With the decline in membership since the 1960s in mainline Protestant churches as well as in conservative evangelical churches many are now seeking answers to the “why” of the said decline. There appears to be a sense of panic amongst church leaders and members as the prospect of closing the church doors becomes more and more of a reality with each passing day. As those in the pews get older and pass away those pews are becoming emptier and emptier and the picture is clear – there aren’t many young people, in many cases, to carry the torch (1). And so now we find ourselves asking, “What happened?” “Where are our young people?” Our current, sad reality is that youth just don’t seem stick around once they reach adulthood. Why? What’s going on here? Where’s the disconnect? (2) We know the answers. Secularism. Humanism. Gnosticism. Individualism. Nihilism. These are all contributing factors. But why have they gained the upper hand? If Christianity was supposedly so strong in 1950s America why have things gone in the exact opposite direction since then? If the foundation was there all along why has it been swept away so quickly?
This past weekend I was at a youth summit that focused on sexuality amongst our youth (a hot button topic these days as homosexuality and promiscuity become more and more normalized). The presenters did a great job, but in listening to them as well as other attendees speak in breakout sessions, I felt frustrated. Frustrated because these discussions often take place with littleJesus talk. Now, please, let me clarify. There were plenty of references to Jesus and his grace, but I’m taking about a deeper understanding of his person and work and not just some nefarious guy who was and is God.
In conservative Christian circles Jesus is known as Savior, as the one who died for our sins on a Cross. He’s the one who can comfort us and forgive us when we mess up and sin, he’s the one who is always there for us no matter what, he’s the one who loves us unconditionally. But then what? More “Jesus?” Sure, but in the simplistic terms of a Law/Gospel sermon. It’s usually conveyed in this way: Sin upsets God, but he takes it upon himself to give you forgiveness and life again and again and again and again. This is what I would argue most youth as well as adults hear from church leaders but without much else in regards to the life of Jesus. It’s no wonder that the religion of most Americans has been called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”(3). I believe this can be traced back to our traditional church model and the Jesus we have presented and articulated.
So then what about the rest of Jesus? What about what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount? What about what he has to say about life in this world as his follower? What about how he treats people in specific circumstances and conditions? What about how he lived? This question was answered when one presenter made reference to the fact that we as a church are obsessed with sexual sin, but we never voice much concern for other sins like greed (which Jesus inarguably condemns). And this poignant comment brought to light something much deeper that I think needs highlighting. I believe the discussions that many churches are having now about what to do in regards to the decline in membership and the problems facing our youth have far more to do with our culture than with Jesus, at the least the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. Sexual sin is at the forefront in our minds because up until recently homosexuality and promiscuity were not normal, were not okay (4). And obviously the sexual revolution flipped such standards upside down. So now the fight, the struggle, going on in churches is ultimately one between what I would call traditional culture and progressive culture. The traditional culture is defined by traditional values such as marriage being between a man and a woman, the boundaries between man and woman are clearly defined – man provides, woman takes care of the home and children, authority is perceived as being a good thing, rules are followed, and hard work is perceived to be the gateway to a better life. The progressive culture is defined by what Robert Bork once called “radical egalitarianism”, a subjective notion of morality with the end goal being one’s happiness, homosexuality is deemed normal and sexual activity as being the right of the individual. In essence there are no absolutes. The progressive culture is caught between New Age spirituality and Secular Humanism.
And so I would argue that in most church cultures that are of a traditional bent, Jesus, while spoken of, is only spoken of in abstract and generic ways. He’s known as Savior, God and King but without the subversive understanding of those words as applied to Jesus in first century Palestine. For example such titles were designated for Caesar and when they were used by the Christians they were, in effect, subverting the message of Rome and of Caesar. These first Christians were guilty of tyranny. Instead we know Jesus by way of our doctrinal categories, which tend towards a Docetism. We perceive Jesus to be more divine than human. If we do make an attempt to recapture a deeper knowledge of the words and actions of Jesus, it’s by way of a best-selling author or hip pastor. I am convinced the subversive and radical nature of the Gospels has been lost because we don’t actually spend time in them. If we do, we read them with a very limited scope more often spiritualizing the earthiness of Jesus. There have been attempts to get at the radical nature of Jesus with books such as David Platt’s “Radical” and Rezla Aslan’s “Zealot” but both works truly miss the mark and cater more to the shallow nature of Christian and Secular audiences. These are but disappointing to say the least. And when we seek to reach out to the lost this is the Jesus whom we present: a Jesus without any context; a Jesus born out of a vacuum (5). Ultimately, there are things that Jesus says and does that would rub traditionalists and progressives the wrong way big time yet these are not spoken of. And I’d like to highlight these now so as to further the points that I am making.
