Monday, January 27, 2014

Premillennialists Buck the Christian Knowledge Crisis

            When I was editor of The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, I sat on a small committee of leaders who guided Faith Alive, the publishing arm of the church. Faith Alive regularly published Bible studies, Sunday School curriculum, and other religious material. Our responsibility was basically two-fold. We had to publish good material, and it had to earn money. We couldn’t run Faith Alive on a deficit—at least not forever, though we tried.

            Achieving these goals was no small task. The basic problem was that with one or two exceptions (Don Postema’s Space for God being a notable one, some hymnals the other), the people buying our material rarely bought enough to make any publication profitable.

            To make matters worse, we were constantly being urged to publish more and more basic theology and doctrine books because of the widespread perception that people in the church just didn’t know as much as they used to. I think the perception was right on. The problem, however, was not—never had been—a shortage of good doctrinal primers. The problem was that most people sitting in the pew wouldn’t ever buy doctrinal books, because they simply didn’t read, or were not interested, or wanted doctrinal fantasy like the Left Behind series of novels, instead. So we’d sit there, with some denominational committee or seminary professor begging us to publish something that would address the lack of knowledge in the pew, knowing full well that if we did, we’d fail financially. It was not a nice position to be in.

            While this probably isn’t true of those reading this blog, it is true of the church at large. We’re suffering through a time of increasing ignorance in the pews. People don’t know the Bible stories like they used to. Kids don’t go to catechism like they used to. Few people read as much as they used to. Even seminary education has become much less rigorous in nearly every denomination. Everyone has something other than study of doctrine to do: skiing, cottages, soccer camps, TV shows to follow (usually a season at a time, in massive binges), and of course, the internet to browse. Bible studies that actually require study, rather than just sharing how you feel about some text, are rare to nonexistent. 

            And yet, isn’t it interesting that one of the more successful branches of contemporary Christianity—the Premillennialist crowd—asks for, and usually gets, a lot of knowledge from its adherents? Premillennialists—of whatever persuasion—can often offer up detailed descriptions of the end of the world—pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, it matters not. They can describe how today’s news events are prophesied in scripture (they think). They can offer up obscure texts in Daniel and Revelation in breathless support of their views about when and where and how Jesus will return. And they seem to be able to do so, ad infinitum, even though none of their predictions has ever come to pass—never.

            What gives? Why is it that in an era generally marked by less and less interest in and energy for study of doctrine that this group of failed prognosticators seems to be bucking the trend?

            I don’t know, for sure. Others have drawn parallels between the Gnostics of the early church and today’s Premillennialists. The parallels are pretty easy to see. Both groups promoted arcane—almost secret—knowledge that served as a key to escaping the toils and troubles of this world. Both saw this world as basically evil. And so on.

            The apocalyptic fervour of these groups, as well as the mental and exegetical gymnastics needed to justify that fervour, speak to a profound sense of unease about contemporary culture. Not only is the world evil, but its getting worse. They feel powerless to do anything to change things, and so they look to a dramatic deus ex machina solution, and find it in their tortured exegesis.

            Among some of these groups doctrinal knowledge is the bar people need to rise to in order to really belong—sort of like speaking in tongues was the bar that some of my Pentecostal friends had to rise to be considered premium members. The more social control a community exerts over its members, the more likely it will require specialist knowledge or experience to be part of the community. Think Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, for example.

            The mastery of the airwaves that these groups have shown is another reason for their popularity. Christian Radio stations offering a menu of preachers breathlessly predicting one disaster after another, relating all of it to today’s headlines, and promising the thread that will make sense of it all are just, well, fascinating. Like late-night radio shows chronicling all sorts of conspiracy theories, or Discovery Channel shows about aliens who visited the earth in the distant past, or even right-wing political commentators who have their own spin on conspiracy and how things really are—these radio preachers appeal to people who want answers.

            To the degree that knowing about or believing such theories about how God is going to end the world as we know it is the entrance price to a church or denomination, they undermine the message of grace. The author of 1 Timothy—probably thinking of Gnosticism—puts it well: "Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wive's tails. Train yourself in godliness" (4:7). In other words, doing good is better than insisting on speculation. (I wonder if this advice is also good when it comes to speculation about the Trinity, divine substances, election, or Jesus' divine and human natures?) 

