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Ninety Percent Obscurity

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Nobody knows better than New England Baptists how ministry is changing in America. And that shouldn’t surprise us. They’ve been at least a generation ahead of the rest of us for a couple hundred years. They practically invented evangelicalism in the 1740s. That was nearly a century before my home state (Arkansas) was admitted to the union. And while many of us west of the Mississippi fear the creeping influence of secularism, our New Englander brethren minister in the least religious states in America.

Fortunately, they are also a generation ahead of us in recovering the critical ministry value of faithfulness.

Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend with a group of Baptists from Vermont and New Hampshire. Before an evening session, one pastor reflected on the fact that the Bible only records three years of Jesus’ life and ministry. If Jesus died at 33, then we only know about ten percent of his life. Or, as this pastor put it, that means Jesus’ life and ministry was “ninety percent obscurity.”

That’s a feeling with which he and his fellow shepherds could relate. The Baptists were once the leading spiritual lights in New England. Following the Great Awakening, Baptist churches grew in massive numbers. Within about sixty years of the revival, Baptists grew from just dozens to nearly twenty-five thousand in New England. Those swelling ranks had influence beyond the church world. They carried with them considerable cultural clout. The Baptists did a lot to see the first amendment added to our constitution, for example, to ensure religious liberty for dissenters like themselves. They were a thriving, culturally relevant force.

But now the region’s churches are shrinking. Several of the pastors present that weekend hold services in church buildings erected in the 1740s which, on the one hand, testifies to the longevity of the movement. On the other, it speaks to a certain stagnation, a leveling off of 200 years of growth. Many pastors are bi-vocational, because their membership can’t support a full-time minister. And instead of being a shaping influence in the broader culture, the churches are fighting to prove their relevance in their profoundly secular environment. They labor in obscurity.

At the risk of sounding like a forecaster of doom, their story is our national story. It’s how we often tell our story, anyway. There were days when people went to church—most people, maybe. When the church was a cultural force for change for the better. Times have changed and are changing. If we want to know what awaits us in a generation, we need only look at New England.

But this is not a cautionary tale. It’s a story of hope.

Even if the conditions in which these faithful men and women serve may frighten some of us, the spirit in which they serve holds a lesson for ministry in the coming age. They have rediscovered the value of faithfulness.

The pastors I spoke with in New England have concerns, to be sure. But they are committed to blooming where they have been planted. Several call themselves “25 to Lifers,” because they have committed to spend their careers in small towns and seemingly insignificant churches. They have decided that God has called them not to extraordinary success but to uncommon faithfulness—to serving quietly and confidently in ninety percent obscurity.

It strikes me that, in this way, they are recovering a key value of the Great Awakening out of which their movement (and the rest of evangelicalism) was born. Although today we think of the impact of the Awakening in terms of the massive numbers of new Christians it produced, the heroes who were celebrated at the time were honored for their commitment, not their success. David Brainerd was chief among the faithful. Brainerd served as a missionary to the Delaware Indians for just a few short years, until he died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. He had enough success in his ministry that churches tried to lure him away to pastor their more notable congregations. But he refused. His mind was set on serving, in relative obscurity, where God had called him. That faithfulness was his legacy.

For those of us who fear the Western church’s decline in numbers and influence, it’s tempting to focus on strategies for greater success. We may hope there’s a formula to secure our future. Our Baptist brothers and sisters remind us that faithfulness in obscurity is more important than splash and clout.

(This post originally appeared on Out of Ur.)

From the Horses’ Mouths: Students on Religion

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

About this time last year I wrote a series of posts on the religious lives of twentysomethings, in which I summarized some anecdotal findings under the headings of things I didn’t find surprising, things I did find surprising, and some suggestions for Christian leaders.

I’m going to be briefer this time.

Here are some themes that have emerged consistently in the last year from my students’ reflections on religion in their lives.

