Monday, April 18, 2005

The Church without a Center: Planting Churches among the new "Urban Tribes"

For churches in decline who wonder why the "younger people" don't feel the need to attend their services, Ethan Watters' observations are astute, if heartbreaking.

Watters' 2003 book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment, offers a compelling sociological explanation as to why post-Boomer generations are delaying, or altogether circumventing, inclusion into the two institutions that evangelicals believe are the very pillars of civilization: the family, and the church.

TIME magazine ran a brief article in February of this year, offering a perusal of the generation they identified as the twixters (i.e. a group between childhood and adulthood) Why is it that emerging generations are delaying marriage and children until their 30s? Why is it that in great numbers, many seem to be avoiding marriage altogether. And why is it that so many feel they have no need of the "ministries" offered by the modern church? Although Watters doesn't purposefully attempt to tackle these questions, even a casual reader can find the answers by examining his observations.

Families, for example, have taken a backseat to others. Watters observes that "Tribes sometimes hijacked holidays from traditional families" (56) While most still make it home for more notable celebrations, like Christmas, many in the emerging generation opt to spend birthdays, Memorial Day, and New Years with their "tribal" friends.

In the final analysis, it must also be offered that emerging generations are finding those things the church should be providing in what Watters calls the "urban tribe." A few examples follow:

My group of friends also came together to tackle group projects such as painting a living room, critiquing someone's rough cut of a documentary, or caring for someone who had fallen ill. We moved each other's furniture, talked each other through breakups, and attended each other's parents funerals. Those who had money loaned it it to those who didn't. Everything we owned, from books to tools to furniture to cars, was shared, or loaned, or given away on an ongoing basis (from page 37) Cross reference what you have just read with Acts 4:32.

. . . .or, how about this observation of how the group members compliment each other?

As I studied people's descriptions of these roles, some enticing patterns emerged. It was clear that there needed to be a certain balance between some roles. There were no groups with all cynics, or, for that matter, all organizers or all advice givers. . .For every Bill, there seemed to be a need for a Jenny, Libby, Sylvia, and Mark. ( from page 47) Sounds strangely like the employment of gifts, doesn't it? (Romans 12:1-8)**

In fact, as I continued to read, I saw all the markings of what Scripture says a faith community should be . . . expectations for "core members" (pp.51-52), compassionate ministry to each other (pp.54-55), a sense of collective history, or "narrative momentum" (p.58), struggles between "fellowship" and "outreach" (pp.63-64), and the effort to understand context. (p.64) And according to Watters, all these things seemed to come naturally, almost as if these people were created specifically for this kind of community!

Again, one might be tempted to see all the marks of a true community of faith. . . .with several very important things absent! For one, Watters observed a problem with knowing how to exercise discipline among the group members. In addition, there seemed to be no higher purpose outside each "tribe" than the relationships themselves. Watters notes that if you "examine a single friendship while ignoring the other interlocking relationships the friends share, and the thing you wanted to examine might vanish. It was the high clustering coefficients that kept some of these relationships together" (49) This issue led to the most troublesome of all the caviats of the urban tribe; namely, that there seemed to be no true "center." In short, the emerging generation as a whole has tried to re-create the family and the church, only to end up with a cheap substitute! The tragic consequences of this substitution are two-fold.

The first result of choosing the replica is that, sooner or later, the genuine article will die. We are already seeing this trend as the nuclear family is becoming more of an artifact of a bygone era. The church is also feeling this, as is evident in the more than 2500 congregations that close their doors for good every year in North America.

But even more tragic is that the emerging generation is also dying, most of them without even realizing it! Watters notes that many who belong to "urban tribes" were elated to see their group finally classified sociologically. Sadly, many will take the observational science Watters has employed and use it to make value judgements to justify their lifestyles. In effect, they will turn the truth of God (in this case, revealed generally through sociology) into a lie (by stating that it is only natural that they behave in these ways) [Romans 1 and 2] The result of this is a group without center or circumference. Or, to put it more succinctly, a group without the presence of Jesus!

But the final polemic must be laid at the door of those two institutions our culture claims to have held up as precious. Could it be that the rejection of the family by this generation comes ultimately from our astronomical divorce rates and broken homes? Could it be that their aversion to the church comes not because they have rejected the Gospel, but instead never actually heard it over all our noise about building programs, finances, and ecclesiastical beauracracy?

