Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Quitting Church without Quitting God

Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It, Julia Duin (Baker Books, 2008)

Reviewed by Derek Melleby

Journalist Julia Duin’s new book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It has much to say to the contemporary church. Duin contends that many faithful, thoughtful followers of Jesus are not finding a home in local congregations. Using a variety of research methods, from Barna and other pollsters to interviews with friends, family, pastors and theologians, Duin tries to make the case that older, mature Christians are finding it difficult to find and commit to a church. According to Duin, today’s churches lack solid, demanding and relevant teaching, true community life, expectations of the Holy Spirit, pastoral visionary leadership, effective outreach to singles and needed adaptations to the 21st Century, especially as it relates to women’s roles. Commenting on the research, she writes, “So it’s official: evangelicals, for a variety of reasons, are heading out of church – not all of them and not everywhere, but the trend is undeniable. Sunday mornings at church have become too banal, boring, or painful. Large groups of Christians are opting out of church because they find it impossible to stay” (p. 21).

Duin does not claim to be a neutral observer and reporter. This is deeply personal. She is a Christian professional who came to faith during the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She was attracted to a powerful faith that brought meaning to every area of her life. She was also influenced by studying at Labri with Francis Schaeffer and longs for the vibrancy that she and her friends experienced during this time period. Much of her critique is valuable and undeniable. Churches should demand more from their congregations; many churches fail to rely on the Holy Spirit; some mega churches seem more interested in growing in numbers rather than depth; and far too many evangelical churches have settled for a lowest common denominator, catering to the desires of a consumerist age. Duin notes that there is a strong movement of house churches that could become the next big movement of God. Participants appreciate the more intimate community support, heart felt times of prayer, meaningful worship experiences and relevant teaching that doesn’t rely on a professional. Even though she doesn’t see much hope for current, established, institutional churches that refuse to change, she does challenge pastors to tackle tough issues and questions that people face. Issues and questions that often go unnoticed as pastors are trying to attract new members.

While there is much about this book that I applaud, there were times when I was frustrated by her simplistic approach. The pastor of the church I attend recently retired. The church had some of its roots in the Jesus movement and he had been the founding and senior pastor for 37 years. The past few weeks the congregation has been celebrating his service and the stories have been inspiring. What I most appreciate about this man is his humility and honesty. Being a pastor is not easy. There are many ups and downs along the way. But I imagine that if you are a pastor for long enough, if you stay put in one place and not follow “promotions,” if you marry and bury people year after year, if you do your best to shepherd sinners, if you offer consistent daily prayers, and if you see people come and go, a book like Duins can be very tiring to read. Her own story is a bit tiring. She has lived a nomadic life. Lacking a commitment to a particular place, being offended by pastors for not taking her seriously, longing for the perfect church, her own apparent restlessness expressed on these pages, at times, distracts from her critique.

My hunch is that mobility has wounded the American church more than any acknowledged sin. It’s easy to become restless. The stories told in Quitting Church are real and will be difficult for many pastors to hear. I admire Duin’s courage to start this needed conversation. Yes, some things desperately need to be done if the church is going to be the church for the sake of the world. But I don’t think the solution will be found in trying to do better. It will be found when we focus less on doing and more on being. Faithfulness over the long haul is not about going from one high to the next, naming and claiming when things were done “right,” but in daily, small steps with Jesus. A mature church in the 21st Century, will be a church full of people that have attended, through thick and thin, for many many years. I’m sure there are droves of people fed up with the church for good reasons. My hope is that they get so mad at the church that they stay put. Declare: “I’m so sick and tired of this church, I’m not leaving. In fact, I’m so frustrated with this town, I’m not moving.” If the Jesus movement of the 1960s was about anything, it was about being counter cultural. What would be more counter-cultural than groups of mature followers of Christ refusing to flee from beat up, watered down churches?

But don’t let my quibble keep you from reading. The overall message of Duin’s book is a good one. Pastors will be challenged by the research. Restless congregants will gain insight and clarity into their own frustrations. And, if nothing else, Quitting Church should spark much needed discussion in churches that care about faithfully serving God and people. We need books like this one to keep us on track, asking the important questions that are often missed. What is the church and why does it matter? Duin keeps these questions on the forefront and it’s obvious that she cares deeply about finding answers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Author Interview: Amy Black Helps Christians Make Sense of American Politics

Click here to learn more about Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (BakerBooks, 2008)

Amy E. Black (AB) is associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College.

