The Loss of Meaning at Church– shorts, flipflops, and the rejection of formality

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I am in Aurora, my hometown of 4250 in Nebraska this weekend.  My shoelace in my shoe broke, so I went to the store to get one before church in my suit and flipflops.  I saw one of the workers there I know, and I told her that my shoelace had broken, so I had to wear my suit with my flip flops to come get a shoelace.  She said “Oh, today it wouldn’t matter I don’t think– you could just about wear whatever you want.”  I said, “yeah, I could probably show up in my underwear” and she said, “yep, they’d just be happy you were at church on a Sunday morning”.

In Omaha, I’m the only one under 50 who wears a suit to church.  I happen to like suits because then I’ve got a jacket with pockets to put stuff in.  But I also like to wear them because most of my friends over 70 at Church still like to wear them, so I do as sort of a badge of honor, but also because of respect and a sort of meaning that I think the suit can represent– a meaningfulness of the occassion.

Now don’t get me wrong, most of the churches I end up attending look and feel more like chatty political conventions before the ‘show gets on the road’ but still there was once a time where even in the low-church churches that I grew up with (without much ritual or formality) people used to take dressing up for church seriously.  But then it too was seen as being too ritualistic– “God accepts you as you are– you don’t need to change to receive God’s favor” and then the little bit of formality left was thrown out with the bathwater.

Wearing suits is not kneeling, receiving communion at the front of the church, reciting creeds together, or smells and bells, but it is a formality that most evangelical churches have dispensed with along with most other tradition along the way.   Much like choir robes and formal dress for pastors up front, its all gone.

In a world where people wear their pajamas to target (much less walmart) and its not unusual to find people wearing shorts at a fancy steak place, its no wonder that our churches have casualized as well– its just the way we live in America today.  But it is an interesting aspect of how our culture has infiltrated our churches as well.

Of course some will say that God doesn’t care if you wear a suit– and of course he doesn’t, at one level.  But what this total an entire eschewing of formality and tradition does is it pretends that humans are not habitual creatures, and it also pretends that what we do with our bodies, dress, or postures has no bearing on who we are, or what we think or feel.  But coming from a Business school, I can assure you that is false.  When a student wears a suit and tie, they act differently– more professionally and awarely– than they do when they have their knee-shorts and baseball hat on backwards.  The dress affects the individuals attitude.  And we know this.  A person who dresses well commands attention, whether we like it or not.   If you go to walmart in your pajamas, you are basically ignoring all social protocol and acting as if you are not in community when you are at Walmart.  Our actions indicate a lot out about our inner state, and our inner state is affected by our actions.  Anyone who exercises knows this.  If you kneel prostrate on the ground when you pray, it affects your attitude.   As Jamie Smith and others have been trying to point out recently, we are physical beings and we need to stop ignoring the connection between our physical habits and our spiritual state.

So all this came to mind from a brief stop at the Aurora Mall this morning.  People can wear whatever they want to church, and God loves everyone, but to pretend that how we behave doesn’t affect our spiritual state, or that habits and tradition are not important to us as human beings, is a superficial and false view of reality.

Evangelical Church ‘Culture’

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A typical evangelical service is 4-5 upbeat encouraging choruses and a sermon. Generally there is not confession of sin, communion happens once a quarter, and generally all communal readings are avoided, liturgy is considered spiritually deadening, and if old hymns are sung, an apology or explanation is often provided as to how, although they are old, they still have some worth. Surprisingly, what is avoided almost more at contemporary evangelical churches is traditional exposition of scriptures. That is considered very old fashioned and certainly too boring for most people. What is provided are bullet points, life application lessons, and perhaps a brief connection to a verse at the beginning or end of what the pastor wants to share. In short, tradition– particularly church tradition– is not valued much.

Of course there are exceptions to this anti-traditionalism and anti-exigesis.  But generally, tradition is more often than not thought to be the stumbling block for the young– either let go of your tradition (it is said) or prepare to lose the next generation. Guitar driven worship with practical and motivating life-application lessons are where its at.

