Dear Church - Letters from a Disillusioned Generation

Just before I left my office a couple of weeks ago for Italy, our Director of Women's Ministries came running into my office with a book. "You have to read this on your trip," she said, "and tell me if it's really true."

If you haven't heard of Sarah Cunningham yet, my guess is that you will be hearing a lot more about her in the future. She grew up a preacher's kid in what sounds like a pretty typical denominational church like the one many of us who grew up in church called "home." She went to a standard Bible college, and even took a job at a rapidly growing evangelical church, before becoming completely disillusioned with the church.

In Dear Church, Cunningham writes a series of letters to the church on behalf of twenty-somethings everywhere.

As a twenty-something who works with twenty-somethings, you have to know that I was pretty skeptical coming into this book. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when someone volunteers to speak on my behalf, I end up wishing they hadn't. It must be the postmodern me who hates being stuffed in or described by someone's box.

But Sarah Cunningham has me and most of my friends pegged. She describes our mindset, worldview, and ultimately our disillusionment with our parents' church with great care and precision. Yet, unlike the vast majority of her peers, she does not prescribe that we heave the local church out with the bathwater.

I get really frustrated with the gagillion teeny-bopper authors I've read who gripe about the fact that the local church doesn't accommodate all ages (like twenty-somethings). It doesn't allow all races, genders, and demographics to respond to God in a way that fits the tendencies of their culture. It doesn't allow for expression of creativity and thought outside the box. And then, those teeny-bopper authors recommend we leave the church in droves and start our own churches (which will create an environment that isn't age, race, gender, or demographically diverse).

Cunningham doesn't recommend that. She doesn't recommend the church walk away from doctrine, or tradition, or any of the things that might get your fundamentalist-leaning underwear in a bunch. But she provides a realistic look at what leaders (and participants) in the local church should expect from the younger adults in the church. If you were to decide to minister in Laos, you would study the culture and learn the language before you ever hoped to serve there. This book will help you do the same thing for a new culture of Christians who are growing up around the corner from your house.

What happens instead, is that churches conduct discussions around conference room tables where middle-aged or older adults discuss "what young people want." Those conversations almost always miss the mark of what young people actually want. We don't want the church to look like the culture. But we also don't want it to be completely detached from reality... in either direction.

Here are a few examples of some of Cunningham's wisdom:
  • "We don't want to feel like we worship on an American Idol set... we are seeking the actual God - the one who created the entire universe from dust - and we don't think that he has to wait on the next MTV fad or Microsoft update to deliver fresh spiritual experiences."
  • Perhaps the greatest reason twentysomethings don't want to be labeled is that we don't want to be known for who we are now. We want to be known for who we are striving to be. For who we are becoming.
  • We value theological questions... [but] we twentysomething Christians can't focus too much energy on analyzing intricate church doctrines because, quite honestly, our peers aren't even close enough to the church to know what the doctrines in question are. Unlike some previous generations, our peers are not delaying their salvation based on unresolved questions about Creationism.
  • Twentysomethings like technology, but we prefer human contact. You know what gets our attention? Put real-life humans in front of us and have them tell us about their real lives.

Pick up this book and read it. Be skeptical of it if you want, but read it. It will take you about 2 hours, but you will be glad you did. And report back to me... I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Across the Spectrum

As a pastor, it's imperative that I keep my mind sharp when it comes to current discussions in theology. But honestly, reading theology sometimes makes my brain hurt. Plus, there are so many writers out there, and so many theological issues, it's difficult to find a concise treatment of theological discussions that aren't skewed towards one side or another. Unfortunately, good Christian thinkers don't always represent their "opponents" in a fair light, so you often have to read three or four books on each side of an issue before you can begin to understand where each side actually stands versus where each side says they and their opponents stand.

Across the Spectrum, by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy attempts to tackle some of the most pressing theological issues by presenting both (or several) sides of an issue in the form of short essays by proponents of each side.

