I Am of that Age

Older, shall we say!!!

Much of my reading now, at least with regard to contemporary works, is written by those younger than me. I am not sure when I began to recognize this. But it did dawn on me, I think, when I began to notice words like “new”, “innovative”, “imginative”, “bold”, etc. when describing the author.  And after reading them, I couldn’t find the new, the innovative, the imaginative or the bold. It all sounded like what I had heard before.

This is particularly true when it comes to church. I came to a self-conscious participation in church and ministry in the 1960s. Knowing what I know about culture, if I could pick a time to go to college out of all times, it would be the 1960s. This was the great “luck” of my life. I was made for that time. While generally conservative there was a large part of me that enjoyed everything being up for grabs. I loved philosophy classes combined with New England colonial intellectual history and studies in Robert Frost. On any given day I could move from Sartre and existentialism to political theory to poetry to campus demonstrations and the Beatles. By the early 70s it was all gone. In a moment the campus went from bell bottoms to briefcases and short haircuts.

It was time when church as we knew it was being challenged at every turn. It needed to be. It will always need to be. As I have often heard, one is not really useful to the church unless at some point in life he or she has thought that for the sake of Christ they must leave it. I was not exactly an empty vessel on the subject but re-engineering the church was a common theme.

40 years later it is becoming more and more difficult to introduce me to a new paradigm that I haven’t seen before. The only one who thinks it is new is the person writing the new book on it or developing a new conference.

I still have skin in the game. I still listen. I think that I am a learner. Those near me would agree, I think, that I haven’t become a deadhead in ministry. But I have spent a lot of time on rabbit trails. And I see the same ones popping up time and again. “THIS will change the church.” “THAT will change the church.”  ‘THE OTHER will change the church.” And they say it without blinking an eye, almost as if they really believe the keys of the kingdom have been put into their hands.

There are some genuine developments that demand my attention:

1. The Evangelical church has grown old and the old rallying cries do not work anymore. It is more aware of the complexities of our once easy formulas. It must be reborn.

2. The cultural dialog has shifted to the syncretism that has much in common with Roman period of the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, etc. In the West we are in stalemate in which a common world view is illusive and threatens the ability of society to cohere and make critical decisions together.

3. The absolute breakdown of the family has created conditions that make ministry more difficult. The breakdown of the family within churches is a scandal. Church people are trading partners and children in such rapid succession that doing a church directory is a major feat.

4. Pluralism has come home to roost. The church has to learn how to do culture and political theory as one of increasingly many world views here in the US. I think the church must learn the value of Natural Law Theory, something that Protestants are uniquely unsuited for but which the Roman Catholic Church brings in spades to the table.

5. Cultural optimism has been drained. Most Americans are convinced that the best days are behind us and that our problems are unsolvable. We are facing the end game moment Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of in his Democracy in America. Many of our ways of doing ministry have been buoyed by a cultural optimism that produced an energy level all its own. What does ministry look like in a period of slide? I think we need some fresh insights on this. And this might be one thing the church in other places needs to bring to the Western church.

6. The shift of spiritual energy of the church shifting to places such as Nigeria. The American church is finding itself having to partner in new ways and with a more self-conscious stance of humility and awareness that having had its chance for sustained cultural renewal lost its way and was a part of producing a society dependent upon licentiousness, unrestrained appetites, consumption as a competitive sport, etc., that has resulted in epidemics of pornography, drug use, inability to do family, debt addiction, and an inability to be satisfied – wanting, wanting, wanting.

7. In biblical scholarship the increasing depth of insight into the Ancient Near East is both a major help in biblical interpretation but at the same time the camel’s nose is in the tent. ANE studies can end up “flattening out” the uniqueness of the Old Testament narratives.

8. The increasing sense on the part of many that the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century are losing their sway on conservative biblical scholarship. Justification through faith alone by grace alone is increasingly not seen as the be all and end all of the biblical message. The Neo-Puritans are doing their best to damn the tide by their “Gospel this” and their “Gospel that” conferences. But the church is demanding, not a different doctrine, but a fuller vision. I agree. And I think the Neo-Puritans are on the losing side of that project. NT Wright’s contribution is only one of the peaks in a ridge of others that are rising up on the horizon. Scott McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is the best summary expression of the concern. I believe in justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. I think it is central. I think it should be shouted from the rooftops. But it is not the only topic on my agenda. And I think the Neo-Puritan movement, for all its insight into this central formulation, is overstating its case and will find that it doesn’t have enough fuel to lift very far off the launching pad, falling back to earth before it reaches orbit. Thinking people, and there are more of them than some suppose, will not be satisfied with a church consisting essentially of one doctrine that is the beginning and ending point of every sermon.

These are some of the areas I am looking for counsel on. But the “our new way of church is going to change church forever” genre is a yawn for me. I am not a cynic jaded toward the young. I am more concerned that the absence of  solid academic mentoring might be produces a whole bushel of books, conferences and movements that are all ignition and no fire.

And by the way, if you want to talk to me about how contemporary forms of worship are essential for a new church for a new day, step back and watch me spontaneously combust right there. The number of pastors who have destroyed churches with this piece of pop psychology have killed more churches and drained more spiritual energy than any set of false doctrines I can think of. I am a contemporary Christian music fan. It is what I listen to. And I have no agenda to enthrone the old hymns as the peak of expression. It is all just a useless discussion to me. Speak to the hand!!!

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