Summer in Thessalonica 4 – Transformation

13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).

The Christians in Thessalonica received Paul’s message of the gospel not as a mere human message but as a message from God. This message is not just something they believe in their heads, for it is “at work in you who believe”. When we believe in Jesus Christ we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives. God’s Holy Spirit empowers us, working in us, transforming us and enabling us to imitate our master Jesus Christ in how we live (go back and read 1:4-6 for similar thoughts).

How do you define being a Christian? Do you use active or passive terms?

Is being a Christian about having different beliefs in your head? Do you simply order your philosophy of the world differently, you believe in a few things other people might not like miracles and resurrections?

If you know me, you know I am all about (right) orthodox belief. But if you stop with just changing your beliefs then I can’t even say you’re halfway there. It is more like you’ve only taken the first few steps. In the words of James, the brother of Jesus, faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Is being a Christian about living differently? Do you allow those beliefs, allow the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead, to transform you from the inside out? Would you say it is an active following, a living in the way of Jesus each day?

The point though, is not just to try harder. That would just make this whole thing into a religion of attempting to please God on your own strength, of attempting to save yourself.

What is unique about Christian faith is that the transformation that occurs comes from God working inside of you. Just as we put our trust in Jesus, God’s Son, to forgive us of our sin, guilt and brokenness, making us right with God the Father so we trust in the Holy Spirit of God (getting a little Trinitarian…but hey, its important!) to actively work in us for real change. Perhaps these verse are helpful:

 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13-14)

 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

To be a Christian is to admit our brokenness and cling to the love of God who loves us just because (amazing grace…), ultimately shown in the triumphant death of Jesus on the cross which freed us from the chains of sin and death.

To be a Christian is to allow Jesus to break those chains and to model our lives on his.

To be a Christian is to allow God’s Holy Spirit to enter our lives on a daily, hourly, minutely basis and to shape our lives, because we know we need help in our seeking to live like Jesus. We allow, we yearn for, we ask for the Spirit to work in us, change us, transform us. Through this we rely on God’s power to be more like Christ, more loving, peaceful, joyful, kind and such.

Finally, like the Thessalonians, we do not just do this when things are good. Even when we face suffering, we trust in Christ and allow the Spirit to move us. In preparing these devotional emails I am reading through a commentary on Thessalonians. The author of that book shares a story of Corrie ten Boom in his thoughts on 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 and I believe it is an appropriate way to end this post.

Corrie ten Boom relates in The Hiding Place an incident that taught her to be thankful continually. When she and her sister, Betsy, were taken to a horribly inhumane German prison camp named Ravensbruck, they had to live in flea-infested and overcrowded barracks. The morning they arrived, they read together 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.” Afterward, Betsy told Corrie to thank God for every aspect of their new lodgings. Corrie initially would not thank God for the fleas, but her sister persisted, and Corrie finally gave in. As the ensuing months passed, they were surprised to discover how freely they could conduct Bible studies and prayer meetings without the guards interfering. Later they found out that they could do so many things openly because the guards would not come into the barracks for fear of becoming infested with fleas (Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, p. 81).

Souls in Transition – Moral Therapeutic Deism

Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) was found to be the best description of the religion of American teenagers in Christian Smith’s previous study, Soul Searching. MTD consists of five key beliefs: (1) a God exists who created the world and watches over human life; (2) God wants people to be nice, good and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and most world religions; (3) the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself; (4) God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when needed to fix a problem; (5) good people go to heaven when they die. Now with Souls in Transition, studying those teenagers as they are now emerging into adulthood (ages 18-23), Smith and Snell find that MTD is still alive and well (155). While there is more variety and diversity, due to life experience that confirms or nullifies their belief in MTD, MTD is still a strong descriptor of American young adult religion.

