Tag Archives: culture wars

W & W

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 2)

This is the second part of our interview with Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.  (Click here for Part 1).  His book is a theological memoir about his decision as a gay Christian to embrace what is often called “Side B”—the choice of a celibate lifestyle.  Wes just finished his PhD in New Testament Studies at Durham University and will assume a post later this summer at Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican theological seminary in Pittsburgh.

Hopeful Realism: In reading your book, I was rather astonished to find that three of the most helpful factors in your struggle with sexual orientation are three factors often deemed threatening for many other gays—ecclesiology (the church), eschatology (the return of Christ… which includes some form of a final reckoning), and Scripture (with all those harsh statements about homosexual sin).   For many gay Christians, the church has been found inhospitable; and eschatology, with its associations with divine judgment, is used in many circles as a tool for bludgeoning the sexually immoral.  As for Scripture, straight Christians inhabiting the pews of those accepting churches are often well acquainted and all too keen to cite the biblical texts that decry homosexuality as sinful.  Yet for you, the church, the end of this age, and the Bible are emblematic of hope and beauty.  Can you explain this a bit?

Wesley Hill: Although I am well aware of the church’s failures, particularly when it comes to loving gay people, I’m also aware that celibacy is impossible to maintain, at least as the Christian tradition conceives it, without the loving commitment of a community of fellow believers. And that leads me to seek out that kind of community in church, despite the ways the church can wound people like me, often without even realizing they’re doing it (for instance, by gearing all their programming to families with kids). I recognize that if I’m going to be able to love and be loved as a celibate gay Christian, I have to have friends, and God has given the local church as the place to nurture Christian friendship. Yes, it often fails miserably at this task. But I keep going back, expecting to find grace with all my other sinful spiritual siblings, as we together, straight or gay, look to Jesus for the hope we need to keep going. It’s the ideal of what I once heard an Orthodox priest call “parish celibacy.” As for eschatology, trusting in the promise of a new creation and the resurrection of the body is the only way I know to persevere while experiencing the sufferings and difficulties that come with celibacy. When Paul wanted to encourage believers to endure their various trials and weaknesses, he pointed forward to the eternal weight of glory that would make any temporal suffering pale by comparison (see 2 Corinthians 4 and Romans 8). I find that hope in Scripture — that every tear will be wiped away, that “everything sad will come untrue” (Tolkien) — and that is my encouragement as I seek to live a Christian life on a daily basis.

HR: Let’s talk about the church’s public discourse on homosexuality.  The recent vote on Amendment 1 in North Carolina ignited a great deal of controversy among Christians, some of whom passionately and vocally supported the bill with others denouncing it as a faulty means of public engagement.   Should the church fight social issues through government legislation?  Do you have any recommendations for how the church’s public discourse on homosexuality should change?

WH: Although many of us are agreed on the goal – that we ought to continue to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman – I think Christians will legitimately arrive at different conclusions about how best to work towards that outcome as citizens of the U.S. Some of us will seek to argue persuasively against gay marriage in the public square without appealing explicitly to the Bible or Christian tradition. Others of us may conclude that the best way to advocate for traditional marriage is not by throwing all our energy into the legislative arena but rather by, as Paul Griffiths has memorably put it, “burnish[ing] the practice of marriage… until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.” In other words, we may decide a better strategy is embodying “a more excellent way” rather than seeking at all costs to keep gay marriage from being legalized. Certainly, I think, the primary focus of our efforts should be on “preserving traditional marriage” in the church – and repenting for the ways that heterosexual believers have undermined it far more than gay people have. At the very least, I would like to see the church cease to scapegoat gays and lesbians for the breakdown of “the traditional family” and acknowledge its own failures in this regard. As my friend Ron Belgau has put it, “If Christians want to make any serious effort to promote Christian teaching about sexuality in contemporary Western culture, they will need to begin by recognizing that the sexual revolution is not just a problem out there, caused by secularists, hedonists, tax collectors, and sinners. It is caused, at least in part, by us. We have to remove the log from our own eye before we can help others.”

