The High Adventure of Discipleship

Today the blog is devoted to the Introduction to my new book–Preaching in the Soundbite Age: How a Collaborative, Image Drawn, and Skeptical Generation Can Reshape Our Sermons. It’s a case for radically changing the way we preach and teach.

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will give me your feedback, or share my email signup link with someone you think could be interested!

The Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is a not a journey to a shrine which has limitations of space and time. It is a journey into life, a life so rich no limitation of space or time is able to contain it. But is this how we perceive the Christian life? We go to church, worship, study your Bible, etc. But where do they call for the high-adventure?

Francis DuBose, God Who Sends

The people in our churches are crying for the high adventure. They’re dying for it. Especially our young people. They might not know they want it, but they do. Behind the entertainment, the adrenaline-fueled Sunday morning gatherings, and the guaranteed-no-fail discipleship programs, people in our churches hunger for something they haven’t quite defined.  

They hunger for participation, not spectatorship, in the kingdom of God. Once they’ve experienced it, they don’t want to return to the passive sidelines, watching their faith but not shaping it. They’ve found the joy of discovering what God is doing with and through them and living the process with their community. They want to know why no one has told them before that discipleship isn’t a program but an on-the-field, glove-in-hand team sport.

It’s not an easy sell.

Most worshipers are used to being fans in the stands, not players in the arena. They won’t warmly welcome a radical change in that plan. They aren’t going to be excited about taking the reins of their own spiritual growth—at first. They might be like the high school classes I taught years ago. 

Used to sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher lecture about sonnets and Steinbeck, those teens looked at me like I had asked them to teleport to Neptune the first time I said, “What do you think?” The strange new teacher asked them questions instead of feeding them information. What was this sorcery?

Yet within a few days, those same students engaged in conversation about Shakespeare, voiced their opinion on Jonathan Swift, applied Jane Austen to their daily life,. and told me that classes had never been so interesting. I even had the rare privilege of a senior coming back to thank me for teaching her to think, thus getting her into her college of choice.

Pedagogy has known for decades what churches haven’t grasped—people learn, and change, when they engage and invest.

Monologue had created a dislike of literature and a distrust for its relevance in my students. What is it doing in our churches, where the stakes are far higher? The adaptive change necessary for preaching and teaching in a completely new way will take time, finesse, and patience. Do we want to be whipped by the potential backlash? Is the difficult work, both in crafting something new and in convincing people to accept it, worth the effort? Can we afford the possibility of attrition in a church already beset by loss?

Here’s the more important question to ask:

Can we afford not to?

In a spiritual climate where we’re already losing our next generations in high double digits, can we afford not to put in the struggle to retain them—not for their butts and bucks but for their, and our, spiritual well-being? Just as in the Babylonian exile, their well-being equals ours, too (Jeremiah 29.4). The older generations’ faith is only viable as it gets passed on. It’s only fresh and flexible as we’re learning from others.

If we are not making disciples with our preaching and teaching, what are we even doing on Sunday morning?

As I wrote this last year, I sat in my home office, in isolation because of COVID-19. Racial trauma roiled our country. We feel the stirring of God doing something different in his church. We know in our hearts things will not be the same when this is over. For some of us, we’ve been feeling the need for a wave of change long before pandemic forced our hand. We’ve been looking out to sea, watching the horizon, waiting for the sails to come over the edge that signal God taking us on a different journey. Some of us have been longing for it more than we ever imagined. 

Things will not be the same. Preaching should be one of the things that changes.

We’ve realized the value of community and the preciousness of input from others in this time of uncertainty and isolation.

Interactive preaching is the perfect tool for putting teaching and community together to disciple our churches. 

Our people don’t need programs and workbooks. Why would we offer them a classroom when we could be putting them on the field? They need to be equipped, as the early Christians, to disciple themselves toward being like Jesus. They don’t need information so much as awareness of how to filter the information they’re already surrounded with 24/7. They need the skills to learn deeply, slowly, and permanently, the things of God to change their lives from the inside out. This we can give them, if we learn to change ourselves first.

Pastors, preachers, church leaders, boards, and elders—it’s time.

Editing the Church

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Today, writing a blog feels weird. 

