My friend Thom Schultz recently wrote an insightful blog post, “Sitting through God school.” He laments how the church has evolved from a relationship with God into an institution that dispenses information about God. Thom writes:
Academic institutions serve their purpose. Subjects get taught. But when it comes to the church, there’s one problem. Faith is not a subject. Faith is a relationship.
That last line got my hackles up. I’ve written extensively on the theological and exegetical weaknesses of the “personal relationship with Jesus” metaphor – particularly when it comes to reaching men.
But as I stepped back and re-read his column, I realized Thom was describing one skirmish in a much larger war playing out in church today. For the past 1700 years we have been locked in a battle between the Peters, Jameses and Johns for control of the church. For centuries, James has had the upper hand – but his grip is slipping.
* * * * *
These three men represent a trinity that’s present in the soul of every person. You have a mind, a will, and emotions. But one of those three is your default setting.
- Peter represents the will. His default setting is “do first.” Religion of the hands.
- James represents the mind. His default setting is “think first.” Religion of the head.
- John represents the emotions. His default setting is “love first.” Religion of the heart.
So which one are you? What is your default?
Ever since the conversion of Constantine in the year 312, Jameses have ruled Christianity. Theologians, teachers and thinkers have dominated church hierarchies for 1700 years. (Full disclosure: I am a James)
As a result, churches have organized along doctrinal lines. Our leaders were men of letters who modeled the local church after an educational institution – right down to the classrooms and lecture halls. The great conflicts that consumed Christians from AD 1517 through the mid-1900s were theological. We fought over what we believed – and splintered into denominations that reflected those beliefs.
In the late 1700s, Peters began to re-appear in church leadership. Peter led the great missionary movements that expanded Christianity across the globe – and made our faith the world’s largest religion.
But Peter’s influence has waned as John began taking the upper hand in the 20th century. Over the past 100 years, Christianity has tacked strongly in the direction of emotion — both in public worship, as well as in personal devotion.
Modern church culture reflects the growing influence of John. Worship music used to be sung about God, but today it’s sung to God. We stand for long periods with hands outstretched, singing love songs directly to Jesus, tears rolling down our cheeks. Churchgoers are no longer content to learn facts about God; they want to feel him personally every Sunday. Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on emotional expression, is driving the growth of global Christianity.
Even the way we talk about our faith has become more John-like. Until the 1970s, the term “personal relationship with Jesus” was rarely used in Christian literature. It never appears in scripture. Yet today it’s the number one term Evangelicals use to describe the Gospel. Why? Because it describes our faith in emotional terms. When people say, “Christianity isn’t a religion — it’s a relationship,” they are seeing the gospel through John’s lenses (and taking a rhetorical swipe at James for systematizing the faith).
James’ subsiding influence has had some positives. Christians no longer fight as much over petty doctrinal differences. Churches don’t split over minutiae such as the timing of Christ’s return. It’s been a long time since I heard a Christian claim that adherents of another denomination are headed to hell by virtue of their misguided beliefs. Christians who baptize by immersion are no longer at war with those who sprinkle.
The influence of Johns seems to be strengthening by the day – but there’s a growing backlash to the emotionalism that has taken hold in many churches. Some young Christians are returning to liturgy – and are longing for more rigorous teaching. Even Pentecostal churches are curbing some of their more flamboyant practices in order to make their Sunday services less frightening to visitors.
So where are we today?
James still controls the seminaries – and as such, selects the next generation of pastors. He still wields great influence, but James has had to go underground because he represents doctrine – which is increasingly seen as divisive and hurtful.
Young Peters are coalescing around the missional movement. This little band of renegades is out to remind navel-gazing Johns and idea-obsessed Jameses that there is work to be done.
But John is still dominant in worship – and his influence is on the rise. As contemporary services eclipse traditional ones, we can expect even greater emphasis on “feeling” God. Preaching will de-emphasize doctrinal distinctives in favor of practical messages that make worshippers feel something.
* * * * *
How does all this impact men and their participation in church?
John’s ascension has brought much needed reform – but it has also steered the church toward practices that are more feminine in nature. Men are generally less comfortable showing emotion in public than women are. Men often have a harder time sharing feelings, holding hands with other men, hugging other men, singing love songs to a man (Jesus) than women do. As church services become more emotive, more men will struggle to fit in.
Emotive worship services draw more Johns to church. They, in turn, push the church in a more relational direction. We’re creating a feedback loop – even as church becomes more welcoming to feelers, it appeals less to thinkers and doers.
Men admire doers, not thinkers or feelers. Herein lies our challenge: as James and John jockey for control, how can we convince guys that church is not just for eggheads and softies?
So to my friend Thom Schultz: I share your frustration. As I wrote in Why Men Hate Going to Church: “church is an educational institution you never graduate from.” You and I are experiencing a tension that has existed in the church since AD 312.
Since the beginning, churches have consisted of three kinds of people. If we’re going to fulfill our mission we must balance their influence – with Peter leading the parade. If one faction dominates, then two-thirds of men will be unhappy in church.