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    Entries in Southern Baptist Church (2)


    The Cross and Cultural Engagement

    On Tuesday afternoon I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore was speaking at Baylor University, offering a lecture titled “Is There a Future for Evangelical Cultural Engagement?” The lecture was sponsored by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

    I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Moore, who has been unafraid to offer his viewpoint on race, politics, sexuality, and religious liberty. His stances have been cheered and jeered, and his opposition to Donald Trump caused a stir within the Southern Baptist Convention and nearly led to his ouster. This profile in The New Yorker shows how Dr. Moore holds conservative theological positions while casting Christian witness in a different light than his predecessors at the E.R.L.C.

    Tuesday’s lecture was bookended by references to “Outlaw Country,” noting how the unique contributions of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson preserved something of the soul of country music as Nashville trended toward a popular sound. Dr. Moore had a convenient opening: Willie Nelson attended Baylor for two years before dropping out. Moore’s point was simple: outlaw country may have been out of step with the mainstream but had staying power due to its continuity with the historic country music tradition and the excellence in songwriting and musicianship of its best exemplars. Even though the outlaws were relegated to the margins, they stuck to their guns, excelled in their craft, and made a lasting contribution to the history of music. They also inspired another generation of musicians.

    Moore invoked the outlaws as a parable for modern evangelical Christianity, observing that popular trends in society and culture have drawn the attention of evangelical Christianity, causing some to be seduced in pursuit of influence, power, and success. Dr. Moore noted how market-driven impulses within evangelicalism have been both a source of strength and weakness. Churches have wanted to reach as many people as possible with the gospel and have developed programs, sermons, and outreach initiatives to meet felt needs. But along the way, these churches have minimized their prophetic witness within the body of Christ by neglecting church discipline and teachings on repentance and sin while amplifying screeds against those outside the body of Christ. By giving people what they want, churches have compromised their own message in order to keep insiders happy and blame outsiders for their own failures.

    Dr. Moore argues that the way forward for evangelicalism rests not in cultural relevance or better programming, nor in the reformulation of certain classical doctrines of the Christian faith, but rather in the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. Christianity, according to Dr. Moore, must be unapologetically and self-consciously cross-centric and cruciform. There must be a focus on the meaning of Jesus’ death and the redemption accomplished on Calvary, as well as a clear calling to every disciple to take up one’s cross as they follow Jesus.

    Dr. Moore has maintained that the Christian message is peculiar, strange, and odd. But its peculiarity gives it power. On the cross we see both the love of God and humanity’s deep need for redemption. We also see the meaning of Jesus’ call to discipleship, and how he precedes us in death that he might raise us up from death to new life before God, all for God’s glory. While some churches may continue to be seduced by the notion that they can achieve relevance through better print materials, a more polished worship band, an innovative program, or slicker marketing, it is instead upon the gospel of and about Jesus by which the church will either stand or fall.

    This claim seems so elementary that it is obvious. But it is not so. Cultures ebb and flow, and across church history there are examples of Christianity being widely embraced and, conversely, being persecuted and marginalized.

    Dr. Moore is right to remind us that there is a future for evangelical cultural engagement, grounded at the point where timber met stone and flesh was pierced for the sins of the world on the top of Skull Hill.



    Emerging Adulthood, Causes for Conern, and the Practice of Asking Questions

    Over the course of this past year, I've taken the time to get to know a number of new friends ages 13 to 25. If you've paid any attention to the headlines, there is a growing concern for those in this age bracket, not only in my denominational tradition, but in all of American Christianity (see the Religious Landscape Survey from Pew here). Though it is an oft repeated statement that the church of every age must reach the next generation, recent statistics suggest that fewer young people are taking the claims of Christianity seriously in America, evidenced partly by the decline of conversions and baptisms among millennials. The message of the gospel has been obscured or is being rejected.

    For over a year I have been on the front lines in a new context, doing my best to build relationships with youth and emerging adults. I have listened to their beliefs, questions, perceptions, and troubles, and attempted to create a forum, or public commons, where we can explore concerns together. It's difficult work, but deeply rewarding.

