Future of the Church

 

Apr

02

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

The Fault Lines Before the Evangelical Earthquake

SAF-e1346289593322The recent controversy surrounding World Vision USA’s decision to open employment to same-sex couples and the organization’s subsequent reversal reveals the fault lines in evangelicalism today.

For the evangelicals distraught by World Vision’s initial decision, the controversy was never about the legitimacy or worthiness of people with differing views of marriage doing good work around the world. We should applaud good deeds of relief and compassion wherever we see them and wherever they come from. No, this particular controversy was about the meaning of evangelical.

Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical? Related to this discussion are questions about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, cultural engagement, and institutional power. All sides of the debate recognize that the definition of evangelical is at stake, which is why some are now publicly casting off the term altogether.

The World Vision decision was a tremor that warns us of a coming earthquake in which churches and leaders historically identified with evangelicalism will divide along all-too-familiar fault lines.

Here are the three camps I see right now:

Revisionists 

“The Church’s interpretation of Scripture and our consensus on Christian sexual ethics have been wrong and unjust. Just as we made adjustments in our treatment of women or in our position on slavery, Christians must be willing to revise our beliefs in light of ongoing Scriptural reflection and personal experience. Faithful Christians can and must celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships; otherwise, Christianity will lose its influence in the culture and bring disgrace to Jesus.”

Moderates 

“One’s position on homosexuality or gay marriage is not an essential point of theology. There are faithful Christians who disagree on these matters, just as faithful Christians disagree on baptism, the Holy Spirit, church structure, etc. The gospel is not at stake in whichever position you take. What is at stake is our unity before the world and how we love each other. We can agree to disagree on these issues and still partner in missions and relief work.”

Evangelicals

“The Bible is clear in its teaching that (1) homosexuals are created in the image of God and have innate worth and value and (2) homosexual practice is condemned as sin, one of many sins from which humanity needs deliverance. Marriage is between one man and one woman. Any other arrangement is not marriage at all, but a distortion of one of Scripture’s most beautiful pictures of the gospel. To abandon Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic is to bow before the prevailing idol of our time and dismiss the authority of Scripture.”

Other Issues 

Same-sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are a number of issues related to traditional Christian belief and practice. The same fault lines find people divided over issues such as the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, the reality of hell, and the nature of truth.

Sometimes I wonder if we are watching a replay of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that took place a century ago. Last time, the revisionists wanted to hold on to the essence of Christian morality while minimizing the cultural embarrassment of the Bible’s miracles. The moderates believed they could be personally conservative and yet forge a middle way and partner with people on both sides. The fundamentalists separated and withdrew from Protestant denominations, paving the way for neo-evangelicalism to rise in the middle of the 20th century. This century, the revisionists want to hold on to the essence of Christian miracles while minimizing the cultural embarrassment of the Bible’s morality.

What’s Next

Learning from history, what will be next for each of these groups?

The Revisionists will continue to shrink and lose influence over time. There are three reasons why.

1. The converts to revisionism are typically disaffected evangelical churchgoers who find cultural accommodation appealing, not lost people finding salvation through Christ. Because of this pattern, it will be challenging to sustain consistent growth over time.

2. Those who revise Christianity’s sexual ethics are often the same people who deny that Jesus is the only way to God, that there is a hell, that the Bible is fully inspired and trustworthy, etc. A liberal doctrine is never an only child.

3. Revisionists are culturally captive to the demands of a shrinking subset of affluent, Western churches. Though global evangelicalism is much more united on the authority of Scripture and the distinctiveness of Christianity’s sexual ethic, revisionists lecture global churches on why they should adopt the same beliefs and practices that emptied their own.

The Moderates hold to an unsustainable position. They uphold a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics, and yet they downplay the significance of these issues by taking the “agree to disagree” posture or a quiet agnosticism (“since people disagree on this, who can really know?”). I sympathize with those who feel like the culture has thrust upon us an issue we didn’t ask for and those who are weary of the constant cultural clashes between evangelicals and revisionists. That said, this category will shrink the fastest. The revisionists will challenge moderates to stop linking arms with people who affirm traditional marriage because they are “hateful” and “bigoted.” The evangelicals will challenge moderates to recognize the underlying authority of Scripture issues that accompany this debate. Moderates today will be forced to choose sides tomorrow. Those who remain on the fence will see their children, or the next generation, move steadily into the revisionist camp in response to increasing cultural pressure. “If marriage isn’t a big deal, Mom, then why are we holding the line on this?”

Among Evangelicals we can see two subsets:

  • Combative
    Some evangelicals speak to the issue of homosexuality in ways that are needlessly inflammatory. They look primarily to political action as the strategy for bringing culture change in these areas and overlook the flesh-and-blood people in their congregations who are struggling with this sin. The combatives are the minority, but they routinely make headlines.
  • Conciliatory
    Other evangelicals speak to this issue more pastorally, not shying away from Christianity’s distinctiveness but utilizing a tone that takes into consideration the common sinfulness and brokenness of all humanity. They are often publicly silent on the issue because of their desire to not be lumped in with their combative counterparts.