CPYU: The title of your book is intriguing. Why did you think this book needed to be written?

AB: I wanted to write the book to help the educated Christian who has an interest in government and politics but doesn’t necessarily remember everything from high school or college civics class. I remind readers of the basics of how our system works and then I give them tools to help them apply their faith to politics.

The tone was very important to me – instead of talking about lots of policy issues from a particular vantage point so that the reader concludes that good Christians must be Democrats or must be Republicans, my goal is to help the reader figure out for him or herself how God is leading them.

To a large extent, the book reflects what I try to do in the classroom. I want to encourage my students to think for themselves and make their own decisions, but I also want to make certain points without making them feel pressured. In the same way, I want to help my readers understand faith and politics more clearly but also make up their own minds on divisive and controversial issues.

CPYU: How did you develop a passion for the intersection of faith and politics?

AB: My interest in the subject began from many, many discussions of current events at the dinner table and in my daily family life. Once I arrived at college, I discovered a love for the academic study of political science and decided to make it a career. As a Christian believer, it seems natural to want to find points of intersection between my faith and the subject I study and teach.

CPYU: Over the years that you have been teaching, what shifts have you noticed in the way young people of faith have engaged politics?

AB: The most significant trend I have noticed is the growing diversity of opinions and concerns of young people of faith. Instead of focusing narrowly on one or two issues, they are thinking about how their faith affects their views on a much wider range of political concerns from the environment to foreign policy to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is good to see the conversation broadening and widening as more young people seem engaged in politics and seek to bring their faith to bear on so many different and important problems.

CPYU: As you think about how young Christians are getting involved in politics today, what are some things that excite you and what are some things that concern you?

AB: I am always excited by the enthusiasm that young adults bring to life in general and politics in particular. I spent part of my office hours last week talking with a Wheaton student who is now old enough to vote for the first time. She wanted advice to help her bring her faith to bear in politics, and had many tough and insightful questions. This kind of dialogue is very exciting. On the other hand, youthful enthusiasm can be quite problematic if not tempered by reason and knowledge. Too many young people like to follow prevailing trends without careful consideration first. My hope is that we can channel the positive energy into deeper thinking.

CPYU: What advice would you give to parents and youth workers who want to engage teenagers in conversations about politics this election season?

AB: Ask questions. Confront doubts. If a claim seems either too good to be true or too awful to be true, it probably is. So do your own research. Far too much political discussion today relies on semi-truths and caricatures, and Christians are at least as guilty of spreading misinformation as anyone else.

I frame my book with reminders from Scripture that I think are important reminders for anyone wanting to engage in conversations about politics. I take my readers to my favorite “political” text in the Bible, I Corinthians 13. This chapter is a beautiful and challenging picture of God’s unconditional love, and I want my readers to apply Paul’s exhortations to their political interactions. If we truly seek to interact with others in love, we can’t apply stereotypes or demonize others. Paul’s words remind us that we won’t know everything perfectly clearly this side of heaven; if we keep in mind that we only see “through a mirror dimly,” we are much more likely to approach politics, and everything else, with humility.

I also point to the first three commandments. In the heat of political debate, it is easy to forget that we first and foremost have to serve God and honor him. In the process of trying to achieve a political victory, we can get our priorities completely out of order and forget that we are fist and foremost ambassadors for Christ.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Youth Workers... Read this New Book by David Wells, The Courage To Be Protestant!

The Courage To Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, David Wells (Eerdmans, 2008)

Reviewed by Walt Mueller

Over the years I’ve made a mental list of the books youth workers should read, but most likely never will. If you’re like most youth workers, your reading time is spent consuming books that deal with your craft (I thought you’d like to think of yourself as performing a craft!), or books that have gained popularity and momentum among your peers and that effective communication tool known as “the youth ministry grapevine.” Okay, so you do read other stuff. But it’s highly likely that most of books you’ve read fall into one of these two other categories. Because I spent a large portion of my life reading that way, I’ve consciously tried to expand my horizons, especially looking to read books that will stretch me out of the comfort zone where I tend to live. I want to encourage you to do the same.