           Still, the contrast between the high “knowledge” commitment of many premillenialists and the cries of alarm about how most Christians don’t know much, anymore, is striking. What do we make of it? It may be true that for most of the history of Christianity, most Christians were illiterate, and did well to know a few key stories from the Bible and how to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. But is that what we want to settle for now? I don’t think so.

            The bottom line is that Christianity is facing some huge cultural obstacles when it comes to inspiring its members to delve deep into the well of scripture, and the wisdom of its traditions. Figuring out what to do about this problem, however--if anything—is an interesting problem.

Monday, January 13, 2014


One of the things that amazes me most, thinking back to my first few years as a pastor, was that most Sundays I preached twice a week. It made for a busy life, as each new sermon usually took two days to write. But between being allowed to exchange pulpits once a month or so, and having a few Sundays a year off, I managed the two-sermons-per-week routine without too many problems.

I could never manage that sort of preaching load anymore. Why not? In a word (or two), church administration.

In my first congregation, things pretty much ran themselves—and if they didn’t, a layperson was there to make it run. So, when a new church needed to be built (around the bones of an old fire station), every detail was handled by church members—from building support for the project, to fund-raising, to getting zoning approvals, to final construction. Many members contributed free labor, as well. I didn’t have to do a thing, other than take a few turns behind the paintbrush and serve as a cheerleader.

Worship was the same every week—only the songs and sermons changed. On Tuesday mornings I’d pick the songs we were going to sing the following Sunday, write a few announcements about upcoming events, and pass them along to the secretary. Members of the congregation looked after almost everything else—nursery and coffee schedules and volunteers, committee meetings for education, building and grounds, as well council meetings. The clerk received all church mail and responded to it all.

It isn’t that I didn’t have a few projects of my own that I promoted and planned for. But the bottom line was that the church was owned and run by the membership. Volunteers were never in short supply. And the church template—what churches did on Sundays, in particular—was far simpler than today’s.

These days, things are different. It isn’t that there isn’t any more lay participation. In my current congregation, there certainly is—from the flower guild to the council, from greeting to coffee preparation, many volunteers participate in the life of the church. Still, volunteers, especially for longer-term responsibilities, have become harder and harder to find over the past thirty years. And when things are not going smoothly church members look to the pastor and his or her staff to fix it.

What has changed?

1. Most people have less time. Especially in large urban centers like Toronto, where most people now live, people are feeling more and more pressed for time. Traffic is a mess, especially in the hours leading up to traditional church-meeting times like breakfast and just after supper. What is more, with unemployment hovering between 7 and 8 percent, people have to give extra time and effort to their jobs. Many feel vulnerable. Again, time for other activities suffers. On the plus side, some people have less time because community—and even foreign—NGOs are also dipping into the traditional church volunteer pool.

2. A related factor, and probably the single largest factor in this list, is that many more women—once the heart and soul of church volunteerism—are now working professionally. They (as was almost always the case with their husbands) are coming to church exhausted. They want to participate in worship, but resist teaching for and planning Sunday School, babysitting during the service, organizing social and community events, and serving on council. More and more equality in the workplace means more and more tired, stressed out church members.

3. Our culture has encouraged greater expectations for parental involvement compared to the seventies or eighties. Parents want to cheer kids on, drive them to and from practices, and spend quality time at home or on vacation with their kids. Overall, this is a great development, as many of us boomers can remember when parents were just too busy or distracted to spend much time with us. But a byproduct of this is that both parents and kids are too busy to help out at church.

4. Still, expectations for the quality and variety of church programing have only increased. No surprises here. In the era of TV preachers, megachurches, and a consumer-satisfaction oriented culture, churches that don’t shine don’t attract new members. They lose old members and fail to excite current members. People—whether consciously or not, rightly or wrongly—treat churches as franchises they have to choose between. Franchise outlets that don’t sport the best menu, the latest innovations, the best music, the latest technology all fall behind. Churches run as mom and pop operations don’t keep up with the times and fail. Ironically, just as members have less time for church involvement, expectations for what churches must deliver have increased.

5. Technology can save time, but it has also increased expectations on pastors and staff for fast response times about ever more and more matters. More insidiously, the very ease of sending off an email means that lots of them are sent! Even when parishioners are not deeply involved in offering time for church matters, they are making suggestions and asking for answers. Email represents a great opportunity to stay in touch—and to touch—church members. But it comes at a cost in time and energy.