They are pretty certain there’s a higher power.
I get my fair share of atheists and agnostics, but when push comes to shove, the vast majority of my students are confident there is Something or Someone out there. (In this way, they reflect the population of the United States in general.)

They don’t feel church is necessary.
Many of my students, regardless of their religious background, don’t believe worshiping with a religious community is necessary. For most of them, “being a good person” is essential; being part of a congregation is superfluous. Some of my Roman Catholic students feel guilty about not attending mass, because they feel they are supposed to—but that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t see the point.

They pray when they are in trouble.
An overwhelmingly high percentage of my students say that they do not consider themselves religious but, even so, when they are in a tight spot—they pray. I’m tempted to say this is a conditioned response that kids learn growing up in religious families or communities. But many without a religious background still claim to pray when the going gets tough.

They feel their questions are unique.
Many of my students say they are no longer religious because they wrestled with difficult questions as they were coming of age in their faith. They felt isolated by their perception that no one else was wrestling with the same questions. I hear this enough that I have to assume that many students are asking the same questions and none of them know it!

They feel their religious leaders and family can’t handle their questions.
These students who struggle with faith questions are routinely turned off by one of two responses: 1) they are scolded by parents or religious mentors for lack of faith or 2) their parents or religious leaders try—and fail—to offer satisfactory responses.

They don’t feel free to make truth claims.
Even my students who profess faith—whether in Christ or karma (or both!)—are afraid to claim that they are right. Many of them will say, “I believe Jesus is the Son of God,” and then immediately qualify the statement: “But that’s just my opinion and people are free to disagree with me.” Religious leaders may feel young people don’t know what they believe. It may be that they know but are afraid to admit it for fear of appearing intolerant.

What should we make of this? Well, for one, it strikes me that we most often emphasize what young people believe. We rightly want them to be equipped with the right information about the faith. Maybe, since prayer appears to be an instinct of sorts, we should emphasize spiritual formation. Second, we should be thrilled that students have questions about their faith. And we need to learn not to be intimidated by them. I frequently tell students, “I don’t know”; and they don’t mind. But they want someone to talk through the issues with. Who doesn’t?!

I’m eager to hear from you. Thoughts?


Monday, January 7th, 2013

Whether you think of it as the final word of the Christmas season or the first word of the new year, Epiphany propels the church from manger to mission—from rejoicing in the arrival of the Messiah (good new for us) to recognizing the significance of his coming for all people everywhere (good news for all). Traditionally the Three Wise Men are considered the first Gentiles to see and worship Jesus, so they are the primary cast of the Epiphany story. They remind us that the Messiah came first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). The central image of Epiphany is light, particularly the star that led the magi to the savior child. Jesus is the light of the world himself, and He calls his people to be that light, too; to let their light “so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Epiphany challenges us to take the star from the top of our Christmas tree and, instead of boxing it up until next year, to march it into the dark streets of our neighborhood.

Epiphany follows Christmas by two weeks because it tries to follow the biblical narrative of the birth of Christ. Most of us put the wise men in our nativity scenes at the beginning of the Christmas season. But the Scriptures indicate that the wise men didn’t arrive until Jesus was a “young child”—perhaps two (Matthew 2:11). Two years in history becomes two weeks on the church calendar. Many Christians worldwide (catholic, with a lowercase “c”) observe this by keeping the magi at a distance until Epiphany.

That’s the historical reason for the gap between Christmas and Epiphany. And I’m glad for it. Because I think many of us use up all our Christian imagination at Christmastime. It’s easy to see and sense the Savior when all is calm and all is bright. But in the darkness and chaos of post-holiday real life, he begins to vanish. He gradually recedes from view until we find him again—now an adult—in the season of Lent. Then he’s gone again until Advent. We need this one more flashbulb of divine light to remind us that though the world failed to see Jesus for who and what he was, the darkness did not swallow him up.

