Does Theology Even Matter Anymore? Dear Lord, Yes!

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Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.

Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.

Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.

How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”

Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.

In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:

I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.

Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.

Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.

I just happen to disagree.

I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.

But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.

Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.

Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.

Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.

People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.

They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.

Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.

A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.

Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.

How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.

Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.

In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.

In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.

Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.

Research Findings: Congregations Are Becoming More Diverse

From the Baylor University press release:

Racially diverse congregations have increased substantially in the United States over the past 20 years, and the percentage of all-white congregations has declined, according to a study by a Baylor University sociologist and two colleagues.

Overall, multiracial congregations — defined as those in which no one racial or ethnic group comprises more than 80% of the congregants — have nearly tripled, with approximately a quarter of evangelical and Catholic churches now being multiracial.

Other key findings:

  • 10% of mainline Protestant churches were multiracial, up from 1%.
  • 22% percent of evangelical congregations were multiracial, up from 7%.
  • 16% of Pentecostals are multiracial, up from 3%.
  • Catholic churches on average continue to be more diverse than Protestant churches with 23% multiracial, up from 17%.
  • Less than 1% of Black Protestant churches were multiracial in 1998 or 2019.

And an important final remark:

Despite these changes, difficulties face racial desegregation in American religion, said study co-author Michael O. Emerson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The path to diversity seems to be a one-way street, with people of color joining white congregations but very few whites joining Black churches,” Emerson said. “Until congregations confront the historic structures that keep racial groups divided, diversity inside congregations may function mainly as a superficial performance.”

For researchers, what would this confrontation look like?

And what are the causal factors that have let to increased diversity, where it has occurred?

With all due respect to Dr. Michael Emerson, and acknowledging scholars are often understated in their conclusions and often bent toward skepticism, increased diversity in some congregations “may” be “a superficial performance.” But it may be something else entirely, like behaving toward a preferred way of being based on a shift in theological convictions and religious values. It may also be a movement of God, or a historical return toward the early diversity of the Christian movement.

That aside, I’m encouraged by the trend.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

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The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.

The Marks of a Great Preacher

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A truly great preacher is marked by a combination of faith and fire–faith in two senses. The first is the faith was once delivered unto the saints. The sermons of great preachers are messages of substance. They are not merely frothy concoctions of sentiment and anecdote, but rather they find their center of gravity in the purity of doctrine, in the profundity of Scripture, and in the power of the gospel. The second is faith in the sense of personal conviction. This living faith is also fuel for the fire. Great preachers have convictions that are contagious. They speak existentially to the whole person, unleashing deep emotions and galvanizing the heart, the intellect, and the will. They move their hearers, and not merely in an ephemeral or superficial way. Deep calleth unto deep. The hearer feels located, as if the preacher is speaking specifically to him or her. The messenger provokes a response in the listener.

Timothy Larsen, writing in the foreword to Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles Spurgeon [affiliate link]

This sounds all of the right notes.

Church Attendance is Down. How Far Down Is It?

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The Baptist Standard has done a nice job piecing together data from LifeWay Research on church attendance trends in the wake of the pandemic. What did they find? Church attendance is down. That’s no big surprise. How far down is it?

A few key statistics:

A majority of African American Protestant pastors (60 percent) say their congregations did not meet in person last month.

Mainline pastors (31 percent) are more likely than evangelical pastors (7 percent) to say they did not physically gather in September. Denominationally, Methodists (22 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (23 percent) are more likely to say they did not meet in person than Lutherans (12 percent), pastors in the Restorationist movement (10 percent) or Baptists (9 percent).

Social distancing may be easier in churches, as most pastors say their congregation has less than 70 percent of pre-COVID crowds.

One in 10 churches (9 percent) say their attendance in September was less than 30 percent of what it was in February before the pandemic spread to the United States. Another 20 percent say attendance was between 30 percent and less than 50 percent of what it was.

A third of pastors (34 percent) say it has reached 50 percent to less than 70 percent of previous levels. For 1 in 5 (21 percent) attendance is between 70 percent to less than 90 percent.

The mainline/evangelical split isn’t a shocker. What’s sobering is the percentage declines in attendance, especially considering that most church buildings do have space to make accommodations according to social distancing guidelines and that sensible measures such as wearing masks or tailoring liturgy to limit congregational singing are both reasonable and quite easy to implement. Several churches in our area, including the congregation I am part of, have chosen to meet outside, even before the cooler temperatures of autumn had arrived. Some mornings it was sweltering, but we gathered anyway.

This survey doesn’t tell us everything, only a few tidbits about who is meeting, who is not, and a few implications. I wasn’t surprised, nor did I really care much, to be told that one of the biggest changes church leaders have made in the wake of the pandemic has been to forestall a capital campaign or a building improvement project. That means very little to me.