HR: Back to the issue of the Bible and homosexuality.  Many gay Christians are reading the passages on homosexuality differently from you.  When it comes to homosexuality, are the Scripture texts muddled?  Is there hermeneutical space for differing interpretations?

WH: Those of us who maintain the “traditional” viewpoint on this — that the church ought not to bless same-sex marriages — need to help people see that the historic Christian opposition to same-sex sexual partnerships does not simply rest on a few isolated prooftexts, like Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 (as vitally important as those texts are!). It is, rather, part of the larger fabric of Scriptural teaching on marriage, procreation, child-rearing, celibacy, friendship, etc. So Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5 are just as crucial, or even more crucial, for forming Christian sexual ethics than Romans 1 is. Chris Roberts, in his excellent book Creation and Covenant, has shown how all the major strands of the Christian tradition have upheld the significance of sexual difference (our creation as male and female) for the moral theology of marriage, and that that has been the basis of their opposition to same-sex partnerships. If we could help people see this more holistic vision, then perhaps the church’s continued opposition to gay marriage wouldn’t seem to rest on such an arbitrary, flimsy basis. It isn’t just about picking and choosing a few random verses and building a sexual ethic out of such fragments. It’s rather about a coherent vision — a kind of seamless garment — of Christian teaching about our creation in God’s image and the vocations that flow from our creation and redemption.

HR: Finally, an eschatological question.  Jesus once told his questioners that in the resurrection of the dead, there will be no marriage.  Why is this, do you think?  And what are the implications here for those who struggle with homosexuality and have embraced celibacy, as well as for those of us, gay or straight, who are married?

WH: I don’t think I have a good answer for why Jesus said this, but I do think one of the outcomes is that it opens up a way to understand celibacy as a symbol of life in the kingdom of God. If there will be no marriage in God’s future, then singleness can serve as a signpost of our present anticipation of that future. Rodney Clapp has written, “The single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection. The married, after all, can fall back on the passage of the name to children, and on being remembered by children. But singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church.” In other words, when Jesus pictured the coming kingdom as a reality without marriage as we know it, he thereby sanctified the vocation of celibacy — and he showed us how to practice it by pointing us to the hope of the resurrection.

 

To keep up with what Wes is reading and thinking, check out his blog, “Writing in the Dust.”  

 

Other posts at Hopeful Realism on Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

Sex in the City on a Hill: The most fundamental means of promoting an alternative sexual ethic is to practice one.  So how are evangelicals doing when it comes to the issues of abstinence, celibacy, and sexual purity?  How are Christians doing with the sacred model of heterosexual marriage?

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1): the first part of the interview above.

W & W

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1)

In Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, he calls his activity as an author “heuristic writing.”  That is, he writes to think, to sort, to wrestle… not necessarily to explain tidily or to make authoritarian decrees.  “Heuristic writing” captures well what we are trying to do with this blog.  Our writing is a discipline of straining to understand, a discipline of lunging forward into the fog.  Every now and then, you grab hold of something in the murk that seems quite solid, beautiful and true.

Oftentimes, you have to call out in the fog to others who may be up ahead of you a spell, hoping to pick up some response and sound out a communal path.  To close this series on “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars,” I am letting one of those voices speak, the voice of my friend Wesley Hill.

This series began when I started trying to evaluate the response to a vote against the legal possibility of same-sex marriage in North Carolina, a state in which I lived and ministered for six years.  The previous posts are exercises in slogging through some of the complexities behind the reaction of younger Christians to the church’s public discourse on moral issues (see below for the links).  Wes has just written a theological memoir about his own journey as a gay Christian (Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality).  Whether gay or straight, when it comes to discerning how the church is to engage our culture with a vision for an alternative sexual ethic, there are few voices we should prefer to hear calling back to our own from up ahead in the dark fog than Wesley Hill’s.  Dear readers: share this interview with folks—it is worth many ears….

