Churches reconsidering Gospel and Culture – NYMC Podcast #2


Here is the second of two PodCast episodes developed in conjunction with the National Youth Ministry Convention (NYMC) that dives deeper into Fuller Youth Institute’s latest research on Churches that are Growing Young(er) rather than older.  In this PodCast, we explore how churches that reconsider their approach to gospel and culture allows them to engage with a younger generation and helps their faith to grow.  But how to do this, and not lose the heart and soul of Christian faith is the trick.


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I’m going to say something from the outset that you may not agree with.  It goes like this:

There is no such thing as a pure’Gospel’

(if by “pure” you mean some kind of rarified and objective Gospel that just drops out of heaven and is received in an unaltered state).

The Gospel, even the gospel on the lips and life of Jesus when he walked this earth 2000 years ago, comes wrapped in culture.  Yes, Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection atones for our sins and is the lynchpin of God’s redemptive plan for the world.  But first and foremost, the words and life of Jesus wrapped the Gospel in first-century Jewish culture.  Before it was good news for you and me, it was good news for them.  Or to put it another way, before it can be good news for you and me, we must, interpret, translate and enculturate the Gospel.

Implication? If you are going to be Gospel-focused, you MUST become self-aware of your culture as well, or else you run the risk of presenting culture and calling it Gospel.


In this second NYMC podcast episode, I chat with Brenton and Jimmy about Fuller Youth Institute’s research into churches that grow young and, in particular, their findings concerning the way churches that grow young relate themselves to culture and seek to encourage young people to walk in the way of Jesus.

The summary?  In a nutshell,  they found no trace of churches watering down the gospel or shying away from its implications.  Yet neither did they find that churches were simply rehearsing the gospel ‘strategies’ of the 60s, 70s and 80s in louder, faster and stronger ways.

Rather, they found that churches significantly adjusted their relationship to culture, and reframed their sense of the Gospel.

How did they adjust their relationship to culture?  In what sense did they reframe the Gospel … well, you better have a listen …


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When God Is Not Being Clear

 


As we launch our new program – NEXT2 – we are exploring purpose, vocation, calling and discerning the way ahead through our blog. This week, we are re-posting a blog written by Rowan Lewis, team leader at NEXT, that explores God’s Will and finding our way when things aren’t clear. We will be going deeper with these ideas next week …


 

I was about 20 years old when I made my first deal with God. I said, “God … this is a big decision. I’m really confused and I just want to do Your will. So I’m not going to take another step until I know which way You want me to go.”

Can you guess what happened next?

Yep, you guessed it. Nothing. Total silence.

The bush I was sitting next to didn’t burst into flames. No angel appeared to touch my tongue with coal. Even the crickets that were chirping in the background when I made my declaration had gone quiet.

Undaunted I persisted in the silence, waiting, hoping, pleading for anything that would give me a clue as to what I should do. I remained for what seemed like an age.

file1701347712205But the fallen branch I was sitting on felt uncomfortable. And then my tummy gurgled and reminded me it was dinnertime. And then a song that I had been listening to earlier crept into my head. And then a little ant crawled onto my hand, tickling my skin. And then a car drove down the road beside the paddock and a cow sauntered across to the nearly dry dam for a drink.

The moment was gone.

My mind filled up with ‘stuff’ and I looked down at my watch. It had only been 10 minutes.

Dejected I made my way back to the house. How do you discover God’s will for your life?

 


Finding God’s Will

Finding God’s will can be a tricky business.  In this first post, we’ll look at the idea of God having a specific opinion or preference about what you should or should not do and discover that it is important to distinguish between God’s general and specific will for our lives.  In subsequent posts we will explore the question of a ‘Personal Calling’ and I’ll step you through a really practical way my mentor taught me to discern whether God has a specific will for you in a particular moment, and if so, what that will might be.

 


Discernment 101

So what do we mean when we speak of “God’s will?”

Christians derive the concept of God’s will from scriptures that speaks of God’s guidance in human lives (like Jeremiah 29:11) as well as His concern to restore all things to their rightful place and intended state (like Col 1:15-20).  As such, the concept of God having a will for your life is not saying that God is a meddling control-freak who enjoys messing with people’s lives.  Instead it describes a God who uses His unstoppable power and unending knowledge to call and redeem us and our world to live in freedom together.