This isn't a perfect book, but I found it extremely helpful. I picked up the book a little skeptical. Readers of theology will quickly note that Gregory Boyd is a proponent of Open-view Theism, the view that the future is partly open, and there are certain things about the future that God does not know or control. This is a hotly debated topic (that is covered in this book), and one that I have to admit - I'm extremely skeptical of. So, when I picked up this book knowing that Boyd was one of the major contributors, I expected to see the book slanted in that direction. It wasn't.

This book isn't perfect, but is an extremely helpful primer for current and past theological issues like the inerrancy debate, the sovereignty of God debate, discussion about the age of the earth, the debate about Charismatic gifts, women's role in ministry, and hell/annihilationism, plus several other issues. Each chapter involves a short essay from each vantage point, which contains the most pertinent biblical references, arguments that the writer believes support his position, and responses to common objections concerning each position.

One of the weaknesses of this book is that it only contains a limited number of perspectives on each issue. It certainly isn't exhaustive. Obviously, this is done for the sake of brevity, but there were a few issues dealt with in Across the Spectrum where I felt there were significant arguments not covered. For example, the "Salvation Debate" deals with the extreme Calvinist perspective, and the extreme Arminian perspective, but left out the vast majority of theologians who fall somewhere between those two extremes. Although I certainly understand why the authors limited their discussion to just a few arguments, it was disconcerting at times to see obvious gaps in both views with no arguments for a more moderate perspective.

With that said, I think this book has three primary strengths.

First, I was extremely impressed with the fairness given to each perspective. This book is completely void of any personal attacks, sarcastic or snide remarks, or demeaning language towards other theological perspectives. Although the disagreements are vast and tremendously important, I felt as though they were tackled in a fair and humble way. It was refreshing to read some of the perspectives with which I agree without being embarrassed at the way "my side" represented itself. Even in cases where I'm relatively certain the book's primary authors do not share a perspective toward which I lean, (i.e. Dispensationalism), I felt each subject was treated fairly and accurately.

Secondly, none of the articles or sections were signed. That is, you don't know who wrote the articles for which position. I love this, especially for younger and less-experienced theology students. This keeps the immature reader from automatically dismissing arguments because of the person who supports them. When I was just beginning to grow as a Christian, some of the people who mentored me quickly taught me who "we" agreed with, and who "we" didn't agree with. That set me back - just because I might not like someones perspective on End Time events doesn't mean they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to a conversation about women's roles in ministry. This book forces the reader to deal with the arguments rather than the people who give the arguments. That is an extremely helpful component to this book.

Finally, the book presents a short case study at the beginning of each chapter that gives an example of how each issue presents itself in twenty-first century theology. For a person who is driven to ask the question "how will I ever use this in real life," the case study is immensely helpful. Sometimes the case studies are a bit cheesy, but for the most part they help set the stage for the discussion to follow as a discussion about issues that affect people - people that God created, loves, and desires to know Him. Sometimes in our vigorous debates about theological issues we can get more focused on being right that we end up being wrong, even when we're right. The case studies tend to help guard against that tendency.

Overall, this book is worth reading. It's certainly lacking in a few areas, but is more helpful than not.

Italy Report

To steal a line from Dickens, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." We made it in late Tuesday afternoon after 6 days, mainly in Florence and Bologna. I mentioned in my last post that we took a group of 4 leaders from our young singles ministry as a hands-on leadership development opportunity. They're going to be taking a larger group of Young Singles in June, so we spent most of our time meeting with our ministry partners on the ground, learning a little about the culture, and trying to get some good traction for how a larger team might be most effective.

The opportunity to serve our mission partners in Italy were "the best of times." We spent the first two days in Florence, with a team from Agape Italia (Campus Crusade for Christ's branch in Italy). They were so gracious to show us around Florence, and to take us to one of the campus buildings to dialogue with some of the Italian students there about their perception of Americans, Italy, and the state of the church in Italy. Put mildly, this was eye opening. In the eyes of Italian students the Roman Catholic Church has so abused its power over the past few decades that the words "Christian," or "Christ" are synonymous with "corruption" and "control." They don't want anything to do with Jesus as a result of how poorly He has been represented, especially over the past several years.

