A Small Reform

If youth ministry needs to change as much as I have been discussing, size needs to be mentioned.  To put it simply, we should consider how youth ministry might be smaller.  More personal and face-to-face.  More relationally close.

ym3Thinking about the need for smallness in youth ministry is a theme suggested by Mark Oestreicher in his book Youth Ministry 3.0.  It is further corroborated by youth ministries across the country that have turned to “small groups” to help address needs in the youth ministry.

While small groups that are a part of a larger “big-box” style youth ministry are often the model we have defaulted ourselves to, I’m wondering if that goes far enough.  In some (if not many) cases these small groups are not as central to ministry to adolescents as they could be, instead serving as appendages to a ministry still focused upon the youth pastor et al.  Ministry to teens that is small needs to go beyond the simple “program” of small groups and begin to consider a full-scale revision and rethinking of such efforts that lets go of the need for the big group approach.  Perhaps there don’t need to be any more regular youth group meetings; just small ministry efforts and whole-church gatherings.

Just writing that feels risky.  That’s how I know I’m suggesting change.

All ministers and churches are tempted by matters of size.  Gauging our human level of success by numbers is a far tooyouth-bible-study common occurrence, despite our stated principles.  While growth is a natural development in Christian ministry centered on the good news of Jesus Christ, such change need not happen in an “accumulating towards the center” fashion.  Instead it could mean a proliferation of smaller ministry moments and opportunities within the local congregation that are connected to the unique developmental and pscho-social realities of adolescence.  Like churches that grow to a certain size before planting or opening a separate campus, so too youth ministries, as they engage new individuals, can simply open new doors for engagement on the part of teens and adults alike.

51KkCpkHDIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Where is the youth pastor in all of this?  Well, that’s a good question.  But, considering my comments the other day, perhaps a bit of an anachronistic one.  If we are to consider the option I’ve mentioned today, it implies a new direction for such ministry.  No longer should “small groups” be fit into an existing and traditional youth ministry model.  Instead, the desire to work in focused and face-to-face ways with young people needs to take the lead.  The rest of the things that we’ve come to know and expect?  Well, perhaps we should consider putting them away or adjusting them in favor of trying something new.  It certainly won’t give us the optics of the large group…but it might just develop disciples in a way we can often miss.

Just some thoughts, friends.  I welcome your comments.


Review: “Chasing Francis”

chasing-francis-ian-morgan-cronA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read the book Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron.  It relates the (fictional) tale of a contemporary evangelical pastor whose crisis of faith leads him on an Italian sabbatical to reflect on the life and principles of St. Francis of Assisi.  By the time he returns to the United States, the 39-year-old pastor has a new perspective on church and ministry summed up in five words: “transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning” (196).

As a Church historian who teaches ministry courses–and who spent a day and night in Assisi this past summer–I had a great deal of interest as I approached in this book.  At least part of this excitement continued throughout my reading of it. The central narrative was compelling, and it was interesting to see and experience how the story of Pastor Chase Falson unfolded.  The descriptions of Italy and Assisi brought back fond memories, and Cron’s writing helped deepen some reflections I had about St. Francis during my “pilgrimage” there this July.31709486_la-mattonata_bedbreakfast_assisi

And yet: there were aspects of the story that I didn’t enjoy.  For inasmuch as the central narrative was engaging, aspects of the text were problematic.  Falson’s home church, for instance, seemed chock full of attacks on (perceived) evangelicalism ,including a rather dim portrayal of an ambitious, deceptive, and less-than-bright youth pastor.  Conversely, the Franciscans the pastor meets in Italy were inspiring but perhaps too perfectly idealized.  Lastly, Falson himself–though certainly a developed character–can come off as a somewhat unattractive protagonist.  A bit too wide-eyed at times and sarcastic at others, he leaves Italy ostensibly humbled even while the book seemingly posits a sense of superiority towards others who haven’t taken his journey of enlightenment.

