Tag Archives: Biola university

Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals

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At this week’s “Future of the Church” discussion at Biola University (well worth watching online in its entirety here), the brilliant Fred Sanders ended his prepared remarks by suggesting that it may be up to the “children of evangelicalism” to make progress in the dialogue of unity/ecumenism. Such a project is perennially attempted but always met with the same pesky roadblocks (the “essentials versus non-essentials” conversation being unavoidably amorphous, given the decentralized DNA of Protestantism).

I see some signs for optimism that church unity inroads may be possible for my generation. Evangelicals today are becoming  less denominationally oriented. My guess is the counterpart to the secular rise of the “nones” will be a rise of “non-denominational” Christians who recognize the urgency of solidarity and the folly of fragmentation at such a time as this. Cultural issues like marriage are forging new partnerships (built on theology and not just public policy) between evangelicals and Catholics. Papal relations with evangelical Pentecostals have never been better. Globalization and the shifting of Christianity’s energy to the Global South seem to be opening doors for cross-pollination and wider awareness of Christianity’s diverse manifestations in the world. I can see this landscape being amenable to a more unified, more global, more networked church.

But I could also see the opposite. Other signs point to a more fragmented future for the church. As Fr. Thomas Rausch pointed out in his talk, there are approximately 43,000 denominations in today’s world, whereas there were only 1,600 denominations in 1900. The Christian blogosphere and Twitterverse seem to get more polarized by the month, and divisions between progressive and conservative, Arminian and Calvinist, egalitarian and complementarian aren’t exactly diminishing. Fragmentation seems to be growing even within coalitions, as in the recent disputes within complementarian circles between traditionalists and what might be called neo-complimentarians, or in the fragmentation within the CCCU over LGBTQ policies at Christian colleges. Things are only made worse by technology and the limitless availability of pontificating platforms and Internet subdivisions for any possible tribe of Christianity.

Still, I believe church unity is important and progress is possible if we really want to prioritize it. But if the “children of evangelicalism” are going to make any headway in the direction of church unity, there are a few underlying issues we must first confront:

1) We must focus our time and energy on a particular local church rather than trying to fix The Church.

I’ve found that younger Christians are much more likely to pontificate or wax prescriptive about “The Church” than they are to actually join and serve faithfully in a local church. There are a lot of Christian bloggers (I’ve been one of them!) who have ceaseless opinions to offer about The Church but whose commitment to a particular local church, warts and all, is negligible. Certainly there is a place for prophetic and prescriptive writing about The Church in a large sense, but working and worshipping in a church in the local sense is where progress actually happens. It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I believe a more unified Church will come more naturally if all of us are primarily concerned with the health of our proximate, particular church community. That said…

2) We must encounter, listen to and learn from other churches and other Christians.

Focus on local community does not mean insularity and ignorance of the diversity of other church expressions. Indeed, stronger unity among churches will require a relational outwardness infused with humility and teachability. Too many in my generation have a real problem with teachability; they think they’ve figured it all out. When they land in a church that feels like the “perfect fit” for them (a problematic term… more on that in a bit), they view other iterations of Christianity with suspicion. This sort of provincial hubris is inimical to church unity. If we’re all utterly convinced our church is perfect and ideal, how could we ever be open to learning from or being challenged by our brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultural or theological contexts? We need to get out more, and it doesn’t need to mean traveling across the world. Try down the street first. Practice hospitality and conversation with churches and believers from across the beautiful spectrum of the body of Christ.

3) We must give up the idea of a “dream church” and instead embrace and commit to a local church, even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable.

The more you experience the diversity of church expressions in the world, the more clear it becomes that there is no perfect church. And yet we’ve become so conditioned by consumerism to expect that there is. We “church shop” like we shop for a new car, looking for one that checks all our desirable boxes and is the “perfect fit” for our unique tastes and preferences. When we find one that seems a match, we give it a test drive. But the minute the ride becomes bumpy (pastor says something disagreeable, worship music is nauseatingly prosaic), we take our leave and begin to shop around again, choosing from the dozens of other options on the ecclesiological “lot.” My generation seems especially prone to this sort of hyper-consumerist approach, yet this is not how church should be. We must rid ourselves of “dream church” ideal and the “perfect fit” fallacy. No church is perfect, and “how it fits us” is exactly the opposite of the approach we should take (isn’t Christianity more about being “fit” into the likeness of Christ?). We must approach church with the knowledge that it will be uncomfortable, awkward, challenging and stretching. But that is the point. We grow spiritually not amidst comfort or because it’s the “perfect fit,” but by being willing to be fit into the mold of Jesus among fellow sojourners on the bumpy road of sanctification. Not only will this produce growth in us, but it will broaden our minds and soften our hearts toward believers of all stripes, both within our diverse local church and within The Church at large.