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I was talking to a younger friend recently who has been looking at various churches, trying to figure out where to go. He’s visited a more traditional liturgical service recently, and what attracted him was not the 45 minute sermon– it was only a 20 minute homily– and not the upbeat praise songs– they sang old hymns. The fact that the congregation together said two of the creeds (the apostle’s creed and the nicene creed) and the Lords prayer together, and the time of personal confession and then going up front for communion were what were real draws for him. He is not old, he is young– but yet upbeat guitar driven worship and life application bullet points were not where he was at.

One young parent friend recently said to me that really what makes or breaks churches for most young families is if there is a strong childrens ministry– because parents want a safe place for their kids to go during service so the parents can concentrate without distraction.

But another young parent said just the opposite– that he would like his kids to be expected to simply sit through the service and have the discipline to be quiet.

It is certainly hard to make everyone happy with the way one does things at church, and no matter what you do, someone will probably be unhappy. But still, many churches are driven by the pursuit of ‘relevant’ services which speak to the contemporary culture.

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It is likely that evangelical churches are the best at incorporating contemporary popular culture into their services. That is because they try so fastidiously to avoid all tradition and anything that hints of ‘church culture’. But culture is simply impossible to avoid. Every business, every church, every school, every community and even every family has a ‘culture’– whether they try to or not. So when you do what you can to avoid connections to the past, all you have is the present– contemporary culture. So evangelical churches are especially adept at adopting contemporary culture– because more often than not, they have no other culture, or at least because they try to not have one, in the pursuit of contemporary relevance. Without any strong sense of the holy, and the me-centered focus of the (my)life-application sermons, and nothing but contemporary culture, one often ends up with an amalgamation which is often Oprah/Dr Phil meets a country-living aesthetic.

That, I believe, is unfortunate.

It is also why low-church evangelical churches are not the choice for many under-50 people who grew up in that type of church. In an age of uncertainty and rapid change, many of us are attracted to the stability of tradition, church spiritual habits, physical practices (going up for communion) and stained glass windows. And its not because we are looking for something more immanent– we are simply tired of the immediate-contemporary-immanent focus. We want something transcendent, and the meanings and symbols of more traditional practices and forms bring a sense of transcendent which is wholly lacking in contemporary culture.

From my perspective, this is why it is a dead end for the church to imitate and mimic contemporary culture– contemporary culture is devoid of the holy and transcendent.

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R.I.P. Mike Lawless

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Mike Lawless, one of the guys who have worked for me regularly for the last 7 years here in the midtown area, died on Friday afternoon, when he had an epileptic seizure and collapsed onto the cement, falling directly onto the cement headfirst. He was 47. We will all miss him a lot.

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Mike was known for his funny stories, and he always seemed to have a knack for having ridiculous things happen to him (which made for more funny stories). I met Mike when I first bought a condemned house on 33rd street. I gave Mike an apartment in a basement of one of the other buildings we had down the street. He worked at Burger King for a while, and at the grocery store nearby for a while, but most of the last 7 years he did work for me. He was especially good at Sanding floors, painting, cleaning up apartments, and cleaning yards. This week he’d been raking leaves a lot.

Mike was a thoughtful and funny guy, and was enjoyed by most people who met him. He tended to be the life of the party/conversation, and had a memory for details that was amazing.  Sometimes he drove me crazy, sometimes I drove him crazy, but we both cared about each other a lot, and I am sad he went so young.

Mike had many struggles along the way, and there were periods of stability, periods of thriving, and then periods where things did not go well.  I’m sure I could have done a lot more for him, and I know he could have been a lot better to himself.  At times he seemed to live a charmed life (like when he got hit by a car on Dodge, thrown into the air, landing behind the car– but lived to tell about it) while at other times he seemed to be prone to bad luck (like the epileptic episodes, the degenerative hip disease he’d suffered at 35, requiring titanium hip replacements, or his proneness to accidents due to hurrying)  He had so much promise and talent in some ways, yet he never gave himself much chance to fully experience the benefits of those gifts.  For those who knew him well, his presence and wit and storytelling were all part of the gifts we received while we knew him.  We will miss him a lot.