    The articles cited above present a refrain so common I have come to expect it: "Young adults are abandoning Christianity." And we need to be wary when we hear these warnings. The research isn't always sound (see this book, which I wish more pastors would read).

    Dramatic wailing leads to a good click-through rate for online publications, and is intended to inspire action when repeated in congregational life. But the most common responses I have encountered are mourning, grief, and anger. Disillusionment, disappointment, and sometimes fear. And any response born out of fear, and not love, will be lacking and lead to a multitude of errors.

    The problems have to be diagnosed, and diagnosed accurately, before an effective response can be deployed.

    And there's the rub: most of us don't know how to respond. We don't know the real and practical steps we can take to be good neighbors to youth and emerging adults. I would encourage humility, curiosity, and compassion. God is sovereign over all things, human beings are each created in the divine image, and the work of salvation is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit drawing all people to the Son, to the glory of the Father. Our calling is to witness--a much richer vocation than we have assumed. Perhaps one of the greatest keys to effectively responding to youth and college students is a deep faith in God resulting in an abiding peace, and the willingness to be engaged.

    Causes for Concern

    While keeping tabs on denominational developments and trends in American religiosity, I have also been reading Christian Smith's work Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011). For anyone working in college and youth ministry, it's an indispensable sociological study of the prevailing beliefs, practices, and worldview of those entering adulthood. It is also sobering, for Smith and his team suggest that the prevailing beliefs of emerging adults are inherited and assumed due to the influence of the existing adult culture. Our unwillingness to face the problems of emerging adulthood is likely rooted in our denial that the problems of youth and emerging adults are, in fact, our own. "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

    Smith's research uncovers five primary areas of concern: 1) moral relativism stemming from radical individualism; 2) an addiction to consumerism and the inability to envision a need for restraint; 3) routine intoxication; 4) hurt and regret resulting from unhealthy sexual relationships; and 5) little or no vision for the common good, leading to civic and political disengagement. The first step in addressing these five concerns is admitting they are a very real part of young adult experience.

    Let me expand these five areas of concern. Youth and college students are asking questions about the foundations of morality. Generally speaking, I have found that they possess a set of values inherited from education in the public school system or picked up through cultural osmosis via the brine of popular music, movies, television, magazines, and social media. Emerging adults also possess economic power, either through their parents or via credit. Possessions are seen as symbols of status or totems of happiness.

    Youth and college students are also subject to numerous temptations related to drugs, alcohol, and sex, which is nothing new as a supposition, though Smith's research reveals trends that are alarming. And because of strong commitments to individualism and moral relativism, emerging adults lack a framework for navigating these temptations. They are ill-equipped. And lastly, while youth and college students have a desire to change the world, there is much work to do in helping young people move beyond their individual concerns to a commitment to the common good.

    In listening to students, I know that these concerns are very real. My congregation is a stone's throw from a university campus in my community. We are an outpost of the kingdom of God, strategically placed, and have a great opportunity to serve emerging adults. I take this very seriously, because I want our congregation to be a good neighbor to the youth in our city, but even more so to the university students pursuing their vocation in our immediate area.

    The Practice of Asking Questions

    In response, as a practice I ask questions. I listen. Some of my new friends know I like to talk. But my efforts will be in vain if I do not address the reality these students are facing.

    If you care about youth and college students, ask a lot of questions. Ask what people are struggling with. Ask about the objections your committed students are facing at school and in their social circles. What do people find compelling about Christianity, and what do they find problematic?

    Then, return to the Scripture and the riches of our tradition. Mine wisdom and bring it back. Refrain from judgmentalism and moralistic chatter. Restate the questions to your hearers, so everyone knows, precisely, what the problems are, and how we are attempting to address them. Then, solicit feedback. There may be better answers on offer, even in your own congregation. Students may be able to tell you how they are applying and thinking about the gospel. They may be able to testify how certain answers are effective in ways beyond your suggestions.

    When you hit on a helpful approach, share it generously with your students, and give credit to those who have found ways to overcome a challenge and live faithfully to Christ.