It is possible that evangelicals could repeat the mistake of last century’s fundamentalists by choosing to withdraw from societal and cultural engagement in order to preserve purity of identity. The result would be the inevitable downplaying of the public implications of the gospel we preach. Our kids will then be the ones with the “uneasy conscience” of last century’s Carl Henry, urging us out of our ghettos and back into the public square.

Another possibility would be that this issue paralyzes the church, leaving people to fear cultural backlash to the point we are silent in our witness.

There is also a third way: as society’s marriage culture crumbles further, we witness to the world, not only in our stated positions but also in our families to the beauty of God’s original design.

Loving People, Not Positions

Twenty years ago, the pro-life movement was derided for caring only about babies and not about women in distress. Since the rise of crisis pregnancy centers, few say such things anymore, and when they do, the slander doesn’t stick. It’s clear that evangelical opposition to abortion is coupled with acts of love and compassion toward women facing an awful choice.

Today, evangelicals are derided for caring more about marriage laws than gay and lesbian people. There’s a kernel of truth in this assertion. Too often, we’ve turned people into positions that volley back and forth as a political football – even sometimes trying to protect our rights so much that we fail to call out true discrimination when we should. We can do better. Indeed, we must not only do better, but be better.

What can evangelicals do to show that our belief in the sanctity of true marriage is just as uncompromising and unwavering as our love for gay and lesbian people created in the image of God? How can we be simultaneously committed to upholding biblical marriage and loving our gay and lesbian neighbors? I don’t know all the answers to that question. Nor am I sure of the best way forward, but I do know that we stand in a long line of Christians who often stood against the world for the good of the world. May it be said of us that our opposition to certain cultural developments is always motivated for the good of the world we’ve been called to reach.

 
 

Apr

01

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

“God’s Like That” – What My Kids Got From Studying Hosea

mzl.nmwxxnviSome Bible stories seem ready-made for kids:

  • Jonah and the big fish.
  • Daniel in the lion’s den.
  • David and Goliath.

These stories are epic. They’re memorable. The truths translate well to kids.

But what about stories about Achan’s sin, or David’s fall, or strangely-named prophets like Hosea?

When The Gospel Project for Kids team decided to take kids on a chronological journey through the Bible, the team didn’t skip the Minor Prophets. This decision created some headaches for the team, mainly because other children’s Bibles or curriculum generally pass over these stories. There was little help in seeing how other people had handled some of the more obscure Old Testament prophets.

Then there’s the question of suitability. Hosea is a weird story, even for adults. God tells a prophet to marry a prostitute, give their children horrible names, and then go back and purchase his wife after she is unfaithful.

How in the world can we teach our kids the story of Hosea?

I was curious to see how the session would go in our own church. At lunch afterwards, I asked our nine-year-old son to tell us what The Gospel Project was about that morning. (See the video treatment of the story below.) Timothy recounted the story of Hosea marrying a woman who didn’t love him and kept running away. “But Hosea just kept going after her,” he said. “He even paid a price to get her back.” Then, he paused: “God’s like that.”

I could have leaped for joy.

That’s what I want my kids to hear in church. Not to focus only on the sensational miracles or the details of the Bible’s stranger stories, but to get the point and recognize what the Bible is telling us about God – who He is and what He is like.

My son wasn’t the only one who got the story. A pastor from Maryland posted this to my FaceBook page:

“There was a very cool moment when [one of our students] had an “aha” moment. He said something along the lines of – ‘Oh, I get it now, I finally get what my mom and dad mean when they say that Jesus paid the price for us on the cross. It’s like how Hosea paid to get Gomer back. And I think Jesus felt sad on the cross the way that Hosea felt about what Gomer was doing to him.’ His eyes lit up and he just kept saying how he got it now, he understands. “

Recently, I was working through Hosea again for a future Gospel Project session for Adults, and once again I discovered how this book wrecks my soul. The vision of God as the spurned Lover, the great and glorious Husband who pursues His bride and willingly pays the price to win her back… it is such a breathtaking picture of God’s great love.

How could we not teach our kids Hosea?

You can preview a full month of The Gospel Project for kids, students, and adults by signing up here.

 
 

Mar

10

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

When Things Get Complicated, Remember the Basics

babelWe’re Christians on the track, running the race with a great cloud of witnesses in the stands, saints of old who are cheering us on. But there’s a fog hanging over the section of the track in front of us. We’ve not been here.

This is the situation we find ourselves in.

Technological advances and moral decay have accelerated, perhaps feeding off one another, with the ground shifting so rapidly under our feet that we’re not always sure what to do or where to go.

The ethical dilemmas we are facing would boggle the mind of my great grandparents.

  • A woman in your congregation considers it her full-time job to be a surrogate mother for women who cannot conceive. I don’t understand. Isn’t motherhood defined by carrying a child? How can one mother host another mother’s child?
  • A photographer feels uncomfortable participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony and is facing fines that lead to the dissolution of their business. I don’t understand. What is a same-sex marriage? Isn’t that like saying “square circle?”
  • A business owner feels like he would be complicit in evil if he is forced to pay for his employee’s “constitutional right” to a chemical abortion through the company’s insurance policy. I don’t understand. Where is the Constitutional right for a mother to take the life of her child?