In Mark 8:34-9:1 Jesus calls his followers to deny themselves, to pick up their Cross and to destroy their lives for the sake of the Gospel. (Destroy (apolesei) not save/fulfill.) The Cross was a political symbol. It was where dissidents, criminals, and non-citizens were put on humiliating display and put to death for opposing Rome (6). Like the prophets before him Jesus spoke truth to power and it cost him his friends, his followers, his life. That consists of self-denial even to the point of death. Jesus was nailed to a Cross because he broke the rules, he broke the culturally acceptable manners and customs, he pushed back on the institution that is the Temple because of his great love for humanity. In John 12, the religious leaders agree to oust Jesus so that they don’t lose their nation and way of life. Now, let’s take an honest look at typical, American life: What parent would ever say, “I hope my child destroys his life for Jesus’ sake”? Honestly: who wishes persecution on their child? We raise our children to aspire to be President of the United States rather than to destroy their lives for the sake of the Gospel. As Shane Claiborne and others have articulated so well we raise our children with the goal of upward mobility not the downward mobility that characterized Jesus’ call (7).
In Matthew 5: 43-48 Jesus calls the crowds to love their enemies, crowds that had suffered at the oppressive hands of the Romans. Some of the people in those very crowds may have had family members whom Rome crucified a few years earlier (8). There’s no delineation between left and right hand realm when it comes to the call to love enemies. A great analogy would be Jesus going down to Ground Zero in 2002 and preaching to us New Yorkers to love our enemies instead of seeking to exact revenge in Iraq. Along those same lines, Jesus, in the garden, admonishes his disciples to throw down their swords when our right to self-defense would have said it was okay to fight back in such a context. Swords were drawn because Jesus’ disciple thought that this was the moment that Jesus would spring into action and lead a rebellion against Rome (9). Also, the oppression these guys faced was far, far worse than taxation without representation. That should give us pause. But notice how quickly we traditional Christians are supportive of those who would enlist and go off to war. Young people notice this disconnect. Better still, many of the young people whom we taught that war was a good and god pleasing thing to do so have come back from the Middle East riddled with PTSD (10).
And then there’s the rich man who comes to Jesus wanting to know how to inherit eternal life. In Lutheran circles this is the text that is used for understanding the law/gospel distinction. I would argue that this use, while appropriate, has muddied the force and purpose of the text. After Jesus’ back and forth with the rich man, he tells him to sell his possessions and give to the poor, and the rich man then walks away saddened. Why? Because in the culture of the day it was believed that if you had wealth you were blessed by God. This man had most likely defrauded the poor in order to become wealthy (notice that in the Gospel of Mark Jesus inserts “Do not defraud” when he recites the commandments to the rich man. At this time those who were wealthy, particular in this region, most likely gained their wealth through the acquisition of land by way of high mortgage rates) (11). Then there’s Jesus flipping tables in the Temple because of the oppressive system in place. The guys who ran the tables and booth were just being good capitalists and entrepreneurs. They were stimulating the market and feeding the economy. What’s wrong with that? Sure it was God’s house, but this system fed the economy of the Temple and thereby Jerusalem. People’s lives depended on this system. Can you now understand why Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead? He values people over systems. And if those systems are inhumane and oppressive in nature, he exposes them as such. He doesn’t care if “we’ve always done it this way” and he doesn’t care if it offends the men in charge (12) (13). Our lives are governed by very similar systems and yet we traditional Christians, apart from Pope Francis, really don’t give much voice to such injustices in our midst. In part it’s because we have replaced the way of Jesus with the American Dream that says that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and what he wants for us. The Missouri Synod is very good at condemning homosexuality and same sex marriage but where were we when the Supreme Court decided that corporations were people? Again, young people see these inconsistencies.
There’s Jesus publicly healing people on the Sabbath when he clearly could have done it on another day if he wanted to (he’s God after all). But no – he does it to garner a reaction from the religious leaders. Why else would he openly disregard their interpretation of his commandment? In the Gospel of John Jesus seeks out the man at the side of the pool at Bethesda and asks him if he wants to be healed. He could’ve waited until the next day and healed the man. Or then there’s Mark 3 and the man with a withered hand which, again, Jesus heals on the Sabbath when he easily could’ve waited until the next day. Jesus subverts the patriarchy of the culture of his day by speaking with women in public and even breaking bread with them. The disciples of Jesus marveled at this when they saw his speaking with the Woman at the Well (14). When Jesus condemns divorce he is condemning the actions of the religious leaders who treated women horribly, who treated women like property (15). Of course this brings more nuance to the issue of divorce. And then there’s Jesus outright abrasiveness. He refers to the Syrophoenician woman as a dog, he calls the Pharisees “Whitewashed Tombs,” he calls Peter “Satan.” This is incredibly radical and in your face. His behavior can certainly not be described as “nice.” Yet we do not teach such a Jesus to our youth and I would assert that some of them notice this at they get older.