Do my critiques read too much into the text?  Perhaps.  Do I feel that its central task could have been accomplished more helpfully? Yes.  Trust me, I’m not against being inspired by the saints of the past to think about reforming the Church of today.  I’m an ordained minister and PhD-holding Church historian, for Heaven’s sake.

20061005-franc15s1But then perhaps that’s why I offer this critique.  I know how easy it is to look to the idealized past and/or lofty theology and be dissatisfied with the present.  I understand that everything isn’t as it should be.  Even so, I think that’s no reason to simply adopt a “I know better than you poor ignorant evangelicals” approach to ministry.  That’s at least some of book’s implicit message, and insofar as it is ungracious towards that end, I reject its approach.  After reflecting on the life and character of the man of Assisi, I suspect he might too.

I did find aspects of the book helpful for considering today’s church, and certainly think that the historical/spiritual approach wedded to contemporary narrative was a powerful method.  My critiques are born, rather, from one who has sat with some of this material for many years and is concerned that the author isn’t being thoughtful enough about the entirety of the picture.  And yet–considering my earlier critique–it simply wouldn’t be proper for st-francis-san-damianome to dismiss newcomers to this subject matter because they haven’t had the opportunity I have had to consider all of the related issues.  Such a thing would be dismissive at best and elitism at worst.

The main concern I’d have for evangelicals who approach this book is that it would leave them disgusted with their congregations to the point of rejection.  While to be sure there are many issues at work in churches of all different shapes and sizes (and theological traditions), the potential with Chasing Francis is to leave readers so dissatisfied with their Christian community and so impatient for change that they will simply leave to find a greener church pasture.  Contemporary evangelicalism has its issues, but I would submit that it is not as universally compromised as this book can imply.  Loving Christ means loving Christ’s Church…and if we indeed are called like Francis to rebuild he Body of Christ we must take that into consideration.

Areopagitical Lessons

Mars hil basic for webThe “takeaways” from Mars Hill are as many as the situation is sad.  Today, two thoughts related to its unfortunate demise.

The first has to do with structure.  From what I understand, Mars Hill was–like a number of up-and-coming churches–an exemplar of the video-based multi-site model.  What this means is that while each “site” around the city of Seattle and elsewhere had their own meeting place and pastor, they were all a part of the same larger church.  For a number of services each month, Mark Driscoll (or someone else) would preach the sermon through a videolink.  No matter where the parishioners were, they would be getting the same message.  Other weeks, I assume, the local site pastor might speak or preach.

The basic logic of the multi-site model is that if the central church has a healthy system, it makes sense to expand that system through the launching of a new location.  Rather than simply plant a church and set it free to fail, the mother congregation offers oversight and shares its resources to help the new site succeed.  Such as it is, this is not a bad model. In my church, for instance, a pastoral teaching team plans sermons together and shares the same message at each of our two sites via a live in-person speaker.  Though we’re only a month into this preaching system, I think it makes sense.  If implemented another way, however, there is danger.  102013_multisite_graphic

For Mars Hill, the multi-site approach meant (among other things) benefiting from Mark’s preaching and teaching skills by adding a vide0-based component.  The problem with such a model is that it can centralize focus upon one person.  If that main person is a celebrity and/or head and shoulders above the rest, it can begin to make the church rather single-minded.  For as long as that person is there and doing their job right, it is all well and good.  But if things go off the rails in any way, there can be trouble.  At least one of the reasons Mars Hill is now splitting up, I think, is that the system it built can no longer be maintained without the centralizing focus and skill of Mark Driscoll.  In other words, without the central draw, there is no need for a central draw.

The video-based multi-site model can therefore be dangerous, and I think that the collapse of these past few months should make churches who use it pause in their tracks.  Though not every congregation will suffer the scandal of Mars Hill, whenever there is a “main draw” preacher via video there needs to be the realization that there will always come a time when they are not around.  This may not be for years down the road.  It may be within a few weeks.  No matter the case, building a church around one celebrity is a dangerous proposition.