Over the course of the last ten years I’ve spent a good deal of time immersed in a series of these most-likely-never-read books from a most-likely-never-heard-of author, David Wells (at least I think he’s largely unknown in our youth ministry circles). Wells is a brilliant theologian who thinks and writes from the perspective of a wonderfully responsible combination of theology, history, sociology, anthropology, ethnology, and some “ology’s” I’m not even aware of! All that to say, Wells offers a well-reasoned, highly informed, and intensely challenging perspective on things that will either 1) tick most youth workers off, or 2) leave youth workers rattled (in a good way) and saying, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.” And from where I sit as a youth ministry vet and culture-watcher, we need to be challenged.

I first met Wells when I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary back in the 1980s. My appreciation for the man and his critique of who we are as the American church has steadily grown ever since. Now he’s written and released a book all youth workers should read. His latest, The Courage To Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, will rock you to the core. I was reading the book on a flight a couple of weeks ago. A South American gentleman sitting across the aisle saw the title and asked me what the book was about. I assumed he was being a defensive Catholic. My questioning revealed that he was. I assured him that Wells hadn’t written an anti-Catholic tome. Rather, Wells critique targets you and me and our understanding of what it means to follow and worship Christ as evangelicals in the 21st century. Wells doesn’t hold back in his examination of the seeker-sensitive movement, and the response of emergents to a seeker-sensitive movement that left a horrible taste in their mouths.

I’ve learned that every now and then we need to pause, look in the mirror, and evaluate who we are, how we got here, and if this is really the place God wants us to be. The Courage To Be Protestant will put you right in front of the mirror. Wells is a deep thinker. Still the book is accessible. Be ready, however, to bite off small chunks that will take some time to digest. But by all means, think, think, think about Wells’ critique. Don’t be defensive. Instead, continually ask yourself if what Wells writes is true and then ponder what you’re going to do about it.

Related Links:
Learn more about David Wells

Other titles by David Wells in this series

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Resource of the Month: The NEW 3(D) Guide

The recently redesigned and updated How to Use Your Head to Guard Your Heart: A 3(D) Guide to Making Responsible Media Choices is a unique and easy-to-use tool that is designed to be employed by parents, youth workers, Christian School teachers, and other adults to help you stay informed as to the media students are consuming, while helping those students become more media literate.

The 3(D) Guide allows you to teach your students how to move from being “mindless consumers” of media, to an approach of “mindful critique” as they learn how to filter all media through the lens of a Christian worldview. Because teenagers are at a developmental stage where intellectual and cognitive abilities are taking shape, the 3(D) Guide is a tool that allows adults to walk alongside students as they begin to develop the ability to think for themselves. While many of us mistakenly continue to “think for” students as they pass through the teenage years on the road to adulthood, the 3(D) Guide enables you to “think with” students about their media so that they will be equipped to launch into adulthood with the ability to “think for themselves” about media in faithful, obedient, and God-honoring ways.

Click here to purchase

Click here to download the FREE Leader's Guide

Click here to see sample 3(D) reviews of music, videos, movies, TV shows, video games and more!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Author Interview: J. Mark Bertrand on (Re)thinking Worldview

Click here to learn more about (Re)Thinking Worldview.

Note: A review of Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Crossway, 2007) is featured in the fall edition of Engage: The Journal of Youth Culture from CPYU downloadable for FREE.

J. Mark Bertrand (JMB) is on the faculty of Worldview Academy, an academic summer camp for high school students, and is the fiction editor at Relief Journal.

CPYU: What motivated you to write this book? Or perhaps better, why did you think that worldview needed to be rethought?

JMB: It dawned on me that everyone in the church was talking about worldviews, and at the same time most of them really weren’t. What I mean is, the rhetoric had been adopted while the reality had not. When I was first introduced to the worldview concept—the idea that we build perceptual frameworks that then influence our interpretation of new information—the potential for theology and apologetics seemed explosive. Today, though, there are all these burning fuses and nothing’s blowing up.