So when we talk about “God’s will” in relation to our particular circumstances, we are saying that God might have a specific opinion or preference about what you should (or should not) do.  Figuring out this preference (when God doesn’t have an actual body to stand in front of you or a physical voice-box to speak with) takes discernment – and discernment can be a tricky process because it assumes that God uses all sorts of different ways and means to get your attention and tell you what to do. And that means you are left to interpret conversations, experiences, bible verses, thoughts in your head and feelings in your gut – none of which is certain, sure or scientifically verifiable.

Of course, all of this raises some really big questions – or at least highlights some big assumptions. Does God really have a specific opinion about what I should do? And if He does, down to what level of detail – like does God really care what I have for breakfast? Is God really forced to use all sorts of weird, indirect methods to communicate His will? And if I unknowingly fail to do His will am I being disobedient?

In this first post, we’ll tackle the first of these questions – the idea of God having a specific opinion or preference about what you should or should not do.

 


To do, or not to do – that is the question … or is it?

Does God really care what I have for breakfast? Or what clothes I wear? Should I be listening out for God’s voice in relation to this trivial everyday stuff, or only for the big decisions?

Something I’ve found really helpful in figuring my way through this, is an insight that comes from R. Paul Stevens. In a great book called ‘The Other Six Days – Vocaiton, Work and Ministry in Biblical Perspective’ he points out that it helps to think about God having as both a general and specific will – that is, a broad and unchanging preference about how we should live that we can discover in Scripture as well as occasionally a specific and personal calling that we discover over the course of our life.

God’s General Will

First of all, God has a will for All Humanity – Stevens call this the ‘Human Calling’. Everybody share’s in the human calling – Christian or not – simply by being alive. Our human calling is God’s constant an unchanging will that comes to us simply because we are all created in God’s image – and that has implications. Being created in God’s image means that we can live in ways that reflect our Creator (and so we ‘conform’ to His image), or we can live in ways that deny the creator (and so ‘deform’ the image).

This is the most general level of God’s will and reflects the fact that we live in a moral universe created by a moral God. God’s will for humanity doesn’t really change from moment to moment – so discerning this aspect of God’s will is much more about discovering God’s character and bringing it to life. Guidance for this way of living is all over the bible, like the Beatitudes in Matthew 5-7.

Within this general will, Stevens also talks about a ‘Christian Calling’ that is also made to all people but is a little more specific because it is a calling given in response to the fact that our humanity has become broken and tarnished by sin. This aspect of God’s will highlights the specific directions God gives to the Church – those united by their discipleship as members of God’s kingdom.

Again, this aspect of God’s will doesn’t really change from moment to moment. An example of this will is reflected in Paul’s instruction to Timothy where he says ‘fan into flame the Gift of God which is in you’ (2 Tim 1:6). While this sounds kinda personal and specific, it is a reminder from Paul to do what all Christians are charged with doing, which is to participate with the Holy Spirit and bring to life the Spirit’s gifts. Another example might be the way Peter charges the church collectively to be careful with its use of power and silence foolish people by living submissive lives that are beyond reproach (1 Peter 2:11-17)

In discerning both of these forms of God’s Will, we can gain much resource from Scripture. What we can learn from the Bible is how we can all live freely in the fullness of our image-bearing humanity (and live out our human calling), as well as the way we can collectively participate with God’s Spirit to redeem and restore the world marred by sin.  To put it another way, as you read and engage with Scripture and live your life in ways that reflect your creator and His redemptive plan, you are living God’s (general) will for your life.

The Personal or Specific Calling

Yet beyond this is general sense of God’s Will is a much more specific and particular sense – a ‘Personal Calling’. Here Steven’s observes that from time-to-time God clearly steps in to communicate a specific intention or direction for a person’s life.

I find it helpful to divide Personal Calling into two kinds that we find in Scripture. The first I call the ‘out-of-the-blue’ moments. These moments are often transformative and result in turning humble famers and shepherds into prophets and leaders of God’s people. These moments are often stark, very confronting, and rarely sought out by the recipients. Usually the person being called in this moment will actually protest, feeling the fear and frailty of their humanity like Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15) or Isaiah’s angelic visitations (Isaiah 6:1-13).

