Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is there a Brain Drain in the churches of Christ and is it being led by ministers?

I want to start this post by sharing a screen shot of Rich Little's FB status, as a way to introduce my thoughts:

(Facebook post from Rich Little) 

If you pause to consider it, ministers are called to think, a lot.  We think about sermons we are writing, future classes we are preparing, personal studies with others, how to address challenges within our congregations, what to do when counseling people, etc. So, basically we should spend much of our workweek in thought.  What happens though, when a movement or denomination discourages their ministers from thinking, or from expanding their thinking?

When I was a Bible major at Harding, F. Lagard Smith’s book “Who is my Brother?” was hot off the press. It was also a time when some within our brotherhood wrestled with questions over our identity. Particularly, are we “evangelicals,” and if not, what are we? I also remember during this period Flavil Yeakley warning our class, unless trends in attendance improved, the church of Christ could be nearly nonexistent by the year 2020.

Along this same time, over hushed cups of coffee shared in closed quarters, preaching students and Bible professors discreetly talked about our longings to be able to think freely, to rethink some of our methods of Biblical interpretation, and how to implement change in church settings while remaining faithful to our heritage. But dim clouds hovered over us, for our concerns were not merely of being ostracized, but of being dismissed and becoming unemployable.

At this same time, several established and trustworthy leaders voiced concerns in the classroom and in chapel over a potential division brewing on the horizon: Would the controversies over women’s roles cause a great schism in the churches of Christ as we entered the 21st century? Some predicted a fourth branch of the Restoration Movement was imminent.

Meanwhile, a slow but budding exodus populated by people who weren’t worried about those questions would gain momentum. As ministers and then a new generation of believers, believers who grew up going to VBS, Winterfest, Bible camp, and Lads to Leaders & LTC gradually disengaged from their congregations. Yet, no one seemed alarmed.

The tension that we face over losing some of our best and brightest minds isn’t unique to us alone. Searching articles in the Washington Post, the Huffington post, and other major news outlets will reveal many articles which highlight the slow attrition of ministers and the siphoning off of the Millennial generation from churches in general. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public life, and the Barna Group have both shared startling statistics detailing the loss of faith many young people experience as well. What I think is missing from the analysis of this trend is the disillusionment people feel when they can’t be transparent or vulnerable with the people they break bread with and when “questions” are discouraged.

Young people today aren’t looking for laser light shows, lattes, or laid-back worship services, and, our preachers aren’t interested in these “church fads” either. Attempts at being “cool” will not recruit Millennials to our pews. This generation of young people in their 20’s & 30’s seek significance from their faith and the freedom grow intellectually and experientially. If they can’t find this freedom from within our heritage, they are going to continue to look elsewhere for substance-- far from what they perceive as closed-minded or sectarian churches.

For too long, we asked question about how to keep certain people happy, how to not rock the boat, and how to make sure no one was ever offended. Are we facing consequences for worrying more about not disrupting the way things have always been done than over worrying about being led by God? Our younger generation doesn’t see the relevance of fighting old battles which were initially proposed by people long dead, and our ministers are suffering burnout over fighting for ideas they don’t personally embrace. But I do not think all is lost.

Even though the vast majority of my college classmates have abandoned full time ministry, and I’ve seen countless young people walk away from church, I’m hopeful for our future when I see the lineups at events like the Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop and at some of our Bible lectureships. As we invite in solid intellectuals who are deep thinkers, like N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, and as we host events where passionate speakers like Francis Chan and Bob Goff can speak to our people, I see hope for our ability to integrate into their ideas into our theological framework.

A recently released movie, “Concussion,” is based on the true story of NFL players who suffered major brain damage from multiple head traumas they received playing football. The tension in the plot is over the fact NFL leaders knew about the dangers to the players, but they were afraid to reveal the truth. Could someone write a script for our circumstance, “Concession?” If we continue to discourage our preachers from stretching the comfort zone of the congregations they serve, if we do not find resolution for the stereotypical confrontations between elderships and their preachers, and if we do not find ways to help our young people transition into adulthood with their faith in tact, Flavil Yeakley’s prediction might come true for the church of Christ.

The above picture up top is a screenshot of Rich Little's Facebook post where he shared his exit from ministry.  I met Rich in the late '90s when the word on the street was he was being groomed to replace Dr. Burkes as the next president of Harding University; Rich was a student at Trinity and he was preaching at the Naperville church of Christ at that time.  After Rich defended his PhD., instead of returning to Harding as planned, the Naperville church brokered a deal with Harding to keep Rich on staff in Naperville, and then eventually Rich left Naperville and went to Malibu Ca.   I really don't know why he choose to leave vocational ministry, I would say though that his leaving ministry illustrates the struggle I'm describing well, that of thinking-intellectuals wrestling with finding a place in some of the churches of Christ.

Presently, I myself preach in a non-denominational church, New Song, and we are heavily influenced by the Restoration Movement.  I found salvation in a loving mainline church of Christ, actually the Naperville Church of Christ.  I have no ill-will towards the churches of Christ, and if the right fit were possible & if God someday led us in that direction, I would one day gladly preach in a church of Christ again.  I'm saddened that people with such great potential have these struggles, but I'm sure this isn't unique only to them.  I'm guessing many congregations of many stripes are suffering from this brain-drain too; I'm afraid these are simply the consequences and the fruition of sectarianism.

In Search of Peace

(Kingsport Timesnews 8/26/15)

There are some people who are concerned about the advances in Artificial Intelligence, they lose sleep at night because they are fearful computers will one day take over and enslave the human race.  Who isn’t at least a little worried about terrorism these days?  What about our rocky economy, can you say that it doesn’t trouble you from time to time? Most everyone is talking about our upcoming presidential election and most people are disturbed at the possibility of whoever our next leader might be.  Some folks are saying, we are entering another Cold War with Russia.  

