Posts tagged church

“To be hip or not to be hip?”

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In many ways, this is the church’s perennial question: Just how much like the culture should we be?

Why be like the surrounding culture to begin with?  One reason, of course, is to help contextualize the gospel in a way that makes sense to other people.  While historically many Western Christian missionaries imposed their culture on others, today many missionary training programs emphasize the importance of “incarnational ministry,” in which the missionaries themselves change many of their cultural practices and live among the people they’re working with as friends rather than outsiders.  The idea of incarnational ministry stems from the belief that we, like Jesus, should become more like “the other” and go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us and become like us.  When we do ministry incarnationally, there is a value placed on the host culture and an assumption that the Christianity that arises in that place will keep its original cultural flavor.

All of this, of course, assumes that various cultures bring unique beauty and insight into the larger body of Christ.  Our cultures reflect God’s image in a special way, highlighting specific aspects of God’s character and particular values of God’s kingdom.  But every culture also has its blind spots.  As people convert to Christianity from any culture background, they become aware of not only their cultures’ blessings but also their cultures’ incompatibilities with the gospel.  A culture might highly value communal life, a value that contributes positively to the church and jives well with Christian theology; however, the same culture might need to rethink its approach to social hierarchies—just one example.

Of course, we aren’t always aware of the pros and cons of our cultures, especially those of us who live most of our lives in a more isolated cultural context, whether as part of a cultural majority or a more insulated cultural minority.  Without any comparisons, it can become difficult to see our cultures for what they are—both good and bad.  This leads me to the second reason churches might be like the surrounding culture: mere cultural absorption.  Churches often take it for granted that the surrounding culture’s way of doing things is the “normal” or best way, usually without even realizing it.  For as much as some Christians criticize aspects of our culture (e.g., promiscuity, violent movies, racism, etc.), many can’t even grasp how deeply other aspects of the same culture have hold of them.

I was particularly reminded of this through a couple of recent articles from the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today about the bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral, a megachurch in Orange County, California.  I haven’t been to the Crystal Cathedral myself, but living in L.A. county, it is just south of me, and I hear about it here and there.  Basically, they have an extravagant building and extravagant Christmas pageants and other such things, and they’ve finally run out of money.

There may be multiple reasons for the financial difficulties, but I blame a great part of it on a lack of consideration of the cultural blind spots they’ve inherited.  Majority American culture loves to spend, loves everything “bigger and better,” loves flashy entertainment.  We also aren’t particularly good at caring for the poor with the money we’d rather be spending on ourselves (individually, as families, or even as churches).  I find these aspects of our culture to be harmful and not particularly Christian, but they often just come with being American.

We live in our very commercialized, market-driven culture, which affects how we think we should do church.  Perhaps we’re trying to be “hip” by being like the culture, or perhaps we’re completely unaware of the culture at all.  Either way, it’s easy to forget to think critically about our cultural baggage and to be discerning about what level of cultural accommodation can mesh well with our Christian faith.  I don’t think we all need to be Amish, but maybe using corporate America or suburban values as our guide isn’t the best idea either.

Regardless of your thoughts on the Crystal Cathedral, most of us can probably agree on one thing:  Sifting the good from the bad in our cultures is a challenging task.  I think the church has always struggled, to some extent, to culturally contextualize itself, but it has struggled at least as much (maybe more) with being properly countercultural.   It’s not an easy balance to strike, and it often requires dialogue with someone from outside our culture to help us really see the ways in which that culture holds us back from following Christ—as well how our culture itself can bring glory to God.

You Tell Me: Doubts

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One of the things I’m doing right now is a family studies degree, and one of the things I’ve doing for this degree is a thesis.  My thesis will be based on some data other researchers have already collected, and the data just so happens to be based on surveys of youth group kids as they transitioned to college.  (Obviously, this is totally up my alley!  It’s been a while since I’ve gotten quite this drooly over something for school.)  I’m fascinated by every last ounce of it, but one of the things I’m finding particularly interesting are survey questions relating to doubt.

Some of the things I’m asking right now:

  • Do more spiritual conversations with parents mean fewer doubts?
  • Does perceived parental hypocrisy increase doubt?
  • Do closer relationships with youth leaders or other adults in high school mean fewer doubts in college?
  • Do feelings of social isolation lead to increased doubt?
  • Do gender, high school GPA, level of interest in the intellectual side of college, or parents’ education affect doubt level?