The problem? For one thing, the worldview concept was too watered down. When an idea is popularized, it is often streamlined. That means the ambiguities and nuances are stripped away. To take a philosophical concept and make it applicable in a Sunday School setting, a certain amount of streamlining is necessary. But if you go too far, you’re left with a caricature. Where the worldview concept is concerned, I think that’s often all we’re communicating: a parody of the original insight. As a result, it’s lost its power. Worldview thinking should shake things up. All too often, though, you embark on a promising journey only to end up at some predictable, predetermined destination—a place you could have reached without any help from “the biblical worldview.”

Because it was so watered down, and the results so accommodated to the wisdom of our age, I thought it was time to rethink worldview. The alternative would be to abandon the concept, and that would be a tragedy.

CPYU: You suggest that the term worldview has been used wrongly, especially by people interested in the “culture-wars.” What are a few practical examples of how the term is misused?

JMB: Politics is a great example. One of the staples of evangelical worldview discourse has been the articulation of “the biblical perspective” on a variety of policy issues. That sounds promising. It sounds more than promising. But then you get to the conclusion, and it turns out that God’s position corresponds perfectly to one side or the other of the current debate. Politically conservative Christians discover that God is a free market capitalist who likes small government and minimal spending on social programs, while progressive Christians discover just the opposite. Remember the petition a few years ago declaring that God was neither a Republican nor a Democrat? The title sounded good, but the details made him sound like a pretty committed progressive, albeit with pro-life scruples. Conclusions this predictable tend to devalue the process by which they were reached.

For another example, read the letters section of World Magazine, which seeks to cover news and culture from a Christian perspective. It seems like every issue includes an angry letter from a shocked reader complaining that an R-rated movie was reviewed. (Not that it was reviewed positively, but that it was reviewed at all.) Worldview thinking ought to produce cultural engagement, but all too often we’re faced with people who talk the talk of engagement but walk the walk of isolation. One of the things that makes the “culture wars” interminable is that they’re mainly being fought by people content to fire blindly over the barricade, without first identifying their targets (or even checking whether they’re friend or foe).

CPYU: Many of our readers are parents and youth pastors working with teens. Why do you think teaching teens about a Christian worldview is important?

JMB: Because you can’t give them all the answers or keep them from hearing other arguments. Worldview thinking inoculates teens against the either/or dilemma they might otherwise face when someone smarter than their parents or pastors, someone with impressive credentials and a persuasive case, insists that everything they learned at home and in church was a lie. The greatest fear Christian parents often have is that their children will reject the faith. Instead of acting from a place of fear and sequestering them, worldview thinking instills in teens a confidence in the truth that actually prepares them for encountering opposition.

Let’s face it. Sheltered teens become adept at compartmentalization. They aren’t as ignorant of the surrounding culture as we believe—they just dissemble their knowledge when playing the pious role. They learn how to say the right things to please authority figures. But when those figures change, they’re equally skilled at saying the right things (or at least, not saying the wrong ones).

When you cultivate a habit of worldview thinking in teens, though, it tends to tear down the compartments. Every aspect of life is scrutinized, emphasizing the importance of biblical thinking and practice across the board. I’m not saying that sheltered teens always go astray and worldview thinkers always hold firm to the truth, but in my experience, the person with a worldview orientation fares better than the one without. The fact that worldview talk is so popular in student education is a reflection of this. What I want to do is put some punch back into the talk.

CPYU: What are some of the toughest challenges that you have faced when teaching teenagers today? Have you noticed any changes since you started teaching teens?

JMB: I don’t talk to teens any differently than I would an adult audience. I made a decision when I started that I’d never talk down to my students. I’d let the hard questions stay hard—in fact, I’d make them harder if need be. It seems to have worked. Teens are much more sophisticated than they are experienced. Before they’ll listen to your experience, they have to believe in your sophistication. You have to prove it isn’t ignorance that motivates you, but knowledge.

The most challenging aspect of teens is what they have in common with the rest of us. As comfortable middle-class North Americans, we enter a classroom expecting to be pandered to. We look at knowledge the way a consumer views a product. We expect to be entertained, emotionally engaged, and ultimately affirmed in their starting assumptions.

Since we all grew up watching television instead of reading and talking about books, many the discursive skills that go hand in hand with literacy are on the wane. Teens might actually have it a little better than their parents, since the Internet has at least fostered an abridged form of literacy, but being able to read a passage and immediately get the gist of it seems to be a specialized skill these days, which is troubling in a text-oriented community like the church.

