Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Promise and Peril of Young Evangelicals: Passion, Politics, and Idolatry

Much is being written of late about the milennial generation (b. 1978-circa 2000) and the profound effect they are already having on our culture, including the western church.  Since two members of that generation live in the same house as me, I have a front-row seat to how their perceptions, choices, and preferences are driving everything from marketing and education to social policy and perceptions of right and wrong.

A decade ago, the oldest of this generation were students of mine.  And as I spoke to them from the perspective of a professor, I did so with great hope for their generation.  That hope hasn't changed.  I still believe this largest generation in American history has the propensity like no prior generation to eradicate a number of societal evils, and usher in a new age of prosperity and understanding.

In particular, I believe young followers of Jesus Christ are the greatest hope for the 21st century American church.

One example of why I have this hope is seen in my own son.  Several weeks ago, my 13-year old and I sat down to watch the phenomenal movie "42."  I wanted him to witness that period of history, and see how race relations were viewed at that time.  45 minutes into the movie, he excused himself.  Curious, I went to his room, thinking that perhaps some of the content had disturbed him emotionally.  Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and said "I'm fine Dad.  I just don't get it.  I don't understand that movie at all."

And why should he?  My son has spent most of his life in an area where English is but one of more than 60 languages spoken.  His best friend is African American, and his little sister is Asian.  He has grown up in a context where ethnicity is a subject that commands very little attention, and where diversity is an appreciated and assumed fact of life.  The cultural and generational disconnect was obvious, and understandable.

My son is representative of the vast majority of his generation--a group that has grown up in a diverse and multicultural nation.  As such, there are societal issues that never should have been issues in the first place that probably won't be anymore once this generation has fully taken their place in our society, and we can all thank God for that.

Still, with all the hope I have for this emerging group of young leaders, I'm seeing a trend among them that gives me pause--a trend which, if continued, will cause them to repeat the sins of their fathers in reverse.

For the prior generation of evangelicals, political zealotism may have been the greatest misstep of the century.  Initially, evangelicals mobilized themselves in this way for some great and God-honoring causes.  Unborn children were being murdered for profit and eugenics-based cultural superiority.  The nuclear family was threatened by a barrage of cultural forces.  Unfortunately, the "Moral Majority" and other groups like them made two mistakes.  First, many in this movement began to see political involvement as synonymous with God's mission.  And second, this mistaken assumption caused them to approach nearly every issue with political means.

So what started out as a way of prophetically speaking to issues that sometimes crossed wires with public policy domains ended up turning a group of Jesus' followers  into little more than a political voting bloc.  All of a sudden, God had a position on supply-side economics, the line item veto and gun control--and if you believed in Him and had any sense at all, you knew he stood with the Republicans on these issues!

Thankfully, young people we now identify as milennials began to see through some of the fog.  Rather than buy into the line of 1980s and 1990s culture warriors, they began to rightly differentiate between the desire to take over national power structures and God's mission, which both Testaments made clear was advanced through suffering and marginalization like that faced by Jesus Himself.  Slowly but surely, the methods of James Davison Hunter began to supplant those of James Dobson.  Issues like abortion didn't go away, but milennials began to rightly point to the fact that while saving the life of a baby, evangelicals should also recognize that there is a woman in a very hard place who needs our attention, respect and love as well.  

Yet somewhere along the line, a few vocal members of this generation began their own political crusade--and I'm guessing many don't even realize what they have done.  While prior generations wrongly jumped into bed with the Republican party, emerging generations seem to have a similar love for Democrats. 

My most recent experience with this move came last week.  The folks over at Al Jazeera America invited me to be part of an online conversation about church attendance trends in the United States and their relationship to the milennial generation, and social media.  (you can see the discussion here.)  All in all, it was a privilege to interact with some very, very sharp people from a variety of perspectives, including a number of younger evangelicals.  But my interaction with a couple of folks in that environment left me wondering if, instead of resting in Jesus, some of our younger brothers and sisters haven't merely swapped a conservative counterfeit Gospel for a liberal one.