It’s not going to get easier.

If in a mere decade, a society can overturn a pillar that has undergirded civilization for thousands of years, what kind of changes will come in the next decade or two? The unthinkable is now the possible.

The cultural pressure upon us will increase. We better be okay with standing out from the rest of the world, no matter how unpopular it makes us.

We also better get used to people saying we are filled with hate and vitriol toward neighbors we disagree with. And we should do our best to show the world so much love that those labels don’t stick.

Maybe the way God is teaching us to reach out to the maligned and marginalized is by letting us taste the same kind of social ostracism.

Maybe the less we seek the love of society, the more we’ll be free to love others in God’s image.

Maybe the cultural car is careening toward the cliff, and we’re supposed to be the people who are standing with our arms outstretched saying, “Stop! You know not what you do.”

I don’t have all the answers to the ethical issues we face today. Nor do I know what issues will soon appear on the horizon.

What I do know is this: when things get complicated, we should remember the basics.

  • This world God created is good. He has a plan for it. We’re going somewhere.
  • This world is broken. We’ve all rebelled against our good and loving Father. We’re lost.
  • God demonstrates His great love for us in that even in our sinfulness and rebellion, He sent Christ to die for us.
  • The world will be redeemed. The great story of our world will have chapters where all hope seems to be lost, but like all great stories, the happy ending is assured. And the sequel will never end.

Life is complicated. Our choices won’t be easy. If we are to live faithfully in this brave new world, we will need wisdom from above.

But some things just aren’t going to change:

  • God still loves His children. And He even loves the people who hate Him and His church. Jesus’ dying breaths exhaled forgiveness.
  • We’re called to love our neighbors. Sometimes, loving comes easily. Other times, it’s harder. And Christian love assumes the strange posture of sometimes standing against the world for the good of the world.
  • The world still needs Jesus. The gospel is still powerful. And the church is still on mission.
  • There’s a city whose foundations are unshakable. And there’s a city of man that builds its idol-tower of “progress” to the sky. Christians who are most comfortable in the city of man find it hard to represent the city of God.

Jesus saves. So love God. Love people. The basics never change.

 
 

Dec

05

2013

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Loving Jesus While Leaving the Church: A Conversation with Ken Easley and Chris Morgan (2)

community-of-jesusYesterday, I began a conversation with Ken Easley and Chris Morgan, the editors of a new biblical theology of the church, The Community of Jesus. We talked about the importance of the church in the plan of God to display His glory, and whether or not the vision of the church we find in Acts is descriptive or prescriptive. Today, we continue our discussion.

Trevin: It’s popular nowadays to talk about “loving Jesus” but “leaving the church.” What is it about North American culture that leads us to dichotomize Jesus and the Church, and what are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

Ken: This trend meshes well with the current American notion that we favor spirituality but not religion.

We think that loving Jesus can be done on an individual basis, and there is no accountability to anyone else for our individual spirituality (This, of course, is one reason there are so many different versions of “Jesus” out there: “My Jesus would never condemn you.”). Because spirituality is privatized, there’s no way to judge it true or false, only personally helpful or not.

When we think of “church,” however, we immediately envision structures (both buildings and bureaucracies). Further, “church” implies something public and organized—open to observation and either praise or criticism. In this way church may be compared to government: once it gets big enough to notice, it’s the flaws more than the benefits that get our attention.

Chris: First, I think we have inadvertently been telling people the church does not matter by highlighting “my personal relationship with Jesus.” Of course, salvation is personal and individual, but we have almost privatized it as Ken mentions. Or “it’s about a relationship, not religion.” We all agree in one sense, but Christianity is about a covenantal relationship with God and thus a covenantal relationship with God’s people, too.

Second, a sound theology of sin reminds us that many of these folks really do not like the Jesus of the Bible either. He is much too demanding. They prefer a version that fits well with their sensibilities. But it could also be that we have so packaged the church into dated cultural forms, that people are rejecting the cultural forms but not really the community of Jesus. They could be rejecting us, our culture, not really the church.

Further, your original question might indicate that the church has not been living up to its calling as the display people. Are we marked by love, unity, holiness, truth, and goodness? Jesus is, but are we? Yes and no. Yes, we are these things in Christ (Eph 2:11-22; 4:1-6). And we are also growing in these areas (Eph 4:1-16).

The church, just like the kingdom, exists in the already and not yet. But it seems there is a severe lack of health in some churches, to the point that many feel the need to “detox” from them after the dysfunction they have experienced. It is not hard to understand why many are repulsed by such churches.

Trevin: What is it about the doctrine of the church that has piqued your curiosity and captured your interest? How can we as evangelicals grow in our knowledge of biblical teaching about the church and our love for the local churches we belong to?