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Advent 1

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Adventus in Latin means “coming”. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas in which Christians remember the coming of Christ to earth– the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ. The four Sundays before Christmas are indicated by the four candles on an advent wreath, with the fifth candle being for Christmas eve.

One of the most common and powerful songs of advent is “O Come O Come Emanuel” which is a song of the expectation of the coming of the messiah:

 O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel

Adventus is also the Latin translation of the Greek word Parousia, which is the word meant to refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ.  The second coming of Christ is to come at any moment,  and no one will know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36)  Martin Heidegger said that the parousia leaves Christians with a perpetual constant anticipation of the coming– never knowing if this moment may not be the last moment of all time.  That perspective gives us an existential awareness of the moment, a view which leaves us always on knifes edge, wondering if the next moment will be the last before Christ comes.  He draws on Thessalonians, in which Paul discusses at length the importance of the second coming of Christ.

So in this advent season we anticipate in memoriam the arrival of the Christchild to bring salvation, but also the second coming of Christ.  Normally during this time leading toward Christmas we celebrate a lot of office parties and community get-togethers.  But as Christians we should especially be taking time to live in accordance with our non-worldly values– being especially concerned for the needy and the weak, those without voice and those who lack food, shelter, and friendship.

Coming of the fullness of Thanksgiving, it is important to remember all that we have, and so look for ways now to give to others, and to create ways to give to others.

May God have mercy on us all. andy

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Why Some Evangelical Colleges and Universities are Struggling Financially– While Other Schools are Doing Great

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This last week brought contrasting bad news and great news. The bad news was that Bethel University, where I taught before I came to Creighton, had to lay off 15 faculty due to financial shortcomings. The contrasting great news was that a Creighton Alum had given over $50 million to bring our current fundraising for our college of business to over $93million.

Bethel is a close community, and I know that those layoffs are hard for everyone there. Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected. One of the faculty there posted a blog about the broader issue of why some evangelical schools are struggling financially, and his main conclusion is that the denomenations have stopped supporting the schools as they once did in the past http://www.pietistschoolman.com/2013/10/15/an-open-letter-to-american-churches-the-crisis-of-christian-higher-education/

Dr. Gehrz writes of the Bethel situation, and draws broader concerns for evangelical higher ed as a whole:

“I have no doubt that similar days loom ahead for a significant number of our peer institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, given reports like the one from Forbes magazine that graded American institutions of higher learning on their financial health: we were among the 74% of CCCU schools to receive a C or lower. By most accounts, we are among the top 10-15 Christian colleges: allowing for the possibility that that relatively high standing rested on much flimsier supports than we imagined, I fear that our situation augurs poorly for our consortium as a whole.”

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It is likely that a lot of evangelical and bible colleges are facing similar struggles. Dr. Gehrz’ view is that an important reason for the financial difficulties of these schools is that their original supporting denominations no longer support them like they once did.

It is certainly true that denominations no longer support schools like they did. But that has more to do with the general demise of denominations than anything, in my opinion. Denominations as a brand identity have been intentionally dropped. You will be hard pressed, for example, to find evangelical free churches (granted they are not technically a denomination) which even have the name “evangelical free church” in its name or even in its info in the bulletin. It is quite easy for people to attend free churches for years not knowing the affiliation of the church. So brand identity dissipation is the first cause I would point to.

Second, there was a time when each denomination felt it important to produces its own pastors in their own seminary or Bible school. That is no longer the case for evangelical churches. For one thing, a majority of evangelical churches are nondenominational. In addition, a number of seminaries have no or at best a minimal affiliation to a particular denomination (Dallas, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, etc). In addition to that, churches no longer care if their pastor was trained at their denominations seminary (see point one here– because few people in the church know what denomination they are anyway). A fourth point here is simply that a few of the seminaries have grown and established themselves as the big dogs in the pack, and attracted the most famous theologians– Fuller, Regent, Dallas, Gordon Conwell, Trinity, etc.