See, I typically write my blogs a few months in advance. What you read in March I wrote in January or even December. But today, that’s kind of inconceivable.

I have no idea what this world is going to look like in a few months. I’m not even sure about next week. I don’t feel any sense of security or serenity writing about what my outlook on things will be in March as we sit here a few days out of a coup at the nation’s capital. I’m not assuming it’s over. 

Much has been written on the day, and much of it has been stellar. I’m not repeating those analyses.

So today, I’ll move some things around and respond to now, not two months from now.

Photo by Jeremiah Higgins on Unsplash

My focus, as you know from reading my banner if not my blog, is not on the politics so much is on the church. Not that the former is not important, but the future of the church is the passion that God has given me. What do these unsettling times mean for the church? Most importantly, what does the fallout mean for the next generations of our church? 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be the most devastating event for the American church that we have seen in a very long while. The next generation has seen the church in reaction, and they’re not having it. I don’t blame them at all.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be all that sad to stand at the grave of much that passes for American Christianity. My concern is with the baby that will likely get tossed with the bathwater. The bathwater stinks. It’s filthy. It is in desperate need of change. 

But the baby—the church you don’t see in the cameras—is filled with people who honestly, humbly, falteringly attempt to follow Jesus. They could be the innocent victims of this drive-by disaster. 

Jesus’ church really does have people in it who love him more than they love themselves. They’re just harder to find in the swill and swell of the stinky bathwater.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

God will not suffer. Ultimately, his church will survive. Jesus Christ is King, and that will not change. He does not need us to defend him. He will raise his remnant as he always has. Like Simba, the church that survives will stagger up, blink at the light, and bewilderedly continue in the circle God has started. But it is likely to die, first. 

Four in ten young adults between the ages of 23 and 38 now say they are religiously unaffiliated.

IN a 2017 study, “Political rifts between young Christians and their congregations are growing. A quarter (25%) of recent dropouts said disagreements over their church’s stance on political and social issues contributed to their decision to stop attending, compared to 15 percent

That those rifts have increased with the advent of QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories being welcomed and applauded in the church is clear from a thirty-second perusal of social media. 

The exodus isn’t temporary, as it has been in the past, either. For the first time, young adults are not returning to church when they have families, because they don’t believe they need the church to teach their children how to be good people. That isn’t because they believe God has failed them or isn’t good. It’s because they believe the church is no longer filled with good people.

The people in the church cannot teach their children what they do not know.

While in the past most of those disaffected with church retained their belief in and some relationship with Jesus, that is also changing. 2019 saw the greatest surge in atheism in America. Those who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or”nothing in particular” have risen to over a quarter of the population. The next generation has lost their spiritual community, and with no one to talk with about their questions, doubts, and ideas, their faith has eroded as well. This was inevitable—God created us for community, and we cannot go without it for long without serious effect.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

An Atlantic article explores the sudden sharp decline in American Christianity in the 1990’s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” The last two have complex sociological issues and are fascinating to look at. The first is the important one, for my purposes.

Here are some of the reasons younger generations are leaving the church right now. They are amazingly clear-eyed at the illogic and incongruity they see. These are the things they can’t understand. Church, we have to bring these things they see into the light. face them unflinchingly, and set them right. 

The same people who have told them that men cannot meet with women over lunch because they fear the “appearance of evil” are silent regarding “Jesus Saves” signs next to confederate flags and nooses—unmistakable symbols of white supremacy and lynching. These symbols do not convey the appearance of evil—they are evil. We are to believe Christians can stand next to them and not participate in the stench of their meaning. Yet a male pastor cannot accompany me, a female pastor, to a training meeting because “appearances.” This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who tell them social justice and creation concerns are not the gospel and “just preach the gospel” are very concerned about fighting for their constitutional rights. Also, they don’t appear to know the gospel very well. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who protest that talk of racism is dividing the church will tell them on social media that anyone who votes for a democrat is a baby killer and not a real Christian. We are supposed to assume this is not sowing division but righteousness. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who taught them that “Jesus loves the little children—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” don’t find those children precious when they’re in cages at a southern border. They shrug and consider those precious souls collateral damage in a war against the neighbor we’re supposed to love. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who counsel them to “think for yourself” succumb to outrageously unlikely claims that fit what they see as a “safe” worldview. The same pastors who tell teens to question what their teachers tell them admonish them never to question the pastors.This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

I’ve been an English teacher, a writer, and an editor. I’ve graded hundreds of papers and critiqued dozens of articles. There are two kinds of writing that an editor or a teacher find almost impossible to critique. That which is perfect as it is—and that which is hopelessly bad. 