On almost every corner in Florence there are gorgeous, elaborate, intricately beautiful monuments to a God in Whom virtually nobody in Italy believes.

After a very successful time in Florence, we trained to Bologna, where Jesse and Tricia Marcos have just landed on the ground to serve with Agape Italia at the Western world's oldest university, which is attended by 100,000 students. The largest two campus groups are the Wiccans and the GLBA. On a campus of 100,000 students, there are zero evangelical Christian organizations. As far as Jesse and Tricia know, there are no evangelical Christians attending university in Bologna. As you walk through the streets of Bologna, the darkness of the culture is almost palpable.

I told you we took this trip as a leadership development opportunity so some of our leaders could get some on-the-job-training, and learn some lessons about mission work in Italy before taking a larger group over there.

Thank God we did.

My plan was for us to learn lessons the easy way - by talking with missionaries on the ground, observing students in their environment, and decoding the culture by observing it for ourselves.

Unfortunately, we learned most of our lessons the hard way. Italy is a tremendously difficult place to travel. It took us six days to feel like we had a good feel for the train system in Italy. Nothing is marked well, or organized. Trying to board a train in Italy with all our luggage was like trying to herd ten thousand cats into a 4 foot by 4 foot room. And the train only stops in the station for 2 or 3 minutes.

We planned to spend the afternoon in Cinque Terra (Rick Steve's favorite spot in the world), where we had been assured there would be a place to check our luggage while we did the hike from village to village. There wasn't.

So, I spent the day sitting by the Mediterranean on a park bench guarding our luggage while the rest of our team walked part of the trail. They stopped after only about 1 kilometer because there was a toll for the trail nobody had bothered to mention, and they didn't want to spend 10 dollars a piece the way the day was going. They should have - the pictures of Cinque Terra are beautiful, and I'd like to go again someday now that we know what we know.

That evening, we hopped on a train for Milan (we were told it was most convenient to fly out of Milan), got to the train station and hopped on a bus for the airport (fifty miles away from the city) and then caught a cab to get to the hotel. The cabbies there have a racket going because there's no way to get to your hotel but by cab, so they were attempting to charge anywhere from 40 dollars to 70 dollars for the one mile ride to the hotel. We finally got a guy to take us for 30 dollars. By the time we finally got everything navigated, and arrived at our hotel, it was midnight, and we had 3 hours to sleep before we needed to get up for our flight the next morning.

The best of times, and the worst of times.

I'll write more about our missions philosophy in the future, and the benefit of my stay in Cinque Terra was the opportunity to read three books I'm looking forward to reviewing. One of them was incredible. I'll get back to that once we get back in the swing of things. For now, I'm just glad to be home.

Italia here we come!

We're right smack in the middle of a really exciting season of ministry. (Which, translated means, "We're running like chickens with our heads cut off").

Wednesday we're leaving for Italy with a small group of singles. We'll only be there for 6 days, and are splitting time between Florence, Bologna, and Cinque Terra. The plan for the trip is to scout out a project for a large group of singles to take on in June '08. Basically, it's a leadership development opportunity. Kari and I are taking 4 of our leaders to get a lay of the land and to meet with and observe our ministry partners on the ground. Then, they'll lead the trip in June and I won't go. There's nothing like letting people know you're about to throw them to the wolves to make leaders learn, grow, and stretch themselves with intentionality. I'm excited about the trip, mostly because I think it's a great opportunity to see some of our key leaders continue to develop.

I mentioned our ministry partners on the ground in Italy. McKinney Church supports missions about as well as any church I've ever been a part of. In addition to giving a massive amount of money to local and global missions every year, we encourage our members to view our relationships with missionaries as a partnership.

Every church I've been a part of in the past has supported missionaries, but I couldn't name three of them - much less tell you anything about where or how they're serving. A couple of times the missionary was invited to give a slideshow when they were home on furlough, but that was about the extent of our involvement.

At McKinney Church, each Adult Bible Fellowship/Small Group is asked to "partner" with a global missionary that McKinney supports. This includes financial support, but also an investment of the class in the mission the missionary is doing. That is accomplished through short-term trips (and long-term trips in a few cases), as well as regular communication and prayer. It gives the entire church a global feel, which is really cool.

