Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

A Scandalous Rhetorical Reading of Romans 1 and 2

In debates about homosexuality and the church, people who want to maintain that homosexuality is a sin often quote Romans 1:26-27. I do not think this scripture supports their views. In fact, I think it undermines them.

The following is a rhetorical reading of Romans 1:8 through 2:29. I have paraphrased it, updated it, and made it as scandalous as it might have been to its original hearers. It is not meant to accurately reflect all of the nuances of Paul’s original argument, but to highlight the fact that the whole first chapter is, in fact, a parody of exclusivist Christian thinking. It is a prologue. The second chapter is where he brings the hammer down.

There will be people who read the following paraphrase and won’t get it. They will accuse me of twisting Paul’s words. But maybe (I hope) they will get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of Paul’s hyperbolic rhetoric. I believe this reading is far more true to his argument than their use of a handful of verses ripped out of context.

If you’d like to follow along, open Romans 1:8-2:29 in a new tab.

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First, I thank God for all of you good Christian folks, because the whole world knows how faithful you are. I want nothing more than to come and be with you in person, good religious people, so that we can encourage each other. I would love to share with you the same kind of experience I’ve had among the non-religious and the pagans, who have been coming to Christ in record numbers. I’ve been helped in my work and taught by both civilized people and savages, philosophers and fools. That’s why I’m so eager to come and share the Good News with you good Christian folks in the big pagan city of San Francisco. (1:8-15)

Sure, both religious people and pagans want me to be ashamed of this Good News that I share with both the cultured pagans and the religious minority. But I’m not ashamed of the Good News, because it’s the power of God for everyone who has faith, to the religious minority and also to the pagan elites, because the Good News reveals God for who God really is. If you get it, then you really get it. (1:16-17)

Look, I know you already know this, but it bears repeating: God is furious with everyone who would suppress the truth. The kinds of hellfire and brimstone you have preached to the pagans is true: God has already shown everyone, Christian and pagan alike, who God really is: you can see who God is through the beauty and awesomeness of nature. (1:18-20a)

So these non-religious people around you have no excuse: these pagan elites, the agnostics and the culture worshipers, because although in their hearts they probably already know God, they are ungrateful and irreverent. Their brains have become clouded. Even though they believe themselves to be smart and hip and wise, they are really dolts, and they choose instead to worship idols and mascots: supermodels and superheroes, gods of sex and money and power and death. (1:20b-23)

So God lets them. God lets them turn themselves into a joke, because they worship creatures rather than the Creator. They become sexually promiscuous and perverted, believing that to be cultured means to indulge themselves in a buffet of pornographic delights. Their emperors lead the way (and some of them, like Caligula, were killed by the boy toys they kept in bondage). Their women are no better. They all swap partners as if every body were just a set of interchangeable orifices. They treat people as sexual objects to be used for personal gratification. The most important thing in their universe is their own pleasure. You’ve seen reality TV, so you know what I’m talking about. (1:24-27)

And since they chose to ignore God, God let them fill themselves with perversion: greed, petty rivalries, envy, murder, violence, lying, gossiping, racism, bigotry. They created a culture of cynical antipathy, live-and-let-die, contemptuous of family, or religion, or civic-mindedness. They know such things are wrong and lead to the death of everything good, but they not only do them, but they make heroes of people who celebrate these values of the culture of death. (1:28-32)

So, by now you’re nodding along with me, because I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But here’s the kicker:

You ain’t any better than the pagans you rail against. (2:1)

You are also without excuse, because you yourselves are no better and yet you stand in judgment of them. You religious-types say “God will send them to hell.” Do you imagine that when you judge them for doing these things, and yet do them yourself, you will escape judgment? Or do you fail to appreciate what the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ really means? Don’t you realize that the repentance you should be most concerned about is your own? But because you are judgmental and self-righteous, you are making your own personal judgment day that much worse. (2:1-5)

Everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: people who humbly do good will be treated well, and people who are self-righteously wicked will truly understand the hell they preach toward others. You want to talk about hell? Self-righteous sinners will indeed experience hell, but the religious hypocrites will have a front-row seat. The self-righteous pagans will follow. But the same is true of heaven and the reward of the kingdom of God: Good religious folks will lead their righteous pagan brothers and sisters into their reward. Because God shows no partiality. (2:6-11)

Sure, all who are wicked without religion will die without religion, and those who are wicked and religious will be judged by the faith they supposedly hold dear. Because it’s not those who hear or parrot their religious precepts who are judged righteous by God, but those who actually do good. When non-religious people instinctively do good, they show that they have God’s religion written on their hearts. And on the day of judgment, it’s their hearts that will matter to God. (2:12-16)