There are two ways you can always tell if someone is more committed to a political ideology than Jesus.  First,  they ignore clear Biblical teaching in order to forward an agenda.  One young lady shared with me that milennials would come back to church in droves, but that we would keep bleeding numbers until we changed our position on gay marriage.  In short, switch from one political position to another--irrespective of what Scripture may say about the issue, and we will return!

Another way you can detect Zealotism is if someone holds up one part of Scripture to the near total exclusion of others.  One young man, quoting Matthew 24 and 25, stated that the whole of the Gospel could be expressed by simply stating that Jesus came for the oppressed and marginalized, and that the central mission of the church is to fight for the rights and dignity of the poor.  While he is right to call the attention of the church back to these texts, focusing on these issues alone as the totality of Christian mission sounds less like Jesus, and just a tad more like Che Guevera.

This was not the first or only interaction I've had with those who call themselves "progressive evangelicals."  The group Red-Letter Christians, led by popular Christian leaders like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, represents the epitome of evangelicals who feel more comfortable among political progressives, and who wish all of evangelicalism was "less political," but also more like them.

Its a strange world in which we are told the church needs to be "less political" by those whose primary concerns seem to have distinctly political ends.

These and other experiences have me concerned that younger evangelicals are in danger of their own form of zealotism.  I'm thankful for the way they have seen through the "smoke" of Republican politics disguised as Gospel mission, but for some in this movement, it would appear they are in danger of becoming the very thing they claim to hate.  Now all of a sudden God has a consistent view of  rich people and constitutional conservatives.  He hates them both.  (Monetary profit is evil you know!)

To be sure, Jesus would walk with political progressives on a number of issues (or perhaps its better to say they would walk with HIM.)  Unjust immigration law, "red-lining" of certain businesses in minority communities by banks, and the unspeakable practice of slavery via human trafficking are but a few issues the church should care about and speak to with a prophetic voice, and none of these would have seen the light of day were it not for our progressive friends.  

At the same time, followers of Jesus should always keep in mind that during his earthly life, He angered and offended both the Pharisees (conservatives) and Saducees (liberals), and I'm pretty sure if He were walking the earth today, both Republicans and Democrats would be very ticked off by Him--for different reasons of course!

Ultimately, there is only one solution to this generational pendulum-swing:  we need to repent.   And when I say repent, I mean it in the fullest sense of the term.  We must "turn away from" our propensity to see everything in light of "conservative" or "liberal" and instead "turn toward" a regular practice of seeing everything in light of Jesus, as He is revealed in Scripture.  

Doing so means that when it comes to the sanctity of life or sexual ethics, some Democrats are going to despise us.  Conversely, when it comes to empowering the marginalized and treating human beings like, well, humans, some Republicans more interested in dollar signs are going to accuse us of not being "real Christians" (see my earlier post on Glen Beck and social justice here.  Strange day when a Mormon becomes the arbiter of who is a "real Christian.")  At the end of the day, we will be people without a party.  We will be people without power--a people who are following Jesus in exactly the way He wants us to--a way in which He receives all the glory for the eventual advent of a Kingdom not of this world.

So if you are a young evangelical, indulge this older guy for a moment while I utter a warning.  Please, please don't make the same mistake as prior generations.  Don't melt down the golden elephant just to recast it in the shape of a donkey.  Instead, repent.  Turn away from the "conservative-liberal" continuum altogether, and turn toward Jesus.  And when you have done so, go back to the political powers with whom you best align yourself, and preach to them more than you listen to them.  We need Christ-following Republicans speaking prophetically to Republicans, and we need Christian Democrats doing the same thing in their own party.

More than anything else, we need an entire generation more concerned about Jesus than power.  Such is the generation that will lead us into a God-honoring and bright future.  My great hope remains that the milennials are that generation.


Theodore A. Jones said...

"For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13 I think you need to figure out which law he he referencing and it is not the OT code. The things you are complaining about will not lessen unless you do.

. said...

Theodore, I'd love to engage you here, but I'm afraid I don't follow your meaning. I'm not sure I can agree that I was "complaining." I'm observing a trend that causes me concern for a generation of people about whom I care deeply, so if you can help me understand where you are coming from, it would be much appreciated. Thanks!