In the first, we can find nothing bad to say. In the second, we don’t know where to start. We don’t think there’s any way to help the work improve. 

If I critique the church, it’s because I have hope. It’s because I don’t think it’s beyond fixing. I don’t think the people in it, like myself, cannot do better. I believe they, like me, are sinners in need of redemption. I edit with conviction and ferocity because I know we are better than we’ve been. I believe God is working, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, on a masterpiece. 

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2.10
Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

The problem is, sometimes the block of clay God is trying to mold prefers to mold itself into a different sort of creature entirely. One that does not image the Creator. This is when God needs to start over, sometimes smashing that clay down, to re-form it in the way it was meant to be. 

If that’s what happens to the American church, so be it. It needs to be re-formed. I pray that we choose to work with the artist in that reformation. I pray that the next generation wants to come along for that work and join us in it. Let it be a re-creation of integrity, free from incongruity (which others read as hypocrisy). Let it be a church that transparently looks and acts like Jesus. 

We’ll get some things wrong. I have no illusions that we won’t make our own massive errors. We’re all hypocrites, every one of us, preferring to see others more clearly than we see ourselves. That’s why we need one another.

We need to do one another’s critiquing, while we’re not too far gone, and we need to hear the critique of the next generation. As the mom of three of them, I can tell you—they’re pretty smart.

Faith for Exiles

They had me at the Tolkien quote on the front page.

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Faith for Exiles

I’m a long time fan of David Kinnaman’s work and a newbie to Mark Matlock’s, having read, and incorporated into my doctoral thesis, pretty much all of Kinnaman’s titles. (You Lost Me, unChristian, Good Faith, Churchless).

So I might have been the first person to fill out the application to be on the launch team for Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.

It did not disappoint.

The Exodus Is Real

While many of us in church leadership wring our hands over the exodus of young people from the church, documented so well in the books mentioned above, the authors offer here a portrait of the kind of young believer who stays—thus affording us a chance to change the equation, if we pay attention.

This is good news for both church leaders and parents. Parents of littles—don’t believe you have to wait for this information. Discipleship begins young, very young, and having a front-row seat to learn all you can now about how kids stay faithful matters. It matters very, very much.

I've yet to read the Scriptue that said children have to wait and watch until they'rte old enough to _handle_ using their spiritual gifts. Our children need to experience their faith in action. discovering they don't

Kinnaman and Matlock begin with the premise I’ve believed and talked about for a long time—we no longer live in the Promised Land. We are exiles in Babylon who must look to the prophets for our wisdom more than the Exodus. Our culture is not Christian, but God wants us to be Christians in our culture. Like Daniel and his famous furnace friends, we must develop the faith required to hold onto the essentials of what we know about God while caring deeply for the place in which we find ourselves. Our stance should take it’s wisdom from one of my most oft-quotes Jeremiah lines (and I quote Jeremiah a lot):

“This is what the Lord says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Our young people deeply feel this truth—that the welfare of those around them—all those around them—will determine their welfare. Yet they struggle with the information overload, the plethora of options and “truths” ricocheted toward them like they’re living in a particle accelerator with no off switch. The older generation needs their understanding of and compassion for Babylon. They need our experience in how not to allow its noise to drown us and mold us into its design.

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Photo by Rohit Tandon on Unsplash

Digital Babylon, as the title explains, is not a concrete place but an interwoven haze of electronic environment that overhangs and fogs us all. The younger generation are both more aware of its potential and  more susceptible to its siren call.

“Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds. Pop culture is a reality filter. Websites, apps, movies, TV, video games, music, social media, YouTube channels, and so on increasingly provide the grid against which we test what is true and what is real. The media and the messages blur the boundary between truth and falsehood. What is real is up for grabs.”