6. Technology two. The Internet and other contemporary technology is great for getting your church noticed—if you are good at it. But that means someone on Facebook and Google Plus, and updating your webpage on a weekly or more frequent basis, providing great content for blogs, and regular tweets. As the franchise competition heats up, more and more resources have to be dedicated to marketing. Someone on staff has to be on top of this.

7. Bigger staffs themselves require more administration. Although my first congregation and my current congregation are about the same size, many of the factors mentioned above mean I work with a much larger staff than ever before—from 1.2 FTE to 4+ FTE. But working with a large staff, maintaining morale, helping them grow in their skills and keeping everyone on target takes a lot of administration too.

8. Laws have become more and more complex—often for good reason. But the burden on churches is also real. From the annual audit to voluntary sector criminal reports, to writing policies covering matters as diverse as sexual harassment to what foods can and cannot be served during coffee time, churches are being held to a higher standard. And the staff is expected to stay on top of the constantly changing demands.

9. Worship is better. More musicians playing more genres of music practicing with each other and looking for direction from staff, more thoughtful use of movie clips and other media, more drama and lay participation, more responsive reading, more consideration for historic liturgical practices—worship has changed a lot from the days I used to give the part-time secretary a list of six songs to put into the church bulletin’s never changing worship template. All of this requires a lot of planning and administrative work behind the scenes.

10. Denominational and local church structures are more intrusive than ever before. They always claim that every new initiative is going to save you time and help your church thrive, but the truth is denominational leaders have only rarely figured out how to offer real and timely help rather than more obligations. Denominations undoubtedly struggle with many of the same trends that local churches do. Denominational agencies and affiliated organizations are vying with each other for time and support in an era it doesn’t come to them automatically anymore. As a result, there is more and more stuff from denominations, more and more new initiatives, and more and more insecurity. A lot of pastors try to ignore the whole scene, but that won’t make for improvements, either—or eventually deliver real help.

We live in an era heavily influenced by post-modern suspicion of institutions. People think institutions are rule-bound, hidebound, and acronym-obsessed. They don’t like the rules, regulations, master plans, and perceived coerciveness of institutions. They want church experiences that are of a gee whiz sort rather than church responsibilities that require time, attention, and dedication.

But ironically, as their other obligations make church involvement more and more difficult, and as they download their old volunteer jobs onto church staffs, and as they raise their expectations, churches themselves become more and more the staff-driving institutions that the same members are suspicious of.

What’s the solution? Well, it isn’t going back to how things were, because it just isn’t going to happen. Jobs will not become less demanding. Children won’t need less nurture. Technology is not going to simplify our lives. Commutes will only rarely take less time. And so on.

No, the solution, though counterintuitive, has to be better administration. As church administrators, our work has to become more effective from Monday through Saturday, so that our work becomes mostly invisible on Sundays. That creates the atmosphere—along with great worship and community that staff has done much to arrange—where congregants may become inspired to figure out how they can give more too.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Jesus' Racial Slur and the Bible

I’ve changed my mind about scripture.

I became aware of this slowly. My change of mind began as a kind of unease with certain passages—an unease that I filed away, in some back-room drawer of my brain, for a long time. But eventually, there were too many passages filed away to escape notice. They troubled me.

For example, I recently reread a sermon I preached years ago about the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus looking for a miracle exorcism for her daughter. It is found in Matthew 15:21-28. Early on in the sermon I noted that when the woman asked Jesus for healing, he didn’t answer her a word. At that point, I stopped preaching, and silently looked over the congregation for a whole minute. This got across, to the audience, something of the woman’s tragic situation. However, the silence also underlined, I think, the enormity of Jesus’ refusal. The disciples then urge Jesus to send the woman away. And so he does. Jesus says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

This passage is obviously nothing like the one where the disciples turn away the children. In that case Jesus breaks with cultural convention and responds, “Let the children come, for the kingdom of God belong to such as these.” In the Canaanite woman’s case, however, Jesus tells the foreigner to get lost. No kingdom for her. She doesn’t belong.

But she won’t leave. So this time Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus responds to a suffering mother’s plea for her daughter’s life with a demeaning and racist refusal to help. Jesus thinks Canaanites are dogs.

