Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Benefits of Tradition (and the problem with trying to attract young people to church)

hpster jesusA lot of churches spend a good deal of time trying to figure out “how to attract young people to our congregation”– and with good reason– many churches are lacking in 20-somethings, and nothing seems to indicate a healthy church like having some 20-something couples with kids in tow in the pews.

Some friends recently put up a great blogpost about the dangers of this approach. The title of her blog is “Change wisely Dude” and the point is simply: what attracts 20 year olds won’t necessarily appeal to them 10 years later. People often go to church because they are looking for historical rootedness. It was by a younger woman who had started Presbyterian as a kid, fell away from her faith a while, and in her early 20’s began attending a nondenomenational evangelical church with hip music and a more relaxed atmosphere– in here words, “an unchurchy church with a mix of sacred tradition and secular trend”. But eventually she found herself missing the historical-rootedness and now attends a high-church anglican service.

I know of churches who are trying to attract youth to their church– and its not a new chase. The specifics are different from case to case, but the method has generally been similar since the 1960’s– get rid of the hymns, get rid of the ‘pomp’, relax the dresscode, relax in general, do topical sermons which are contemporarily relevant, not in depth exigesis, don’t use words like exigesis, etc etc. Some really think that music is the magic bullet. Others seem to think that allowing shorts will do it. Some believe podcasts and other technologies will finally help make the church relevant to the young.

And of course there is nothing sacrosanct about suits, hymns, or low level technologies– changes in these habits or expectations can be perfectly fine. However, what many churches fail to understand is that one thing many young people are looking for, and which many humans of any age are looking for, is sustained tradition, a sense that in going to church I am a part of something bigger than myself, and a transcendence which goes beyond me and Jesus, and even beyond me and these people in the pew beside me.  If you doubt this, you aren’t paying attention to what is going on nationwide with young evangelicals leaving for Catholicism and Anglicanism.  (I can think of countless personal examples and others i know of from a distance in Omaha and Lincoln who have gone to the Roman Catholic or Anglican or another high church.  See what I wrote a while back about that.)***

I teach sunday school once in a while at First Baptist Omaha, and a couple weeks back I’d been asked to teach on Ezra chapters 1,2, and part of 3. For those who don’t know, these chapters are primarily about three things: a. a list of the people who left Persia to return to Jerusalem to build the city, b. a list of temple artifacts Cyrus let the Jews bring back with them, and c. how the Jews focused on rebuilding the temple, and starting up their ritual sacrifices and practicing the feast of booths.

Temple-of-SolomonOn the face of it, this isn’t a lot to work with. But what I saw in these verses was a concern with tradition. We talked about the importance of having a place to worship– a temple, or church building. And we talked about traditions, rituals and liturgies which we have. Baptists are typically non-creedal and are usually low church, meaning that they don’t have a lot of pomp and ritual in their service– no one is burning incense, the pastor isn’t wearing vestments, there is no public confession together, etc. HOWEVER, baptists have tons of rituals. Our sunday school class is full of tradition. Every week we have a set format of 3 hymns (the first one is always the very same one), then prayer, then devotional, then lesson, then we pray together a closing blessing. Our church service is similarly formatted– we always have a meet and greet, always have a set time for pastors prayer and offering, a hymn at the end of the service after the sermon, and although we don’t have communion every week we do have coffee and cookies each week right after church, and the majority of people stick around for that, etc. We have tradition, because human beings are creatures of habit. It would be absurd to try to change the format every week, just to mix things up. That would be like driving a different route to work every day, or getting up at different times each day, just to keep things fresh.

The Jews wanted to build a temple, because that was a concrete means of establishing their religous practices and worship of God. First Baptist has a fantastic building, and they use it well. Its an important part of the congregations identity, and its just a great building. The Jews wanted to set up their sacrifices as soon as possible, because those were important to their spiritual habits and spiritual life. And they wanted to practice the feast of booths. During this remembrance, they would build small temporary shelters out of sticks, etc, and live in them for a few days. It was a way to remember when they wandered in the wilderness– to help remind them of the transitoriness of this life, and remind them of how God has providied, and what is really important.

Traditions help us in these ways, and so trying to get rid of tradition and history is like trying to get rid of help. We cannot escape the fact that we are not merely spiritual beings, we are physical beings with bodies who live in a concrete material world. We aren’t just spirits trapped in bodys. Our body will be ressurected, and our bodies are important. Certainly as long as we are in this life, we can not pretend to be disembodied spirits, and the bodily habits which we incorporate into our spiritual practices will have an impact on us. Spiritual traditions and habits can be good, and should be pursued. And many people are in search of just these kinds of habits and traditions at church. To think that peopl want to come to church which has not habits or traditions is short sighted, and possibly wrong headed.