Ken: My interest has been recently captured because of the changing landscape in North American evangelical Christianity over the past 40 years (my adult life), and because of the even more rapidly changing political and cultural landscape. When I graduated from seminary in the late 1970s, evangelical Christianity was seemingly “on a roll.”

“Liberal” churches were in decline; conservative churches were growing in numbers and influence. There would be success in eliminating abortion and promoting traditional marriage. Among Southern Baptists, with the “conservative resurgence” and the battle for inerrancy won, it was believed we would become more missionary-minded, give more generously, keep growing rapidly, and exert wider influence. Things haven’t turned out so optimistically.

At the same time, Christianity lost whatever place of prestige and prominence it had had in American society. The churches—especially those of a more conservative or evangelical bent—often did not know how to respond well to this change. Should we retreat into evangelical ghettoes? Should we keep fighting the (apparently lost) culture wars? How do we disengage ourselves from the God-and-Country outlook that was easy for the World War II generation to embrace, but usually makes little sense to millennials?

Our book is a call for us to look at the church as it appears in Scripture and to recapture the biblical vision of church.

Chris: My story is quite different.

As a young pastor and seminary student, I loved the church but hated ecclesiology. Important but not ultimate questions about the church dominated my perception of ecclesiology—the views and arguments related to baptism, Lord’s Supper, Israel and the church, church discipline, foot washing, denominations, ecumenism, and so on.

And it was because my first exposure to discussions of ecclesiology was in a church whose pastor made obscure ecclesiological debates his specialty. His passion and certainty about odd questions astounded me. Should a Southern Baptist church accept the baptism of a person who was immersed as a believer by a non-denominational church whose theology is baptistic? After all, was that really a church, and could that be baptism?

Or consider this scenario: when a missionary Baptist church wanted to join our local Southern Baptist association of churches, my pastor contended that the missionary Baptist pastor and all the members must be baptized (not kidding). As some pastors go overboard with their view of Calvinism or eschatology, some do with their particular ecclesiologies.

But as I had the privilege of serving as the pastor of churches in Catron, Missouri, and Barstow, California, and as I was teaching ministry students courses in systematic theology, pastoral leadership, and preaching at California Baptist University, I found myself drawn to ecclesiology. It was not to the obscure, though. I kept seeing how central the church is to God’s eternal plan.

I began to see the church in conjunction with the glory of God, salvation history, the kingdom of God, the attributes of God, the image of God, the mission of God, and the call to love, holiness, unity, and truth. The Sermon on the Mount, Acts, Ephesians, and James came alive. Seeing the NT as written by church leaders for the sake of helping churches captured me. Seeing how a careful, biblical view of the church drives pastoral leadership, ministry, evangelism, and preaching has clarified my thinking and honed my approach to ministry.

I now see the importance of the disputed questions, but in a healthier theological and pastoral perspective. Baptism, Lord’s Supper, church discipline, the identity of Israel and the church, denominations, ecumenism—their importance, in my experience, is best viewed from a broader, salvation historical lens on the theology of the church framed by a context of the nature and mission of God.

Further, I have found that seeing the church this way recasts our perspective on pastoral ministry, preaching, leadership, worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, youth ministry, counseling, church planting, missiology, social justice, denominations, ecumenism, hermeneutics, theological method, and theology.

Indeed, I am becoming more and more amazed by the astonishing significance of the church in God’s eternal purpose and sensing the great privilege it is to be a part of Christ’s church.

 

 
 

Oct

07

2013

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Letter from a Millennial Who Walked Away

walking-awayWhen I think of the reasons that have led me to pen this letter, I get sad.

I never intended to walk away from the faith. There is so much about Jesus that I like: his personality, his teaching, his example.

I never wanted to walk away from Jesus or his followers, but I feel like I’m left with no choice.

Based on the testimony of others my age, I know I’m not alone. There are people like me walking away every day. Why? Here’s my attempt at giving an answer.

First of all, I get this feeling that I’m not good enough. That I’m lacking something. That I don’t measure up.

This is altogether frustrating.

I’ve been an upstanding citizen, moral and decent from the time I was a kid. That’s the way I was raised – to be a good person who loves other people. The last thing I want to do is harm or hurt anyone. I am honest. I honor those in authority over me. I try to be life-giving in my conversations. I would never steal or cheat anyone.

Despite all of my good qualities, I feel like there’s this strange fixation on my financial choices. It’s like… everywhere I turn, here we go again, harping on my finances.

There is so much I have to offer. Why do my personal decisions carry this much weight? What does it matter what I do with my finances, as long as I’m showing love to those around me and no one gets hurt?

It’s like I’m supposed to give up the core of who I am – to exchange my identity somehow. I’m weathy, yes, relatively speaking. But I give when I see a need. Isn’t that enough?

Besides, I’m not always sure that the people I’d give to (the poor, religious people, charities) would make good use of my gifts. Better to invest wisely so I can do more with my money in the long run. Why this strange fascination with my personal choices?

I could be wrong, but it seems like this whole religion thing has become far too demanding. More and more people are likely to give up completely if the bar is set this high.

