…which were improperly designed that led to the Minnesota bridge collapse, not God withdrawing his divine hand of blessing. Interesting.
The third defining characteristic among emergents is a hope-filled orientation. Emergents generally view the future with optimism, in stark contrast to the large number of American Christians who decry the present state of affairs, confident that Jesus’ imminent return hinges on disasters, wars, and evil. The hope of emergents is not an Enlightenment-influenced hope in human progress but what theologians call ‘‘eschatological hope.’’ That is, they interpret the Bible in such a way that Jesus brought good news (a.k.a. gospel), and there’s more good news to come, even on Judgment Day. In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like ‘‘Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world—to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.’’ Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement, not least of which is a robust faith in God’s presence and ongoing activity in the world. Further, the idea that human beings can ‘‘cooperate’’ with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work. This posture, however, is too passive for most emergents, who see the Bible as a call for us to contribute to God’s purposes.
Josh has written a very kind review of TNC HERE. What he doesn’t confess in the blog is that he read much of the book in the bathtub. If his review is a harbinger, then I recommend reading the book while partially submerged (are you listening, TSK?).
I probably should have written this originally: I love Young Life. I’ve volunteered with YL, taken kids to YL camps, and I have regularly given money to YL. We attend fundraising events whenever invited and have many friends on staff. I come from a strong YL town (Edina, MN) and a strong YL church (Colonial Church of Edina). And I grew up in a church-based ministry that was heavily influenced by YL. Honestly, I probably have more of an affinity for YL than for any other traditional para-church ministry. I really do love YL and think they have been extraordinarily successful at communicating the gospel to teenagers.
There have been some comments calling for me to retract the “wallow” comment. I will, in part. Though the non-negotiables document makes it clear that Jesus Christ “is to be proclaimed in every message” and that kids are not meant to wallow in sin, the hyper-Reformed sequence of 1) awareness of sinfulness, 2) repentance and belief, is even out of step with John Calvin. Calvin’s doctrine of “evangelical repentance” is explicated by him thusly:
Although we have already in some measure shown how faith possesses Christ, and gives us the enjoyment of his benefits, the subject would still be obscure were we not to add an exposition of the effects resulting from it. The sum of the Gospel is, not without good reason, made to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins; and, therefore, where these two heads are omitted, any discussion concerning faith will be meager and defective, and indeed almost useless. Now, since Christ confers upon us, and we obtain by faith, both free reconciliation and newness of life, reason and order require that I should here begin to treat of both. The shortest transition, however, will be from faith to repentance; for repentance being properly understood it will better appear how a man is justified freely by faith alone, and yet that holiness of life, real holiness, as it is called, is inseparable from the free imputation of righteousness. That repentance not only always follows faith, but is produced by it, ought to be without controversy. For since pardon and forgiveness are offered by the preaching of the Gospel, in order that the sinner, delivered from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of iniquity, may pass into the kingdom of God, it is certain that no man can embrace the grace of the Gospel without retaking himself from the errors of his former life into the right path, and making it his whole study to practice repentance. Those who think that repentance precedes faith instead of flowing from, or being produced by it, as the fruit by the tree, have never understood its nature, and are moved to adopt that view on very insufficient grounds.
John Calvin, Institutes on Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 3, Section 1 (emphasis mine).
So, YL may say they don’t want kids to “wallow,” but this legalistic prescription of a linear mode of evangelism basically institutionalizes just such wallowing and is out of step with historic Calvinism.
But my bigger point is this: This kind of doctrinaire theologizing is the end game in all modern, institutional evangelicalism. Just as the mainline denominations have insitutionalized liberalism (with notable pockets of resistance), evangelicalism is now institutionalizing fundamentalism. That YL took on a more corporate, capitalist model does nothing to curb this (to see more on YL’s corporate structures, read this important post).
I’ve never met Denny Rydberg or Jeff McSwain. I’m sure they’re both great, Christ-centered guys. But this event is another example of how gifted ministers of the gospel get caught in the maws of modern, institutional Christianity. The wave on this kind of thing is just starting to crest…
On November 30, Elizabeth Thompson was fired from the staff of Young Life in Durham/Chapel Hill. According to her account, which I’ve read, she was fired because she refused to tell developmentally disabled teenagers that they are depraved and separated from God. You see, Elizabeth ran YL’s Capernaum Ministry in Durham/Chapel Hill. She was presented with the Non-Negotiables statement from YL (an earlier version) and asked if she could assent with all point in the 9-page document. She said no. She said that the kids with whom she works cannot understand “separation from God” as it is dictated in the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. So she was fired.
