Review and Preview of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars”

via flikr (Benjamin Edwards)


I’ve not been posting much of late because, in the middle of a series of posts on Millennials, Gen-Xers and controversial social issues, I commenced the process of moving the blog to a new site.  I think it is going to be a good move, and we are excited about what awaits.

But while the kinks are getting worked out, I want to clarify some of the main points of the previous posts and let you know what is forthcoming…


Review: The ecclesiology of the “culture wars”

In the first two posts, we are thinking about the effect of controversial social issues on the internal dynamics of the church.  North Carolina’s vote on Amendment One exposed the inter-generational rifts that persist in the messy, untidy conglomeration of Christians we call “church” (the North American segment of the church, at least).  Here is the main observation from the first post:

When it comes to high-profile moral issues, many younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

Now, a “blog post” is not a handy genre for addressing nuances.  It is a writing format more conducive to broad, oversimplified generalizations that raise eyebrows.  (I just added “many” to the quote above when I noticed I was painting with too wide a brushstroke).

This observation that younger Christians (evangelical or not) seem to gel better with their secular peers than older believers in their own church family does not mean necessarily that they are less aligned with Scripture or the church’s theological tradition.  It could just be that the older generations are more off and that younger members of contemporary Western society are somehow more in tune with Scriptural principles when it comes to public morality.

But here is probably what is happening: Both older and younger generations of Christians have taken our cues from our surrounding culture(s) more so than from a serious, careful, responsible discipline of interpreting (and in turn conforming to) our own sacred texts, creedal formulae, and redemptive metanarrative.  What I suppose I am suggesting is that our inter-generational conflicts have to do more with the different secular cultures we inhabit, which in turn serves as the hermeneutical lens by which we understand those texts, creeds, and the story of redemption.

But again, this is overgeneralizing.  So many voices (loud and quiet) from every generation are on the same page, a page shaped by diligent, prayerful interpretation of our Scriptures and theological tradition.

In the 2nd post, we looked at one of the awful sores (in my view) facing the church: the attempt to reach younger Christians at the expense of mocking or abandoning older Christians.  If our church is branded by sentiments like “Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church,” then what is our theology of community?  Are we too hip to worship with Aunt Gertrude?  (Maybe in heaven she will finally get that iPad and learn to love Mumford & Sons, then we can worship at her side and be in community with her…?).


Next, let’s consider the church’s public discourse on moral issues.  More importantly, how do we precede that public discourse with a less public discourse—we should probably learn how to talk about incendiary, flashpoint topics in-house before we make such bold statements from televised pulpits and radio interviews (and blogs!).

Also, how is the church embodying in its own practices the beloved platform of “family values”?  If heterosexual marriage is so precious to us, then how are we doing?  What does our divorce rate say about marriage to homosexuals who dream of a wedding day we say they cannot have, and how does our practice of marriage affect the way our public convictions are received in a society whose divorce rate is hardly any different?  And if sexual immorality is so critical, then how are we doing on that front?  Do younger Christians display the beautiful strength of self-control in their dating practices in a way that is markedly different from what we see among non-Christian dating partners?

Also on the roster, and this one may be the one I am most excited about, is a multi-part interview with Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.  We will be asking Wes about his own struggles and joys over sorting out his sexual identity within his more defining identity as a Christian.

Stay tuned for news about the blog.  The move is soon.

A Quick Note: Gen-Xers as scary no longer…

(image found at

In my last post, I wrote the following about my generation.  I love my wife’s response (see below) in conversation later that day….

Gen-X.  Do you hear the scandalous, threatening ring to that enigmatic, iconic letter, “X”?  Older generations watched us grow in dread and fascination… what type of future will they bring?  How will the world change when these Gen-Xers get their hands on the reigns of society’s future?  We were ready for our role of making a cultural splash.  Michael Stipe was singing of the end of the world and we all felt fine….

And now, our hair is thinning, we’re driving minivans and SUVs through elementary school drop-off lanes, we’re changing diapers, and trying to figure out how to pay mortgages and school loans.


Miranda replied wistfully (and perhaps with a touch of remorse): “Yeah, no one is scared of us Gen-Xers anymore.”


There’s nothing like thinning hair, bedraggled parenting and the invitation to your 20-year high school reunion to drain the hype out of your generational identity!  (But just for the record… I am loving my life-stage, end of the world or not.)

Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars: “Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”

NOTE 1: This is the 2nd installment of a new series, “Younger Evangelicals and the Culture Wars.”  See here for the 1st one. 