There are wider considerations. Not every state has had the same regulations in place; politics, I’m certain, are a factor, and there is something to be said for church leaders who have actively promoted public health measures. Some states have employed Draconian measures; technocrats have tossed aside liberty. Government can overreach, and in some places, it most certainly has.

Polity differences matter, too. Baptists people are congregational, and thus, their people are more likely to put more pressure on their pastors to meet. Methodists, on the other hand, have an episcopate structure. Parishioners in those contexts may care that there church isn’t meeting, but know their pastor serves under the appointment of a bishop and cabinet. Decisions to refrain from meeting could be more regional than they are local.

African American pastors and their churches may not be meeting due to disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on their parishioners.

There are discipleship factors as well, though they would be nearly impossible to sift. For some, the pandemic might have relieved social pressures that kept some active in church, while their normal preference would’ve been to invest their time in other ways. COVID-19, then, has been a wonderful excuse not to meet, an easy out.

Down here in Waco most church leaders I know are back to meeting in some way, shape, or form. People wear masks, remain physically distanced, and have asked volunteers to increase efforts in the areas of sanitation. That’s good. That’s wise.

But I also know that people are tired of COVID. They’re ready to get back to normal. I think it will be tough to strike the right balance, to remain vigilant, while also opening avenues for congregational togetherness, fellowship, and corporate worship.

I’ve heard some really silly biblical arguments as to why we should be gathering in spite of the risks, fatalistic accounts that negate human responsibility and involve strange and sinister conceptions of God’s sovereignty. I’m well aware that there are biblical commands to meet together routinely, and there are Old Testament commands that contain wisdom with regard to the observance of a weekly day of worship. But Sunday gatherings for worship are more the product of church tradition than they are an explicit biblical command, and the nature of our public gatherings can widely vary based on the leading of the Spirit and the needs of the community. Much more could be written on this topic, certainly.

On the other hand, some people think that it is wisest, and that there is little harm, in foregoing the worship gathering. I disagree. I think there is a level of risk, but not enough to forego public gatherings tailored to our present moment. My read on our region is that we are in a place where it is reasonable to meet together weekly, to do something. If churches aren’t meeting regularly, then pastors should be adjusting their approach to ministry, shepherding their people by reaching out, making phone calls, maybe even stopping by on doorsteps and having front yard conversations from several feet away. Zoom has limits. Physical presence matters.

The months ahead could look very different, not only because of a change in weather, but also due to a change in political climate. But the losses that have taken place this year will require hard and diligent work to recoup. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Pray that God would raise up workers to labor in his field.

The Meaning of Apocalypse

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Carl Trueman has written an article at First Things in which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.

“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.

In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.

A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.

Look At All These Rumors

Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:

In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.

Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.

But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:

So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.

Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.

But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?

No Need for Anxiety

Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.

Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.

Times Are Tough and So Is Pastoring

white and brown house
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The work of a pastor can be tough. When you’re facing a global crisis, it gets tougher. Normal patterns are disrupted. Pressures increase, and as they do, cracks become more pronounced.

Reverend Jakob Topper, pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, tells several disturbing and sad stories emerging as a result of the pressure of pastoring during a global pandemic in an opinion piece at Baptist News Global. Topper writes:

I was on a Zoom call recently with 10 pastors across three denominations, when one of the participants shared a struggle with suicidal thoughts in these challenging days. By the time the meeting concluded, four of the 10 had found the courage to admit their own suicidal ideations.

He goes on to chronicle the troubles. One congregation opened early and shortly thereafter a member died from COVID. Other pastors were threatened by congregants from each extreme, who said they’d leave or withhold their tithes if the church didn’t reopen/remain closed. Another pastor was fired because the church was unhappy with her leadership, one had to lay off half their staff, and another was a victim of assault by a congregant–who came to the building and kicked the pastor’s door off its hinges, attempting to provoke a fight in response to the previous Sunday’s sermon, which addressed the topic of race in America.

Rev. Topper notes other factors that make church work tough right now. There is vast economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, hyper-partisanship, a contentious and ongoing civil rights debate, and to make matters worse, it’s an election season.

We’ve got to get through this. And it will be much better if we’re able to get through this together. We’re bruised, battered, and beaten. Devouring one another from within won’t do us–or the world, or the kingdom of God–any good.

Rev. Topper offers advice to churches and congregants. For congregants, it is important to remember that the church and Christ are united, but not one and the same. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, and his goodness is not in doubt. But God has called together human beings who are still on the way, who are still in the process of being sanctified, who are yet to be glorified. We will fail one another, but Christ will not fail us. Rev. Topper also calls us to remember that pastors are undershepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, that we should pray for our pastors, to commit to being encouraging and faithful church members during a time of trial, and to advocate for your pastor’s mental health.