Or maybe the way to reach them is to plant seeds of the Gospel among them! This incarnational approach to church planting will begin, not with church structure, but with personal relationships. As individual members of the "tribe" are transformed, the tribe itself will eventually also be transformed. Their relational structure is already in place, and they aren't about to trash it for the structure present in the existing church. But what they are missing is a center (Jesus), a circumference (Scripture) and a purpose beyond themselves (the glory of God) If we can empower their existing relational connections with these things, we will see a movement of new churches that rivals the first century!

**Currently, there is pneumetological debate concerning when spiritual gifts are given. The more traditional understanding is that they are given at the moment of conversion. However, it has been suggested that "spiritual gifts" are special abilities that are "hard-wired" at conception, and then empowered with supernatural capacity at conversion. Of course, the jury is still out on this one, and will be, I'm sure, for quite some time!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

In Government we Trust: Can Culture be Transformed by Political Power?

Anyone with half a brain and clear vision can simply by a glance know that our culture is in dire need of transformation. Warfare, violence, immorality and greed abound, and casual observation suggests that these are getting worse by the day. But how is a culture transformed?
In a recent book on conflicting ideologies in North America, Thomas Sowell suggests that there are two prevailing views concerning how government and society should seek to transform culture to the degree that our problems are eradicated. Sowell refers to these two views as the “constraining” and “unconstraining” views. The “constrained” vision of America sees the purpose of government as that of restraining sin through the law, while the “unrestrained” vision believes that government should release individuals by providing public education and other entitlements. Sowell’s contention is that the former vision is embodied in the Republican party, while the latter has found a home among Democrats. He is half right. In actuality, both parties believe in both a “constrained” and “unconstrained” element of government’s role in public life. Building on Sowell’s view, it might accurately be stated that Republicans in general believe in a “contrained” approach on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, while taking an “uncontrained” approach to economic issues. Conversely, Democrats as a whole believe that the best way to better society is to reverse these visions, thereby “constraining” the public on economic issues while removing any social constraints.
Anyone reading smell anything rotten yet? Pastor Mark Driscoll finds the common denominator in all of this by stating “one thing the two visions have in common is that their faith rests in institutions; they simply disagree as to whether these institutions should release or restrain us.” In short, “rock-ribbed” republicans as well as “yellow-dog” democrats believe that the answer to cultural transformation is found by way of taking over the structures of power and using those structures to implement one’s own vision.
Believe it or not, this sort of scenario has happened before. . .and failed! 2 Kings 21 records the reign of King Josiah, crowned at the tender age of eight in 640 B.C., and the praise he attained for reversing many of the immoral policies of his father Amon and grandfather Manasseh. To the public in Judah, Josiah was the seventh century B.C. equivalent to FDR (or Reagan, depending on your political persuasion!). Josiah’s reforms repressed many evil practices, such as the sacrifice of children to the god Molech. But the Scriptures tell us that his policies alone were ultimately unable to change the hearts of the idolatrous Hebrew people. After a shallow revival brought on by these reforms, Josiah is killed in a battle with Egypt. Within months, his son Jehoahaz also dies as a prisoner of war, and the wicked King Jehoiakim comes to power. Bringing back all of the evil practices that had taken place freely prior to Josiah’s reign. In other words, government regulation, while well-intentioned, brought only a shallow, false revival followed by a return to wickedness.
Now before I go any further, don’t read what I haven’t written!! I’m not suggesting that Christians should have no voice in government. I’m not saying that the moral issues that happen to be before the legislature should not be of concern. After all, Christianity is not just a faith, it is a worldview which should seek to inform all of our decisions as followers of Jesus. Issues that pertain to the sanctity of human life created in the image of God and other moral discussions are issues on which the church dare not be silent! But while we are commanded to maintain a “prophetic voice” within our governments, we must understand that many of these issues are peripheral. After all, our worldview is not determined by the Republicans or the Democrats, but rather by Scritpure! The problem in Josiah’s day (as in our own, I suspect) was not that Josiah did something wrong. It was that God’s people didn’t do enough!
Now, fast-forward six hundred years to the time of Jesus and you have yet another example in the Zealots. These individuals shared Jesus’ desire for the coming Kingdom of God. The problem lay in their view of how this was to be brought about. Their desire was to “overthrow the godless Romans” and take over the power structures. This sort of thinking re-emerges today with Christians who give all of their time to moral political agendas and crusades against evil. The real danger of this approach is that you start to hear strange, nationalistic phrases like “The US is a Christian nation.” Believe me when I say that this great nation of ours has NEVER been Christian! In fact, the only fully Christian state I can recall is the Roman Empire under Constantine. Suffice it to say that we as the church were not at our best during those years!
Is there a place for the church in political discussion? You better believe there is, and government would do well to pay attention when the issues of concern are being addressed by the Word of God! But the transformation of culture will never take place if the church simply shortcuts the missional path to which God has called it by taking over the power structures. Abortions will not stop because Roe vs. Wade is overturned (although I pray every day that it will be!) They will stop as the church fulfills its missional calling in the world to reach out to the helpless and needy. Homosexuality will not go away by Constitutional amendment. Adultery will not be curtailed by bringing back sodomy laws, and drunkenness will not be eradicated by strengthening “blue laws.”
Ironically enough, Scripture teaches us that the transformation of culture happens by a means that is diametrically opposed to the approach of Zealots. Isaiah 52 speaks of the coming Kingdom of God, who reigns sovereign over all the Kingdoms of men. Then there is Isaiah 53, which sheds light on how this eternal and all-encompassing Kingdom is to be inaugurated; by One who comes to suffer! And was this not fulfilled with the life of our Savior, who weeped over Jerusalem, healed the sick, opened blind eyes, ministered to the poor and downcast, spent much time with the lowest of sinners, and ultimately died in the place of sinful humanity, broken on a Roman cross?
Maybe the answer to transforming our culture is to remember that the Kingdom of God is yet to come! The United States is a wonderful nation, and the political parties that make up its government have both had great moments, and “not-so-great’ moments. But these parties are not forever, and neither is the United States! As “unpatriotic” as this may sound, Scripture is clear that a day is coming when all the Kingdoms of the earth will surrender unconditionally to the eternal Kingdom of God, and that includes the "kingdom" of America. Therefore, the call to the church in this age is to incarnate that Kingdom, via planting new churches, into communities worldwide. Culture never has, and never will be, transformed by political power. It will be transformed as the church once again takes up its responsibility to infuse the light of Jesus Christ into a dark world. Laws may restrain evil, but they cannot change the heart. But we know One who can change hearts. Let us remember this, and let our confidence not be found in government, or any other temporal structure, but in the same Gospel which transformed each of us.