NOTE 2: Some of the material below appears in the chapter “Cultural Irrelevance” in my book on cynicism within and toward the church.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church

This is from a church ad I saw on a prominent billboard in north Atlanta.  In other words: cool, young suburban church.

There is another sign I started seeing on a regular basis.  Scripted in Old English font on mud-stained, white-washed plywood, it read—

“Mount Hermon Baptist Church, Est. 1848”

In other words: outdated, out-of-touch church.

I have spent 7 years as a college minister to Millennials.  These 7 years were split up by a 2-year stint in a markedly different ministry context.  Overnight, I went from ministering to 20somethings to 70somethings.  I became the interim pastor of Mount Hermon Baptist Church.

The sounds of worship changed from those of djembes and acoustic guitars to those of a piano and organ.  Reasons for missing ministry events changed from watching American Idol or The Office to arthritis pain and daylight savings time (when it made evening too dark for safe driving).

Aunt Gertrude would have been right at home in our church.

My family and I fell in love Aunt Gertrude.

When I told them I was leaving to lead a large college ministry (my most painful ministry experience), they encouraged me to go and serve those Millennials since they themselves were just a “washed-up bunch of old folks.”

Why would they assume they are just a “washed-up bunch of old folks?”  Maybe because young suburban churches hang signs that say things like, “Not your Aunt Gertrude’s church.”

Generational Superiority Complex? “They don’t get me”

As someone who has worked among Millennials, believe me, I have been deeply pained by how ineffective the church has been at reaching them.  The stories are so disheartening.  But as someone who has emotionally and spiritually invested so much in reaching younger Christians, I want to prod and poke around a bit in such a way that perhaps we younger folks can see some of the nuances that complicate our complaints.

There is a strong sense in the more youthful demographic of believers that older generations in the church “don’t ‘get’ us.”  And it’s true.

But we don’t really “get” them either.

I was pleased to read Rachel Held Evans’ exhortation to listen to others’ stories so that issues like homosexuality would not be so faceless.  Among the stories we should be hearing, though (and I am sure Rachel would agree), are those of our older generations.  How well do Millenials understand the daily pressures and trials of a 47-yr old divorcee with teenagers and ailing parents?  How often do we take the time to listen to the sobering tales of the fading number of vets from WWII?  Considering the feverish concerns over dating and sexuality, how regularly are we seeking the counsel of a couple whose marriage has already lasted decades longer than Millennials have been alive?  Social context (including where we hang out) shapes us quite a bit—how often do we venture out of coffee shops, campuses, and lively bars into hospitals, nursing homes, or even into well-worn living rooms where you can hear the soothing tick-tocking of an old clock?

It’s painfully true: older generations of believers really don’t understand younger Christians and their concerns and angst.  But younger Christians don’t get them either.

Jamie Smith has wondered if some sort of “generational blackmail” is underway.  I don’t think it is that extensive, but I do think most young generations are a little guilty of a generational superiority complex.  Think of my generation: Gen-X.  Do you hear the scandalous, threatening ring to that enigmatic, iconic letter, “X”?  Older generations watched us grow in dread and fascination… what type of future will they bring?  How will the world change when these Gen-Xers get their hands on the reigns of society’s future?  We were ready for our role of making a cultural splash.  Michael Stipe was singing of the end of the world and we all felt fine….

And now, our hair is thinning, we’re driving minivans and SUVs through elementary school drop-off lanes, we’re changing diapers, and trying to figure out how to pay mortgages and school loans.

It is really easy to bash the “family values” platform when you have no family of your own… yet.  Every young generation becomes eventually becomes the older generation, and along with that slow aging comes the painful awareness that we do not quite “get” them.  And it hurts… because they are our children.  And we want to know them… and to protect them.

The Ecclesiology of the Culture Wars

We will be looking more closely at some of the critical issues at stake in these culture wars that, unfortunately, defined the public interface of our previous generation of Christian leaders.  For these opening posts, however, I am interested in the issue of ecclesiology:

  • how is the church effected when younger Christians seem more at odds with older Christians than secular culture when it comes to politically-charged moral issues?
  • How does it affect the church when we lay down the arms of a previous generation’s anti-culture weaponry and then take up new ones arrayed inwardly against other Christians?

For most human societies it is incumbent on the younger generations to understand and respect older generations.  But when we are young, we want to reverse that trend.  Biblically speaking, there is a strong motif of inter-generational discourse that leads to the wider health of the community.  Babes and infants declare praise (Mt 21:6; cf. Ps 8.2), the younger was privileged over the older in patriarchal narratives (Gen 11-50).  But “honor thy father and mother” made it into the Decalogue, and the kingdom of Israel was violently divided because young Rehoboam took the counsel of his peers rather than the counsel of the old men (1 Kgs 12:8).  Older and younger generations have so much to learn from the other. We just need to get them all together for story-exchange.  Where can that happen?