Rev. Topper then gives advice to pastors. He encourages pastors to see a counselor, talk to their primary care physician about their mental health, to slow down and reset expectations, to actively cultivate friendships via wise and available channels, and to lean on peers, other co-laborers in ministry. Excellent guidance, all.

The only thing strange about Rev. Topper’s framing of this crisis is his choice to draw upon the biblical story of Saul falling on his sword. He states, “There’s a story in the Old Testament about King Saul being defeated in battle. Instead of waiting on the opposing army to torture and ridicule him before killing him, he chooses to take his own life by falling on his sword.”

Rev. Topper writes that “pastors are already facing ridicule not just from their adversaries but from many of their own congregants. They’re being tortured by their own inability to lead their churches out of a pandemic, out of hyper-partisanship and out of racism. Falling on their swords is starting to look pretty attractive.” He adds, “this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.”

The problem is that Saul’s choice to fall on his sword is neither condemned nor praised in 1 Samuel 31. This particular text is silent on the subject of suicide. It most certainly is not an endorsement of this option, however. The arc of the Saul narrative offers us more of a picture of an example to avoid rather than one to follow.

Rev. Topper’s connection with Saul could be read as an out for ministers, one with biblical precedent. The overall thrust of his article argues that we do not want to see ministers choose this avenue even though some are considering it and that we can do a better job, together, of caring for one another. But the Saul example seems to suggest it is an available or at least an understandable avenue, even if it is not a preferable outcome.

I would think that better analogies could have been drawn from Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, or any of the other apostles. There are multitudes of New Testament examples of the early church facing immense suffering and trying times, and yet because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, these early disciples were able to both name the reality of the sufferings they faced while also praising God because of the reason for their hope: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some were glad to suffer for the name. Others recognized quite quickly that suffering is unpleasant, yes, but it also holds transformative potential, a signal that God, in some way, may yield something precious as the result of passing through the refiner’s fire.

The New Testament also gives us every reason to believe that the church consists of both enemies and friends, and that persecution and intense hostilities can arise from within the body as well as from without. That’s a sad reality, one that I’ve experienced firsthand. Pastoring is tough work. It always has been. Being the church is tough work. It always has been. The wheat grows up with the chaff.

Rev. Topper’s evidence is anecdotal–another sampling of pastors may reveal churches and leaders who are thriving. But there is no doubt that these are challenging times. We need to care for our pastors, and for one another. And we would all do well to tend to these troubling signs of the church’s spiritual health.

If our pastors–and our congregants–are responding to this crisis in ways that are destructive, then perhaps we are not as healthy as we thought we were before the pandemic. That’s a discipleship problem, one that can only be addressed if congregants and their pastors, together, commit to honest self-evaluation and renewed commitment to following Jesus wherever he leads. Whatever we were doing, this is the result. Changes may be in order. If so, make them.

I want every pastor to be mentally healthy, resilient, buoyed by hope, steadfast, and strengthened so that they can persevere. I do not want our churches to be places that crush their pastors. And for anyone who does have suicidal ideation, that can happen. Pastoring is tough. Get help. You are loved. There are people who will walk with you through the dark valley and help you see your way to the other side, who will do so as friends of God. You may not see them right now, but they are out there, maybe not in your context, but in the wider world and, hopefully, in the wider body of Christ.

This season has been tough on everyone. Times are tough. We’ll make it through. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. He went through worse–some might say he went through hell–and he did it for us, not only to inspire us, but to flood the world with his redeeming grace.

CDC: One Quarter of Young Adults Have Contemplated Suicide During Pandemic

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The Center for Disease Control has found that one quarter of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they have considered suicide in the past month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report states: “Symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, COVID-19–related TSRD, initiation of or increase in substance use to cope with COVID-19–associated stress, and serious suicidal ideation in the previous 30 days were most commonly reported by persons aged 18–24 years; prevalence decreased progressively with age.”

The youngest respondents express the highest level of hardship.

Politico reports:

While 10.7 percent of respondents overall reported considering suicide in the previous 30 days, 25.5 percent of those between 18 to 24 reported doing so. Almost 31 percent of self-reported unpaid caregivers and 22 percent of essential workers also said they harbored such thoughts. Hispanic and Black respondents similarly were well above the average.

Roughly 30.9 percent of respondents said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression. Roughly 26.3 respondents reported trauma and stress-related disorder because of the pandemic.

Another 13.3 percent of respondents said they have turned to substance use, including alcohol and prescription or illicit drugs, to cope with stress from the pandemic.