4) We must move beyond a Christian identity defined by “buts,” caveats, embarrassment and negation.

This is a real problem for my generation of Christians. We’re utterly concerned with how we are perceived and we go out of our way to distance ourselves from a looooong list of evangelical stereotypes and inherited baggage. The recent Buzzfeed “I’m a Christian, But…” video captures it well. We are quick to define our faith in terms of what it’s NOT, but sadly slower to offer compelling articulations of what it IS. Who Jesus is and how he saves is frequently downplayed (or ignored altogether) in the rush to offer endless caveats about how we are not like bigoted Christians, or Republican Christians, or teetotaling Christians, or Christians who wear pleated khakis, or Christians who liked Fireproof. Not only is that sort of self-definition exhausting and unhelpful, but it’s unsustainable. If Christianity is only ever a “not this” religion, it will soon enough become a “not worth it” religion. At some point we must get over our PR hangups and worries about being associated with all the weird Christians out there. We must simply accept our place in the continuum of an always imperfect and always reforming faith, and do our best to live faithfully as followers of Christ with a mission in the world. We must stop our pendulum-swinging ways in reaction to what Christianity has been and focus instead on what it IS and has always been. This will force us to develop a more cogent conception of what it is actually that defines Christianity, which is the question at hand in any conversation about church unity.

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7 Things I’ve Learned Since Graduating College

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I graduated from Wheaton College 10 years ago this month. This Friday, I’ll be attending commencement ceremonies at Biola University, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for nearly seven years. I’ll be cheering on a dozen or so students who I’ve mentored, taught, employed or befriended; students who will be walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, much as I did when I was their age, a decade ago.

As I’ve reflected on how I have changed and what I have learned in the ten years since I graduated college as an undergrad, a few things come to mind. The following are some of the big learnings and key realizations I’ve come to, some sooner and some later, since May 2005. Perhaps the Class of 2015 can file these away as they set out on their post-college journeys:

1) 22-year-olds don’t have it all figured out

Perhaps the most universal and, in some sense, admirable quality of college graduates at the “prime” of their intellectual enrichment (or so they think) is a certain intellectual confidence and epistemological hubris. Though many of them look back on their cocksure freshmen selves with derision and shame, the ironic thing is they have adopted the posture again by the time they graduate, just in a different way. Graduating seniors feel “enlightened” to have grown out of many of the views of their upbringing; they see themselves as having mature, nuanced and authoritative perspectives on everything from politics to gender to Calvinism (especially Christian college graduates). But the truth is, you only know so much at 22. Some of the things I wrote and blogged about in my early twenties were far too sure of themselves. With age comes the development of a beautiful thing called intellectual humility, which opens up conversations and connections which might otherwise be closed off. The more one lives, the more one sees that wisdom is more dependent on curiosity than confidence.

2) Cynicism is mostly a waste of time

It happened to me and I see it happen to many (the majority?) of today’s Christian college undergrads: A slow, steady bubbling up of cynicism over the course of the four years from the wide-eyed summer camp frivolity of orientation week to the “I’m over it” jadedness of senior year. It’s a cynicism that arises from, among other things, the disconnect one feels between the “bubble” surreality of Christian college and the harsh realities of real life. It arises from a (healthy) questioning of ideas we assume and systems we take for granted. But when questioning (with the constructive pursuit of truth in mind) gives way to cynicism (an “I’m better than” disposition that relishes deconstruction) it becomes a problem. Trust me, get over cynicism as quickly as you can after you graduate. The world will open up to you, and with it beauty, truth and goodness, when you put cynicism aside and allow yourself to be vulnerable and teachable and curious. Plus, only other cynical people enjoy being around cynical people. So for the sake of winning friends and influencing people, put the cynical snark behind you, along with the other “childish things” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13.

3) It’s good to embrace discomfort

This is a lifetime struggle for most of us, but one of the most crucial truisms of life. We only grow by stepping outside of our comfort zones. College is in some sense about discomfort: learning and living in community with people who are very different; having ideas and assumptions challenged; feeling isolated from the familiar. And those are wonderful things. But once you graduate from college it can be easy to find a community that is just like you, surrounded by only the ideas you hold, and just stay there the rest of your life. While I would suggest that the first few months or even year after graduation should be on the more “comfortable” side of of the spectrum, most of your life should be lived on the edge (or in the midst) of discomfort. When we push ourselves to do what is uncomfortable, to know the Other, to not cease in our explorations, great things happen.

