Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How Seriously Should the Church Take Exit Interviews?

There are cold hard facts that say young people are leaving “the church” (I have yet to see anyone define what they mean by “the church”). No doubt about it. We live in a day and age when it is socially easier than it’s ever been to stop going to church, and therefore we are seeing a rise in those calling themselves “religious nones.” They aren’t atheists, but they aren’t Christians. They’re modern, spiritual folks who refuse to plant their flag with any institution or group. These are just the facts.

Some people have even done “exit interviews,” if you want to call them that, with some of these individuals. After these folks leave the church, they have an opportunity to pontificate on what it was about “the church” (again, undefined) that made them leave. Now, this data is interesting - there’s no doubt about that. What pastor wouldn’t like the opportunity to find out why so-and-so stopped coming to Sunday worship?

So here we have raw data saying young people are leaving the church, and some data saying why they are leaving. Rachel Held Evans (RHE) has given her sources for her latest opinion piece on why Millennials are leaving the church, and one of her sources is David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me. In this book, as RHE summarizes it, Kinnaman says that young adults are leaving the church for six primary reasons: “they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.”

If you are theologically conservative with views that are rooted in Scripture and in accord with tradition, my guess is that you are generally going to push back against some of these reasons (I’m in agreement that 1, 2, and 6 are problems in many churches). Some of these points are a problem because the church hasn’t engaged in apologetics and has simply told people that “faith” is the magic word and approached questions and doubts in a fideistic way. Some of them are problems because people are simply hostile to the exclusivity of the Christian religion by nature. For the orthodox, this and a couple of these reasons cannot be helped without substantially changing the Christian faith. In RHE’s analysis, this is exactly what needs to happen: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She says this favorably, not critically. And here is where the real question needs to be addressed...who decides what the church is like? Is it wise elders, guided by the Holy Spirit, under the authority of Scripture? Or is it the kids who left?

Who Are We Listening To?
Here’s the problem. If somebody quits your company because they don’t like the way things are run, an exit interview can be helpful. After all, it can tell you ways to improve your company and give you direction in the future. It can give you an idea what you did wrong, and what you need to do differently in the future in order to retain employees and reduce turnover.

But the church is not a Fortune 500 company. She is guided by revealed theology from God. You don’t want to base the substance of your theology on the opinions of those who leave the church precisely because those who leave the church are not in a position to discern spiritual matters. The Scriptures say things about those who disassociate themselves from the church and well... they aren’t nice things. They are things that I have no doubt, will bother people and make them feel judged just by my repeating them here. But the truth is, according to 1 John 2:19 the reason people leave and don’t come back is that “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

If John is right (and I always think he is, given my view of the authority of Scripture), and if I am understanding John correctly, then these people who are leaving “the church” (again, still undefined) are not Christians in any meaningful sense of the word. They have broken off fellowship. No church should base the “substance” (to use RHE’s word) of the faith on the opinions of unbelievers. It is one thing to have a core theology and to find creative, thoughtful, or careful ways of explaining doctrine or helping to answer peoples’ questions. This is part of what it means to “teach and exhort” (1 Tim. 4:13). It's quite another to change the core because it doesn't gel with those around us.

Don’t Change For Them, Change With Them?
Everyone has a theory. If you are... less traditional and more willing to put your finger in the wind and see where the culture is going, your reaction to the cold hard data of young people leaving “the church” is going to still be troubling, but you will tend to be friendlier, more conciliatory, and more willing to bow your theology or ethics to these complaints. Here is how RHE puts it
No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity.
I’m not sure how she defines “historical tenets of the Christian faith,” but the fact that Evans is free to define the “historical tenets” down as far as she wishes and still consider herself Evangelical is a solid demonstration that Carl Trueman is correct:
The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks any agreed-upon evangel. Until we acknowledge that this is the case - until we can agree on what exactly it is that constitutes the evangel - all talk about evangelicalism as a real, coherent movement is likely to be little more than a chimera, or a trick with smoke and mirrors (The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 41).
I’m deeply trouble by what a church whose theology and ethics are decided by the unbelievers within the culture around us will eventually look like. My own suspicion is that it will look much like the mainline denominations in the United States. As Anthony Bradley has pointed out, RHE is really just asking for evangelical churches to become more like the United Methodist Church with an evangelical piety. When asked why she doesn’t just go to a liberal mainline church, RHE says that they aren’t evangelical enough. I wonder (and I haven’t read everything she’s written, so maybe she has pondered this) if she has ever considered that the thing that gives evangelical churches the piety, the energy, the evangelistic attitude that RHE so deeply yearns for is the very exclusivity, the ethics, and the emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture that she and her fellow millennials (lets ignore the fact that I'm younger than her and therefore "one of them") want to downplay.

What I do want to point out is that whatever you think the answer to these six “problems” for the church are looks an awful lot like one's own pet issues. According to Ross Douthat (a Roman Catholic) religion in the United States is in decline because it needs to become more creedal and traditional. According to an old classmate of mine who hates creeds, the reason “nobody wants anything to do with the church” is that we recite the Apostles’ Creed in public worship. According to libertines, the problem is that the church represses their sexual urges. According to inclusivists, the church is too exclusive, etc.

An Uncharitable Suspicion
I have a feeling that this whole conversation gives way too much credit to the millennials leaving church. I have yet to hear anyone say the thing we're all thinking: people don't believe and would rather not go to church. The shortest distance between two points. The simple answer.

After all, who wouldn't want to sleep in on Sundays, lay around in their pajamas until noon, eat a block of cheese the size of a car battery and play around the rest of the day? I have this uncharitable suspicion that people like having their Sundays to themselves. When you combine unbelief with this strong temptation to the "Selfish Sunday", it's easy to suspect that millennials give critical statements about the church after the fact to make their departure feel like it had some deep idealistic meaning.