It’s nearly impossible for me to join the followers of Jesus if this is what is asked of me.

So, sadly, I walk away.

And I feel like Jesus is sad too.

Signed

The Rich Young Ruler

 
 

Sep

23

2013

Trevin Wax|8:04 pm CT

Continuing the Conversation Begun By the “Anonymous Youth Pastor”

bigstudentministryblue-fullMy fictional letter from the “anonymous youth pastor” certainly hit a nerve.

Some thought the letter was passive-aggressive and condescending, written from the position of a youth minister who thinks he knows better than a parent how to raise a child. Others thought it was bold and forthright, prophetic in its call to parents to make the kingdom of God their family’s first priority.

There are a cluster of issues surrounding youth ministry, our expectations regarding church, our students, and our pastors. The wise and gracious feedback (and pushback!) in the comments section is what makes me enjoy blogging here. Those of you who read Kingdom People continually stretch and sharpen me, and I hope the blog does the same for you.

Here are a number of issues begging for further reflection. There aren’t easy answers here, but this is a conversation worth having.

1. Is the church essential for spiritual growth?

Youth ministry as it is exists today is something of an anomaly in the Christian Church. Some of you quickly pointed out that there hasn’t always been a “youth pastor” position or a “student ministry.” You are right.

At the same time, the underlying complaint of the “anonymous youth pastor” was not merely about student ministry, but church attendance in general. He is as concerned about Sunday as he is about Wednesday (perhaps even more so), and he is particularly concerned with what our choices communicate to our kids.

I think we’d all agree that “youth ministry” as it is currently practiced is not “essential” in the spiritual formation of a Christian. But what about the Church in general? Do we need to gather weekly with a body of believers? Is this essential for spiritual growth?

In our podcast culture of individualistic Christianity, church attendance becomes optional and supplemental, not essential. That’s why so many of us suffer from the part-time syndrome. Perhaps we need to have the broader conversation about gathering with the church – not just about youth ministry.

2. How can pastors and parents work together?

I recognize there is friction between youth ministers and parents. Ten years ago, it seemed like I was always hearing from parents frustrated by the lack of spiritual depth on display in youth ministry. Student ministry got caricatured as a place for pizza and video games and the occasional round of Chubby Bunny (before it became illegal!).

Lately, however, I have heard more from student ministers who are trying to change the “all fun and games” label of ministry and find resistance from parents instead of support. When they drive home the fullness of the gospel – including its radical grace and how it changes us from the inside out – they find that some parents seem more concerned with behavior than the heart.

It’s not surprising that many parents don’t put a lot of stock in a youth pastor’s counsel, especially if that youth pastor is newly married, has only small children, and has never done the difficult work of raising teens. But there’s something to be said about a passionate student minister’s ideals – something to learn here, even if it comes across as naive or idealistic.

How can student ministers be humble and bold in their ministry to families? How can parents be humble enough to learn from the idealism of their student ministers?

3. How can a youth pastor serve the entire family?

Many churchgoers see the student minister as existing to help “fix” their teenagers. Others see student ministry as an important rite of growing up in church, but largely contained to one ministry and separated from the rest of the congregation.

There is a need for more integration, where the student ministry is not only for students within a certain age range but also for their families. Strengthening families ought to be one of the primary ways we minister – no matter what our “staff position” is. Some student ministers will challenge the family’s priorities. Others will choose different hills to die on. Regardless, we ought to be thinking of how to fix the narrow focus of youth ministry.

What do you think? How can we make progress in strengthening our churches’ ministry to teenagers?

For Further Reading:

 
 

Sep

23

2013

Trevin Wax|3:07 am CT

Anonymous Youth Pastor’s Letter to a Parent

Dear _____________,

I need to get something off my chest.

When I first came to this church, you told me how excited you were that I would be showing your kids what it means to love Jesus, be part of His Church, and grow as a Christian. You told me you were praying for me and that you had my back. You had high hopes for the youth ministry.

I had high hopes too. But I must confess that I am frustrated right now because I feel like you’re working against me, not with me.

The desire for your teenagers to be on fire for Jesus and all about His kingdom is what wakes me up every morning. I long to see a group of passionate, unashamed Christians ready to live on mission. I thought we shared that desire, but I’m not so sure anymore.

It seems to me that you see youth ministry as a supplement to your kids’ lives – not something vital. I’m like a vitamin you hope will keep your kids out of trouble, not part of your weekly exercise routine. You’d never say it like that, I know, but based on your priorities, I can’t help but feel that way.

I got a text from your middle-schooler on Sunday, telling me how much he wanted to be at church, but how you were making him be with the team. He doesn’t know when he can come on Wednesday nights, because he always has practice. He tells me he can’t wait till he can drive, so he can come to church more often.

At the very least, I wish I had the opportunity to equip and deploy your son as a missionary to the sports fields, but there’s just no time left in his schedule. I recognize that sports can be a good character-building exercise, but sometimes I’m not sure whether all these activities are for your kids or really for you. If this pattern continues, you shouldn’t hold on to any expectations that your children will find a good church once they’re in college. When your kids have to ask what you’re doing this Sunday, it’s already game over.