4) Moderation is not weakness

Everything is done to the extreme when you are 22. That stage in life is often characterized by what I call “The Pendulum Problem,” a propensity to react so extremely to one position (usually something one grew up believing) that the new position is just as problematic in the other direction. This extremism is fueled by youthful energy and “radical” passion, yet most of the time it leads nowhere. True growth, substantive change, comes when we see that balance is not compromise and moderation is not weakness. The world is always going to be more complicated and nuanced than our best efforts to understand it. Whether it be politics, theology, or consumption of culture (see my book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty), embracing the beauty of moderation will bear much fruit.

5) Sticking with a local church is worth it

“[Do] not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). Let’s face it: One of the easiest things to neglect in college and especially after college is getting involved in a local church. Whether because it’s a hassle, the people are weird, the preacher isn’t compelling or it just feels like a vestige of times past, church is often a casualty of twentysomething life. But nothing has grown me, sustained me, and challenged me in healthy ways over the last decade more than my commitment to the local church. Beyond the community and accountability it offers (no small things), church provides a necessary big-picture reality check and rhythm that molds and shapes me in a consistent way, week after week, when so much else in my life is in flux. Twentysomething flourishing depends on having at least some consistent priorities and “rocks in your planter,” as my pastor says. The Bride of Christ, inconvenient and uncomfortable as she may be, is a mighty good rock to build your life around.

6) Proximity is (almost) everything in relationships

After college, when friends disperse and communities split, the temptation can be to focus on maintaining friendships across great distances. With social media, skype and other such things, this sort of relational maintenance can be easy. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m glad I have maintained profound friendships with my closest college friends, even when I’ve been thousands of miles from them for a decade now. But one unchangeable reality about relationships, no matter what happens with our digital communication capabilities, is that physical proximity matters most. I met my wife because she worked in the same building as I did. The people who matter most for me now are those who I have regular, in-person contact with. They go to my church. They come over to my house. They work alongside me. Meanwhile, older friends have become less important over the years, simply because they live far from me and I only see them occasionally. This is something to simply accept, not lament. Friendships change. New people come into your life and shape you profoundly. Proximity is worth everything.

7) Connections matter more than concepts

I am an ideas guy. I love thinking. In the years after I graduated from college ten years ago, I was all about the thought life. I read and read and read, and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was fruitful, but much of it was solitary. I still debated concepts with others, but it was usually in blog comments sections or over social media; rarely was it over a coffee or a beer. Yet I have since come to see that ideas are valuable only insofar as they facilitate connection, in two senses: connection as in connecting the dots between isolated concepts (so crucial in our digitally fragmented age); and connection as in relationships with people. The more I live, the more I see just how important it is to prioritize people over principles; individuals over ideas. This isn’t to say we should compromise on convictions or forsake truth the minute it becomes a stumbling block in a relationship. I believe truth and love can coexist. What it does mean, or has meant in my life, is this: Time spent with my family and friends, with students and mentees (again: proximity!), should be a higher priority than time spent reading blogs, scrolling through Twitter or mulling over my Next Big Idea. The world has more disconnected ideas than it knows what to do with. The world could use more substantive connections and relational commitments.

In Memory of Chris Mitchell

I recently saw Richard Linklater’s amazing film, Boyhood, which–filmed over twelve years, with the same actors–captures the passage of time and the process of growth like no other film I’ve seen. I’ve also recently been in Europe, where history and the links between what is and what was are impossible to miss.

Because of this I’ve been reflecting on my own personal history: How I’ve come to be who I am, planted where I am. The thought experiment of backwards-tracking the dominoes of one’s trajectory inevitably leads to rabbit trails and spider webs of limitless complexity. But isolating certain threads can make the process more manageable.