It's tough to be inward focused when so much of your ministry is focused on people making a difference throughout the world.

While we're in Italy, we'll be working with Greg and Charmaine Lillestrand, who are in charge of Campus Crusade for Christ's ministry to Italy and Western Europe. We'll also be visiting with Jesse and Tricia Marcos, who are working with Greg to begin a campus ministry in Bologna at one of the oldest universities in the world.

The plane ride will allow me to get ahead on my Monday book reviews. I'm about to finish an interesting theology book I'm looking forward to reviewing, as well as a brand new book that hasn't gone to print yet, and a marketing book with a cool cover. See you when we get back!



About ten years ago when the things going on at Willow Creek Community Church were a hot topic for conversation, and the "seeker sensitive" movement was gaining momentum, I had a conversation with one of the guys in my church where he said, "Chris, these guys are doing some really amazing things and some things that they're going to regret. Unfortunately, we won't know which is which for ten or fifteen years."

Those were wise words.

And here we are, ten years later, and the verdict is in. Well, at least in part.

Greg Hawkins has been the Executive Pastor at Willow Creek for the past eleven years, and Cally Parkinson was the director of communications at Willow Creek prior to taking her new role in the brand management wing of the Willow Creek Association. And their new book "Reveal, where are you?" is a look behind the scenes at several conversations going on at Willow Creek as they have begun an intentional look at how things are really going at Willow Creek.

Although you may not agree with the "seeker sensitive" strategy, or many of the things Bill Hybels has championed over the past several years, it is virtually impossible to not respect the guy. On multiple occasions, I've heard Hybels stand up on platforms and admit, "we never saw that coming," or "we could have done that better" about various things Willow Creek has done (or not done). Though I've never met him personally, I deeply respect the humility it takes to allow a book to be written by one of your staff members that highlights the warts, blemishes, and misses of your leadership team.

If nothing else, this book is the most visually appealing book I've ever read. The graphics, charts, and color-coded chapters make this book read like a picture book, although the information contained within its pages are far from elementary.

At its core, this book seeks to help other churches gain the right tools for measuring actual growth of its members rather than simply measuring growth of attendance. It aims to help churches think in terms of measuring those things that are less tangible and more difficult to observe about a church's success, like life change. The book tracks the evaluation process of Willow Creek Church as they looked at how successful they were at being a part of helping Christians grow at several different points along the Christian growth continuum.

To make a long story short, it seems Willow was doing a great job with brand new believers, and growing believers, but a lousy job with mature believers. And to make things worse, the mature believers were the ones who were most apt to help reach the seekers the church sought to reach. Come to find out, it isn't new believers who do the best job evangelizing seekers - it's Christ-Centered mature believers who do the best job evangelizing seekers. What's worse, they found that the mature and maturing believer was extremely dissatisfied with the local church because they had never learned to do ministry - rather they were noticing that the church didn't have anything to offer them. Rather than commissioning the mature believers into the world, Willow was trying to keep them in the church, and was losing the battle.

Though Hawkins and Parkinson don't verbalize it this way, I think the issue boils down to this: For the last 10 or 15 years, Bill Hybels has said that the local church is the hope of the world. Now they're beginning to realize that it isn't. Jesus is the hope of the world, and Christians are supposed to reflect His light to the rest of the world. The church's responsibility is to figure out how best to train, equip, and mobilize believers to grow out of the local church so that (as maturing children) they are less and less dependent on the church meeting their needs, and more apt to be used in meeting the needs of others.

This is a short, relatively easy read, and is worth perusing for anyone who is curious about the state of the seeker-sensitive church in the twenty-first century. It contains some great insight, neat ideas, and will stretch you to think about where you are on the spiritual growth continuum. Like the seeker-sensitive movement ten years ago, you may not agree with everything these authors recommend, but you will definitely be challenged by their thinking to come up with something that helps your church (and you as an individual) become all it is intended to be.