The researchers purpose in chapter five of Souls in Transition is to show the major themes that describe emerging adult religion (with all the necessary caveats that there are always exceptions). This chapter is fascinating, and a must read for anyone working with young people, for it provides a true window into what people under the age of 25 believe:

  • Religion is not a very threatening topic – though it does not come up much in their conversation, for their friends rarely talk about religion, when it does come up emerging adults do not mind talking about it. Emerging adults enjoy hearing other people’s opinions on this topic. The researchers note there is a less typical theme of those who have no idea or opinion about religion.
  • Emerging adults are indifferent to religion – religion is fine, they say, but most emerging adults do not worry about it much. Smith and Snell use a great illustration, saying that to emerging adults religion is similar to the oil refining industry: they know it is there, they are glad someone is taking care of it, but they rarely have to worry about it themselves.
  • The shared principles of religions are good; religious particularities (differences) are peripheral – there is a focus on what religions have in common and that these commonalities are true while differences are irrelevant. Within this they found a less typical theme, emerging adults who hold strongly to their religion as uniquely true. This is a minority view, for most emerging adults there is no way to finally know what is true. Where religions disagree, who knows what is right? At any rate, life is too short to worry about such things.
  • The purpose of religion is making people good – it gives them a basic training in morals, helps them know right and wrong. A corollary of this is that religious congregations are elementary schools for morals. Once a person becomes a teenager or young adult he effectively “graduates” from church and stops attending. After all, why stay if you have learned all you need to know about how to be good? Of course, they may return when they have kids so their kids can learn to be good.
  • Their family’s faith is associated with dependence – emerging adults what to assert their independence and a part of this is getting distance from their parent’s congregation.
  • A less typical theme is those who say “my faith is really important to me”. The “my faith” here turns out to be quite a self-centered entity, a “neatly constructed package tied up with a bow that settles religious matters” (151). In other words, it truly is “my” faith, the individual seems to be the authority and not any outside (God, Bible). That ties in well with the next one…
  • “What seems right to me” is the authority – the authority for morals is their subjective personal sense, what makes sense based on their experience and viewpoint
  • Religious communities are not a place for real belonging – such belonging is found elsewhere.
  • Religious beliefs are cognitive assents, not life drivers – they believe things but such beliefs are mere mental agreements, emerging adults do not organize their life around them.
  • Take or leave what you want – when it comes to religion, people should take what the like, what makes sense, and leave the rest. Again, emerging adults see themselves as the authority to determine what is useful and relevant and what is out-dated and no big deal.
  • Evidence and proof trump “blind faith” – when there is an apparent conflict seen between science and religion, emerging adults see science as valid and religion as blind faith. They still see a place for religion, in places where science cannot provide answers such blind faith is okay.
  • A less typical theme – close to God, personal relationship with God. “Having a personal relationship with God in this case does not mean faithfully adhering to the belief and practical requirements of a religious tradition. Rather, it means being present to God, mindful of God, praying a lot, listening for God’s voice, attending to God’s leading, being open and receptive to the life lessons God would teach” (162).

Notice the emphasis on the abstract “God” in that last quote. Maybe this “God” is more involved than the classical deistic God who created the universe and basically left, but this “God” is a far cry from the biblical Christian God. Reading through the chapter, the list above, there is a huge emphasis on what all religions have in common. To hold only to such is to focus on “God” because “God” can mean everything and anything to anyone. The fundamentalist preacher, the conservative political talk show host, the progressive environmentalist, the liberal preacher, the victorious athlete or any candidate in the next election all claim to have God on their side.

When you make religion into just about being a good person (moralism) and when you want all religions to be basically the same, you are left with a more or less deistic God. This God also makes you feel good, because “God” kind of likes what you like, does not like what you do not like, and would never be mad at you. Such a God is unnecessary and practically meaningless.

I could go on a tangent about how such a God is worthless and has little to say to the horrors of the world such as the Holocaust, human trafficking, genocide and more, but I’ll save that for next time. Another temptation is to go on a tangent about how the differences in world religion are what matters, but this post is already too long. I will say that God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ so that we no longer have an abstract God but God with a face, the face of Jesus, and who self-sacrificially gave his life to heal us of all guilt and who calls us to also self-sacrificially give ourselves for others is in a whole other universe than the God most emerging adults (and probably Americans in general) believe in.

The challenge is communicating this to people in a way they understand.

Summer in Thessalonica Week 3 – Motives

I have always been skeptical of preachers on television. Whenever I talk to my grandmother she mentions the preachers she watches on television. I smile while on the inside wondering how sincere these preachers are. Of course, most preachers on television are (probably) sincere, Jesus-loving people. But others are charlatans who have found a way to make a lot of money by telling a religious America what it wants to hear.