But what kind of habits? That probably depends. There is no magic bullet. But I know that when Celeste and I first went to First Baptist, we were impressed with the longevity and faithfulness of some of the people. My first time at Sunday school class, I asked one of the couples there how long the sunday school class had been going. They looked at each other and one said, “well, how long have we been married? 64 years?” and turned to me and said, “well, I guess, 64 years then!”. You don’t find that kind of tradition or longevity of faithfulness at a church plant startup, normally. The meet and greet time (which is basically similar to ‘passing the peace’ at other churches) is encouraging as well. And the coffee time after church is a fundamental tradition at 1st baptist.

church calendarOf course many churches are much more scheduled on the traditional church calendar, which is divided into 7 segments: advent, christmas, epiphany, lent, easter, pentecost, common time (after pentecost). Many churches use a common lexionary, or set of verses. So if you are in a lutheran or catholic or methodist or presbyterian church, there is a good chance you are looking at the same verses that week as people in a lot of those other churches. Many churches sing the great hymns of the faith, some of which have been around for hundreds of years, some even over 1,000 years. Many churches recite creeds together– together confessing what they believe (“I believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son…” etc) Many use prayers which have been in practice since the time of Christ (Lord’s prayer, prayer of Mary (from when she was told she would birth the messiah), the prayer of Simeon, etc) In these ways, you find a sense that what you are doing in your particular church is part of something that is bigger. We aren’t just all making these things up weekly on our own, disconnected from the greater body of Christ and the Church.

This has great appeal to some people. And for churches to intentionally avoid these practices is kind of like a family deciding to quit celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas with dinner together or presents, because they want to avoid getting in a rut. Rituals and practices are not bad. They can often be quite life giving, sustaining, and essential to the spiritual life of a believer and the church.

***I do want to close by pointing out that it would be naive and foolish to think that evangelicals who become Roman Catholic or Anglican do so simply because they are looking for more history.  That can be a reason, or one of many reasons.  Some are drawn to the Roman Catholic church, for example, because of convictions they have regarding theological or ecclesiastical concerns.  This is probably obvious to most, but it is important for people to not mistake the conversion to Roman Catholicism as merely a pursuit of tradition.

May God have mercy on us all.


Diversity at Church

picangeljesusFirst Baptist, where Celeste and I go on Sunday mornings, has two joint congregations.  One meets at 11 and there you have about 100-150, depending on the Sunday.  The second meets at 12 and had about 200-300 Karen (Care-in) who come from Burma (Myanmar).  We go to the 11 oclock service, and you have a wide variety of people– from all kinds of different socio economic backgrounds, age-ranges, and education levels.  Many of us live nearby, and some come a distance.

Sometimes, we have our joint-service (which happens a few times each year) where both congregations meet together.  The church is packed.  At the most recent joint service, it started with each of the pastors opening in prayer (ours in English, the Karen’s in their language).  Then the children sang a couple of songs from the front– Karen and non-Karen kids singing together.  Then the congregation sang a few hymns– in English, and two Karen dialects– simultaneously.

This was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in church for quite a while. All of us, very different in so many ways, all unified and filling that church with music.  The Choir Celeste and I are in did a song– a slave spiritual, and then a Karen choir of about 45 went up and sang.  Their pastor preached, and it was interpreted (last time our pastor preached and it was interpreted).  We closed with a hymn together– again, in three languages at once.

When Celeste and I were in Milwaukee the fall of 2011, we attended her little Lutheran church, which also had a wide variety of people attending– some with family members in prison, others with good jobs, others retired, and a spectrum of ethnic backgrounds.  Every week, we would all line up and go to the front to take communion together, and that was one of the most moving spiritual experiences for me– watching that line, and being in that line, knowing all the different people there with all their various backgrounds, all going forward to participate together in Communion.

This sort of Christian communal activity is often perceived by some Christians as secondary to the most important focus of proper doctrine.  On this somewhat gnostic Christian view, what matters is what I know, and what I profess (and what I do only secondarily, and what I do in particular church practice on Sundays as a distant third– much distant).

The difficulty with this view of Christianity is that it focuses too heavily on the head, and not enough on the heart and habits of the Christian.  We are habitual beings, and the habits we have make us smarter or dumber, fatter or more healthy, more focused or less focused, more kind or less kind, etc.  Habits and practices do matter– they are not merely secondary unimportant activities which really don’t matter, any more than actually exercising is somehow less important than what I profess and believe about healthiness.

When I worship in a church full of people with broadly diverse socio-economic, educational, relational, ethnic and other backgrounds, I have opportunity to be impacted in ways I would never be able to in a homogeneous congregation.

When we take communion together, or sing together, or say a prayer together, we mutually encourage each other and shape and form our own souls in community and purpose focused on the life Christ has called us to in community.

When I take time to read the scriptures, and pray for others, and meditate on what God might want to convict me of or prompt me towards, I will be impacted through this practice, in quietness before God.

Our practices are important.  They do impact us.  That is not to say that a proper understanding and a robust knowledge of scriptures and Christian living is not important, but as human beings, our in-the-world behaviors and practices, such as kneeling, breaking bread together, confessing out loud what we are struggling with or praise God for, and our singing and praying in unison together are fundamentally important to our lives as Christians in the world.

This is why it is so important, as Paul says, that you “not neglect the meeting together, as is the habit of some….”