And lots more…  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet gotten to examine all the relationship between various survey question responses.  In the meantime, though, I’m curious to hear from you, whoever you are.  Some of you are high school students, some are college students, some are friends or relatives of mine in their 20s or 50s or 70s who are faithful visitors to my blog.  I’d love to hear about your experiences with doubt throughout your lifetime, but especially when you were in middle school, high school, or college.

What sorts of spiritual or theological questions have you had?  How difficult were they for you to handle?  Who could you turn to?  How did you resolve them (or become comfortable with your level of uncertainty)?

Do you feel that your relationship with your parents, other adults, or peers affected the way you were able to handle the doubts you had?  Did negative relationships with any of these groups actually lead to any of your doubts or questions?

Did you feel others around you had similar doubts and questions?  Did they have a similar level of engagement with their faith, intellectually or emotionally?  Did you ever feel burdened by extra doubts because of your general intelligence, curiosity, or unwillingness to let cheap answers slide?

I’m fascinated to hear your story.

Jesus was Jewish

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It’s in the title, but I’ll say it again:  Jesus was Jewish.

For those of you who have grown up in church, I’m not sure if this has been emphasized, but it sure wasn’t for me.  I don’t think I ever heard anyone seriously talk about Jesus as a first-century Jew until I got to college.  Jesus was always a nice guy, a prophet, maybe even God incarnate… but Jewish?  Not in my church, at least.

If you grew up with a Bible storybook, you probably remember Swedish Jesus.  I’m not sure why anyone would ever think Jesus had blue eyes, but apparently many American illustrators have been convinced.  And if Jesus wasn’t Swedish, he still wasn’t Jewish.  Though Sunday School portrayals of Jesus probably reflected more of my white American culture than I knew, Jesus was, in theory, supposed to be somehow removed from the messiness of life.  He probably didn’t throw up, definitely didn’t poop, and was also very “cultural neutral.”  Otherwise how could Jesus be relevant to our Gentile lives?  To China and Guatemala and South Africa and 98% of my elementary school?

I’ll save questions of relevance for another day and focus on the simple fact that this isn’t true:  We were wrong.

Jesus wasn’t a person devoid of everything that makes humans human.  Even if it’s hard to believe, he not only threw up and pooped, but he had to learn to walk as a baby, he  probably had a favorite food, and he enjoyed laughing with his friends.  And he lived at a specific time in a specific place.  In fact, Jesus lived as part of a specific people, speaking their language, keeping their customs, and otherwise surprising us by how very little he is like most of those who follow him today.  But even in his difference, he was like us—like us, Jesus had a culture.

So the next time you think of Jesus, remember that he kept the Sabbath (albeit, not always how the Pharisees preferred), ate kosher, and went to synagogue.  He was circumcised as a baby, visited the temple with his family for holy days, and grew up hearing stories about Abraham, Moses, and David.  He referred to Jewish texts in his teaching and declared the arrival of the kingdom of the Jewish God YHWH, eventually convincing his followers that he was the Jewish Messiah (for which the Greek translation is “Christ”).

While I will never be able to fully understand first-century Judaism, the bit I have been able to learn as a 21st-century white American Gentile (relying on the scholarship of others, I might add), has been very meaningful to me.  As I get to know Jesus’s culture better, I can better understand Jesus himself and better understand the message he was trying to communicate to his friends.  The story may be good by itself, but it all makes more sense—and feels more colorful and textured and delightfully complex—when we begin to understand where Jesus fits in context.

Review: Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches

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Review of Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches.  Edited By Ronald H. Nash.  Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1987.  174 pp.

One of the most interesting complexities of the evangelical movement is that it cannot be contained—little bits of it are present everywhere. Of course, many evangelicals in the U.S. are members of conservative denominations which originated in this country, many having separated from older mainline churches which were deemed “too liberal.”  I’ve often been intrigued that the conservative split-offs typically see themselves as the only people left who love Jesus.  Based on my own personal experience, I have never been convinced this was true, and lucky for me, Ronald Nash agrees and has edited a fabulous book on the topic.