What’s more, your daughter told me recently that you have a “no-toleration policy” when it comes to alcohol, but you’ve given instruction on how to avoid pregnancy in case she was going to have sex. Well, let me tell you that I have a no-toleration policy for both those activities, the first because it’s illegal, and the second because it’s immoral. I want your kids to follow Jesus, not the world. That’s why I am so surprised that it seems like you are more concerned about your children embarrassing you than disobeying God.

When we first met and you told me that you wanted me to help your kids love Jesus more, I guess you were really saying, “Help my children be moral, respectable and religious.” I should have leveled with you then. I have no interest in helping you raise nice, moral hypocrites who love ball more than God or chase pleasure more than His kingdom.

I want to work together, but that means we’ll need to be seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, not our kingdoms or self-righteousness.

Please know that I’m still committed to your kids. I just hope to see them again at some point.

Your friend,

____________________

* Trevin’s note: This is not a real letter, but a compilation of frustrations I’ve heard recently from those who work in student ministry. It is intended to prompt conversation on the responsibilities and roles of youth pastors, their relationship with parents, and the expectations we have of students. If you leave a comment, please make sure you are civil, thoughtful, and seeking to further the kind of gracious conversation this post is designed to create. Thank you!

** Please see the follow-up post that continues the conversation with additional questions for discussion: Continuing the Conversation Begun by the Anonymous Youth Pastor

 
 

Sep

09

2013

Trevin Wax|3:44 am CT

Take the Long View

There’s a scene in Clear Winter Nights, in which the main characters compare Augustine’s Confessions to modern self-help books. The differences are overwhelming; so is the fact that modern characters are still reading Augustine.

I suppose what makes heresy so insufferable is the boredom it induces. Perhaps that’s why, over time, the works of those who have departed from orthodoxy fades. The shine wears off, and the books collect dust, go out of print, and disappear.

When you encounter the flashy package of an old untruth, it’s easy to wring your hands and wonder if the Church is going to fall for the same old false teaching under new guise. But year after year, decade after decade, century after century, truth wins out.

Who will be read in a hundred years?

I learned this truth indirectly from G. K. Chesterton’s century-old book Heretics. It was a difficult book to read, primarily because I didn’t always know who he was writing against. He referred to people I’d never heard of, critiquing their broadmindedness, their progressive stances, and their humanistic philosophy.

A few of his sparring partners are still read today (H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Rudyard Kipling), but a number of them are all but forgotten. Meanwhile, Chesterton lives on. Or we should say, Chesterton’s truth lives on. That’s why we read him today.

How many books by J. Gresham Machen are in print today? Dozens. What about his liberal foil, Harry Fosdick? A print-on-demand company will print you his book on progress if you ask for it.

I think the same comparison could be made with contemporary pastors like John Piper and Rob Bell. Rob certainly has the flash and glamor, but will his works survive the test of time? (And while I don’t know for sure, I can’t help but wonder if the infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet refers more to the disappearance and eventual irrelevance of Bell’s teaching ministry rather than to anything personal.)

Truth has an eternal foundation – God’s Word 

One of the things you notice throughout history is that the Christian leaders who speak to future generations tend to be the ones who taught the Bible consistently and rigorously. The leaders who spent their time seeking to understand the biblical text are the ones we still read.

Why? Because they anchored themselves to the one book that transcends time. They didn’t hoist their sails to blow with the winds of culture. They put the anchor down deep, and over time, we go back to them again and again.

While writers or nationally renowned speakers may have to respond to the latest twist on old heresies or newest, flashy fad, most church leaders should take the long view to evaluate books and teaching. Will this last? If so, dig in. If not, get what may be profitable from it and get out.

It is a sobering thought, but most of us will be forgotten within two or three generations. The world is littered with neglected graveyards. Chances are, a hundred years after your death, no one will be stopping by your grave to pay their respects.

What will you have done with your life? Take the long view. Drop your anchor in the deep waters of biblical orthodoxy, and stay firm no matter what winds come against you.

It’s been said that those who marry the spirit of the age are soon widowed. No wonder. The ages change, but God stays the same.

 
 

Aug

01

2013

Trevin Wax|3:27 am CT

Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

In a recent column for CNN, Rachel Held Evans offers some thoughts on “why millennials are leaving the church.” Her post struck a chord with readers. She is addressing a perennial topic of conversation among church leaders and church goers: what will happen to the next generation.

Like Rachel, I’m 32 – right on the border of the millennials, and many of the questions and doubts I hear from the millennial generation resonate with me too. But my analysis differs somewhat from Rachel’s.

Rachel’s Analysis

Rachel thinks millennials are leaving the church due to the perception that evangelicals are

“… too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

She’s right to decry a vision of Christianity that reduces repentance to a list of do’s and don’ts. I too have noticed that many millennials desire to be involved in mercy ministry and support justice causes. And I couldn’t agree more when she says “we want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.”