182My second “takeaway” from Mars Hill is both analysis and hope.  Though we do not (and may never) know in exact detail what led to the church’s downfall, it seems fairly clear that bullying from their lead pastor had something to do with it.  Even by itself, this is not good.  When coupled, however, with the hypermasculine rhetoric and approach that Driscoll embodied together with an overtraditionalistic model of male-female hierarchy, it is even more unfortunate.

While I don’t want to be too quick to say that all of these things (bullying, hypermasculine rhetoric, gender ideology) were necessarily connected in a cohesive whole, it seems like they formed a sort of matrix out of which Driscoll operated.  Bad things resulted.  Understand me: I’m not saying this all happened because Driscoll thought wives should be submissive.  I’m simply say that something like this was a piece to a larger puzzle.

When it comes to Driscoll’s project, I have sympathy for what I perceive to be its genesis: the problem of extended adolescence.  I picture him beginning to minister in Seattle in the later 1990s into the 2000s and coming to realize what many societal commentators have discussed: people aren’t “growing up” as fast as they did in generations past.  For the contemporary young person, the adolescence that ended for their parents at age 18 is now extended as far as 30 or beyond.  This is frustrating for many to see.  As Mark Driscoll observed this in the young men to whom he ministered, he not ActLikeMen-Quote-MarkDriscoll1inappropriately called upon them to “step up.”

The advance he sought, however, was not simply one of maturity, but rather wed to his own conception of masculinity combined with a certain reading of the Scripture. This, among other things, involved (my own airquotes) “being a man’s man,” “drinking beer and talking theology,” and “leading the family and church.”  Driscoll of course accepted the idea that women cannot be pastors, and for a number of years  we who support the call of God in our sisters’ lives have had to grapple with him.

Though not causing it, all of these ideas connected to what seems to be Driscoll’s pugnacious nature.  The unfortunate result of this mixing has been in the news now for some time.

Whatever I have suggested above is admittedly conjecture, but I think it has some merit in explaining part of the Mars Hill/Driscoll ideology.  This leads me to my hope: that because some of the same problems that led to Driscoll’s resignation are (at least) thematically linked to such a hyper-masculine ideology, it may fade in influence as a discredited notion.  A kind of “guilt by association,” if you will.  Even though such rhetoric and a failure to support women in ministry was not itself the presenting cause of Driscoll’s problems, that it was connected to them may cause many to rethink their stance on such issues.

A1029-11ATo close, an historical example.  Mere days after JFK was assassinated the new President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed the assembled Congress.  As he stood before the nation and that august body, he said this: “All I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today.”  Clearly, there are some lessons we’d rather learn and some realities we’d rather achieve by any other means.  So please understand that as I’ve shared some thoughts about celebrity pastors and vide0 sites, I’m not happy about the way this lesson was learned.

So too I don’t dance on Mars Hill’s grave, even though with its burial some of the things I liked least about it may now fade.  Though the takeaways I’ve shared may be helpful, how they came to be does not make them unmitigated goods.  May we remember this as we pray for the Church universal and local.

A Mars Hill Shaped Hole

mars-hill-90991Mars Hill Church is no more.  According to their website, the Seattle-based multi-site megachurch will be devolving into various independent congregations and/or simply shutting its doors, ideally by 1 January 2015.  In their words:

(1) All of Mars Hill’s existing church properties will either be sold, or the loans on the individual properties will be assumed by the independent churches, subject to approval by the lender; (2) all central staff will be compensated for their work, and then released from their employment; (3) if any funds remain after the winding down and satisfaction of Mars Hill business affairs, they will be gifted as seed money to the newly independent churches, then, (4) the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved.