At church on Sunday mornings is a good place to start.

[By the way, I am pleased to report that Mount Hermon has a wonderful young pastor, and they are all learning and growing a lot together.  If you are in Durham, NC, you should check them out.  They will love on you.]

Responding to Gerald Heistand on the “Ecclesial Theologian”

I have been writing on the vocational idea of the “pastor-theologian.”  The recent series of posts was inspired by Doug Sweeney’s article at the Gospel Coalition, whose “call and agenda” should be received with both excitement and urgency.

Related to these thoughts, I recommend this post by Mark Stevens who is studying Eugene Peterson’s model of a “pastoral theologian.”  Also, here is an interview co-blogger Joel Busby and I did with Jason Byassee on “the tension between the hyphen of pastor-theologian” when we heard he was leaving Duke Divinity School to serve as a Methodist pastor in Boone, NC.  That interview is easily one of my top five favorite posts here at Hopeful Realism.

Changing the Blog’s Tagline

In the midst of my recent writing, thinking, and praying about the pastor-theologian model, I realized I needed to change the tagline of my blog.  The current one above is a temporary replacement of the previous, “Writing and Thinking as Cynic-Saints and Pastor-Theologians.”  I just felt so pretentious identifying myself with the latter (a presumption which I wrestled with openly in the “About the Blog” page).   Currently, I serve in no ministerial post, so “pastor” is not appropriate for the moment.  And as a PhD candidate, I am realizing more and more how unworthy of the title “theologian” I am!

Hence, the new tag line.  A benefit to the medium of a blog is its changeability, right?

Interacting with Gerald with SAET

Another benefit is the opportunity for discussion.

I was so pleased that Gerald Heistand (Exec Director of SAET and Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL) read and replied to the last post.  I felt that his comments and the reply I started to submit were worthy of a post to themselves.  Gerald rightfully reaffirms his idea of an “ecclesial theologian” (see his paper here for more), and responding to him gives me a chance to let readers know of my motivations in HOW I have been writing on the “pastor-theologian” model.  I confess: there has been a strategy underway… but I hope a helpful one.



Appreciate the post and the interaction with my essay. I agree with everything you’ve written here, and think you’ve done a very good job of articulating the worth and value of the “local” theologian. And further, I think the local theologian may indeed be more important than the ecclesial theologian, for the immediate health of the church.

My only point (and I think its an important one) is that we’ll not ever really be able to reposition the pastorate as a theological vocation, and thus raise up a generation of local theologians, until we reestablish the ecclesial theologian as a viable vision of the pastor. The reason even local theologians tend to be in short supply is because we consistently send our (writing) theologians into the academy, thus perpetuating the notion that the pastorate is atheological. We can’t consistently and chronically send all of our future (writing) theologians into the academy, in many cases telling them NOT to go into the church, and somehow think that the pastorate will be conceived of as a theological vocation.

So I think we’re shooting at the same target, but maybe have slightly different routes for getting there. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this…



Gerald!  Thanks so much for the reply.  And yes, I think we are both shooting for the same target.  I have been strategically approaching the issue by intentionally trying to think of the pastor-theologian model from a varying range of angles, specifically from perspectives that would view that vocational calling as threatening (in the case of churches who may have legitimate—or even illegitimate!—suspicions toward the academy) or as disparaging (in the case of fine pastors I know who feel repeatedly belittled by higher brow intellectuals while they conduct their labors in the daily grind).  I am trying to craft my public thoughts on the pastor-theologian “from below,” I guess, in hopes of somehow increasing the receptivity (and sharpening the perception) of the pastor-theologian model.

You are right that I have been posting mainly on the pastor-theologian as a “local theologian” (to use your helpful term).  But I fully endorse your call for an “ecclesial theologian” who writes and produces the highest quality of scholarship for the wider church from the social location of the local church.  Absolutely and amen.  What you all are doing with SAET has helped broaden my own vocational imagination.  Those of us who sense a call to ministry along with a call to academic work see an inevitable fork in the road between those two institutional/social settings of church and academy.  You are helping us recognize that we bear some responsibility for making that fork less divergent than it currently is!  Bravo.

As you suggest, many doctoral students (like myself, of course) must indeed consider with great care your model of the ecclesial theologian, which will hopefully help us reconceive the pastorate as a setting for intense theological work.  It may well be divine providence that an increased degree of interest in rigorous theological study is coinciding with a situation in which the number of academic posts out there has constricted!