We hear preachers and other religious commentators talk about believing in Jesus and can’t help but wonder, what are they getting out of this? Are they really about the truth, or are they about selling books, shirts, and tickets to stadiums on their next tour? Even if you are generally a trusting person, I am sure that your peers on campus, your well-educated professors, are very skeptical of Christian clergy. Maybe even when you speak to your peers about your faith they wonder if you have ulterior motives. They may ask themselves, what is he getting out of this?

The apostle Paul faced just such skepticism. He had gone to Thessalonica after leaving Philippi and had preached the gospel of the risen Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. A few people believed. After he left, others attacked Paul, telling the new Christians that Paul was only peddling truth for his own gain. This is the background that leads in to 1 Thessalonians 2:

1 You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. 2 We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. 3 For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4 On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from any human being, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our prerogatives. 7 Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Paul was often attacked and he had to spend much of his writing defending himself (basically, this was the purpose of 2 Corinthians). In defending himself, he appeals to the Thessalonian Christians’ own experience. He reminds them of the opposition he had faced and the suffering he had gone through (2:2). This is a constant theme in Paul’s writings: rather than getting rich off his message he was often exposed to suffering and persecution.

Paul next asserts that he is trying to please God, not any human (2:4). Untrustworthy teachers simply tell people what they want to hear (flattery) and such a message often leads to a padding of their greedy wallets (2:5). Like Jesus who laid down his rights as God to become human (Phil. 2:5-11), so Paul lays down whatever rights he has as a Christian leader to help people grow in faith (2:6).

Paul’s relationship to the Thessalonians is defined by love (2:7). This love went beyond mere words, it was acted out in deeds. This love is demonstrated in Paul’s work not to be a burden. Rather than sitting back and waiting to be served in thanks for his good teaching, Paul worked hard to do his part in the community. He served rather than waiting to be served. Again in this, he was like Christ.

Finally, Paul reminds them of the way he acted towards them: “encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God” (2:12). This reinforces the point that he was not in it for himself, but rather he desired for his hearers to grow closer to God.

These are some practical points as we seek to judge who we allow to influence us. There are many voices out there on the internet, on television and the radio. Ask yourself about any teacher:

*Does their message change when they are faced with suffering? The point is not to seek out suffering, but when tough-times come do they react by staying true to Christ?

*Is their first priority to please God or humans? Are they telling their listeners just what they want to hear? Are they just in it for money?

*Are they defined by the love of Christ, in word and deed?

*Are they laying aside their rights as Christ did? Are they putting others first?

*Are they encouraging, comforting and urging you to live more like Christ?

Finally, these are good questions with which to judge ourselves as we seek to influence others. Re-read the scripture and those questions and ask yourself if such traits define you.

Souls in Transition – Role of Campus Ministry in Lives of Emerging Adults

The fourth chapter of Souls in Transition is loaded with statistics! Smith and Snell trace the changes that occur as teenagers move into young (emerging) adulthood. Reading through the chapter a pattern appears. First, three groups see little decline in numbers, and perhaps in some areas a growth in commitment, during these years: evangelical Protestants, black Protestants and Mormons. Second, three other groups experience much decline and shrinking commitment: mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Smith and Snell sum up the chapter:

“In sum, the importance and practice of religion generally declines between the age periods of 13-17 and 18-23. Some or even many American youth go into something of a religious slump during these years. But that decline or slump does not seem to be cataclysmic for their religious lives – at least, as far as statistics can reveal. Most of them do not appear to abandon their faith, decide that it is entirely unimportant, or radically alter their beliefs.”

Basically, many emerging adults walk away from involvement in community but they retain their faith. They still believe, but being active in church is not part of their life right now.

Some of the research was on college based ministries, right up my alley! Smith and Snell found that one out of four emerging adults who has been to college has been involved in some group. The breakdown of the churches that 25% comes from is:

  • 46% evangelical Protestant
  • 18% Catholic
  • 15% mainline Protestants
  • 9% black Protestant
  • 7% Mormon
  • 2% Jewish
  • 1% non-religious

Only 1% if those who have been a part of a campus-based ministry identify as non-religious. Smith and Snell conclude, “perhaps unsurprisingly those who populate college-based religious groups come from religious backgrounds; such groups appear to have little success drawing in college students who were not already religious as teenagers” (132).