Take a look at the following resources for further reading:

Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1996

Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching out without Selling Out Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: Basic, 2002

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Pope's death brings mixed feelings among evangelicals

Certainly no one can doubt that the death of Pope John Paul II is a monumental historical event. I listened to the radio this morning as literally millions of people--a line of humanity no less than five miles long--lined the streets of Rome outside St. Peter's Bascillica to pay their respects to a man who has no doubt left his mark on Christendom.
As an evangelical reflecting on this Pontiff's life, I admit to mixed feelings. One the one hand, John Paul made large inroads as the "people's pope." The first non-Italian leader of the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation, John Paul was a "down to earth" individual at heart, and loved nothing better than to be among his "sheep."
As an outspoken advocate for life, this pope was a hero to all Christians who understand the Scriptural truth concerning issues like abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research. Regardless of one's opinion on the war in Iraq, John Paul's stand against violence reminded us all of the seriousness of such decisions. Admittedly, this pope seemed to have more strength of character than many avowed evangelicals, especially when it came to the issue of keeping one's "prophetic function" when in the White House!
Still, many who respected this world leader had strong disagreements with him on present social issues. Even prior to his death, pundits were speaking of the need for change regarding Catholic policies towards women in the priesthood and homosexuality, among other things. But are these really the true caviats of John Paul's otherwise respectable ministry? Evangelicals must ask deeper questions than this.
For both Protestant and Catholic evangelicals, the primary questions of John Paul's shortcomings should concern the content of the Gospel. While John Paul II was our ally on issues of moral concern, his departure from the Biblical Gospel during his tenure is without a doubt the most tragic part of his legacy. The implied push toward making Mary co-redemptrix robbed Jesus Christ of His rightful place as the only source of salvation; the only path to God. And a papal bull issued in 2000 granting huge indulgences shed new light on a centuries old Catholic heresy; the belief that relatives and friends can be freed from this fictional place called "purgatory."
As the Cardinals wrangle over who should succeed John Paul, evangelicals, including those who exist inside the Roman Catholic church, should exhort them to consider the Biblical picture of salvation in Jesus Christ alone--by faith alone! While we certainly hope that the next pope shares the same moral convictions as his predecesor, if the Biblical Gospel is not recovered within Roman Catholicism, will any of these other issues really matter?