In my sermon I acknowledge that this is a hard saying. I try to soften it. I suggest that maybe Jesus was reminding this woman that it just happened to be God's strategy for Jews to hear his message first, only then, through the Jews, for the gentiles to hear the word—a standard exegetical twist to justify an otherwise horrible slur. Not that she, as a non-Jew, would have understood this theological twist.

There are other ways preachers and exegetes have tried to excuse Jesus’ behavior. Perhaps Jesus used this hard language because he knew ahead of time the eventual outcome of situation, and so let it play out. That would kind of be like making a baby blind so that Jesus could heal her later and so prove his Messiahship.

Or, perhaps Jesus was just expressing a widely shared cultural prejudice that he really can’t be blamed for. Or, maybe Jesus didn’t really mean what he said because of his obvious regard for foreigners that shows up in other Biblical stories. But doesn’t that make his behavior all the worse, here? Maybe this text reflects Matthew’s prejudice, rather than Jesus’. But that doesn’t make much sense either, since Matthew, in fact, from the magi at the beginning of the story, to the command to teach and baptize to the ends of the earth at the end of the story, seems to have had a deep concern for non-Jews.

We can dream up all sorts of “just-so” explanations. At its most obvious, literal level, however, this story includes Jesus using a racial slur. To call anyone a dog—no matter when and where—is to dehumanize that person, to dismiss his or her essential value before others and God. It is sin.

But on that Sunday I didn’t go into any of this. I trod lightly. This slur was a side of Jesus better passed over quickly and filed in that drawer I mentioned above. Rather than talk about the slur itself on the lips of Jesus, I immediately noted that the woman acknowledged that she was a dog. I quoted Martin Luther, who said that by saying “Yes Lord,” the woman “caught Jesus in his own words.” By saying “yes, Lord” she reminded Jesus of all his sermons about love for the hungry, the thirsty, the mourning, and the poor in spirit. Her "yes Lord" reminded Jesus that he had once said he would not despise a contrite heart. As if Jesus should have needed reminding.

From the Luther quote I moved quickly to a conclusion about how faith can move mountains—that is, how faith like the Canaanite woman’s can even endure God’s silence. It seemed like the right homiletical move, even if it made faith into a kind of works righteousness.

But the slur rankled, somewhere, deep inside. Now, years later, I have an African American grandson and an Afghani foster-daughter. I have an African daughter-in-law who was stopped at two a.m. in East Grand Rapids, not because she was speeding, but because she was out of place. I’ve experienced how hard it is to get good Christians to make room in their churches for people who don’t belong to their tribe. I read the news. I’ve taken courses that explain how structural racism—starting with slavery and Jim Crow laws and moving onto red-lining in real-estate and subpar schooling for poor inner city neighbourhoods—has all helped keep (most) African Americans and Canadians in their place.

Now I can no longer excuse Jesus’ response. It was deeply prejudiced and wrong. It infuriates me. How is it that a Messiah doesn’t know better?

As a result, I’ve changed my idea of scripture. Of course, as noted above, it isn’t just this passage. There are a whole host of scriptural issues that we tend not to take at face value but make excuses for, instead. From the Holy War of the Old Testament Jews against the Canaanites (them again) to the immanent expectation of Jesus’ return; from the obvious artifice of Old Testament books like Isaiah to mixed notions about who Jesus actually was that are found throughout the New Testament; from the condemnation of gay and divorced people to the requirement that women keep silence and are saved by childbearing many, many Biblical narratives are deeply disturbing and inconsistent with the highest ideals of other parts of scripture.

I find myself at a place where I’ve come to a corner, downtown, and am set to turn, unable to see what is ahead. I’m committed to the journey, but I’m not sure what I’ll see or meet round the corner. I’m not sure how to make peace with all this stuff. The paradigm I learned in seminary, with arguments about such passages full of eccentric and retrograde orbits to make the overall geocentric galaxy work, doesn’t work for me anymore.

Where then does one find God? Maybe God comes upon us, reveals himself or herself, in the reading. Maybe God chooses us whether we like it or not. What about scripture? Maybe scripture is witness to a long, bumpy tradition of people with a vague sense of the numinous, that I can learn from. Maybe scripture is partly right and partly wrong and I need to use its central themes to correct the outliers. We’ll see, round the corner.

What I do know, however, is that as uncomfortable as the uncertainty is I also love the freedom I now have to share both the best of scripture and my struggles with it in my present congregation. This community helps me feel as if I don’t need to turn that corner alone.