That is challenging and a bit disturbing. I always say the college campus is a mission field and based on a statistic like that one, we are not doing well at reaching out to the non-religious. This is clearly an area for improvement. It is tempting to become a “holy huddle” where the Christian students can come together and feel safe, among people like them for a while. Often Christian groups skirt very close to becoming cliques. Earlier in the chapter Smith and Snell mentioned how most emerging adults’ friends tend to have similar religious views; Christians are friends with Christians, Jews with Jews, non-religious with non-religious, etc. This is the place to start outreach on campus, the question for the Christian students is, do you have friends who are NOT part of your Christian group? If not, get some.

I do think there is some encouraging news here. Smith and Snell find that in general emerging adults’ commitment to religion declines during these years. One of the exceptions are students from evangelical Protestant backgrounds. I doubt it is a coincidence that most campus ministries I know of (CSF, Intervarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ, Coalition for Christian Outreach) fit under this broad umbrella. Smith and Snell do not make this connection, but I have to assume that one reason why more evangelical Protestant students manage to stay committed and grow in their faith during this time is the presence of these campus ministries. Without such ministries, would more evangelical students move into that non-religious category?

Campus ministries fill a vital gap in the life and development of Christian adults. I can tell numerous stories of students from Christian homes who were seriously questioning their faith, or only went to church because their parents made them, or weren’t sure how they would survive college, who found themselves flourishing on campus because of CSF.

From reading this chapter I found things that disturbed me, challenged me and encouraged me. What more can you ask from any book?

Summer in Thessalonica – Week 2 – Assurance

When I was growing up I got saved pretty often. In Sunday school or at other youth activities they would ask if you wanted to believe in Jesus and get saved. Usually I did, if just to make sure the last time was legit. When I went to summer camp, I got saved there too. Hey, better safe then sorry, right?

Talking to Christian college students, you sometimes ask how we can be sure we are saved. Can we have assurance? How do I know I am really saved?

When I read the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica I was thinking about assurance. They were all very new Christians, facing persecution and perhaps hearing people verbally attack Paul as an evil person. So how would they know if their faith in Christ was genuine?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.

2 We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Right away the message is encouraging – Paul calls them a community resting in God and Jesus Christ with grace and peace (1:1). In verse three he tells them he constantly remembers their work produced by faith, labor prompted by love and endurance inspired by hope. Paul is telling them they have assurance that they know God because their faith and love are producing good works and labors. These good works are so obvious that the Christians in Thessalonica are examples to believers in other nearby regions (1:7-8). Their actions are a light shining brightly, drawing others in. Paul does not need to preach the gospel in these places (1:8b) because the Thessalonians have done his work for him!

So you ask how you can have assurance? How can you know you are saved? Is your life being changed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit powerfully works in you once you give your life to Jesus (1:6). Examine your life. Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to grow the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control in you (Gal. 5)?

Beware, this is not a call to work or try harder and earn God’s salvation. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, not your own strength, that brings these things to life. So as you examine yourself, pray to your Father in heaven through Jesus Christ that the Spirit would work in you.

In verse three Paul also mentions endurance inspired by hope. The Christians in Thessalonica were facing persecution right from the very beginning (Acts 17). They received the message even when faced with “severe suffering” (1:6). Yet they endure because they have hope. This hope is rooted in Jesus Christ who has defeated evil on the cross already and will return shortly to execute a final victory (1:10). In other words, Christians can endure any suffering, even death, because in the end those in Christ will be vindicated and saved. It is hope in a life after death, in a new creation of new heavens and new earth, that enables Christians to endure suffering.

How do you handle suffering? When bad things happen to you, how do you deal with it? Do you engage in self-pity? Whining? Anger? How we handle life when it does not go our way is another way to judge ourselves. Genuine Christians, filled with the Spirit, can endure through suffering. In this we follow Jesus’ example (Heb. 12:2; Matt. 5:11-12). Take a Bible and read 2 Corinthians 4:7-16, it is also helpful here.