The news on Friday was a shocking one for American evangelicalism, not to mention the church community here in Seattle.  Coming on the back of founding pastor Mark Driscoll‘s resignation connected to bullying and dictatorial behavior, the church appears to have been in tailspin in recent weeks.  To think that a congregation that not long ago numbered over 12,000 will now disband is nothing short of astounding.  Pieces of it will persist, but not like it was.  Despite the reasons for such developments, the rapidity of the fall is monumental, especially here in the city of Seattle.mark-driscoll_profile_img

As I’ve reflected on the developments over the weekend, I have to admit a certain wistfulness.  I have spent many years studying Church history; now it’s happened right in my backyard.  And as it has, I’m rather sad about it.

At a certain level, I’m going to miss Mars Hill.  I realize that may be a controversial thing to say, but hear me out.  When I say I’m going to miss the church, I don’t mean that I’m going to miss a pastor that bullies his people.  I won’t miss any of the reproach he has brought upon the gospel.  I won’t miss accusations of misogyny.  I won’t miss an ideology that devalues the role played by women in the church and world.  I won’t miss people being hurt by their church.  These things would best die with Mars Hill.

But as the church fades, I can’t help miss what it was at its best: an example of Christian community that drew Christ followers from a city and a subculture that others didn’t reach in the same way.  The work that Mars Hill did in the city of Seattle–especially in its early years–is not to be ignored.  As a voice for the gospel in this place, they were used by God.  I remember first learning about their Easter-Songsministry in the later 1990s.  They were innovative.  They were thoughtful and artistic.  They had a lot to offer.  I still remember the “Mars Hill Worship” CD I listened to regularly in those days, and how it was like nothing I’d heard before. They were truly trying to translate evangelicalism into contemporary idiom and practice, and they did so with excellence.

And Mark Driscoll?  For all his flaws, the man is a great preacher.  When he wasn’t saying unhelpful things, he was saying some very helpful things.  In all his bravado I’ll miss him too as a kind of public dialogue partner on his pet issues.

All of my reasons for missing Mars Hill are not enough, of course, to excuse the faults that led to its demise.  I am grieved and frustrated by the people hurt by this ministry over the years.  They deserved better than this.  So to say that I feel a certain sadness at its passing is not the same as concluding it was faultless.  I simply wish they had been able to build on their not insignificant strengths without taking the path that has led to their destruction.  A Mars Hill–and a pastor–that could have course corrected in a number of ways would have been a different thing entirely.  That this did not happen is a sad reality indeed.images

For those who disagreed with Mark Driscoll on a number of things, I’m with you.  He does not seem to have been a pleasant man…and believe me, I’ve had issues with him.  But while we may be glad that the toxic culture that existed has now hopefully dissolved, let’s not take joy in Driscoll’s suffering or the demise of his church.  There is, after all, deep pain felt today by the thousands directly affected by this tragic turn of events.

The people of Mars Hill who proclaim faith in Christ are the sisters and brothers of believers all over the world.  They are broken and in need of healing, as is Driscoll himself.  They deserve our prayers, not a victory parade over their dying corpse.  Whatever else it may be, the decimation of a part of the body of Christ is not good news.

So as we think about Mars Hill, let’s remember this: schadenfreude is not among the Christian virtues.

Don’t Call It Persecution

christian-persecution-rosary-martyrs-bloodA friend’s Facebook recently alerted me to an article from TheDailyBeast.com concerning American Christianity and the concept of persecution.  More specifically, it discussed the seeming inanity of the use of the word “persecution” for anything Americans experience when compared to the dire religious threats and danger are faced by our fellow believers on the world stage.

The main target of the article’s ire was an upcoming study trip/luxury cruise with R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries.  The topic?  “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”


The Daily Beast article appropriately excoriates the nonsensical combination of thinking about suffering while sipping pina coladas in sun-bathed excess.  As the author notes in his conclusion, “It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big [expletive] to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.”  iraq-christiansWhile I’m pretty certain the truth lies with the first of these reasons, I agree it is bad no matter what.