The second kind of personal calling is where a person actively seeks God’s direction for their life. We see this spiritual practice being actively engaged in the life of Jesus, Paul, Joshua and many others. What I find interesting about this kind of discernment, is that it is often the search for wisdom as well as an act of submission. Take Jesus, for example, staying up all night in prayer before choosing the 12 Disciples (Luke 6:12-16). There may have been many great apostles to be found amongst the 70 or so followers, so Jesus’ choice to seek God’s guidance can be understood to be a request for wisdom to discern amongst a variety of potentially equally good options.  The same can be seen in the life of the apostles when they were experiencing extreme persecution in the early years of the Church. As they gathered together in prayer, they often sought God’s wisdom to choose between the options they had available to them (See Acts 6), or even to check if their preferred option was a good idea (See Acts 4:23-31).

Out-of-the-blue moments are highly experiential moments of calling where God makes himself abundantly clear.  These moments are initiated by God, are clear and directive, and the individual’s response becomes a matter of obedience of disobedience.  Active searching moments are initiated by us humans, seeking wisdom from God and nurturing an posture of submission to His ways.


So Does God Care About What I Eat for Breakfast?Gods Will - General Specific

So how does all of this help me figure out God’s will?

I’ll get down to very specific things you can do to discern God’s will in the next post, but for now, let me outline a couple of important points that can save a lot of confusion:

  1. Compared to other forms of calling, the ‘Out-of-the-Blue’ moments happen comparatively rarely throughout Scripture.  This is important to note because while we are commonly drawn to these texts in order to work out our own sense of call, they may not be that helpful.  Out-of-the-Blue texts are most useful when they are used to help you understand and authenticate your own out-of-the-blue God moments (which for many people, are also very rare).
  2. If you are instead trying to make a big decision, then you are better off looking to the wisdom texts where biblical characters are actively seeking God’s direction and nurturing a posture of submission to His ways.  If this is the case, then most of our God’s-Will-Decision moments aren’t actually about obedience or disobedience, but of making wise, God-honouring choices.
  3. And this leads to a third point about the use of Scripture in general.  Reading and engaging with Scripture is REALLY helpful for discerning God’s will – especially for understanding our human and Christian calling.  Here God’s call is relatively stable and unchanging because it applies to all people in all places.  Scripture is also helpful as you seek wisdom in your every day choices, but here you will be looking for how people have applied God’s truth in the past in order to help you to figure out how to apply it in the present.
  4. Finally, in the absence of a clear out-of-the-blue experience of God, the best way you can discern God’s will is to start at the most basic form of calling, and work your way up.  Consider your life in terms of the ways it might reflect or deflect the morality of God’s character.  Consider your general Christian calling and the ways in which God has wired you up to participate with Him in His Kingdom plan.  In each of these ways, you begin to develop the ‘mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16) which helps you to actively seek out and submit to a wise path for your life.

So lets use this framework to think about the little stuff of everyday life – like breakfast or clothing. There aren’t heaps of people who would treat the choice between cornflakes and porridge as a question of God’s specific will. However issues of a healthy diet as well as stewardship of creation do arise and so you may want to consider this question over time through the lens of your human calling.

Equally, choosing between the red or blue top may not make it onto God’s specific agenda for you on a given day, but that is not to say your wardrobe does not raise issues of stewardship, commercial branding, self esteem, cultural sensitivity as well as sweat-shops and human rights. While these are all part of our human calling, you might also consider them in the light of how you want to participate as part of God’s redeeming community.

I hope you can see that living in God’s will doesn’t just have to do with the ‘big’ decisions we need to make from time to time. It has just as much to do with becoming free in our humanity and blessing other’s humanity as well, while also speaking to our participation in the life of the Church as we seek to redeem and restore our broken world.

In the next post, we’ll focus more specifically on the question of a ‘Personal Calling’ and I’ll step you through a really practical way my mentor taught me to discern whether God has a specific will for you in a particular moment, and if so, what that will might be.

 

 


Next2 is a space to ask the questions of purpose even whilst you are living them. It is first and foremost a discernment community. A group of people coming together to wrestle with their sense of Calling whilst intentionally supporting each other. One day/week so you can keep doing all that you are doing. One year of your life so you can focus up the rest. Fully accredited towards a diploma or degree. You can find out more about it all right HERE.

 


 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

Are Australia Churches Haemorrhaging Faith?

Hem Faith

I think I have begrudgingly reached the conclusion that I am not proud of and wish were not true.

The conclusion is, that the contemporary church (at least in the West) is by and large failing in its primary task of passing on faith to the next generation.

I realise this is a big call to make and definitely presumptuous  – but as I have sat with all the research I can find that dates back some 40 or so years, all the data points to the church becoming increasingly ineffective in this task.