Finally, we can be assured that God has chosen us (1:4). The first move was not made by us to God, instead God turned to us with love and acceptance while we were still his enemies. I feel like I should say more about this beautiful truth. Simply know that God loved you enough to pursue you when you wanted no part of him. God’s love is amazing!

I want to say that here are three points for which to examine yourself. Are you experiencing transformation in your life by the Holy Spirit? Do you handle suffering with endurance and confidence in the victory of Jesus? Are you confident that your salvation rests not on what you have done but on God choosing to love you?

More than self-examination though, Paul intends this to be an encouragement. So let me encourage you. I have seen many of you experience growth at PSU Berks, becoming more mature in your faith. I have seen many of you endure difficulties and suffering. And finally, be encouraged – God loves you just the way you are!

But He does not want to keep you that way!

Questions…

Way back in December, then again just a few weeks ago, CSF hosted a “Question” night.  We never really settled on a title (the most recent one was “Question and Response”, the one back in December had a more creative name).  The one in December we worked really hard on promoting on campus as well as off campus which paid off in an attendance of nearly fifty, double our usual.  For the most recent one we had mostly the usual CSF crew as we kind of threw it together last minute and did not promote as well.  No matter who shows up, we always have a good time.  I kept the questions, and here they are, to show you the kind of questions college students ask:

Why can’t your truth be different then someone else’s truth?

Isn’t it the need to be right that leads to religious wars? Do you think that’s what God wants?

Where do babies go when they die?

What if someone was born on an island and wasn’t introduced to a religion, do they go to hell?

What’s the most important thing in the Bible?

How do you know if speaking in tongues is real?

What are the chances you would be of a different faith if you were born in another country? Or had different parents?

Why do you need to worship a God who has everything?

Can you be good without being part of any religion?

Doesn’t religion separate people more than bring them together?

If God inspired prophets, what about those who kill their children in the name of some god? Is that right? Where does the line cross between God and insanity?

What race was Jesus?

Why did slavery happen in America?

Why are there so many different sects of Christianity?

What happened in the missing years of Jesus’ life?

What is the mark of the beast (666)?

Why must God/Jesus have you believe in him in order to be saved?

What must one do to be saved?

Which Bible is the real Bible: Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox?

Why are there such disparate views between Christianity and science concerning evolutionary theory?

Does God have a gender?

Do you think God prefers Christians? Wouldn’t an all-loving God love everyone?

If Jesus is God then what do you call the God he prayed to?

What is the difference between Christianity, Islam and Judaism?

There are millions of people who practice other religions, what will happen to them when they die?

What makes the Bible more than just a collection of stories?

Where did Jesus go in the 3 days between death and resurrection?

Did Adam have a belly button?

How can you believe the Bible is true if it was written by imperfect humans?

Through translation could the Bible have been fabricated and how would we know?

What happens when we die?

Why do we have an appendix if we don’t need it?

Does God always work within the confines of logic?

Why is the Old Testament God seen as jealous and just rather mean in general?

Is Judas in heaven?

How did you come to be a Christian?

With all of the things happening today (i.e. war, natural disaster, global warming), could the ‘end of days’ or Jesus’ return be near?

Souls in Transition: Historical Perspectives and some Sociology

One of my favorite classes when I was a student at Penn State was Sociology of Religion with Roger Finke. He was a knowledgeable and likeable professor who taught with a passion. I enjoyed the class and Dr. Finke so much that I ended up asking him to write one of my recommendations for seminary! Our textbook was called Acts of Faith, cowritten by Dr. Finke and Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion who has written dozens of books.

We learned in the class about how sects, defined as religious groups in high tension with the surrounding culture, transform into churches, religious groups at lower tension with surrounding culture.  This process can be seen throughout history.  A religious group will hold to beliefs and actions that are very different, in great tension, with the culture around them. Such sects will experience growth. Over time though, as the sect grows, it inevitably comes more into line with the culture around it, growth slows down and the movement becomes stagnant. Eventually a small group of people in this group (church) will yearn for a return to the original beliefs and actions and form a splinter group. This splinter group, a new sect, is once again in high tension with surrounding culture, starting the whole process over again. I have seen this process explained in other books by Stark, most recently What Americans Really Believe.