A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that my job in going to church was not to be blessed, but to be a blessing. To contribute, to share my gifts, to make it a better place and to love and build up the people who are there. To teach Sunday School and watch little kids in the nursery. There are critics of the church everywhere. But why should the church listen to those who refuse to contribute to it any more or make it a place that they would consider worthy of their own presence? Or, put another way, maybe it's just time for the kids to grow up.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Do You Prioritize Apologetics Over Theology?

When I first came to believe the truth of the Christian faith, I did so - in large part - because of books like Hugh Ross' The Creator and the Cosmos and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. This was over a decade ago, when I was a high schooler. I was a 17 year old kid, just learning that there even was a such thing as "apologetics" - and that can be a dangerous thing.

Now, I didn't become a Christian because of those books. I became a Christian when God brought me to a realization (by reading Paul's Letter to the Romans) of my sinfulness, of my need of a redeemer, and of my need to repent. It's important to distinguish between winning an argument and winning a soul.

My theology in the years following my conversion was not shaped - first and foremost - by attention to the Word of God, I freely confess it! Rather, I had enamored myself with these apologists whom I had been first exposed to, and who had first shown me the reasonableness of the Christian faith. The debates of William Lane Craig, the near death experience talks given by J.P. Moreland, even books like Norm Geisler's Chosen But Free all made an early impact on me because I had - from the beginning - prioritized apologetic thinking over theological thinking. You might even say that all of those things appealed to me because I still came at my theology thinking like an unsaved person, peeking in and figuring things out from the perspective of an outsider trying to "solve" the problems of God and eternity. Of course, I thought I could find ways to locate scraps of these innovative doctrines (arminianism, molinism, etc.) in Scripture later on down the road, if I tried hard enough. I don't mean this as a slander against those men, but rather as a self-critical assessment of how I came at theology.

This last week, Kurt Jaros and Scott Oliphint had an interesting exchange on the Unbelievable radio program. After listening to this program, as a former classical apologetics junkie, all I could do was reflect on what a worldly approach I used to take to thinking about the doctrine of God. If you prioritize apologetics over theology, then your theology will be shaped by your ability to defend your views. You may even hold to certain doctrines because it is easier to defend against unregenerate debate opponents rather than because you found them in the Scriptures. This is absolutely upside down from the way it should be. Herman Bavinck says this better than I could ever possibly try in the prolegomena of his Reformed Dogmatics.

As Bavinck explains it, "Placing apologetics at the head of all the other theological disciplines...is explicable only from the fact that these theologians no longer recognize theology's own principles and [are] forced to look elsewhere for a foundation on which the building of theology [can] rest" (1:55-56). And here Bavinck exposes the reality that theology, on its own, is an inadequate starting point for many theologians (but it shouldn't be!). In Bavinck's day it was men like Schliemacher who placed apologetics prior to theology. In our own day, men like William Lane Craig (and his young disciples) do the same. This manifests itself, of course, in grossly unbiblical theological aberrations such as Craig's Molinism. But this is only a manifestation of theological method, not the real problem. The problem is the core of how one does theology. What is one's beginning source for what we know about God? Is it reason, unaided by revelation?

Bavinck goes on: "If...theology is deduced from its own source, i.e., from revelation, it has its own certainty and does not need corroboration of philosophical reasoning." And this is a big problem I saw in Jaros' own approach on Unbelievable. Jaros has what you might call an "unbeliever-friendly" apologetic method. Jaros might be happy with that assessment, but what it means is that his apologetics and philosophy must come first in priority. If revelation came first in priority, his approach would no longer be appealing to unbelievers, because it would be built upon God's self-revelation.

This is a problem, however: "Apologetics cannot and may not precede dogmatics but presupposes dogma and now gets the modest but still splendid task of maintaining and defending this dogma against all opposition." The person who prioritizes apologetics over theology might respond by saying that the person who puts theology first loses the ability to use arguments from nature or history in his defense of the faith (what Bavinck refers to as "dogma"). But Bavinck also has a response to this line of thinking:
[This defense of] the entire content of revelation and of Christianity as a whole, is possible for the reason that nature and grace, creation and redemption, coming as they do from one and the same God, are not and cannot be in conflict. Only sin, which consists not only in a perverse disposition of the heart but also in the darkening of the mind, has brought opposition and conflict between the two (p. 56)
I would encourage up and coming apologists/theologians to flip their priorities. In order to defend the faith you must first have a faith to defend. If your defense of the faith involves principally abandoning the very fabric of reality to prove its truthfulness, something at the core of your approach is desperately wrong, indeed.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is Translating Understanding?

In first year (or even later) Greek courses it is often assumed that if you can translate a Greek phrase or sentence into English, then you understand what the Greek sentence means. This, however, is simply not the case. Just because someone can provide an English gloss for each word in the Greek text does not mean that they understand all (or even most) that is going on in the orignal text. Mois├ęs Silva in a chapter discussing the detailed debate over the use of the Greek verbal tenses, A Response to Fanning and Porter on Verbal Aspect, reminds us of this fact.
We have traditionally assumed that learning Greek means being able to translate, but that is really mixing apples and oranges. If you want to become proficient in Italian, you go to Italy, hear and imitate the spoken language even as you learn to read it, and never once produce a written English translation of anything. Of course, since Greek is an ancient language, we are virtually obligated to rely on translation, but it remains true that being able to translate is a very distinct skill from learning a language (p. 76). 
This is a reminder that just because a person can provide English "equivalence" to different Greek words, does not mean they understand the original text. After all, if all it took to understand the orignal Greek text were English glosses, then by simply looking at an English Bible (or Greek-English interlinear) a person would understand the Greek text. And, as should be apparent, this is simply not the case!