My Scandinavia gigs

Today my wife and I will catch a plane to Copenhagen for a series of presentations I’ve been asked to make in Denmark and Norway.  The Scandinavian countries are considered among the most secular in the world, and yet there seems to be some interest in my book The Spirituality of the Cross, which has been translated into those languages.  On October 1, I’ll be giving some lectures at the seminary connected to the University of Aarhus.  On October 5, I’ll be speaking at a Bible college in Copenhagen.  On October 7-8, I’ll be in Oslo, Norway, giving four keynote addresses at a summit meeting of Scandinavian youth ministries.  (This is the group that is bringing me over and arranged the other gigs.)  We’ll fly back to the states on October 10.

This blog will go on for the two weeks that I’ll be out of the country.  I’ve stockpiled quite a few posts that I think you’ll find interesting to read and discuss, and I’ll schedule them to appear in the days ahead.  I’ve also figured out a way for us to cover and discuss news and current events, though I’ll depend on your active participation and comments for this to work.  I’ll be taking my computer and though I won’t be able to blog as I usually do, I’ll try to check in when I can.  Certainly when I get back from this tour I’ll tell you all about it.

Please, please, pray for us and that my presentations will be well-received.  Who knows what these little sparks might ignite?

Bible reading marathon

Lectio continua is the ancient practice of reading the Bible from beginning to end.  Quite a few people do that on their own, but sometimes it has been read aloud.  The 17th century Protestant community Little Gidding was built around Bible reading, and a Psalm would be read out loud every hour of every day and every night.

As they did last year, the youth group at Blue Ridge Bible Church in Purcellville, VA, led by frequent reader and commenter Rich Shipe, has started a marathon Bible reading exercise, which will run through the 4th of July.  They will be on Main Street.  Can’t miss them.  Rich says that if you are in the neighborhood, drop by and do some reading. [Read more...]

Bogus youth drop-out statistics

Nine out of ten young people leave the church as soon as they graduate. That is, churches are losing 90% or (in another version) 88% of their children.  Have you heard that?  Has your congregation, alarmed at these statistics, started elaborate youth group programs or family ministries?  Or scrapped your traditional worship services and brought in new styles of music that someone thinks will appeal to the young people?   Well, quite a few teenagers and young adults do drop out of church once they leave home, at least for awhile.  This is indeed a problem.  But the 90% number is yet another bogus statistic, as Timothy Paul Jones shows. [Read more...]

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

The latest issue of Christianity Today has a brilliant cover story that accounts for much of what we see in American churches today.  A century and more ago, many Protestant churches adjusted their worship and their ministries to accord with something that at first was quite separate:  the revival meeting.  (My historical parallel.)   Now churches have adjusted their worship and ministries to accord with another separate activity:  youth group!  But, of course, there is more to it than that.  From the article by Thomas E. Bergler [subscription required, but here is the opening]:

The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”

After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.

via When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

Bergler goes on to document how that happened, including the larger cultural trend of American adults in general becoming more like adolescents.  The cover story  (who can identify who is pictured on the cover?) includes some responses by a megachurch pastor, a researcher, and a cultural critic (David Zahl of, all of whom say that Bergler’s thesis is basically right (though Zahl, being a Lutheran fellow-traveler, issues some caveats about definitions of spiritual “maturity”).

The article is adapted from Bergler’s new book on the subject: The Juvenilization of American Christianity.  It is a ground-breaking analysis, one of those explanations that accounts for virtually all of the phenomena and  that seems so obvious, once you hear it, though you had never thought of it before.


A critique of youth ministry

Why does so much youth ministry do so little to keep young people in the Christian faith?  Because the emphasis is on law, not gospel.  So says some evangelical analysts:

Ministry leaders are seeing a major problem among youth groups – an emphasis on behavior modification over the Gospel.

In a series featured on The Gospel Coalition website, several ministers discussed their concerns with how youths were being taught in the church, namely with messages aimed more at keeping them out of trouble.

“Many youth pastors preach moralism over the gospel in order to protect students from self-destruction,” said Cameron Cole, director of youth ministries at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala. “Unfortunately, law-driven ministry often yields the opposite of its intention; law and pressure often inflame rebellion.”

Cole doesn’t see a lack of Gospel teaching in youth ministries when it comes to salvation and justification. He believes youth pastors may even be “more faithful” than senior pastors in “helping their flock understand Christianity as saving relationship rather than cultural religion.”

But when it comes to sanctification, or the process of being set apart for holy use, youth ministries are getting it wrong, Cole believes.

“Youth ministry often focuses on emotional exhortation and moral performance,” he observed. “A legalistic tone frequently characterizes the theology of sanctification in youth ministry.”

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According to Brian H. Cosby, associate pastor of youth and families at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, Ga., such teaching has led to widespread belief in “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” where “we are supposed to be ‘good people’” and where God is more like a “cosmic therapist” or “divine butler.”