 

Hopeful Realism: In Washed and Waiting, you recount the difficult stages of gradually confiding your sexual orientation to friends.  Not only did you “come out” as gay before your friends, but you did so in what is often understood as the most inhospitable subculture for gays, that of evangelical Christianity.  And now, you have produced a public account of your struggles in the form of a book!  How difficult has it been to “own” your sexual orientation personally, and then to share it so openly with others?

Wesley Hill: I don’t want to make it sound as though everything has been happily-ever-after since I came out, but I certainly have experienced a measure of rest and relief that comes from being truthful with myself and others. Eve Tushnet, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer, talks about how coming out can be a step towards freer, truer love of others, inasmuch as it lifts the burden of having to hide and the self-protective fear that goes along with hiding. When we’re trying to hide ourselves from others, we’re not able to love them well. In fact, we may be more prone to hurt others in our efforts to try to preserve our hiding place. And so, even as coming out can be a harrowing experience for many people, it can also lead to blessings.

HR: Horror stories circulate about the hostile reaction of Christians to someone struggling with homosexuality who has decided to come out before the church.  In your own experience, how has the church received you in your gradual openness about your own personal struggles as a gay believer?

WH: My experience in this regard has been mostly positive, with only a few exceptions. I’ve been asked to speak and lead discussions in a variety of church settings, and the most frequently asked question I get, probably, is something along the lines of, “How can we do a better job of loving gay people, whether they’re Christian or not?” I take that as a sign that many Christians, by and large, have an instinct for compassion. Having said that, I talk with a lot of gay Christians who have experienced significant rejection, in one form or another, from their churches. One person told me recently that when he came out to his pastor, the pastor’s initial response was, “Don’t tell anyone else in the congregation.” I’m not sure leaders realize how much an exhortation like that can reinforce the sense of shame and guilt that many gay Christians feel simply for experiencing an unchosen same-sex attraction, regardless of what they choose to do with that attraction. Another friend shared with me his experience of being at an informal church event recently — at a mainstream evangelical church — and hearing multiple “gay jokes.” “That showed me that I still can’t come out to my friends,” he said ruefully. And sadly, I’m not sure how uncommon my friend’s experience is in the evangelical church.

HR: Heterosexual Christians are often at a loss to know how to relate to gay brothers and sisters in the faith.  What are the most common myths straight Christians maintain, even if unwittingly, about homosexuality?

WH: I remember giving a talk about loneliness once and a youth minister came up to me afterwards and said, “Can you help me understand the sense of lack that you feel? Why is it that you feel a deficit in your masculinity, and how can we help fill that?” This puzzled me, because I hadn’t said anything in my talk about feeling a lack of male affection. But this pastor had probably heard the common origins story for male homosexuality that describes same-sex attraction as an attempt to “make up for” the distance a boy feels from his father when he’s growing up. Once the boy hits puberty, that hunger for father-intimacy becomes eroticized, and that’s why (many) men are gay (or so the story goes).  My concern here is that we are so quick to impose one narrative that may, indeed, be helpful for some people on others for whom it isn’t helpful. Among other helpful changes we could make, perhaps one of the primary things the church could do is stop pretending as if one of its favorite “origin stories” were true for all gay men, period. That story doesn’t seem to illumine much of my experience, and I’ve heard other gay friends of mine say the same thing. We need to become better listeners and stop assuming that we can know ahead of time what counsel we need to give. We need to be willing to admit that we don’t know why some people are gay, and therefore we don’t know — apart from the hard work of actually cultivating genuine friendship — how we can best support and encourage and love them on their various pathways.

HR: This seems to be the testimony of some gay Christians: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and began practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  You have chosen a different route, operating with an entirely different logic.  It seems to me as though your testimony could be expressed in this way: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and surrendered any hope of practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  Is this an accurate assessment?  How would you account for the disparity in these two testimonies?  Are both equally valid options?