The main issue here, of course, isn’t Sproul himself, but any notion that perceived “persecution” of American Christians deserves to be called that in the first place.  And–if you take my meaning–it doesn’t.  Among the sad lessons that ISIS has taught us, one of the most important for American Christians is that we don’t have the first idea what real persecution is.

When the stories of persecution in Iraq broke a few months ago, I hoped that the reality of religious violence against Christians and others would finally put to rest American Christians’ use of the persecution language and orientation.  And I do think that, by and large, there is greater understanding about the inappropriateness of such thinking.  So–the Sproul cruise notwithstanding– I hope that in a certain sense the criticisms The Daily Beast makes are outdated by at least a few months.  Perhaps the recent chain of world events, tragic as they are, has made us begin to own up to our reality and start to care more about those who are really persecuted.  Or maybe not.

atheistThough it is certainly true that Christianity (whether in forms orthodox or largely superficial) no long occupies the same role in American society that it has at points in ages past, this does not mean we are persecuted.  God on our money, “Merry Christmas” on our lips, respect and preference given to churches and ministers?  These things may pass away, but the simple fact of their passing does not persecution make.  Just because Judeo-Christian privilege in our society is beginning to fade does not necessarily mean that we are being attacked.  It might just mean that we are started to be treated without any preference.  After 1800 years of favor in the West, Christianity is entering a new day as secularization is on the march in the centers of cultural power.

For people of faith such developments can be a cause for concern.  But this is not the same as persecution.  Call it something else.  But don’t look Iraqi Christians in the eye and dare call it persecution.

The Daily Beast article notes: ” Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme.”  I agree.  It can be a little tough for Christians in an America that cares less about traditional Christian morality.  But that toughness does not equate to the endurance of persecution.  And even in those places where 9elements of government or society are legitimately attacking the actions of some religious people or wanting to curtail perceived rights, must we really place this in the same category as the saints of Iraq who are being devastated and murdered by a ruthless regime?  If a minister  is denied a housing allowance benefit, a church has to start paying taxes because they disagree with governmental policy, or a Christian is called an ignorant obscurantist and derided by her culture despisers, is this the same thing as persecution?  Losing rights and privileges is not a good…but living with constant fear of destruction is much, much worse.  I’m not saying American Christians don’t face any challenges.  I’m just saying it isn’t persecution.

Ultimately, the questions engendered by articles like that in The Daily Beast should reveal to us the danger of language defining a reality that isn’t even real.  Our Christianity is in a dangerous state indeed when we gaze inward so much that we make our own plight ppp-4as important as (or, the case with this cruise, more important than?) our brothers and sisters.

We are rich and comfortable here, so sometimes–indeed, most of the time–the first thing we need to do is shut up.  I know that some American Christians are frustrated with hand-wringing over our wealth and position, saying that we just have an overdeveloped guilt complex. OK, fine.  Maybe so.  But something like this cruise, so apparent and flagrant in its excess, calls into question not just this little study tour and its poor, poor choice of topics…but points some big questions at all of us who sit and complain in relative comfort while the world burns.

The Footsteps of Doom

indexStudying history is a unique experience.  While sometimes it is an exercise in discovery and exploration, at other moments it is more akin to reading a Shakespearean tragedy or watching a slow motion car crash.

You know what’s coming even when the people you are studying have absolutely no idea.

Investigating the background to the First World War as Europe blindly stumbles towards a bloodbath.  Reading a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, all the while knowing he would leave the Presidency destroyed by the effects of Vietnam.  Understanding that Constantinople will fall in 1453 and that there is nothing you can do about it.  That’s what being an historian is like some days.

As someone who focuses most of his historical attention on the United States, there is little that has this sense of impending doom like the NollCivil War.  Slavery exists early in European colonization of the New World.  Every time it is mentioned, we know what’s going to happen.  The rhetoric of freedom in the Revolution highlights the inequities inherent in the system, even as Jefferson continues to own slaves.  Gradual abolition in the North gives hope every time you read about it.  Until, that is, the South begins to conservative and clamp down around its “peculiar institution.”