May God have mercy on us all….picjesuschild


Reading a Catholic Marxist “On Evil”

depositphotos_12758395-Goethe039s-Faust-Faust-and-Gretchen-in-the-garden-Mephisto-listensOur bookclub happens most Wednesdays at Upstream downtown Omaha.  We have gone through a wide variety of books, including Bruce Shelly’s 700+ history of the church for laypeople, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, The World Trade Created, Evangelicals and Tradition (DH Williams) and a lot of others.  Most recently, we are reading a book by a Catholic Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton.  It is called, simply, ‘on evil’, and it is an interesting analysis of evil from a peculiarly Marxist Christian academic perspective.

Before I say anything more about Eagleton’s book, I would like to say that bookclub is worship of God.  Christians, particularly Evangelicals, tend to talk a lot about their ‘heart’ relationship to God– and Christianity is in some respects very emotional for a lot of Christians.  That is not bad necessarily, but can be, if one allows entropy of the brain to set in and one loses the ability to critically think about novel ideas and creative thoughts.

Cultivating one’s mind and keeping fresh thinking happening is not unlike cultivating a garden.  But unfortunately, many of us neglect our minds like we neglect the garden– and the weeds set on, and soon the garden can become useless.  Churches sometimes provide opportunity for that, but more often than not they do not.  I know a lot of Christians who have a difficult time finding a place to be thoughtfully challenged and engaged.

And this is not just a church problem.  Most people don’t go to bookclubs of any sort.  Most people don’t read a lot of books.  I am an academic, and still even for me it can be a struggle to carve out time to read new challenging books.  These things don’t happen on their own– it takes intentionality and determination.  And I know a lot of people who find the idea of bookclub cool, but who still don’t decide to invest their time and energy into it.

Eagleton’s book is about evil.  It is a provocative book, and he is a clever and interesting writer.

In the first chapter, he identifies evil, like Augustine and others, with pride.  Those who do evil, he says, “are too proud to submit to limit.  They will not bow the knee to the finite, least of all to their own creatureliness.  This is why pride is the characteristic Satanic vice.  This is also why they are so terrified of death, which is the absolute limit of the human.” (26)  Like Adam and Eve, who wanted to ‘be like God’ through their taking of the fruit, we also seek ways to escape our finitude, and to become somehow infinite. Eagleton says,

To achieve the infinite (a project known among other things as the American Dream), we would need to leap out of our wretchedly disabling bodies.  What distinguishes capitalism from other historical forms of life is that it plugs directly into the unstable, self-contradictory nature of the human species.  The infinite– the unending drive for profit, the ceaseless march of technological progress, the ever-expanding power of capital– is always at risk of crushing and overshooting the finite….Capitalism is a system which needs to be in perpetual motion simply to stay on the spot.  Constant transgression is of its essence.

We attempt to be infinite through our technological progress- the IPhone 4, or whatever new amazing app we can get to expand our abilities.  Businesses like Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway are always on the prowl for more companies to buy.  If a company is not expanding, then it is not doing well, in the eyes of most.  And this applies to Churches as well: we ask if a church is growing or not, and the sure sign of a healthy church is a new expansion project– particularly if it is paid off.  This is why megachurches like the recent 130 million dollar campus in Dallas are revered ( ) by some.

Its not as though capitalism is evil for eagleton: “Capitalism is not the cause of our ‘fallen’ state, as the more naïve kind of left-winger tends to imagine.  But of all human regimes, it is the one which most exacerbates the contradictions built into [us]”  In the current system, we are free to amass huge amounts of money and to have little responsibility to society or others.

Eagleton refers to the prideful tendency to want to go beyond our limits as being ‘overreachers.  I think I do that all the time– not just through my consumer habits, or technology, but just by the way I sometimes live nonstop, trying to pack it all in.  I don’t want to miss out.  I don’t want to let something pass me by.  And so I try to be more than a finite human being…and it sometimes drives my wife crazy.

Faust is one figure that Eagleton talks about frequently.  Goerthe’s Faustus makes a deal with the devil that if he can reach a point of being really satisfied, then the devil can have his soul.  The devil gives him knowledge, power, money, women, and all kinds of things– none of which really satisfy Faustus’ thirsty soul.  But finally there is something that makes him really happy: the satisfaction of taking back land from the sea through dikes and windmills.  This somehow satisfies the urges within him– maybe his God given desire to work the land…

So at that point the devil gets Faustus and brings him down to hell– but God sends angels to rescue Faustus, because God is so fond of Faustus’ strong and determined spirit.   “He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still” (V, 11936–7).

That isn’t good biblical theology at all 🙂  But I sense in myself, and many of us can– that spirit of wanting more which seems to be unquenchable.  It is good to be ambitious.  It is bad for our ambition to be unquenchable and without a source of peace.  Many of us thrive in a constant state of overreaching…

We haven’t finished the book, and eagleton says a lot more provocative valuable things than I could ever summarize here.  But when it comes to the overreaching, it is important, I think, to remember one of my father’s favorite verses: “Be still and know that I am God”

May God have mercy on us All.