But another obvious reason why evangelical schools are struggling now is the same reason many schools are– they were getting used to regular 5-6% tuition increases each year in a booming economy before 2007 and they did a lot of updating and capital borrowing to compete with the rest of the pack. But like mortgage holders who got stuck holding the bag when the recession hit, their expectation that things would continue to go up up up were ill founded, and now reality is setting in, and their previous supporters and student-parents don’t have increasing equity in their house to borrow against anymore. Its not just that more and more students are deciding that they don’t want to pay the high costs of going to these evangelical schools, its that in many cases they cannot. However, its not clear that it makes financial sense anyway– in a number of recent studies, a lot of evangelical schools faired poorly when it came to analyses of their ROI (return on investment)– the degrees conferred by a lot of evangelical schools just weren’t door-openers, at least not opening the doors that such high costs would be expected to open. (see gehrz’s blog on the dismal financial state of evangelical colleges at the end of this post)

Endowments can’t overcome all problems, but if evangelical schools had better endowments, things would be different. But they don’t. Most of them have $5,500-12,500 endowment per student. Compare that with Princeton (1.85 million per student) Yale (1.43 million per) Harvard (1.3 mil per) or even little Grinnel (745,000per). Why the difference? Why don’t evangelicals endow their colleges? I think there are at least two obvious reasons. First, evangelicals don’t generally invest in things of this world, particularly higher education. Saving souls is first and foremost– and service to others is second– which leads us to the second problem that has led evangelical schools to have pitifully small endowments: their strong suites are programs like missions, ministry, teaching and nursing. There are occasional teachers who come up with a big philanthropic gift to a university, but they are few and far between. Pastors and Missionaries almost never do, and nurse philanthropists are quite uncommon, in my experience. These aren’t high-dollar career people that are being graduated from evangelical schools. Of course a few business people come through, and a few philosophy or psych majors end up ‘having’ to go into business to make a living, and make a very good living, and then give back.

Creighton University where I am at has a very strong college of business, and their alum have come back and given a lot of money. Creighton has produced a lot of graduates who happen to be very successful in business, and who also are huge supporters of Creighton and their mission. Generally speaking, if you look at most major philanthropy, it is coming from people who got wealthy in business more often than not. People don’t generally grow great amounts of wealth on a teachers, ministers or nurses salary.

So from my business perspective, what evangelicals should do, rather than expect their little churches to step up and fill the gap, is to focus more on producing students who are great at business who will make a lot of money and give back to mission. Evangelicals for too long have been focused on producing missionaries and ministers who need others to support them. Its time they start producing some of the producers who can support their institutions of higher education more fruitfully– namely, high quality business students who can be successful and then come back and share the benefits!

May God have Mercy on us all!

For Dr. Gehrz’s blogpost on the financial condition of evangelical colleges see his: http://pietistschoolman.com/2013/08/12/eighteen-evangelical-colleges-earn-a-d-for-finances/

For more on Creighton’s recent fundraising campaign for their new Heider College of Business, see: http://news.yahoo.com/shared-vision-creates-exciting-future-heider-college-business-213000242.html

Southern Baptist Evangelicals Pulling Back from Politics and Culture Wars: Russell Moore

reagan evangelicalsIn the 1980s, evangelicals suddenly got political, and with promises that they’d be heard and their views would be implemented, they supported Ronald Reagan, who defeated the first president to ever publically call himself an evangelical, Jimmy Carter. These were the days when Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority, and there was a push to revive the Christianity of our American forefathers. There was a wave of evangelical fervor to take back culture from liberals (George Bush #1 wouldn’t even say the “L” word).  Those were heady days.

Rush Limbaugh became extremely popular when Bill Clinton was in office, and it was hard for people to distiguish between Limbaugh’s political views and evangelical political views at times. There were always the lefties from the Sojourners movement, who had been evangelicals like Carter, but generally they weren’t to be trusted.

There have been a multitude of causes for evangelicals in the culture wars– abortion first, then violent video games and vulgar music (think Tipper Gore), gun rights, censorship, against drugs, for prayer in school, for states rights, against gay marriage…there were a series of causes for which to fight. But in most of these, evangelicals have not won.