As the nation expanded westward–a process that happens every time I read about, without fail–the question of slave states versus free states continued to perplex.  Compromise after compromise was reached, but only papered over the growing differences between societies North and South.  Religiously they shared common belief and read a common Bible, but the situation on the ground led them to express and live that faith in increasingly different ways.  As denominations begin to shatter North and South starting around 1840, they were but a harbinger of the breaking of America that could no longer be averted by 1860-1.

conf0206-1-smallNothing, it seemed, could hold the nation together.  Not even the vaunted and optimistic claims of the dominant evangelicalism of the 19th century.  The United States’ lack of unity and inability to end the crime of slavery without war (like Britain) constitutes–together with the existence of slavery in the first place–a foundational tragedy at the center of the American story.  It is a drama written by no one person, but rather one with numerous actors continually impelled towards the bloody conclusion of places like Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Ford’s Theater.

As we reflect on this story again and again, may we seek to realize in our own day what the actors could not in theirs.  May we see the inner meaning of the tragedy to which they inadvertently pointed and, in so doing, gain more insight into the directions of our own contemporary story.  In the wreck of their blindness and failures of faith and deed, may we learn.

Like As Of Fire

20120513144615!Icon-PentecostIn an interesting bit of recent news, the results of the 2012 National Congregations Survey has reported that nearly 25% of American churches had speaking in tongues as a part of their worship in the year previous to the survey.  This was up 4% from just 5 years before.

While I’m used to hearing stories about the growth and ubiquity of Pentecostal/Charismatic forms of worship across the globe, I’ll have to admit that this number took me by surprise.  That almost 1 out of every 4 churches includes some form of glossolalia is nothing short of astounding.  It says a lot about the state of American Christianity and the growing influence Spirit-centered forms continue to have within it.

While it is almost certain that not all of the congregations that identified as such are Pentecostal groups, this in itself is notable.  It means that the influence and effects of the trans-denominational Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and 1970s–which dissipated as an organized cohesive force in the 1980s–remains alive and well.  As a Pentecostal believer who has studied this movement and retains an abiding interest in its potential for what I call the “ecumenism of experience,” these new statistics are heartening.1e4949df7

While 24.6% is hardly a majority of churches and does not necessarily even represent 24.6% of Christians in America (you’ll have to parse the data for yourself on that one), such a relatively large number does speak to the mainstreaming of a movement that was deeply peripheral only 100 years ago.

Glossolalia, of course, itself is not the ultimate goal for Pentecostals.  A life alive in the Spirit is.  Speaking in tongues is a part of this, though, and its growing acceptance as a legitimate experience for many American congregations means that more and more believers will be open to embracing this mode of Christian faith.  Even just the other night, a former NFL star was praying in tongues on a reality TV show.  Imagine that.

What all of this will eventually mean is anyone’s guess.  As developments continue in this direction, it may very well be that more and more Christians are able to speak of common experiences of God–even if the culture, theology, politics, and worldviews of these believers may be very different.   Perhaps a burgeoning era of revival awaits, initiated by those experiencing or open to 2269catholiccha_00000001421embracing the unusual effects of the Spirit’s action in their lives.  Or perhaps–less optimistically–the growing dominance of the Pentecostal style might lead to commodification and diminishing of fervor as a once marginalized sectarian understanding rushes headlong into the world of the lowest common denominator.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Pentecostal styles of Christianity have now “arrived” and must be taken seriously.  The reappraisal that began during the Charismatic Movement of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations must now be expanded.  Though less a visibly organized movement than 40 years ago, the grassroots influence of broadening Spirit-centered Christianity requires that all believers to come to terms with the reality of such expression.  Because if these trends continue (admittedly a big “if,” but still) it might not be long before such Pentecostal practices become a de facto element of Christian worship across the United States.

Imagine that.