.

A final note on this. The rise of the homosexual rights movement and the incredible speed by which it has progressed is routinely recognized as unprecedented. We have never seen anything like this. As a result, it should be expected that good well meaning and loving Christians are searching for the proper response to a world that changed in the blink of an eye. There is no doubt that bullying and hatred exist, as there is no doubt those things are contrary to the teachings of Christ. However, for all the talk of tolerance, it is the epitome of ungraciousness to malign others for struggling to discern the appropriate position to adopt in this new reality while balancing the love of Christ with the what they see as clear biblical prohibition.

5 - We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

One of the most conservative and financially successful families I know bought a home in the Dominican Republic. They spend several weeks a year there providing surgical assistance and dental care to the poor for free. Another friend travels every year to Romania to help take care of children in overcrowded orphanages. I know people who have spent time ministering to and loving prisoners in some of the most horrifying prisons on the planet. The list of my wealthy friends that give genuinely admirable amounts of time and money to caring for the poor and oppressed is too long to print and almost all of them did their work in response to a challenge from the local church.

In my ministry career working at a local 501.c.3 and consulting numerous other ministries on their development, I saw firsthand how church giving impacts my home town. There are two North Metro-Atlanta churches that pour millions upon millions of dollars into our community to help the poor and struggling through hundreds of local ministries. They are both routinely criticized as obnoxious mega-churches by people who haven't the slightest clue what they are talking about. These churches help the poor, contribute to clean up efforts, counsel relationships, restore families torn apart by sexual sin through loving care, and support the efforts of thousands of individuals to better our world. These massive organizations challenge their members to get active while offering free classes on how to live more simple lives emphasizing giving and avoiding needless debt.

All that to say, this particular objection addresses a perception and not reality. Are too many Christians materially obsessed and living in accordance with the culture around them? Of course. But at my own church, they do so in spite of the teachings of our pastor and not as a result of them. Prosperity ministries may be easy to find on television, but they aren't the embodiment of the word “church.”

As for the crack about the lattes, we do have a coffee bar at our church. It isn't in place of the Gospel or sound teaching, and if any church out there thinks they can disciple through coffee they are off their rockers. This particular jab does expose an underlying self-centeredness to this article. Why is the church offering lattes? Because they think that will win me over. Really? It couldn't just be that people like lattes and the church thought they might enjoy them? It has to be some false gospel of legal addictive stimulants?

If you think the accusation of self centeredness is a bit overstated I counter that this line provides evidence to support the charge:

...we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”
We all want Jesus. Every generation wants Jesus. The problem, as seen through the eyes of Ms. Evans, is that however much the generation that preceded her wanted Jesus, they just don't have him. He is not there in their worship and churches and as a result her generation must go elsewhere. Poppycock.

In the interest of disclosure, I admit that I once talked something like this. I disliked and distrusted the church and getting me to go at all was a feat. As critical as I am of her points, I absolutely agree with her that we need to sit down and engage the members of our congregations to help them find their place in the body of Christ.

Ms. Evans and her constituency might be surprised at what cured me of my distrust. I got heavily involved in the work of the church. Sundays may often be populated with quasi-Christian tourists, but Monday through Saturday draws some of the finest people of all ages you will ever be blessed to meet.

As I said in the previous post, collaboration is messy. While participating in various projects I have been drawn into silly quarrels, started fights, and been insulted more times than I can remember. I also learned it is difficult to see the person working side by side with you as some out of touch relic of a previous generation. You learn that with age often comes wisdom. People that you would never talk to and that you have little in common with are suddenly revealed as genuine heroes of the faith serving the church with anonymous dignity.

Of course there is a lot wrong in the modern church. There is also a lot right. Despite what Ms. Evans asserts, I see Jesus clearly present in churches all across this nation. The challenge for us all is to roll up our sleeves, get past ourselves, and get focused on the good work of the church. To be able to do things we can't do alone, we need everyone's input on what that good work is.

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