One of the latest pieces of research emerged in 2012 from a Canadian collective of youth focused ministry organisations.  They released the results of a major research project that sought an answer to two fundamental questions

  1. To what degree do young adults in Canada today stick with or drop their (Protestant or Catholic) faith? and
  2. What keeps them in the faith, and what helps to usher them out?

The results of their research is emblazoned in the title of the report – ‘Haemorrhaging Faith’.

I first heard about the report through a few friends  who are variously involved in churches and youth ministries across Canada.  They recalled the collective shudder that attended the release of the report.  Could it really be that over a half to two thirds of our young people will leave church and walk away from faith as they journey through the young adult years?  And worse still, the data confirmed that this is not just a stage-of-life thing – that is, this is not just about young adults needing to test things out for a while, but then eventually coming back when they are married with kids.  Instead, for those who walk away from the church and faith less than 5% return and in some denominations, it is less than 1%.

For some, this hard data confirmed a sneaking suspicion. For others it was a total shock. For all it was a wake-up call.  There was a general consensus that the Haemorrhaging Faith report was a clarion call to action and provided Canadian churches with the permission (or some would say a mandate) to radically re-imagine youth ministry, church structures, discipleship and faith development.

Last month, Australia hosted Dave and Kara Overholt as part of a national Haemorrhaging Faith conference.  Thanks to the generosity of the hosts, the Baptist Union of Victoria, you can watch the keynote and workshop sessions of the Victorian leg of the conference here.  You can also read some great conference summaries given by bloggers like Mike Stevens and a more detailed summary by Jimmy Young.

When the conference was being planned, the organisers asked me to respond specifically to the Haemorrhaging Faith research and consider whether Australian Churches might also be facing a similar phenomenon.  You can watch the session here.  In a nutshell my session sought to make two major points:

  1. Firstly, there is no doubt in my mind that we are seeing a similar phenomenon in Australian Churches.  All the evidence and research that I can find to date would underscore the Canadian finding that youth and young adults are leaving our churches in droves and in the majority of cases, this represents a movement away from active Christian faith.
  2. Secondly, however, I also wanted to nuance some of the Canadian research findings and carefully consider how we might interpret and respond to this data.  One of the key Canadian findings related to four ‘Spiritual Types’ that describe four differing responses research participants exhibited to the church – The Engagers, Fence Sitters, Wanderers and Rejecters.  You can read a helpful summary of these 4 spiritual types in the above mentioned blog entries, or here in this Canadian magazine article. Now Jimmy Young summarised my point here quite well when he wrote in his blog:

Rowan pushed back on some of the research, noting that the grouping can actually have a self-fulfilling prophecy of pushing lost faith onto searching teens if you categorize people like that.

Words [that we might use to] describe the Engagers include phrases such as faithful, disciples and saved whilst words [that we might commonly use] to describe Fence-Sitters, Wandereres and Rejecters would include phrases such as backsliders, unfaithful, unsaved, lost and sinners. The words we use to describe them can be of huge importance in how they feel about themselves and how we view them.

Rowan ended asking: are we sure that the engagers [are] the ones who are close and the rest further away from the cross?

Let me be clear for a moment.  When Jimmy said that I ‘pushed back’ on some of the research, I wasn’t for a moment pushing back on the overall conclusion that many young people – to many – are walking away from the church and rejecting their Christian faith.  That much is patently clear and should put a collective shudder through church.  We are failing in our primary task of passing on the faith to younger generations and of allowing ourselves to be influenced and informed by the faith of younger generations.  I wonder if this failure is so profound and systemic that it demands a fundamental re-imagination.

What I was ‘pushing back’ on, was the way we understand and therefore engage with those whom the report classified as an engager, fence-sitter, wanderer or rejecter.  My own research has consistently highlighted that, for many young adults, the process of critically engaging and testing their faith is a vital step in the process of them internalising and owning their faith.  The problem often lies in the fact that our approach to young people in this midst of these ‘red-zone’ periods is that they might appear to us as people teetering on the edge of losing faith, wandering away or even rejecting their faith of origins when in fact they are working harder at their faith than someone safely stowed in our pews apathetically singing along with the worship band without a care in the world.