All of this came to mind as I read the second chapter of Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s Souls in Transition. The purpose of this chapter was to put the religion of emerging adults (ages 18-23) into a historical perspective. They limited their research to four groups: mainline (liberal) Protestants, black Protestants, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics.

What they found was that, when viewed as a single group, emerging adults have not really changed in their religious beliefs since 1972. They are neither much less religious nor much more secular. But when the single group is separated out into the four smaller groups Smith and Snell found that evangelical Protestants and black Protestants have much higher levels of religious commitment than mainline Protestants and Catholics. There are other nuances in the chapter, but what strikes me is how this is in line with other such surveys I have read, such as the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 (ARIS). What these studies all find is that:

  • Mainline denominations (Lutheran, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal) are shrinking. According to the ARIS this group was 18.7% of the population in 1990 but only 12.9% in 2008.
  • Those who identify as “non-religious” or “no religion” are growing (ARIS had them at 8.2% in 1990 and at 15% in 2008). They are not all becoming atheists, in fact most consider themselves spiritual and believe in something, they just are not part of church communities.
  • The Christian churches that are growing identify as “evangelical”, “non-denominational” or something along those lines (in all of this, group boundaries are slippery and hard-to-define).

What has caused this shift? Smith and Snell suggest that the difference lies in how different generations view religion. Emerging adults in the 1970s were “fully ideologically modern” which meant they were extremely skeptical of religion, truth was found alone in reason and science, and there was much social pressure not to take religion seriously. By the 1990s and 2000s this ideology has been challenged, and at least partly displaced, by a “postmodern culture” (speaking of slippery, hard-to-define words) that stresses relativity over universals and subjectivity over rationality. In other words, with a general skepticism to all ultimate truth claims whether from religion or elsewhere, religion is on a level playing field with all truth claims.  There is less social pressure to reject religion and instead a subjectivity that says, “if it works for you...”

Along with that, I believe another reason for this shift is the one I learned way back in that sociology of religion class. Mainline denominations are the more culturally accepted churches whose form of Christianity is in less tension with the surrounding culture when compared to the evangelical churches. You are more likely to find teaching in a mainline church (by no means all, or even most, of them of course) that Jesus is simply one of many ways to God or that there is no final separation from God (hell).  Along with this comes a de-emphasis on evangelism.  If there are many legitimate paths to God and no final judgment then why bother sharing your faith with others or even being deeply committed yourself? There is much benefit in joining a high tension church though, for you are assured that you have found the true path and you become greatly motivated to invite others to find it also.

“All of this suggests that high-tension groups succeed simply because they provide a better ‘product’. Members are more committed to the group and eager to show up on Sunday. Choirs are vibrant and engaged. Shared meals and get-togethers are frequent. Bonds of trust are built between members such that attendance on Sunday is a meeting between friends” (Stark, What Americans Really Believe, 34).

So what does all of this mean for ministering to college students specifically and emerging adults in general?

On one hand, we need to beware of making our message so “relevant” that it becomes watered-down to something not even worth being a part of. The message of Jesus is and always has been counter-cultural. It is always going to fly in the face of some cultural norms. Ironically though, this may be one of the things that makes it most attractive. So let us not be quick to jettison parts of the Gospel that our culture finds offensive because soon we may end up in a place where we have nothing worthwhile to say to the culture.

On the other hand, we should not go the other direction so far that we are teaching things in opposition to culture just for the sake of being in opposition to culture. Jesus came to humanity in the incarnation, entering a specific culture. Ever since then Christians have put this message into practice by translating the message. To be a Christian you do not have to learn a new language or culture, instead the message is brought to you.  Further, Christian belief is that every culture has things of value in them to be affirmed and thus no culture is all bad.

So really it is a two-sided endeavor: bring the message into the culture in a way the culture understands which requires some change but do not change so much so that there is no difference any longer between your message and the culture.