But Cole understands why youth ministry tends to focus on legalism and behavior.

Simply put, “youth pastors want to see changed lives,” he noted.

“Wanting validation for their tireless labor, youth ministers occasionally focus on behavior modification as a means of providing tangible proof of the efficacy of their ministry. A kid carrying his or her Bible to school, signing a chastity pledge, or sporting a WWJD bracelet may appear like signs of spiritual progress – the fruit of ministry labor for a youth pastor.”

Cole cautioned, however, that “if these actions come out of a student misunderstanding Christianity as a code of behavior rather than heart transformation through the Holy Spirit, then they do not necessarily reflect lasting life change.”

via Youth Ministries Teaching Behavior Modification, Not Gospel?.

“I’m neither religious nor spiritual–I’m a Lutheran”

You know that viral video from the guy who says he hates religion but loves Jesus?  Well, Anthony Sacramone kind of agrees with him:

I like to say that I’m neither religious nor spiritual — I’m a Lutheran. It’s more than just left of pithy; it’s true. I have zero interest in religion. I had plenty of it as a kid. Sunday school; religion classes in my Lutheran parochial schools; confirmation classes. I was an acolyte and a winner of some religion-essay contest at the tender age of 9. And then there was church. And the inevitable Monday morning role call. Every Monday, our home room teacher would ask whether we had gone to church, Sunday school, both, or neither. After about age 11 I was racking up an impressive list of neithers. I would do anything to get out of going. To this day, I cannot remember a single word any pastor ever preached on any text. Church was something to endure. And among many of the Lutherans of my childhood, it didn’t seem to matter. They subscribed to Woody Allen’s shallow philosophy: just showing up was good enough.

And when I was finally confirmed, I was not just an adult in the eyes of the church; I was also free. Free never to have to endure the brain-sapping banality that was my religion. And we’re not talking about a denomination exactly given to legalism. In fact, it had very few rules. Really, it had just one: show up. Just show up. And that was enough to make my religion unbearable. Because I wanted to be anywhere but there.

If only someone had told me to read Luther. Real Luther, not Sunday school Luther. The Luther who killed religion. . . .

What exactly did the religious folk want of Jesus? They wanted a king. And Jesus gave them one “in the form of a slave.” They wanted relief from oppression, and they got parables. They wanted a kingdom, and they got the cross — a young Jewish man of dubious parentage apparently crushed by the collision of church and state but in reality bearing the iniquity of us all to reconcile us to a holy God, to inoculate us against sin, death, and the devil, to bury us alongside him, so he could raise us to eternal life. Their prayers were answered in the most startlingly appalling way: they received not power but promises.

Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a conundrum. And no one has ever wrestled with and wrung the truth out of that conundrum better than Martin Luther. And it took a class at NYU to introduce me to his inimitable voice.

Luther hated that God who demanded perfect righteousness from an original sinner but who had already rigged the game with election. How could this possibly be good news? Where was hope of being a saint when you were still a sinner? How could a perfect God understand the weight of guilt, the pain of betrayal, the agony of a broken body? Luther had failed to bridge the chasm between a wrathful God and lowly, raging, libidinous man with his fastings and law keeping. How could he possibly get from despair to hope?

It was in the communication of properties — the dual nature of Christ understood such that we can speak of the death of the Son of God and the true union of God and man — that Luther saw a way out and was able slowly to forge the key to the Christian conundrum: Jesus takes my sin and gives me his righteousness. His righteousness. There is real union, but it is predicated on faith, trust in the promises, not an ascent on our part, but a condescension on his. We are passive recipients of a gift, which is Christ’s own flesh. He really took our sin into his own flesh on Calvary and he really communicates his favor and forgiveness by feeding us that same flesh. Because life is in the blood. The worst crime in history — he who called heaven and earth into being with his Word fixed immobile to two cross beams — is the only hope anyone has of true freedom.

The church should be the place where you hear the promises of God, and embrace them as your own. The Father’s wrath at his broken law should terrify you such that you run from him to Jesus, from the Just Judge to the Righteous Redeemer, who delivers not a sentence but his own self. If what you get instead is therapy or law or even encouragement to try harder, climb higher, or even to just show up, then you have religion, and you are doomed.

via Strange Herring | And other signs that the end is nearish.

Read it all.

This, of course, is the “theology of the cross” as compared to “the theology of glory.”

Do you see what he is saying?  I’m touched by the account of his childhood post-confirmation alienation from the church.  If we could teach the radical nature of the gospel and the theology of the cross more consistently, as opposed to just memorizing answers and “just showing up,” would that make a difference?  Or are young people at that particular age more interested in a “theology of glory,” being oblivious to the grace that is hidden in an ordinary, boring church service?  Whereas, perhaps, after failing and suffering and becoming cynical for awhile, they are ready to come back?