With thanks,


Doctrine Adorned (not necessarily Published): How the Pastor-Theologian Articulates Theology

[This is the third post in an ongoing discussion on the Pastor-Theologian in response to Douglas Sweeney’s article, “A Call and Agenda for Pastor-Theologians.]

My friend Gerald Hiestand has made available an excellent paper  on the pastor-theologian.  I know of no one more devoted to articulating this vocational vision for my generation.  If you are grasped by the ongoing conversation, check it out.  It is very, very good.

His piece stirred a couple of questions for me:

What type of “theology” does the pastor-theologian produce? 


How should the discipline of theology change when conducted within the church rather than the academy?

Central to the discuss about the pastor-scholar / pastor-theologian is the institutional gash between academy and church, a chasm freighted with a vast and complicated series of historical developments and visually depicted as reforged in some sense by that little hyphen in the vocational terms at hand.

(I just love that hyphen).

Now that the rigorous intellectual engagement with theology and Scripture seems to have shifted more toward the academy, Gerald makes this chilling observation:

“…not only has the church become theologically anemic, but theology itself has become, in many instances, ecclesially anemic.”


The church-academy divide has resulted in a pastoral ministry that is more practical than theological—in other words, pastors are more focused on administration, counseling, evangelism, community development, hospital visitation than they are focused on studying and writing theology.

But are not those practical pastoral tasks articulations of theology?  If the church recovers its theological vocation, should the discipline of theology be most properly embodied in study and in writing?

The Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy and Titus) are perhaps the most sensible collection of New Testament texts to turn to for guidance on for direction on ecclesial leadership.  Within these three letters “doctrine” is of prominent significance.  But this doctrine is to be articulated not only through preaching and teaching but also through praxis.  Doctine is practically expressed.  When Paul (okay, I know this is contested, but let’s just assume the Apostle is indeed the author) writes against that which is “contrary to sound doctrine” he has produced not a series of theological propositions or statements but a list of lifestyle choices (1 Tim 1:8-11).  Theology—the crafting, assessing, and working out of doctrine—is expressed in ethical and practical terms as well as in writings and teachings.

In Titus, we are encouraged to “adorn the doctrine of God” (2:10).  This clothing of ourselves in theological garb (what a great image!) means treating each other respectfully and lovingly (see the wider context, 2:1-10).  The church’s theology is to be expressed relationally and ethically, as well as homiletically and textually.

The discipline of theology within the academy is ultimately textual; that is, academic theologians are working with texts and producing texts.  You are not regarded a professional theologian in the academy if you are not publishing (the rite of passage for the PhD is a publishable thesis or dissertation).

The call for pastor-theologians is a call for theology to become once again moored within the harbor of the church.  But surely the endeavor will be sabotaged if the church recovers a robust interest in rigorous theology but allows the (secular) academy to define the discipline.  Theology published is one of the primary measures of the discipline as plied in the academy.  Theology adorned (lived and practiced) is one of the primary measures of the discipline as plied in the church.

This is not to say that writing and publication are theological projects to be viewed with suspicion—we know the image of adorning doctrine because we read it in a canonically published text!  I am contending, rather, that as the church seeks to think as rigorously about theology as academic theologians, then it will need to redefine theology as a discipline, which will include a broader imagination as to how theology is articulated.  Visiting the sick in the hospital and reading Scripture at a graveside are powerful demonstrations that “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isa 53:3).  Taking the time to meet with a couple in a disintegrating marriage embodies the reality that God is a “wonderful counselor” (Isa 9:6) and that Jesus is maritally bound to His people.  These theological articulations may bear much greater fruit over a lifetime and beyond the parish than even a published work.

So… the theology of the pastor-theologian: doctrine published?  Sometimes.  Doctrine adorned?  Always.

This should come as an encouragement to those pastors who are not so inclined to write.

It should also comes as a tremendous challenge….

Articulating robust theology through writing may not be included within our pastoral calling, but the articulation of robust theology is indispensable.  For our “practical” labors to be expressions of expansive, rich theology, however, they must be sourced in a rigorous life of studied fixation on the Gospel and the God the Gospel announces.

[To be clear, I am not writing against anything in Gerald’s essay.  He is calling for “ecclesial theologians” who write theology out of the “steady rhythm” (p. 10) of dealing with the dire needs of the flock.  He is well aware that many pastors will not have the gifts or inclinations to write publishable theology.  Much of what I am saying in this post applies to the model of the pastor-theologian as “local theologian,” as he defines it in his paper.]

The Vocational Identity of the Pastor-Theologian (part 2): Peterson’s “Contemplative Pastor”

[This post follows another inspired by an article at Gospel Coalition by Douglas Sweeney.]