This helps us keep the darkness in perspective. The deep shadow of the Christmas Story that we seldom talk about is the death of the innocents. Insane with jealousy, Herod orders all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be murdered in an effort to snuff out the wick of the Christ child (Matthew 2:16). That story kept coming to mind during news coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. While Christians were celebrating the coming of Christ during Advent 2012, evil was devouring the innocent, darkness was trying to gobble down the light. It’s always been this way.

In view of the such darkness, the light of Epiphany is comfort, yes; but it’s also a summons. Epiphany reminds us, in the first place, that we are the children of God—most of us Gentiles by birth—because the first fearful disciples refused to hide their light under a basket (Luke 8:16). It calls us, then, to march into the darkness around us with the light of Christ high above our heads and deep in our hearts to shine the Light down every lane and alleyway.  From manger to mission. From treetop to mountaintop. Far as the curse is found.

Ministry in the Spirit in the Twenty-first Century

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Way back in 1768, a little-known Baptist pastor named Isaac Backus denounced a growing trend in preaching. By his day it had become quite fashionable to read sermons from a manuscript, instead of preaching extemporaneously. This, Backus argued, was an “upstart notion,” a newfangled approach to an old task. And it had two strikes against it. To begin with, “the reading of sermons is a dull way of preaching.” (He didn’t feel the need to elaborate that point; it just is.) Second, and more troubling, reading sermons from the pulpit made it easy for pastors to plagiarize. Though “people may know that their minister reads other men’s works [in the study] yet how can they ever know when he reads his own [in the pulpit]?”

If we stop there, Backus’s warning seems like a sampling from the fat folder titled, “The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same.” Plagiarizing sermons has only become cheaper and easier with the availability of illustrations, outlines, and full sermon manuscripts online. And the secret’s out. Suzanne Sataline published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the plague of pastoral plagiarism in 2006, which brought the issue into the light. Since then Out of Ur, Tim Challies, Ed Stetzer, the Gospel Coalition folks (and many others) have addressed the issue from a number of angles.

The deeper, more fundamental issue Backus was concerned about was that reading from a manuscript—even if you wrote it—indicated a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit. “The method of true ministers,” he countered, “always was to preach by faith.” By this he meant that a preacher ought to meditate on the word of God, give himself wholly to it (1 Timothy 4:15) and then trust that “it will be given you in that hour what you are to say” (Matthew 10:19).

In fact, Backus suspected that a lot of what ministers did was intended to “supply the want of the Spirit of God.” If the Holy Spirit didn’t speak to you through the scriptures, you could always ramble on about what some key word meant in the original Greek, cite a few religious authorities, and dismiss before anyone noticed that you didn’t have anything relevant to say.

Church was simpler then. Folks sang a few hymns and heard a word from the Lord (hopefully). I have to wonder if much of what we’ve added to the churchgoing experience since then might serve to “supply the want of the Spirit of God.” Maybe I should put that another way, because I don’t mean the rock bands and fog machines (although those do immediately come to mind). I’m privileged to travel a bit and meet pastors of all denominations, and I find that on the whole, ministers are looking for the right strategy or curriculum or institutional philosophy to propel their ministry to the next level. Or at the very least keep the doors open. What I don’t hear is pastors asking how to rely on the Holy Spirit to take charge of their ministry.

Now, I heeded the advice of Brother Backus above when I was new pastor. More than once I studied a passage, prayed, and headed to the pulpit hoping that the right words would come when I needed them. These were not positive experiences. And I see more value in the original biblical languages than he did. But I feel he’s on to something worth considering. How do we know when we’re trying to compensate for the absence of the Spirit of God? And how do we avoid the problem before it starts and, as Paul put it, “keep in step with the Spirit?”

New MDiv Program to Watch

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

My friends at Palm Beach Atlantic University have just launched a new Master of Divinity program.

Based on what I’ve heard from the program’s creators, it promises to be a unique course of study that integrates subject matter between courses and emphasizes practical preparation and pastoral experience–a truly academic church-focused MDiv.

In any case, I encourage you to check it out here.