PS: Two of my favorite authors that certainly inform my thinking on this are Lamin Sanneh and Leslie Newbigin

A Summer in Thessalonica Week One

For the last few years now I have sent out what I call a “weekly word” each Friday (more or less, sometimes I just don’t). The way I see, my job is to be a spiritual adviser, a mentor, who helps Penn State Berks college students grow in their faith. A central, if not the central, part of growing in faith is understanding scripture and how it applies to your life. Therefore, this summer we are going to study two letters found in the Bible, written by the pastor/missionary Paul to a small church filled with diverse new Christians in the Greek town of Thessalonica.

The goal is for you to be exposed to scripture, to let the Spirit speak to you through these scriptures. I will seek to offer comments and thoughts on what I think the scripture is teaching, perhaps also with questions for your own thought. Also, I will post these “weekly words” on my blog so you can easily find them or direct friends to them. My goal is simply to help you guys, or anyone else who comes across this, to grow in faith.

With that introduction we will begin this week in the book of Acts. Acts tells the story of how the early Christians grew and expanded through various parts of the Mediterranean world. One of the main characters is Paul. Paul (also known as Saul) was a Jewish leader (Pharisee) who vigorously persecuted the new sect of Jesus’ followers (known as “the Way”) until Jesus appeared to him in a vision (Acts 9). After this Paul became a leader in the church and traveled extensively as one of the first Christian missionaries, introducing the gospel to new peoples and places.

That is where the story picks up as Paul and his companions recently left the city of Philippi:

17:1 When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

 5 But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

 10 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

 13 When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

So Paul was in Thessalonica for about one month (“three Sabbath days“) and during this time a diverse church formed: some Jews, many Greeks and a good number of prominent women.

This is one of the things that was radical about the Christian community. It brought together people who otherwise would not be together. Further, it did not just bring them reluctantly or begrudgingly together, instead such diverse people formed a family. Of course, there were problems. Most of Paul’s letters were written to deal with problems, primarily as to how traditional Jews and pagan Greeks could exist together. But exist together they did.

Paul’s work in Thessalonica led to Jewish opposition, as it did in other cities. Here they told the authorities that he was defying the emperor’s decree. The emperors, known as the Caesar’s, were the ultimate authority in the Mediterranean world. Augustus Caesar, the first emperor, had brought peace with military and political victories. To say that anyone else was the ultimate authority, to preach another king or emperor other than Caesar, was treason. Therefore, Paul’s message that Jesus is Lord and King is quite political.

These two points go together: Jesus Christ is the king and his kingdom is one in which all people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are brought together into a familial community (see Galatians 3:27-29; Ephesians 2:11-21). The kingdoms of the world, under Caesar, operate one way: Jews and Greeks remain separate, men are higher ranked than women, and so on. The alternative kingdom of Jesus, which Paul was preaching, had a different way of reckoning people: all are brought together and made one in Christ Jesus.

Today, the message is still political. Our ultimate allegiance is not to a king or a president or a country, it is to Jesus Christ. In an America so often divided by economic status, race, political affiliation and such we are part of a community where all such divisions are secondary. Only in the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative be united.

Are you working to make the Christian community you are a part of (CSF, your church) one in which diverse people are brought together as things that normally divide are laid aside?

Is your ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of Jesus Christ or to any kingdom of this world?

Emerging Adults: Hookup Culture

When writing about emerging adults it is inevitable that the issues of sex and relationships must come up. This is one area that numerous studies, including Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s in Souls in Transition, have found that emerging adults differ from their parents.

Emerging adults believe that settling down is for later, now they are in a time of life that is “free, fluid, tentative, experimental, and relatively unbound” (56). Perhaps you have heard the expression “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” For most emerging adults, the same applies to this whole time period in their life: whatever happens in their early twenties they believe will stay in their early twenties.  In other words, “When it comes to romantic relationships and sex, many – if not most – emerging adults see little connection between the lives they live now before settling down and the lives they will live later after having settled down” (57). Smith and Snell did find that there is one exception to this: having babies changes everything, forcing emerging adults to settle down and grow up quickly.