The Church’s Response

How has the church responded? Rachel sees church leaders trying to update their music or preaching style, and thereby running up against the “highly sensitive BS meters” we millennials have. We’re not fooled by consumerism or performances when churches cater to what they think we want.

Rachel writes:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

I agree with that sentence for the most part, although I would tweak the last line to say “What millennials really want from the church is substance.” Not a change in substance, necessarily, just substance will do.

Too often, our churches have offered a sanitized, spiritualized version of self-help therapy, and Jesus has been missing. And that’s the problem. Like every generation, she says, “deep down we long for Jesus.”

Here’s where Rachel and I part ways – on what communities following Jesus look like in our culture.

The Biblical Jesus

When I read the Gospels, I’m confronted by a Jesus who explodes our categories of righteousness and sin, repentance and forgiveness, and power and purity.

I meet a Jesus who doesn’t do away with the Law of the Old Testament, but ramps up the demands in order to lead us to Himself – the One who calls us to life-altering repentance and faith.

I see a King who makes utterly exclusive claims, and doesn’t seem to care who is offended.

I see a King who didn’t hold back anything from His people, and who expects His people to hold back nothing from Him.

Is the Church Obsessed with Sex, or is it the Culture?

Following Jesus leaves no part of our life unchanged.

That’s why it strikes me as odd that Rachel sees “obsession with sex” as one of the biggest obstacles for contemporary Christianity to overcome. I visit lots of churches, and I find that sexuality is not a frequently discussed subject from most church platforms or Bible studies. In fact, one could make the case that Christians haven’t talked enough about Jesus’ radical zealousness when it comes to sexuality. The fact that cohabitation, premarital sex and pornography are often overlooked among our congregations betrays the vision of sexuality Jesus put forward – a vision of the sacredness of a man and woman’s covenant for life, one that excludes even lustful thoughts from God’s design.

When it comes to sexual obsession, we ought to take a look at pop culture. One can hardly watch a TV show or a popular movie without being assaulted with sexual innuendos, crude jokes, or overt displays of all kinds of sexuality. Pastors and church leaders go on news talk shows and are badgered about their views of sexuality, as if nothing else matters but that the church join in and celebrate our culture’s embrace of Aphrodite in all her warped splendor.

Challenged to Holiness

Rachel says millennials want to be “challenged to holiness,” but the challenge she appears to be advocating is one on our own terms and according to our own preferences. That’s why I find it ironic that she decries the catering churches that alert our “BS meters,” while simultaneously telling church leaders they should do a better job catering to our generation’s whims and wishes. (She has since clarified this as not a list of demands, but desires and dreams.)

Truth be told, I don’t want a church that serves my preferences. I want a church that gives me Jesus and makes me want to serve His

Counting the Cost

One sign of Jesus’ Spirit is He convicts the world of sin (John 16:8). The sign of the spirit of this age is that the world is coddled instead of convicted. And those who marry the spirit of this age will always be widowed in the next.

Perhaps that’s why millennials have left the churches that most resemble the type of community described by Rachel at rates far greater than evangelical churches. When the counter-cultural message of Jesus is softened or tweaked, or the raging idols of this age (such as money, sex, and power) are overlooked or ignored, the cost of Christianity disappears. Christianity without a cost is Christianity without the cross. And Christianity without the cross isn’t Christianity at all.

What Kind of Millennial Christian Will We Be?

Some millennials, like many from generations before us, want the church to become a mirror – a reflection of our particular preferences, desires, and dreams. But other millennials want a Christianity that shapes and changes our preferences, desires, and dreams.

We’re eager to pass the gospel on to the next generation, to live in ways that call into question the idolatries of our age, to stand in a long line of believers who have been out of the mainstream, constantly maligned and misrepresented, but who love Jesus, love people, and aren’t afraid to call everyone to repentance.

That’s a Christianity this millennial believes is worth dying for, but also one that’s worth living out in a local church with other believers from all generations.

 
 

Jun

26

2013

Trevin Wax|10:30 am CT

Why Gay Marriage is Good (and Bad) for the Church

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act serves as a boost to ongoing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage across the nation.

Christians believe marriage is defined by God and recognized by government. But many today believe marriage is defined by government and must be recognized by all.

For this reason, I’m not optimistic about the trends concerning marriage and family in the United States. Neither am I sure of what all this means for those who, in good conscience, stand against the tide.

But I am optimistic about the church of Jesus Christ. We’ve been through societal transformations before, and we’re sure to go through them again.

For example, the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 313 A. D. was certainly good for the church. (We didn’t have to worry about being fed to the lions in the Coliseum anymore.) But many aspects of the church/state marriage turned out to be bad for the church. (True Christianity suffered under the weight of the state’s corrupting power.) Some see the positive aspects of that societal transformation as far outweighing the bad (Peter Leithart, for example), while others see the bad far outweighing the good (Stanley Hauerwas). The truth is, Constantine’s conversion was both good and bad for the church.