The authors first make the case for the dangers ( as well as the potential) of digital Babylon, and they make it well. Those of us who did not come of age surrounded by electronics, available 24/7, conscious of our pubic image at all times, do not understand this, no matter how much we research it. We need to hear our young people on it, without making assumptions or declarations.

The focus of the book, however, is not on the problem but on the solution. How do we raise what they refer to as “resilient Christians”—young people who remain in church, retain their active faith, and recharge their world while in Babylon?

Five Practices

Five things stood out as they interviewed the ones who stay. Resilient Christians, those whose faith remains strong and active, have five characteristic practices:

Practice 1: To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus. ​

Practice 2: In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment. ​

Practice 3: When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships. ​

​Practice 4: To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship. ​

​Practice 5: Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.

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Photo by anja. on Unsplash

The book outlines all of the five with illustrations, ideas, and examples of how these practices are given life in both young people and their churches. The churches, of course, are the target for this information. If church leaders do not look at the data and pay attention to what effective discipleship looks like, it won’t matter that we know the right answers. The church has to make the move to change the way we disciple our young people. Parents, it’s never too early to look at our church practices and help be the change. (That’s one reason I have two talks–“Unplugged” and “Families on Mission,” on my speaking page!)

Just One Practice

For example, practice one—experience intimacy with Jesus.

“It is easy to call oneself a Christian but much less common to find deep joy in Jesus. That conclusion is where our first practice begins. The first practice of resilient discipleship in digital Babylon is clearing religious clutter to experience intimacy with Jesus.”

We learn how to identify that clutter (things like idolizing our own image, for example) and how to focus, as a church, on helping young people find their center in Christ, not personal brand or knowledge about God. It’s this deep, personal experience with God that gives them the resilience to  know, despite culture’s barrage to the contrary, that their identity is secure in Christ and He knows exactly what it’s like to live in their shoes.

One of the errors the authors point out is that the church, rather than pursuing this deep relationship, has pursued the branding of Jesus themselves.

“The church has responded to the identity pressures of our culture by offering young people a Jesus ‘brand experience’ rather than facilitating a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus.”

Once the brand wears off, as they all do, there is no resilient faith left.

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Photo by James Baldwin on Unsplash

The Other Four

The other four practices are equally interesting and informative. I already used some of the material in the chapter on vocation to foster a lively discussion during my sermon on calling a couple weeks ago. The young people there definitely resonated with the realities Kinnaman and Matlock present, and they had much to say about their frustrations regarding jobs, careers, and calling in today’s world. The church can step in with so much wisdom in this area, if we try.

The chapter on intergenerational discipleship drives home the absolute need for older people to be involved. Another finding I’ve read is that the “magic number” of adults actively involved in a young person’s life is five. That means five older Christians to take an interest, have a conversation (where you listen!), take a young person out to coffee or for a walk, teach someone how to cook or sew or handle a bank account, text a caring message, can make all the difference in a person’s continued faith.

In conversations and writing with my own twenty-somethings and others, many of the truths in this books have come alive. 

These aren’t difficult practices. But they are deliberate and intentional, and they require a sacrifice of that elusive commodity–time. They do insist we changing our framework from entertaining and evangelizing to discipling and serving. I’ll close with this, one of the greatest truths of discipleship, yet one we forgo time and again when it comes to young people. Please, don’t let it go in your child’s life.

“In digital Babylon, faithful, resilient disciples are handcrafted one life at a time.”

Pokemon GO and the Salvation of Western Civilization

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As a prelude to what I hope will be a series on young people, and a follow up to last week’s discussion of Growing With–I’m retuning to a favorite of mine, originally run here on the Theology Mix blog.

I have to update–statements made in the first paragraph are now invalid. My daughter taught me to play a few weeks ago. And all my assumptions that I could get addicted were accurate.

Pokémon GO will save the world

Well, that could be an overstatement. Other things are doing their share.

Still, it’s a valid hope. I don’t personally play the game. It looks fun—and I do have an inherent passion for collecting things that is totally compatible with the idea of going around catching various creatures, indexing and organizing them like my junior high insect collection that took on epic proportions. My highest StrengthsFinder score is Input–ie, collector of things. Any things, really.