It is difficult for emerging adults to define the type of relationship they are in now, for “old, clear-cut labels, like ‘just friends,’ dating, courting, and engaged, for instance, are too black and white for the way many emerging adults relate today” (58). There is a lot of gray area here, and into this gray area steps the phenomenon “hooking up.” Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults have heard of hooking up, have friends who routinely hook up and many hook up themselves. The problem is, few can explain what “hooking up” actually means! (59). Generally, hooking up refers to time spent together involving some sort of sexual activity (anything from just kissing to intercourse) with someone the person just met, although the same two people may hook up repeatedly (friends with benefits).

This culture of hooking up has been written about in numerous places. Donna Freitas’s book Sex and the Soul is a great resource for understanding all of this. She studied the relationship of sexuality and spirituality on both evangelical and secular (“spiritual”) colleges throughout the country. One of her findings was that though college students admit to hooking up, when they are honest most do not find satisfaction in it. Yet if they desire a more traditional, defined relationship they are not sure how to get it. Often college students, especially women, hope that by giving themselves physically in the beginning a relationship can grow out of this:

Many students said hookups and one-night stands are easier than steady relationships because everyone is so busy with schoolwork, part-time jobs, volunteer opportunities, extracurricular activities, friendships, and of course partying. Committed relationships can drain a person’s time, and most students just don’t have room (or don’t make room) in their schedules for hanging out regularly with a boyfriend or girlfriend. So squeezing in no-strings-attached sex after hours seems more efficient” (Freitas134)

“…most relationships in college seem to begin as hookups…you might go on a few dates after you have hooked up and become a couple (though even that seems rare), but ‘first dates,’ insofar as they occur, likely occur after two people have been sexually intimate for quite some time” (Freitas, 138)

Hooking up happens. Recently I asked some of my student leaders if hooking up was common at PSU Berks and they laughed at me. Of course it is, they said.  At the same time, recent reports have shown that a good number of college students are giving up hook-up culture. This is in line with Freitas’ conclusion that many students are dissatisfied with it.

The problem is not only with hookup culture, but extends into related areas. Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults believe cohabiting prior to marriage is essential for avoiding divorce and having a happy marriage. Living together is a way to “test drive” the relationship. Yet none are aware that numerous studies show couples who live together prior to marriage are actually more likely to get divorced. Smith and Snell sum up just how inadequate emerging adults’ views in this area are:

“Most emerging adults who adopt this approach strike us as having far too much confidence in cohabitation’s ability to prevent divorce and ensure happiness. They simply believe it will work, that it will function as a fail-safe method for averting possible marital breakup. The examples some give for the kind of learning about one’s fiance that one might fortunately gain from cohabiting, which would be problematic enough to call of the impending wedding – that they squeeze the toothpaste in the middle, are a slob, get in grouchy moods, become sexually boring, and so on – hardly seem to reflect an awareness of the seriousness and complexity of issues and problems with which people in both successful and failed marriages have to deal” (62-3)

The practical question I ask is, has the church done a good job of equipping students with a theology of sexuality and relationships? If all we do is teach kids to wait till marriage, leaving it at that, the answer is no. What is needed is a robust theology of relationships that takes into consideration all the uniqueness of our contemporary culture. What must especially be taken into account is the delay in marriage. As emerging adults get married later and later they are forced to fight their biological impulses longer and longer.

A Christian ethic of sex and marriage needs a much firmer foundation theologically then simply “wait”. Following Christ requires self-sacrifice in many areas. Self-sacrifice in this area is off the radar for emerging adults. Whether it is hooking up or cohabiting prior to marriage the primary need they seek to fill is their own. The easiest thing to do when your needs are no longer being met is to leave, to find a new friend with benefits or break up and move out of your girlfriend’s apartment.

Putting celibacy prior to marriage in the context of a Christian discipleship where we control our emotions and feelings rather than them controlling us is vital. Lifting up the model of Jesus Christ in the ultimate of self-sacrifice is the foundation of any Christian ethic, whether in this area or some other.

Finally, I leave you with good news. College students and other emerging adults not only want to talk about sexuality, but also about spirituality. The opportunity is there, as Freitas found:

“student life on campus is only a small step away from transformation – the beginnings of change lie in the willingness of students to openly discuss what they really desire in romance and sex and, in so doing, to break down the false belief that hookup culture is normal and what everybody likes and wants” (Freitas, 218)