What about closer to home?  It’s normal for couples to argue or for families to have strife from time to time, and even churches can wrestle over changes that need to be made, but what happens when a particular conflict continues?  

It doesn’t seem like there’s any corner of our life that is completely free from difficulties and it’s safe to say, you don’t have to look too far to find situations which disturb us.  What we long for most in this life, I’d venture to say, is peace.  

I know we long for God’s presence, and we long for good health, and we want our families to be safe & healthy, and we seek security, but I believe what we are really looking for is peace.  I’m not sure we will ever have the complete absence of trouble in this life like we want.  In fact I’m pretty convinced in this life we will face trials and tribulations, but the promise is we can have peace.    

How can we find peace when the world feels like it is crumbling around us, when evil seems to be growing stronger each day, and when life holds so much misery and sorrow?  Perhaps in the midst of such pain, we might not see the peace we desire in the moment, but then again, sometimes we focus our attention in the wrong places.

If we are trying to generate our own peace, by our own efforts, or if we are seeking peace in the wrong places, we will never find satisfaction.  Unfortunately, I think we depend on the world around us to deliver the very peace it robs us of.  We mistakenly think peace comes from having a title, position, possessions, or perhaps from our own abilities.   

Jesus leaves His disciples with the promise of peace -- all the while acknowledging they will be living in the midst of chaos, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV)

Perhaps peace isn’t so much the absence of strife, but maybe peace has something to do with the assurance that all is well despite the circumstances that surround us.  Our problems and difficulties are at best temporary, they can’t last.  They don’t seem like they will ever go away, but just like a child who thinks Christmas will never arrive, time passes and our situation will change too.

I’ve seen plenty of people who felt like they were on the brink of disaster, and, I’ve been through my share of painful situations, and while all of us have struggled to see a brighter future, we survived even when we were less than optimistic.  Not everyone saw the results they wanted or experienced the improvements they hoped for, but along the way we’ve all learned valuable lessons through the pain, grew stronger as a result, and found peace in knowing God never abandons those whom He loves.  

So, no, we aren’t exempt from conflict, distressing situations, or agitating circumstances in this life.  But we are promised peace, by Him Who has overcome the world.  And in this divine promise, there is an eternal reason to hope.  May you find the peace which far exceeds all of our understanding or comprehension, and may you rest easily and securely in Jesus and His powerful presence.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Tearing each other down is easier than...

It’s always easier to break out a windowpane than it is to glaze one in place. Dragging statues down to the ground is easier than sculpting them. Smashing, whatever comes to mind, takes less effort or mental energy than it does assembling something new. For example, it’s easier to critique a book than it is to write one.

Whether it’s taking a car apart or tearing down an old house, the act of demolition requires less from us than creativity does. Never forget, it’s easier to bend and warp than it is to make straight. I imagine the same is true of raising kids, relating to your spouse, or the way we treat someone else’s reputation.

Right now, America seems more divided than at anytime in recent memory. Between both of the recent RNC and DNC conventions (along with their ensuing the political circuses), the senseless violence where police officers have been targeted lately, and the perpetual erosion of solid family values, we are obviously in big trouble as a nation.

I’m not telling you anything new, am I? These are dark times, troublesome times. Times such as these spark intense turmoil and tend to demoralize the best of us. And, the more we focus on our differences, the more divided we become. The church isn’t immune to this division either.

Unfortunately, as MLK Jr. once pointed out, Sunday mornings have the most segregated hour of the week. But this segregation isn’t as simple as an ethnic divide. If you look around most congregations, you might notice the lack of socioeconomic or cultural diversity as well.

Until our local congregations can realize there is no competition between lighthouses and until we show the world what radical unity really looks like, we have very little to offer to a wounded and bruised world in these dark times. By the way, when jihadists behead Christians or blow up innocent believers, they aren’t looking at denominational affiliations. Therefore, we might need to consider that other Bible believing people aren’t our real enemies...

Sadly, I don’t own a magic wand or silver bullets -- there are no simple solutions to the problems we presently face. I do know, we owe our young people a better future than the one we’re setting them up for. I can’t claim to know what all we need to reconcile our splintered nation, but I’d venture to say a little less hatred and lot more healing would help.

What we don’t need more of though, is more fear-mongering, more racism, or more vitriolic rhetoric which lambastes one’s political opponents. I have never had to point out to my wife 15 other guys who don't love my wife, to simply say to her, “I love you.” Political candidates (and as far as this goes, church leaders too) shouldn’t layout their negative perceptions about those they view as competition. No. Leaders who want to persuade their followers, should stand on their own strengths without ever pointing out the weakness in others.

At one time, we here in America were known metaphorically by sociologists as the great melting pot, as when many ethnicities merged together. Then, later we were referred to as a salad bowl, where the different ingredients ended up in the same bowl but never coalesced. Pretty soon if we aren’t careful, we’ll come to be known as an empty, grease stained, fastfood bag.

Why not say, “Jesus is the answer” to all these problems we face? A wonderful cliche some might claim.

Perhaps if Jesus is the answer to this whole crappy set of circumstances we are presently facing, then perhaps the church will begin to take our partnership with God more seriously. By that, I mean spreading love, peace, unity, and the message of salvation through Jesus to a lost and wayward world -- and ceasing to stake superiority-claims under different church banners/marquees/signs, or worse yet, claiming “God loves our Presidential candidate more...”