CPYU: As you work with teenagers and see them off to college, what do you think are some of the key things that churches should be doing to prepare them for life after high school?

JMB: The overall message we send teenagers is how important it is to make the right decisions in your personal life: keep your faith, find the right spouse, get qualified for a good profession. Responsible decisions, by and large, are safe decisions. But what would happen if the focus shifted from making a success of yourself to making a contribution to the world around you? If we raise young people to pursue their own happiness, they will never find it. If we raise them to be selfless, they might find much more.

Along these lines, I think it’s important to stay true to the old liberal arts idea that education is its own reward, and instead of giving students crib notes to guide them on life’s most important decisions, we should instill wisdom so they can actually make sound decisions all on their own.

How can the church help this process? By not letting the quest for a biblical worldview end as a doctrinal abstraction. By letting the faith be as big and intractable and mysterious as it really is, and instilling a total reliance on Christ. Also, instead of having expectations about what young people will do when they go out into the world, we can start having expectations about how they will do it—and for whom. This is where a dogged and determined pursuit of a biblical worldview really pays off. The worldview nurtures a life of wisdom and that life expresses its highest urges in contributing truth and beauty to the surrounding culture.

Related Links:
Rethinking Worldview website

J. Mark Bertrands' blog

Review of Rethinking Worldview on p. 17 of Engage: The Journal of Youth Culture from CPYU

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Creating Culture

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

Reviewed by Walt Mueller

(Note: Portions of the following review appeared in the fall edition of Engage: The Journal of Youth Culture from CPYU, currently downloadable for FREE!)

For too long Christians have not understood nor have they assumed their place in God’s world. The debates over how to relate to culture have put us everywhere on the spectrum between the extremes of fearful retreat and mindless accommodation. Here at CPYU we are committed to and promote what we believe to be a Biblical approach to matters of faith and culture, understanding that the will of the Father is for His followers to be in but not of the world. Culture is a fallen mix of elements, some which our faith requires us to challenge, and some which our faith requires us to affirm. At all times, we must be about the business of engaging the world with the Gospel.

Inherent in this understanding - but not always communicated with great clarity - is the reality of the imago dei – or image of God – that is a foundational part of our created makeup and which has deep ramifications for how we live as God-imaging creators in God’s world. In his new book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch lays out a reminder - and for many - a new understanding of this timeless truth, specifically that all Christians are called to be culture makers. Believing that culture is “what we make of the world,” Crouch calls readers to celebrate their creativity and live the Kingdom of God by approaching everything from the making of a sculpture to the making of a western omelet as calling and doxology.

I’m a long-time fan of Andy Crouch and his writing. However, I’ve never met Andy. Perhaps that’s why I was a bit uneasy as I read through the first half of the book. Discussions with other readers of Culture Making indicated that they sensed some of the things I was sensing in the first half of the book. First, Crouch seems to indicate that those who talk about engaging the culture (that’s us/me... so maybe, I thought, I was just being a bit defensive) don’t go far enough or fully understand a more complete calling to create culture. That bothered me somewhat as I know that for me and many others, creating culture and engaging culture are two sides of the same coin. And second, I sensed what might be construed by some as an arrogant tone on Andy's part. I say this cautiously as I’m convinced that Andy is not that kind of person. Still, as I read I wondered if he believed he was telling all readers some things that none of them had ever heard or embraced before. That’s not, however, the way it is in the circles I’ve run in for thirty-some years. All that said, the book turned the corner on both of my concerns as it moved into its second half. All in all, this is a good book.

Culture Making is significant for a variety of audiences. For the typical Christian reader, the book will most likely rattle your previously held theological assumptions. This is something that has to happen if the church is to be the church and the Christian is to find his or her place in God’s world. For the youth worker and parent, the book will offer a framework that can and should shape the way you nurture kids, preparing them for a life of service to God and His Kingdom that will truly reflect their created purpose as human beings made to make.

Related Links:
Culture Making website

Review by Gideon Strauss in Books & Culture

Review by David John Seel Jr. at Ransom Fellowship

FREE fall edition of Engage: Journal of Youth Culture from CPYU