\So, really, best I don’t touch the thing. I know my limits, and with time an endangered commodity in my life right now, another way to spend it should not be on the table. I will stick with geocaching when I feel the need to hunt outdoors.

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Yes, this is actually mine. Yes, it’s fun.

However, I have trailed along as a cultural observer when others play. In the trailing, there is a tale to tell. Pokémon players are changing the lonely landscape for the better.

Fact: Millennials are the loneliest age group in America.

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https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/07/12/who-loves-pokemon-go-the-police

This as determined by researchers from the University of Cologne and the University of Chicago. They have eclipsed the presumed leaders in that race, the elderly. Their buzzword of choice may be community, but the reality is, they are finding it less and less. Blame social media, economic issues, mobility, competition, overzealous parents and ovescheduled lives, and fear of commitment. Whatever we blame, the reality is, our culture finds friendship and relationship disposable, and no one suffers more for it than the generation that learned friendship online.

Enter Pokémon. What I witnessed when accompanying my two Millennial daughters was nothing less than a modern social miracle. Dozens of young people wandered around the lakeside park. Some in groups, some alone, everyone staring at their phones. Suddenly, a random “Charmander!” rang out from across the field. Once, twice, three times. Strangers were calling others to come share the mecca of fiery creatures they had found. Other people who passed us offered up clues—“Dratini right over there.” “Go to that willow tree—there are Bulbasaur all over the place!” Everyone in the park was helping one another play the game. Something made them act as a team. Some sense of “we’re together here” permeated the area.

They are not becoming fast friends. They’re not walking away together linking arms and singing kumbaya or planning to be in each others’ weddings. But they are helping one another toward a mutual goal, with no personal gain at all.

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In a particularly contentious and angry time in the US, a game on a cell phone is causing strangers to work together. This is nothing short of miraculous. We should all be standing and applauding.

Of course, we’re not. Instead, I read random rants about how young people are staring at their phones again/always and how this makes them self-centered. I see older people condescending to younger ones with broad assumptions like, “If they put this much effort into getting a job, they’d be out of their parents houses’.” Such assumptions bother me, since my children, and most players I know, are gainfully employed and/or full time students. But they bother me further, on a much deeper level, because they prove the speaker has never had a conversation with any young person. At least, not a mutually respectful one.

This matters in the church. If we care about the loneliness epidemic outside (and inside) our walls among the Millennial generation, we will care about ways to bring them together. We will want to understand how they form community and why it matters. Pokémon GO has a few things to teach us about our relationships with and continued learning from the next generation.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials don’t think play and work are mutually exclusive.

Will our leadership accept that work and play often look a lot alike for Millennials, and sometimes they are doing their best innovating when they are having fun? Can we adjust our committees, classes, and teaching to reflect this?

Pokémon GO is a game. It’s also a community, a place to belong, and a network. It didn’t take players long to realize that a game can be used to meet people, learn about other cultures, find job opportunities, or shatter their Fitbit goals.

Cities report that police officers are joining the game to create relationships in their communities. People are using the social phenomenon to solve seemingly intractable problems—like racial tensions and law enforcement woes. While the lines are blurring between work and play, they are also completely blurred between fun and practical change. Will our churches follow suit, or will we retain our insistence on old methods of solving problems?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want to ask questions rather than be told where everything is and how it works.

Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate
Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate

Can our discipleship involve the kind of seeking that Millennials seem to prefer over the straight telling we have embraced for so long? Maybe we should ask more questions rather than give so many answers, so the search for being like Jesus can consume us like the search for Pikachu.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials value relationships over formulas.

Can we encourage evangelism that’s more like playing games with a group of new friends than sealing a used car deal? Do all the right words mean less, ultimately, than being with another person? What would that look like in church programming?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want for a place to belong.

Will the church embrace that need and offer a balm for loneliness? Will we hold out the ultimate relationship rather than rules to live by? Will we invite them in regardless of their tribe or background or beliefs? Will we be the ones standing on the path calling, “What you’re looking for is over here! Come be with us. We understand the search. We’re with you in it. Let’s look together.”

It could save the world, you know.