In Oxford last week, I reflected on one such thread: my fondness for C.S. Lewis and the important role he’s played in my life. As my family and I toured Magdalen College, walked along Addison’s Walk, sat down in the Eagle & Child, snapped pictures in front of the Kilns and and marveled at the beauty of St. Mary’s church, I thought of the profoundly shaping times I spent in each place as part of C.S. Lewis Foundation events. But I would never have gotten involved with the C.S. Lewis Foundation, and probably never have come to adore Oxford and Cambridge (and England generally), had I not worked for four years as a student worker at the Marion E. Wade Center while an undergraduate at Wheaton College. And my experience at the Wade–a place where my love of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and others blossomed–would not have been what it was without the friendship of its director, Dr. Chris Mitchell.Chris-Mitchell_faculty_square_300

Perhaps it is fitting that it was in a London hotel room on July 11 that I first received the news of Chris’s passing. I couldn’t believe the e-mail I was reading. I couldn’t believe that I would never see Chris again. Just a few weeks earlier I had passed Chris on the campus of Biola and we’d made plans to get dinner this summer with our wives, as we’d done once before since he and Julie moved out to California last year. I couldn’t believe that, just like that, he was gone.

The shocking e-mail on July 11 reminded me of another rather shocking e-mail that I’d received in January 2013. It was from Chris Mitchell and the subject heading read “Coming Your Way.” In the e-mail he broke the news that he was stepping down as director of the Wade Center and accepting a teaching position at the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola, where I’ve worked for the past six years (!!). I was elated. I hadn’t seen Chris for several years but was excited by the possibility of re-connecting with him in California. And when he arrived on campus, we did.

Now that Chris was a Biolan, I immediately asked him to write a cover story on C.S. Lewis for the Biola Magazine in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death. In spite of being crazy busy winding up at Wheaton and moving across the country, Chris agreed. You can read the excellent piece he wrote here.

Chris was a man I respected deeply: A faithful Christian, a top-notch scholar, a family man, a lover of life. He’s the type of man I aspire to be.

You could talk to Chris about anything. Literature, theology, relationships, scotch. When I worked as a student at the Wade Center in Wheaton, he’d often chat with me about movies because he knew that was one of my passions. Even though he was the director and I was merely a student working just a few hours a day, Chris always made me feel more like a colleague than an underling. One time he asked me to do some primary research in the letters of Lewis and Tolkien to help him with a paper he was writing about the relationship between the two authors. I remember feeling so honored by that, so respected. Chris always cared for people in a way that encouraged and valued them. It’s one of the reasons why he’s such a natural and beloved teacher, and why it’s so sad that he only got to bless the students of the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola for one year.

I’m grieved by the loss of Chris Mitchell, as everyone is who knew him. He had much life still to live. And yet I know that his joy, frivolity and energy for life is infinitely amplified in his present state.

On the night I heard of Chris’s death, I thought of the line from Lewis’s Till We Have Faces when Psyche says that “the sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.” As much as I’ll miss him, I’m comforted by the fact that Chris has reached the Mountain and is now in the presence of Beauty’s true source.

Peter Leithart’s “Church of the Future”

A fascinating event took place on Tuesday night at Biola University: “The Future of Protestantism.” The event was the culmination of a conversation sparked by an essay Peter Leithart wrote for First Things last November entitled “The End of Protestantism,” which then prompted a rebuttal from Biola’s Fred Sanders and then a rebuttal to the rebuttal by Leithart. All are well worth reading.

The “Future of Protestantism” event gathered Leithart, Sanders and Carl Trueman together on one stage to debate exactly what the event’s title ponders: what form should Protestantism take going forward? Is the “protest” of the Reformation still necessary or should unity as the one body of Christ be the goal as religion in general becomes marginalized in the secularizing west?

Leithart’s perspective is that Protestantism, insofar as it is defined in opposition to Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy), should end. It’s time for unity, he argues; unity is internal to the gospel itself.

“For either side, to persist in a provisional Protestant/Catholic self identification is a defection from the gospel,” says Leithart. “If the gospel is true, we are who we are by union with Jesus, in his Spirit, with his people. It then cannot be the case that we are who are are by differentiation from other believers.”

I’ll talk more in-depth about the challenging question of unity, as well as Sanders and Trueman’s responses to Leithart, in another blog post. But for now I want to consider the meat of Leithart’s proposal as articulated at Biola, which I think has merit and should be respectfully considered by even the most Bible-thumping and Sola-centric of Protestant evangelicals.