Pastor, or Pastor-Theologian? 

A number of the most helpful books on the pastor’s life and work that have weighed in my hands have been written by Eugene Peterson.  I recently finished his memoir which recast the wisdom and insight I have learned from books like Under the Unpredictable Plant or The Contemplative Pastor into a narrative structure.  Roughly three decades of service in a local parish, another handful of years devoted to serving as theologian at Regent College, a decade and more devoted to translating the Bible from its original languages into the lingua franca of the parish and workplace alike—few ministers embody the vocational vision of the pastor-theologian than Peterson.

Yet his memoir is entitled The Pastor [1], not The Pastor-Theologian or The Pastor-Scholar.

In the previous post, I asked if aspiring to work as a “pastor-theologian” rather than as your run-of-the-mill “pastor” was pretentious.  My motivation in framing the question this way is to express a degree of sensitivity to the church-academy divide that haunts many a heart and many a pew.  The university is a threatening institution for a large number of believers when it comes to matters of faith; seminaries, divinity schools and Christian colleges/universities are often tainted by their academic associations and viewed with some suspicion.  The hyphenation between “pastor” and “theologian” can seem counter-intuitive.

But I believe mightily in the vocational role of the pastor-theologian.  The question for this post is whether or not we should use the hyphenated term or simply re-adjust and reform the vocational identity of “pastor.”

That is what I believe Peterson is doing in his memoir.

He acknowledges that you cannot flip to such and such a chapter in the New Testament to learn who a “pastor” is and what a “pastor” does.  Though a range of ecclesial positions and leadership principles are certainly featured in the New Testament (the Pastoral Epistles particularly come to mind) our contemporary post of “pastor,” though certainly not novel, is a vocation that developed after and in the wake of Scripture’s prescriptions for and descriptions of church heirarchies.

Peterson recounts angst and frustration over the lack of resources for defining and guiding his work as a pastor.  A momentous breakthrough seemed to occur when he and a company of other local pastors decided to stop letting non-pastors tell them how to ply their craft.  They met regularly year after year (that “company” is still meeting, as I understand it) to sort out the pastoral vocation together (pp 130-60).

Another breakthrough occurred in a church business meeting of sorts when Peterson tendered his resignation.  When pressed as to why, he offered an impromptu speech which encapsulated his vision of the pastoral identity (pp. 277-282).  The church decided they were quite pleased with that pastoral model and asked him to stay on and put it into practice.  And so he was freed to pursue the path of a “contemplative pastor” as opposed to the “competitive pastor,” a model getting more press at the time—and perhaps even now (p. 214).

The “competitive pastor” seems much more pretentious than Peterson’s model of the “contemplative pastor.”  The former employs an impressive skillset and perhaps also a charismatic personality to perform pastoral wonders.  The latter must acknowledge that those “competitive skills and achievements [are] virtually worthless.  Worse than worthless: actively destructive” (p. 208).

Distinguishing Pastor from Pastor-Theologian

But most pastors are not going to write 30 or so books and translate the entire Bible.

Peterson’s memoir is not just a narrative about his life.  It is an untidy, reflective re-forging and re-casting of the vocational identity of the pastor.  But his “contemplative” model is not a cookie-cutter mold.  Clearly, he challenges the culturally-mandated formulations of the pastoral way of working and being, but he is not urging all pastors to conform to a well-honed image of his own example.

Not all pastors are inclined to read poetry and Barth, Melville and Dostoyevsky.

So in this reworked vision of the “pastor,” should all pastors really be pastor-theologians?

I think the notion of “contemplative pastor” should be universally embraced for ministers.  But in this spacious vocational identity there exists also the notion of a “(contemplative) pastor-theologian” for whom the daunting labors of theological study hold an even greater urgency (I say “an even greater” because theology must be of rigorous urgency for any pastor, in my view).  Writing certainly seems to be a distinctive mark as well (though one of the most brilliant, theologically-inclined pastors I know reads more commentaries than I do as a NT doctoral student but simply dislikes writing).

Do these distinctive inclinations of pastor-theologians render them more or less helpful in the parish?  Are churches willing to take on an “unbusy pastor” (p. 277), a contemplative pastor, a contemplative pastor-theologian?

Re-forging the pastoral vocation requires more than pastors figuring out who they are and what they do.  It means helping churches understand, appreciate, and endorse the contemplative model.  And the pastors need to be learning from the churches themselves about their roles—as Peterson found when he once tried to resign, the flock may already know the role of the shepherd better than the shepherd.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2012).