Now let’s turn to our society’s redefinition of marriage. If we truly believe Romans 8:28, that somehow, in some way, God is working all things for the good of those who love Him, then even when the culture swerves in an opposing direction, we ought to expect both benefits and challenges.

Here are some developments we can expect in the days ahead:

1. THE LOSS OF A CULTURE OF MARRIAGE

Riding on a bus last week, I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He told me he worked for the government, was in his early twenties, and his wife was finishing her last year of college. Right away, I thought to myself: They must be Christians. Further conversation proved my hunch was right. How did I know? Easy. Few people get married when they’re in their early twenties and still in school. Couples either live together or postpone marriage until they’ve settled into a career. A 22-year-old with a ring on his finger might as well have been carrying a Bible.

Not long ago, a friend who lives in D.C. told me that whenever he sees a young father and mother pushing a stroller with a couple of kids, he immediately thinks, They must be Christians. Why? “There just aren’t a lot of intact families in our area. When you see one, you just assume they’re religious.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I recognize that traditional family values do not equal biblical Christianity. Plenty of folks from other religions see marriage as the cornerstone of civilization (including Mormons, orthodox Jews and Muslims).

But these two examples give us a window into the future of marriage and family in North America. The picture of a man and woman who wait until their wedding night to consummate their relationship and then remain committed for forty, fifty, even sixty years as they grow in their love for each other and raise their kids and enjoy their grandkids simply isn’t the norm anymore. It’s likely that churches will be one of the few places you’ll find people married more than 60 years.

The arrival of same-sex marriage is just the next train stop on a journey that began with the proliferation of birth control in the 1950′s and 1960′s. When pleasure and reproduction were divorced from a holistic understanding of sex, the idea that sexual expression and childrearing should be reserved for the committed relationship of a husband and wife began to disappear. Add the abortion culture of the 1970′s, the establishment of no-fault divorce, an increase in single moms and deadbeat dads, and the rise of reproductive technologies, and it’s no wonder that people today don’t think of marriage as a central institution for bringing new life into the world but instead as an emotional and sexual union of two partners.

The bad news: When you look at other countries that legalized same-sex marriage decades ago, you notice a dramatic reduction in the number of people getting married. In all likelihood, we will soon resemble our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world: we will stand out for being the very thing that our grandparents would have thought ordinary. One of God’s greatest gifts to us in common grace (the institution of marriage) will be disregarded, leading to a number of societal ills and further breakdown of the family.

The good news: In our churches, we have the opportunity to show the world a better way. To show the world what biblical manhood and womanhood looks like. To show the world the difference between a covenant and a contract. To show the world the difference between commitment based on feeling and a covenant based on faith.

The absence of a marriage culture will make biblical marriage stand out all the more. We’ll be ordinary oddballs. So let’s not waste the opportunity.

2. THREATS TO RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

One of the concerns of the religious community about legalizing same-sex marriage is the potential threat to religious liberty.

The bad news: As the norm of marriage shifts, individual Christians will find themselves in situations where they face penalties for refusing to violate their conscience. We’ve already seen this take place when Christian caterers, for example, feel conflicted about taking part in a same-sex wedding. Threats to religious liberty are not good news for the church, because they cause us to spend time and energy in preserving “space” for us to live according to our religious convictions without fear of reprisal.

The good news: These threats may bring about in the church a much-needed change of mindset. It’s time we recognized we are no longer the “moral majority” and embrace our identity as the “missional minority.”

My friends in Great Britain and Romania tell me it’s a noble task to serve Christ when you are clearly in the minority. Though the challenges often seem insurmountable, God’s people have the opportunity to learn how to love those who oppose us, to serve and suffer under governmental or cultural bigotry, and face hatred with respect and kindness. So let’s recognize our minority status and learn to serve those who we’re called to show God’s love.

3. THE COST OF CONVICTION

When it comes to churches and denominations, we will soon see who is truly tethered to the authority of God’s Word no matter what way the wind is blowing, and who is conforming to the pattern of this world. Churches that embrace the new definition of marriage will show themselves to be in step with contemporary society and radically out of step with the Christian Church for two thousand years.

The bad news: Being a convictional Christian (especially in matters related to sexuality, morality, and marriage) will likely mean the loss of cultural clout and respectability. We will pay a personal and social cost for our beliefs, and we need to be prepared.

The good news: Sociologist Rodney Stark has shown that one of the most powerful engines of early church growth was the fact that membership cost something. Why is this the case? For one, paying a social cost tends to screen out those who would fain religiosity in order to receive respect from society. Also, knowing you are the minority and may be ostracized for your views increases the level of commitment and participation of those who follow Christ.

Conclusion

The evangelical witness may be leaner in numbers in coming years, but the upside is that the witness may be even more potent. The gospel of God’s love in Christ is no less powerful in 21st century America than in 1st century Rome.

So, let’s love God, love our neighbors (even those with whom we respectfully disagree), and remember the good news that in God’s lawcourt, all who repent and believe in Christ have the verdict of “justified” pronounced over them. And there’s no court on earth that can overturn that.