And now come the comments, “But Jesus was God! That’s why he could these things. He was entitled to talk to people that way because he knew what was in their hearts.” But do not such comments entirely disregard Jesus’ call to us to follow him and take up our crosses and destroy our lives for his name’s sake? The word Christian means Christ follower. The early Christians were known as the Way and we are called to travel on this Way. The Gospels speak this way. Let us not forget Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14, “Truly, Truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
To an extent some of these things are almost too much for us to handle. Jesus was a radical and this has largely been lost because, simply put, we don’t spend time in the Gospels. If we do, we cherry pick and leave it at that. And therein lies the problem that the Church has been unable to solve. What kid would want to stay in such a church? It’s boring, it’s lifeless and quite honestly he or she can get comfort and validation elsewhere without all of the traditional baggage. So in an odd way maybe we’ve lost Jesus in an effort to share Jesus with as many people as possible. We’ve reduced him to the guy who will get you to heaven and love you no matter what. I think of the stained glass windows that depict Jesus as a serene blonde haired blue-eyed androgynous person. He does what is expected of him, he follows the rules and is nice and polite. But this has only served to cheapen Him and his message. I wonder if the key to retaining youth is the sharing of Jesus in his entirety. This radical message can resonate with a youth culture that is largely suspicious of authority in any capacity. We also should expect the fact that this will alienate many as well. Let us not forget that this message is not an easy one to hear. Yet this is where we must go, where we must begin anew. After all, it’s where the church began. The goal should be for the Gospels to read us instead of us reading the Gospels.
Lastly, amongst liberation theologians there is the understanding that orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy and vice versa (16). Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks this way in his monumental “The Cost of Discipleship” when he wrote that he who believes obeys and he who obeys believes. I am also reminded of the words of Jesus when he said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and do it.” And James, “Do not merely listen to the word of God and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
I’d like to end on a personal note. One of the greatest and most impactful times in my life was whilst serving in Colorado amongst the homeless. There I was challenged, there I was forced to put this Jesus stuff into action in the midst of great vulnerability and fear. It stretched me and it enabled me to further understand the Gospels in a deeper way, from the standpoint of the poor, the powerless. And then there was another situation that had a similar impact wherein I experienced serious systemic dysfunction. I received unwarranted and nasty attacks that traumatized me and yet caused me to see the value of forgiveness. The only way out of evil was through love and love alone. I bring these things up to say that this Jesus stuff works, more than I think we realize. I’m not saying that it will grow your bank account or make people like you or get you that promotion at work. Rather this way disarms evil and the hardest of hearts. It grants peace to the troubled and afflicted and allows the blindest eyes to see all people as people. If we can translate our belief into practice I think we might be surprised where it may lead. I’d like to end with two quotes. One from Soren Kierkegaard and one from Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Present-day Christendom really lives as if the situation were as follows: Christ is the great hero and benefactor who has once and for all secured salvation for us; now we must merely be happy and delighted with the innocent goods of earthly life and leave the rest to Him. But Christ is essentially the exemplar, that is we are to resemble Him, not mere profit from Him.” Soren Kierkegaard
“The Holy Anarchist who summoned the people at the bottom, the outcasts and “sinners,” the chandalas within Judaism, to opposition against the dominant order – using language, if the Gospels were to be trusted, which would lead to Siberia today too – was a political criminal insofar as political criminals were possible at all in an absurdly unpolitical community. This brought him to the Cross…” Nietzsche
Please note that I hope to do doctoral work in this area.
(3)This phrase was first used by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their work Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
(4) An example of this is the upcoming campus ministry conference in the LCMS entitled “Taboo” which will be taking a look at the issue of homosexuality. Here’s the link http://www.lcms.org/events/taboo.
(5) Richard Horsley “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder” pgs. 1-14.
(6) Richard Horsley “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder” pgs. 27-29.
(7) Check out Shane Claiborne’s “Irresistible Revolution” as well as “Jesus for President”.
(8) Richard Horsley “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder” pg. 28.
(9)Warren Carter “Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading” pgs. 512-515.
(10)Check out what David Wood has to say on this matter here http://www.npr.org/2014/11/11/363288341/moral-injury-is-the-signature-wound-of-today-s-veterans .
(11) Ched Myers “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” pgs. 271-276.
(12) Ched Myers “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” pgs. 297-306.
(13) Dominic Crossan “God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now” pgs. 133-134.
(14) Wes Howard Brook “Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship” pgs. 100-105.
(15) Ched Myers “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” pgs. 264-271.
(16) Jon Sobrino articulates this point in his work “Jesus The Liberator”.
The Kierkegaard quote was found at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/15-soren-kierkegaards-most-challenging-quotes
The Nietzsche quote was found at the beginning Mark Van Steenwyk’s “That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity and Anarchism”.