Subsequently (in December), a clause was added to the Non-Negotiables document exempting Capernaum staff from having to present the linear gospel presentation dictated in the Non-Negotiables document. But that raises the obvious question: If the theological proclamation in the document is “non-negotiable,” then how can there be exceptions? What about a regular (i.e., non-Capernaum) YL staffer or volunteer who is working with a student with Asperger Syndrome (a mild for of autism), or a student who is clinically depressed and suicidal, or a kid whose parents are going through an ugly divorce? Are they exempted, too?
In fact, some of us would argue that teenagers in general are developmentally incapable of understanding human depravity as it is spelled out by theologically sophisticated adults like Augustine, Calvin, and Luther. (Please, don’t get on the comments section and tell me how well you understood sinfulness when you were a teen. Have you read Luther with teens? I have. The fact is, his doctrine of sin is compelling and brilliant, but it’s not for 13-year olds.)
You see, this is the problem with absolutist statements of doctrine, as some of us have argued. There are always exceptions, they’re always relative, and they’re always debatable. Thus, to publish a document entitled “Non-Negotiables” takes YL from being a centered-set ministry (the center being relationships and Jesus Christ) to a bounded-set ministry (if you don’t subscribe to every bullet point in this document, you’re out) (good post on centered and bounded HERE). This, I argue in my forthcoming book, is inevitable: Centered sets (at least theological ones) invariably devolve into bounded sets. It’s happening at the Evangelical Theological Society, it’s happening in the Southern Baptist Convention, and now it’s happening at Young Life.
Thus, my prediction that a schism is coming in evangelicalism (which was founded in the 1940s as a centered-set movement).
Oh, and if you want to see the ministry that Elizabeth had going, watch this:
For about a month now, I’ve been getting emails from lots of the bigwigs in American youth ministry. We’re all concerned about a new statement of “non-negotiables” that the unnamed power elite at Young Life have released and are forcing all staff to sign. The Christian Century has picked up the story HERE, and Christianity Today has an even better article HERE. (What they don’t report is that the most current statement by YL is toned down from the earlier version that I read.)
It seems that YL President Denny Rydberg and others in the organization are worried about the influence of neo-orthodox theology, and they are thus battening down the hatches on a certain type of conservative, Reformed orthodoxy. For instance, staffers are told in the statement that they must not introduce the concept of Jesus and his grace until the students have been sufficiently convinced of their own depravity and been allowed to
wallow stew in that depravity (preferably overnight).
The staff of YL in Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina objected. They argued that some students accept Jesus’ love and then subsequently come to an understanding of their own sin. The staff leader (and a YL veteran), Jeff McSwain, wrote a wonderful (but as of now, private) paper entitled, “Jesus Is the Gospel.” They even argued that this logical, linear explication of the gospel is completely inappropriate for the developmentally disabled kids in their Capernaum ministry. As a result, the entire YL staff for that area was fired. (Interesting note at the end of the CT article: YL says they will not require the statement to be signed by staff, so why was the Durham/Chapel Hill staff fired?!?)
It’s tragic that after 50+ years of solid, relational ministry, the YL elite feel the need to secure their theological borders against a perfectly thoughtful and orthodox theology (Barth/Torrance). (This kind of misunderstanding of the relational nature of the gospel is exactly what Andy Root combats in his excellent book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation.) But, this development is also a harbinger of the coming schism in evangelicalism…
Rick Lawrence weighs in HERE; his comment section, I think, shows just how shortsighted and shallow is the theological understanding by many around the area of soteriology. Mark van Steenwyk in the fray HERE.
YL has embraced the very “gospel of sin management” that Christian leaders like Dallas Willard and Brian McLaren have criticized. It is unhistorical, and, arguably, unorthodox. Even Augustine, Calvin’s predecessor in all things Reformed, came to faith and then was convinced of and convicted of his sin. Remember, Augustine wrote his Confessions a couple decades after his conversion, so all of his talk of his own sinfulness was realized by him after he came to faith in Christ.
People come to faith in Christ in myriad ways. For the YL elite to bind their staff to one, formulaic articulation of the gospel shows a lack of respect for their staff’s ingenuity and, ultimately, a lack of faith in God’s Spirit (who is, of course, the real author of salvation).
[Update: Ben Dubow has begun a multi-part series HERE.]