Now, on the front page of the wall street journal, there is a story about the head of the Southern Baptists telling his people that they need to back off their culture war talk, and not alienate young evangelicals: http://www.online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324755104579072722223166570

Russell Moore, is the 42-year-old leader of the Southern Baptists, and he is trying to tone down the activism and political talk which he feels is alienating younger members.   He is trying to rein in the evangelical political activism and culture wars which started nearly 35 years ago, and redirect his denomenations energy to “a Christian vision of justice and the Common Good”.  In contrast to his predecessor, Richard Land, who had compared Glen Beck to Billy Graham as “a person in spiritual motion” (Beck is mormon), Moore wrote the following in an essay called “God, the Gospel, and Glen Beck” (which, by the way, says that Glen Beck isn’t the problem, conservative Christians are causing their own problems):

“Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads. We’ve tolerated heresy and buffoonery in our leadership as long as with it there is sufficient political “conservatism” and a sufficient commercial venue to sell our books and products.”

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Moore speaks for a lot of younger evangelicals when he writes these words, and that is, apparently, why he has taken the helm of the Southern Baptist Ship.  The southern Baptists have seen membership drop off in recent years, with many who were raised in that church feeling disenfranchised– not because they didn’t love Jesus or believe the Bible, but because they were not feeling convicted of the same political convictions as their fellow-southern-baptists.  They didn’t think that following Jesus necessarily meant being Tea-Party people.

Moore is no leftie, he is not going “soft”.  The gospel still plays a central role in his criticisms: “Where there is no gospel, something else will fill the void: therapy, consumerism, racial or class resentment, utopian politics, crazy conspiracy theories of the left, crazy conspiracy theories of the right; anything will do.”

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These are times of upheaval, change, transition and uncertainty.  In times like this we appreciate voices who speak authoritatively and clearly about things– cutting through the confusion to something decisive.  But if those voices aren’t clearly rooted in the gospel and kindness and love of Christ, then they are just more din and noise, not a solution.  I’m encouraged by Moore’s direction.

For Moore’s article on Glen Beck see: http://www.russellmoore.com/2010/08/29/god-the-gospel-and-glenn-beck/

May God have mercy on us all.

Woody Allen and Billy Graham

Today I was showing Celeste a video of Woody Allen interviewing Billy Graham in the 70′s. We started talking about whether or not Billy Graham’s evangelicalism had won the day over the fundamentalists who were against him in the 1950s-1980s. Billy Graham was quite controversial for his time. He was willing to meet with presidents who weren’t known to be evangelical, and he was very nondenomenational and downplayed theological details which some felt compromised the gospel.graham[

Those critical of Billy Graham felt he was not paying enough attention to the fundamentals of the faith. He was watering down the gospel to get crowds to fill up the many football stadiums that he preached at. Graham started in the Fundamentalist movement, but was ostracized eventually by it for welcoming and partnering with Catholics and more liberal Christians to his crusades in the 1940s. graham-crusade
There has been a shift today in evangelical culture. Today Billy Graham’s evangelicalism is not to the evangelical liberal side for being too willing to reach out to contemporary culture, but to the center or even right in evangelical circles. Today evangelicals write books on creation-care (environmentalism) and they are taking on high-church practices and devotional tools. They are thinking about urban farming as a means of ushering in the kingdom on earth and spending a lot more time thinking about how to minister to the poor than how to hand out tracts.

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Billy Graham might wish that todays evangelical’s spent more time sharing the ‘good news’ with their neighbors. He might be concerned that they have taken St. Francis’ popular saying “preach the gospel, and use words if necessary” a little too far, never explicitly sharing their faith in word, but only in deed.

There is no doubt in my mind that evangelicalism has at times been too gnostic in its focus on understanding doctrine precisely and correctly, sometimes to the detriment of living out the gospel in real difficult ways.  Comfortable evangelicalism, with occassional forrays out on the weekends to distribute tracts or have an awkward difficult conversation with someone we didn’t know well about the eternal state of their soul was the norm for many evangelicals growing up. 

While there is certainly a problem with not being ‘able to give an account of the hope that lives within you’, there is even a bigger problem with having an account of the hope, but not much actual empirical evidence in the way you live you life of the commitment you have. 

May God help us to balance our lives with our words.  And thank God for Billy Graham!