More than half of respondents who identified as essential workers reported some kind of adverse mental health or behavioral health condition related to the Covid-19 emergency.

If you know a young adult, give them a call. Ask them how they’re doing. Likely, they’re fine. Either way, tell them you care about them.

And if you are a young adult and you’re struggling right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also utilize the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

A House of Prayer

First Methodist Church, Waco, Texas

I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.

This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.

We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.

Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.

And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.

Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.

The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.

Church and Contagious Disease

The New York Times is reporting on church attendance and COVID-19. This headline is well written and grabs your attention: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.” The subheading: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to religious facilities during the pandemic.”

Whoa! Sounds scary.

[Aside: Does the virus have agency? Infiltration is something I associate with government intelligence organizations and mischievous young people, the first in something like a Mission Impossible film, the second in a story like Ladybugs.]

Silliness at The Times

Back to the Times. Read the opening two paragraphs:

PENDLETON, Ore. — Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.

The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.

The virus is surging. Infiltrating. It has struck. Churches have reopened apparently because of the president’s demands rather than because of convictions that predated Trump by millennia. While there have been some who have reopened cautiously, others have “defied” lockdowns and “refused” government orders.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion writes that The Times misses the point, and that the story should focus on how religious leaders have responded to the pandemic and the effects the virus has had on religious congregations. Mattingly offers this analysis of the storyline:

Part I: It was perfectly valid to cover the relatively small number of religious groups — most of them totally independent Pentecostal and evangelical congregations — that were rebelling against government COVID-19 safety laws and recommendations (even when local officials were treating religious groups the same way they were treating stores, bars and other public institutions).

Part II: The bigger story was the cooperation that the leaders of most major religious institutions — from Catholic bishops to Southern Baptist megachurch leaders — were showing. In recent months, many of these religious groups have cautiously opened their doors to small groups of worships, once again following state and local guidelines.

The Times is reporting on a story, and the above themes are relevant and present. This is a disturbing trend. So what’s wrong with The Gray Lady’s reporting? Mattingly writes:

How does “650 cases” over several weeks that are said to be linked to services and events compare, statistically, with the overarching trends that are seeing COVID-19 cases rising rapidly. A week ago, Axios noted that new case numbers had hit 50,000 in one day. Might there be some other settings that are more important than churches in this surge, just looking at the numbers? Oh, wait. Might this have something to do with news templates linked to Donald Trump, white evangelicals and “religious liberty” and all that?

The problem is that The Times has written a politics story masquerading as a religion story, rather than a religion story with a relevant political parallel.

Silliness in the Pews

While I’m on this story, I want to draw out one more quote from the article in The Times. The report closes with the following:

Mr. Satterwhite, the pastor in Oregon [mentioned earlier in the article], said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash. “I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down,” he said, adding that he appreciated Mr. Trump’s supportive remarks about churches being essential.

When weighing his responsibility as a faith leader, Mr. Satterwhite said, he returned to his beliefs. “My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

My response to Pastor Satterwhite is twofold.

First, even if a church ceases public gatherings for worship for a period of time, there are other ways to remain together as the body, ministering to the needs of congregants, praying for one another, shepherding one another, teaching, and drawing together resources financial and otherwise in puruit of shared mission. A government order cannot shut down a church. It can create challenges. It may result in disbanding. But not necessarily.

I know some Christians view Sunday worship as a divine command, an extension of the Sabbath principle applied to Sunday, the day upon which Jesus was raised from the dead. But I don’t think it is that simple. I think weekly worship is wise and meant to be edifying, and that Christians should continue meeting together regularly as instructed in Hebrews 10:25. I think that the marks of the church include what is described in Acts 2:42-47: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and stewarship. I think gathering together is a spiritual discipline, creating occasions where the people of the church can exercise obedience to the “one another” commands of the New Testament. But I also think that in the midst of a crisis like the one we face at the present moment, the church can discern other avenues of continued connection and faithfulness, and respond with wisdom.

Second, the dramatic flourish with which Satterwhite closes, read charitably, is meant to reflect a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God. It seems to echo the sentiment of “faith over fear” that I have heard so often in these past days. But faith and fear are not our only biblical and theological categories. The only fear we should maintain should be fear of the Lord. That is the beginning of wisdom. And if fear of the Lord leads us to desire to be the best possible steward of our lives and the lives of others, we will not ignore the best medical and scientific insights that might help us from spreading this disease.

While it may be true that God holds the power of life and death, I will not put the Lord to the test by asking those who have been infected to breath on me, nor will I brazenly breath on others if I am a carrier of the contagion. I’ll distance, where a mask, and love my neighbor as myself.