WH: One of the things we have to face up to honestly as Christians is the fact that behaviors and choices that, on a traditional Christian account of things, are “sinful” are also, nonetheless, liberating and peace-giving for some people. Remember Psalm 73: righteousness doesn’t always lead to observable flourishing! Sometimes when we seek to communicate the gospel, we feel that we need to “unmask” the peace and happiness that unbelievers say they experience before we can talk to them about Christ. “Your life is really miserable,” we say, “so you need to come to Jesus.” But is that right? What if the person replies, “But my life isn’t miserable! On the contrary!” I wonder if Bonhoeffer’s reflections on “religious blackmail” could help us here as we ponder how to speak to gay people about the historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics without attacking their own gay partnerships as just obviously “bad” for them. To someone who is in a loving partnership, that attack will either ring hollow or be profoundly hurtful or offensive. I think of a passage from Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology in which he says that we Christians ought to be able to recognize that some people who are rejecting Christian truth often live quite “healthy” lives, when you judge them by the standard of, say, the mental health profession. “Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may,” Jenson writes, “in their own ways be describable as ‘forgiveness’ or ‘liberation’ and so on. To such possibilities the gospel’s messengers can only say: ‘We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do for you — which may well be suffering and oppression.” Applying this kind of perspective to homosexuality, I’d like to say that gay partnerships may provide a measure of “liberation” for some and that following the historic Scriptural teaching on either marriage between one man and one woman or celibacy may be quite difficult and not obviously or empirically “good” for us, even though we trust that, in the long run, obeying God does enable true flourishing — and celibacy can indeed be joyful and life-enhancing, even in the meantime.

[to be continued.... Part 2 will be up on Wednesday]

 

Other posts on Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

Sex in the City on a Hill: The most fundamental means of promoting an alternative sexual ethic is to practice one.  So how are evangelicals doing when it comes to the issues of abstinence, celibacy, and sexual purity?  How are Christians doing with the sacred model of heterosexual marriage?

Sex in the City on the Hill (Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars… cont’d)

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Previous Posts in the series “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars”:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

 

Finding An Alternative to Partisan Politics…

If the politicizing of family values is no longer an option, if legislative battles for moral issues is deemed outdated and offensive, if the church should silence its public outcries that reinforce the stereotype of bigotry, then how should we promote an alternative ethical vision in society?

For the most part, I agree with the outcry within the church against the church’s public outcries.  That is, I agree that the church must rethink its public discourse when it comes to sticky social issues (homosexuality, abortion, immigration rights, et. al.).  Jonathan Merritt has written at The Atlantic that the decline of Christianity in America is to be attributed to the church’s past few decades of partisan politics.  The factors are probably a bit more complicated, but that Christians should find other means of relating to the public square strikes me as absolutely true.

But how?  Those of us disappointed with the way Christians have conducted public discourse on cultural controversies should make some constructive effort toward alternative approaches, right?

Jesus charged his community of followers to exist as the “light of the world,” like a “city on a hill” (Mt 5:14).  The church is called to public visibility.  Jesus’ interpretation of his own charge is this: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

The best way to offer an alternative moral vision in the public square is to live it out.  Demonstration by practice is the most fundamental means of conveying our values.  This approach is less vocal… but not necessarily quieter.  In terms of communicative effectiveness, embodying our values in our daily practices can be quiet loud.

This is not to say that the church must refrain from verbally articulating its moral vision.  But the most basic means at our disposal for publicizing an alternative ethic is to live it out with quiet consistency.  Shouldn’t this be where we start?

So when it comes to issues related to sexuality, celibacy and marriage, is the church a gleaming city on the hill broadcasting a compelling vision of purity and beauty?

Marriage

If we claim that marriage is between a man and a woman, then how well are we displaying a tender concern for the lofty holiness of heterosexual union?

The Barna Group offers evidence that the Christian divorce rate is as high as the non-Christian divorce rate in America (roughly 33 % of adults have been divorced).  Their numbers, however, have come under sharp scrutiny—sociologist Bradley Wright argues that there is actually quite a disparity between the divorce rates of committed, regular church attenders (38%) and those non-aligned with a religious entity (%50).  (But let’s not rejoice too heartily—38% is not exactly a triumphant stat).