What does a unified, post-Protestant church look like? This was the substance of Leithart’s talk. He suggested we shouldn’t focus on the future of Protestantism as much as the church of the future, “a city yet to come.” His vision is for what he calls “Reformational Catholic” churches, and during his talk he offered a partial wish list of attributes he dreams of for this future model of church:

  1. Churches where “faith without works is dead” is heard as frequently as justification by faith
  2. Preachers who preach the whole Bible, in all its depth and beauty, and who draw on the whole tradition of Christian commentary as they prepare their sermons and teaching
  3. Pastors who form friendships with the local Orthodox and Catholic priests, knowing that they are one body
  4. Seminaries where theologians are encouraged to follow Scripture wherever it leads, even if we have to admit that our opponents were right all along
  5. Churches whose worship centers on the Eucharist, celebrated at least weekly
  6. Churches whose members know Psalms as well as any medieval monk, where hymns and prayers and praise are infused with the cadences of the Psalter
  7. Churches with enemies enough to make imprecatory psalms seem natural
  8. Churches whose musical culture is shaped by the tradition of church music
  9. Churches where infants are baptized and young children participate in the eucharistic assembly
  10. Churches whose pastors have the courage to use the tools of discipline with all love, gentleness, kindness and patience, but to use them, rather than using love and gentleness as excuses for cowardice and lethargy
  11. Churches that honor the discipline of other churches, knowing that they are one body
  12. Lutheran pastors who teach obedience, as Luther did
  13. Anglicans who exercise discipline
  14. Jolly Presbyterians with a reputation for levity
  15. Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition
  16. Baptists who love hierarchy
  17. Liturgical Bible churches
  18. Cities where all the churches pray and worship and labor together, where pastors serve the interests of the city, speaking with a single voice to civic leaders
  19. Churches that take the pedophilia scandal, the upheavals in the Anglican communion, the persecution of Orthodox believers as crises among our people, not problems for someone else over there, knowing that if one suffers, all the members suffer
  20. Churches that recognize that they are already members of a Church, where there are some who venerate icons, some who believe in transubstantiation, some who slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors, some who believe in papal infallibility and Mary’s immaculate conception, knowing that we are one body

This last point is particularly controversial, I suspect, as it is precisely on the basis of things like icon veneration and papal infallibility that so many Protestants are dubious of full communion with their Orthodox or Catholic brethren.

Leithart’s vision of “Reformational Catholic” churches, however, invites such differences and internalizes them as “in-the-family” issues that must be reckoned with and hashed out together, as one body, rather than tossed aside under the banner of irreconcilable schism.

“If Rome is simply outside of us, we can leave it to its errors,” said Leithart. “But if we are one body, Rome’s errors are errors in the church in which we too are members. Brothers correct brothers, and it works both ways.”

What do you think of Leithart’s proposal? Is his 20-point vision of “Reformational Catholic” #futurechurch compelling? Realistic? Naive? Within reach? Are there unreconcilable differences that make such a coming-back-together untenable?

Four Ways Christians Approach Film

Jack Hafer has been a Christian working in the film industry since the 1980s (you may have seen his 2003 film To End All Wars). He’s also the current chair of the film department at Biola University, an evangelical college with an impressive track record for producing graduates who find success in Hollywood. For my book Gray Matters I asked Hafer to categorize different approaches Christians have taken to film & filmmaking, and he described three. Below I’ve summarized his three approaches, plus a fourth that I have personally observed.

Which do you most resonate with?

1) Message-centric: Some Christians are only interested in films insofar as they explicitly preach the gospel or relay an unmistakably biblical message. This approach typically downplays aesthetics in favor of unmissable morals, preferring didactic direct-ness to subtlety. Good films are evangelistic films. Examples: Thief in the Night; Fireproof.

2) For the common good: This approach doesn’t focus on evangelism as much as whether or not a film has overall positive values for the common good. “In Hollywood it’s easy to make temptation look enticing, but challenging to make goodness look attractive,” notes Hafer, but “that’s a challenge this approach takes on.” These are films not made for the church but for wide audiences, espousing broad but generally Judeo-Christian values, where good triumphs over evil. Examples: Indiana Jones, The Blind Side.

3) Religious in content: This approach favors films that feature religious elements or plotlines: movies about Christians, preachers, nuns, monks, Joan of Arc, etc. This approach sees value in films that make religious sentiments look attractive, or create a sense of awe, longing, and wonder about the transcendent. These films need not be preachy, but often compellingly portray stories of faith. Examples: The Way, The Diary of a Country Priest.

4) Aesthetically transcendent: In this approach, “sacred” films are those
which — through style, exceptional artistry or powerful narrative — evoke feelings of transcendental longing akin to what Germans call sehnsucht. They are films so beautiful and evocative that the viewer is brought to a place of sublime stasis or spiritual contemplation. Christians who favor this approach are less interested in specifically Christian messages or plotlines than they are with true, powerful portrayals of beauty and longing. Examples: Tokyo Story, The Tree of Life.