But if you call yourself a Christian and rely on your religion and your heterosexuality and the fact that you don’t rob banks, and you brag about your relationship to Jesus, and if you are sure that you are the bright spot of civilization in a world of darkness, and you’re going to bear God’s message to all of creation, will you not hear it for yourself? You already know the stereotype of religious people: They are embroiled in scandals about money and sex and pyramid schemes. They police other people’s bedrooms, but they spend more money on porn than anyone else. It’s even written in the Bible: “religion” and the name of God is practically a cussword among the non-religious because of you. (2:17-24)

For example, your heterosexuality or your straight marriage is indeed a great thing if you actually follow the Bible. But if you don’t do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the virtue of your heterosexual marriage in God’s eyes is a sham. So if gay and lesbian persons actually follow Jesus better than you do, won’t their marriages be virtuous in God’s eyes? For a person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true marriage something about your genitals. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real marriage is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual. Such a person may not receive praise from others (or from you), but they receive it from God. (2:25-29)

When Jesus Worried About Numbers (John 6)

It has been an amazing week. Jesus has just had a record attendance at one of his speaking gigs—multiple thousands. He has pulled off a miracle in feeding them all. Everyone is pumped. The momentum of The Way is building fast, and it even begins to get a bit out of control. People want to make Jesus king—by force (John 6:15).

But just as it begins to look like they will go from success to success, Jesus sticks his foot in it. First, he makes himself scarce at the height of his popularity (6:15). Next, he questions the motives of his fans (6:26). Finally, he starts talking about people eating his flesh, which is always a bit off-putting (6:57).

People stop following him. The crowds dwindle. The morning after a particularly disappointing attendance, Jesus sees his original twelve talking among themselves. They stop talking when he approaches. He looks at them and asks,

“Are you going to leave, too?”

I’m not used to hearing Jesus sound this despondent. In fact, it scares me a bit to hear him this dejected.

I’ve read this passage many times, but before I’ve always heard this as a rhetorical question. I’ve imagined Jesus saying it calmly, almost flippantly, even though he already knows the answer, because he’s omniscient, right?

But as a pastor starting a new church, I know how important those attendance numbers become. You begin thinking that the numbers indicate God’s approval rating. You start taking them personally. When I catch myself thinking this way, I usually try to give myself a pep talk. You may know the phrases: “Where two or more are gathered,” “It’s not quantity, it’s quality,” and so on. But I’ve always had my eyes on the numbers, whether I’ve been speaking to a handful or a thousand people. There’s energy in crowds. I like approval. When crowds shrink, I start to panic and wonder what I’ve done wrong.

But even at my lowest I’ve not felt the pain in Jesus’ words when he turns to his friends and asks, “Are you going to leave, too?”  I hear this not as a rhetorical question, but as real human pain and fear. Jesus is worried.

It is comforting, in a way, to know that Jesus was not immune to the effect of numbers, that he felt disappointment when his crowds dwindled and his popularity decreased. I’m glad that he woke up with a pessimistic attitude and expected the worst, because I feel like that more days than I want to admit. I used to resist the idea that Jesus would ever get his feelings hurt, but now I understand better. I can relate. He can relate.

I’m also glad that his students become his teachers, because that’s the way real life works: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). It isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the message. The news is so compelling that some of us are drawn to speak it and hear it, whether it’s a group of 5000 or of 5. If you ask those of us who become his followers why we do so, we just shrug. What else can we do? He has the words of eternal life.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.

Reframing Heterosexist Rhetoric: Playing Offense Instead of Defense

Christian arguments about LGBTQ issues follow a pretty rigid rhetorical structure, and you can probably lip-synch to most of them. Too often, Christians in favor of full inclusion or marriage equality wind up playing defense with scripture, letting their opponents rattle off a series of proof texts while they scramble to offer one alternative interpretation after another. It’s like playing rhetorical Whac-a-Mole! There are some very good ways to play defense (I recommend both Mark Sandlin’s Clobbering Biblical Gay-Bashing and Matthew Vines’ moving sermon on the topic), but in order to shift the conversation, you have to play offense. This is part of what I was attempting to do by writing God Shows No Partiality: to offer biblical rhetoric to people who often abdicate the Bible to literalists and fundamentalists.

Classical education involved the study of rhetoric—an education which we desperately need today.