Nash notes that many in mainline denominations have evangelical-ish beliefs (which he defines as the basic beliefs of historic Christianity, including the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the importance of a personal faith, etc.) whether or not they have embraced the evangelical label.  Furthermore, there are discernible movements of self-identified evangelicals within mainline churches.  This book attempts to tell their stories, with chapters by various evangelical leaders outlining the history of renewal efforts within eight different traditions:

The United Methodist Church
The Episcopal Church
The Lutheran Churches (focused on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA)
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Disciples of Christ
The United Church of Christ
The U.S. Catholic Church

The upside of this book is its ecumenical flavor and its sense of hope about the vitality of mainline denominations.  These leaders are not ones to segregate themselves from those who aren’t like them; instead they want to “work within the system” to encourage an orthodox and vibrant faith within their churches.  The downside of this book is that occasionally a more narrow understanding of evangelical interests is presented.  For example, feminism is often lumped in with evangelicalism’s foes, despite the fact that there are many self-identified evangelical feminists.  While not by any means the focus of the book, such assumptions about evangelicals might be distracting or frustrating to some readers.

Additionally, some might complain that the book is outdated.  Certain important renewal organizations that now exist are not mentioned, and one wonders what each writer’s attitude toward renewal would be today.  Would they be just as optimistic?  Would they have any new concerns?  At the same time, because of its emphasis on the history of renewal efforts, this book offers something substantial that one might not gain from updated accounts focusing on the last twenty years.

All in all, Evangelical Renewal offers a valuable introduction to evangelical strands within mainline denominations, and as such, it is useful reading for evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.  For evangelicals, it offers encouragement and a sense of connection with various renewal efforts, hopefully leading to a more gracious partnership between Christians from diverse backgrounds.  For non-evangelical members of mainline churches, this book provides insight into the concerns of evangelical renewal advocates.  Perhaps non-evangelicals can relate to some of these concerns more than they expected, or perhaps they realize they very thoroughly disagree with them.  Either way, it is always useful to understand those unlike you, making this book a tool for reaching across divides.

What is theology?

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When I was in high school, I wasn’t exposed to much discussion of theology. While I knew theology played an important role in certain events in history (e.g., the Reformation), the only significance of theology in my church experience was defining who was “in” and who was “out.” Any mention of theology focused on a narrow set of topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the pervasiveness of sin, and the importance of salvation by grace through faith and was used exclusively to determine who should be considered a “real Christian.” Of course, theology can be quite useful when it comes to putting boundaries around a group identity, but it is really about much more. In fact, I’ve come to think that theology should stretch to be about as big as God himself.

Michael Pahl, in his new book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2010), defines theology this way (117):

theology, theological. From Greek theos, “God,” and logia, “rational discourse.” The doctrine of or teaching about the nature, person, and work of God or more generally about the totality of one’s religious beliefs; or, the discipline which studies God and/or religious beliefs.

Theology, then, is primarily about who God is and what God’s doing, but it is also about how our religious beliefs extend beyond God to other important areas of life.

I’ve come to see the proper realm of theology as anything which God might care about—if God’s personhood or work in the world touch it in any way, then it is an area deserving theological study and reflection.  The resurrection of Jesus, prayer, and the Bible might be some obvious topics, but some areas deserving our attention might initially appear entirely secular.  Can we discuss topics like poverty, music, the environment, literature, day care, vacations, or McDonald’s from a theological perspective?  I believe that we can.

Of course few academic theologians have spent much time on day care.  (But that doesn’t mean that none have or that more shouldn’t!)  What does academic theology typically cover?  It depends on the sort of theology.  Here are a few central areas of study:

Systematic theology tries to look at biblical teaching and Christian tradition as a whole and develop theology in a more organized (usually topical) fashion, often drawing heavily from philosophy.  It is sometimes called constructive theology, especially by those who feel traditional systematic theology has often forced theologians to try make theology less messy and complex for the sake of coherence.

Historical theology considers theology over time, with special attention to how Christian teaching has developed in various settings and how these theological developments have influenced the direction of the church.

Biblical theology explores the theology of specific biblical texts (the theology of Israel over time, the theology of Mark, the theology of Paul, etc.) without trying to harmonize the diverse emphases of their authors.

Practical theology focuses on the theology of church ministry (liturgy, pastoral care, evangelism, etc.).

I consider academic theology to be full of important information and tools for the church, making the study of theology through formal coursework, reading, and research quite valuable.  At the same time, just because pastors and professors with seminary degrees may have greater access to certain resources doesn’t mean that regular people shouldn’t be doing theology, too.

In fact, anyone with any thoughts on God whatsoever is, in a sense, doing theology.  While not everyone is called to academia, the whole church is called to the task of better understanding God and sharing him with others, making it important that all Christian communities aim to be gatherings of thoughtful theologians.

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