The divorce rate is not necessarily the best way to gauge the quality of Christian marriages in our society, of course.  Some Christians may stay married not because their marriage is healthy, but because social pressures coerce them to keep quiet, even in dangerous situations.   And conversely some Christians may feel compelled to leave marriages on legitimate moral grounds because of their strong and rightful convictions.

I suppose one key element demonstrating a compelling theological vision of marriage is how hard Christians strive to preserve and strengthen their marital relationships.  This daily striving is not very quantifiable, but the folks next door (and the kids at the dinner table) will likely see and admire it over time.  Fighting hard for marriage as opposed to fighting hard against one’s marital partner, may be less vocal on the street and in the bedroom… but it is the noble sort of fight that may gradually and quietly inspire others in a society in which divorce is so commonplace.

If marriage between a man and a woman is the biblical ideal the church intends to communicate in society, then it is incumbent on us to do marriage well.  Exceptionally well.  And that takes decades of daily, hourly striving in sacrificial (and joyful!) love.  It is much harder than the newly married or the dreamily single would suppose.

Sex and Emerging Adulthood

If younger Christians are eager to adopt demonstration by practice instead of partisan politics as the primary means of publicly conveying an alternative sexual ethic, then how is that project faring?  How do the sexual practices of Christians emerging into adulthood qualify them as refreshing new harbingers of the church’s moral vision?

Not very well, I’m afraid….

Relevant Magazine’s important article “The Secret Sexual Revolution” compiles statistical evidence showing that younger Christians are almost as sexually active as their non-Christian peers.  Among emerging adults 18-29 years of age, 80% of unmarried evangelical Christians have had sex.

There is a lot of sex in this city on a hill.

Again, the data is complex (for more surveys, see Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults).  But if we are going to criticize older generations for ruining the Christian witness by promoting our faith’s alternative sexual sexual ethic through politics, then we should become drastically more serious about our own personal sexual practices.  What we do in private has public import.  It may not seem that way… until CNN opens an article with “True love doesn’t wait after all” based on that survey you filled out between classes one day.

What is at stake in those moments of sexual temptation is more than personal piety or our own personal track record for saying “no.”  What is more urgently at stake is the capacity of the church to publicly declare beautiful vision of sexuality as a shining city on a hill.

Singleness and Celibacy

Adhering to the church’s teaching on homosexuality is to ask our gay brothers and sisters to adopt the sacrificial path of celibacy.  I would agree that this is not a plea that should be made in society through political propaganda.

But if younger evangelicals are not very keen on heterosexual abstinence as the figures above evidence, then how can we ask gays to embrace the celibate, single life?

Furthermore, whereas the Protestant church has promoted the goodness and holiness of heterosexual marriage, it has not done a very good job promoting the validity and holiness of singleness as a way of life.  I used to work as as Singles Pastor, a title that can make many a single cringe (especially when said Singles Pastor is married!).  I know that many heterosexual singles feel somewhat of a “life-stage persecution” within their local churches—it is as if singleness is simply a transitional phase to be briefly endured before true adulthood ensues with the exchange of wedding vows.  This disparaging perspective must be awfully acute for gay believers who feel perpetually consigned to a life-stage deemed only transitional—and therefore inferior—by their faith community.

Richard Hays writes,

Surely it is a matter of some interest for Christian ethics that both Jesus and Paul lived without sexual relationships….  Within the church, we should work diligently to recover the dignity and value of the single life. [1]

In Sum…

The church is called to serve as a city on a hill, brightly broadcasting a compelling ethical vision grounded in the Gospel and in the identity of our Triune God.  The prominent positioning of this city in Jesus’ metaphor demands public engagement for the church.  Partisan politics may well be a dangerous path, forged perhaps haphazardly enough by our recent forebears that public repentance is required.

But if younger Christians are going to adopt a demonstration by practice approach in offering an alternative understanding of sexuality, marriage and celibacy in the public square, then we have some serious repenting to do ourselves….

 

[1] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 401.

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…?).

Preview

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.

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.]