I would push this point even further.  One of the key players in the Canadian research effort categorised herself as being a ‘rejecter’ 6 years prior to publication, but now had been working for sometime as a youth and young adults pastor in a local church.  The question this raises is, if a person can go from rejecter (the category describing those furthest removed from church and faith) to engager,  pastor, and youth ministry researcher in the space of six short years, exactly how far away from faith was this individual in the first place?

Equally, when I examined the survey questions in the report that were used to derive the four spiritual types, I could think of a number of people whom I would consider to be faithful Christians, active in their faith, and involved in a variety of alternative faith communities and missional work, who would have been categorised as a wanderer of even rejecter.  Now at this point you might argue that that is simply a matter of interpretation – and that is exactly my point.  We need to be much more thoughtful concerning the language we use and the paradigms we hold concerning faith and church engagement. I would argue that some of the questions used by the research to determine their categories seem to privilege a particular way of understanding faith and church engagement and thus if you fell outside that (somewhat narrow) definition, you were categorised as a fence-sitter, wanderer or rejecter.

All this leads me to suggest a number of things.  Firstly, it serves as a reminder that the assumptions and theology we bring radically shape the questions we ask and conclusions we reach about where people are at in their faith.  Secondly, I wonder that when we define orthodox belief too narrowly and require church engagement too inflexibly we can wind up driving away young people and their honest  search for a personalised faith.

All in all, the conference and the research which undergirds it provides much to contend with and consider.  While the above seeks to reflect carefully upon the nature of faith development and church engagement, I wouldn’t want you to use the questions raised as a reason to dismiss the Haemorrhaging Faith research.  On the contrary. As a result of this research, I find myself  pondering …

Are we as a church raising a generation destined to haemorrhage faith?
A
re we reinforcing an approach to church life and ministry so narrow that it  forces youthful faith into exile?
Are current 
youth ministry practices bankrupt and in need of radical revision? 

 

 

When Faith Grows Up: Part 3) Pizza Faith

I was in my second year as a paid youth and young adults minister when it happened.  As I look back, it was a major turning point  – a total collision with a reality that said, ‘Everything you are doing in youth ministry is fatally flawed’

OK, that might sound a little melodramatic, so lets just clear a few things up.  There was no blood.  There were no actual fatalities.  But it was a major experience of disorientation that forced me back to reconsider some of my most basic principles and foundations for how I minister to and accompany young people on their spiritual journey.

So, “What happened?” you ask.  Well, it goes like this…

Continue reading When Faith Grows Up: Part 3) Pizza Faith

When Faith Grows Up: Part 2) You Lied!

Reading-PostboxHave you ever seen a kids Bible board-book? The kind where the pages are really thick and (supposedly) dribble-proof. They often have these cutesy images of meek-and-mild bible scenes (usually complete with bunny rabbits) in glossy primary colours. And because you can only fit a few pages into a board-book before it becomes a door stop, these “Bibles” are forced to summarise all of Scripture into about 10 stories, each edited down to a few short sentences, wrapped up in a neat moral application.

There are now quite a few of these wonders of modern publishing lying around our house. Gifted by well-meaning relatives or friends, they have been leafed through, read and referred to (as well as gnawed and chewed) many times.  I am grateful for the thoughtfulness that has gone into stylising Scripture so that parents can sit on the couch with their kids in their lap reading and rehearsing the stories which have shaped our faith.

Yet there also lies a danger in these distilled and glossy versions of often rugged and perplexing narratives.  If reading and rehearsing doesn’t at some stage transition to grappling, wrestling and tussling we may wind up with kids wondering if they have been lied to, instead of being gifted with a rich inheritance.

Continue reading When Faith Grows Up: Part 2) You Lied!

When Faith Grows Up: Part 1) Truth has a use-by date

date stamp datestamp 01When I was a child … I thought the sky was blue because God painted it that way.  I imagined Heaven to be a massive ice-cream shop in the sky.  I assumed the Holy Spirit really was a dove, fairy-like angels sat on my shoulder and Jesus looked like a mini Ken doll (with a beard) who dwelled in my heart and waved at me with a smile every time I looked down at my chest.

These beliefs stitched my faith together.  Their warp and woof made the world I once lived in vivid and alive. This mismatched patchwork of images and impressions riddled my reality with spiritual energy and supernatural presence.

At the time, I would have argued and fought for these beliefs … these truths.  But not any more.  They were a good start. They’ve served their purpose.  But now these truths have passed their use-by date.

Continue reading When Faith Grows Up: Part 1) Truth has a use-by date