I apologize, in advance, that rhetorical metaphors often use combat and sports metaphors. In ideal world, we would have conversations around an open table where every voice is equal. But the very definition of rhetoric recognizes that language is always connected to power and privilege, and that there are social dynamics hiding beneath the things we say (and do not say). (The word “dynamics” comes from the Greek word for “power.”)

Any given debate is an attempt to control or shape a public narrative. This applies to everything from formal arguments in a court of law to the most juvenile trolling comments on the internet. Discussions among equals happen when we share power in shaping the narrative; we may disagree about some things, and we may advance certain arguments, but ultimately we’re cooperating in telling a story about the way the world is. Debates happen when we wrestle for control of the story.

If you read through the comments on my previous post, How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking About Homosexuality, you’ll see that commenters who disagree with me seldom spend much time addressing the scriptures I cite, or my comparison of anti-gay attitudes to the parallels with the anti-Gentile attitudes in the gospels and Acts. This is because they believe they control they narrative, or frame, of the biblical argument on this issue, and addressing the points I am actually making would give me control of the narrative.

So, in the spirit of playing offense, here are some questions for dialogical opponents, along with scriptural references. I offer these not because they are definitive or exhaustive, but simply to illustrate how to reframe and refocus an argument. I will also say that I deploy these kinds of questions only when it’s clear that we’re not actually having a discussion, but instead wrestling for control of a narrative:

  1. How is your objection to homosexuality different than the Christian Pharisees who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised? How is it different than their insistence that Gentiles follow Jewish dietary laws? (Acts 10, 15)
  2. Which is more difficult: changing one’s sexual orientation or cutting off one’s foreskin? Which is more difficult: changing who you love or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols?
  3. Paul describes women with short hair as being “against nature” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). He also says that Gentiles being grafted on to Israel’s tree is “contrary to nature” (Romans 11:24) This is the same word he uses in Romans 1:26. Is being “contrary to nature” a bad thing? Is a woman having short hair worse than, better than, or equivalent to homosexuality? What about a man with long hair?
  4. What does Jesus mean when he says that the Pharisees “lock people out of the Kingdom?” (Matthew 23:13). How did they go about doing so, or what does this phrase mean? Does anyone “lock people out of the kingdom” today, or was it just something that happened then? Who does it today?
  5. What does Jesus mean when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:29-30)? Was he only talking to Jewish people? Is your opposition to committed same-gender relationships increasing or decreasing a religious burden on people? How would Jesus talk about requiring something of someone else, like celibacy, that you don’t do yourself (Matthew 23)?
  6. Jesus complained that the Pharisees were more concerned with what goes into a person than what comes out of them (Matthew 15:10-20). How is your concern with homosexuality different than their concern with unkosher food? What makes someone pure: the food that they turn into poop, or the language that comes out of them? What makes someone pure: where they put their genitals, or how they talk to other people?

I find that, in general, questions are more powerful than statements. Questions can be open and welcoming, inviting further discussion. But questions can also be power plays that people use to draw you into their way of framing an issue. I have also found that simply exposing the rhetoric operating in any given argument helps to shift people from debates toward discussions—it makes us into equals again. “How do you interpret [such-and-such a scripture]” can be met with, in a non-antagonistic way, “Do you really want to know how I interpret that scripture, or are you just offering it as a proof text?”

One commenter cited scriptures prohibiting sexual immorality, as though we had already established that same-gender romantic love was a sin. At best, this is begging the question (assuming the conclusion), a simple logical fallacy. But the goal of citing those scriptures is to shame one’s debate opponent instead of actually engaging the argument. By arguing for inclusion, I become an enemy of God and false teacher, promoting sexual immorality. Which might be true—if I’m wrong. But if I’m right, advocates of exclusion become the Pharisees of Matthew 23, “locking people out of the Kingdom of God.” Now we have a different way of looking at what’s going on.

This will sometimes be met with complaints that “You’re being just as X as the other side.” This, too, is sly, shaming rhetoric. I am sure that Paul’s opponents in Corinth and Rome also accused him of being “divisive” and “judgmental.” It is also an attempt, by so-called  neutral Christians, to capture the moral high ground, to claim a pastoral and more Jesus-like perspective. In the debates between those who say “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos,” they sanctimoniously claim, “Well, I follow Christ.” This is an attempt to assume the position of referee or commentator while pretending you aren’t actually playing the game. In my own experience, they are the bossiest kids on the playground, and they usually side with the bullies.

Jesus had a knack for seeing through questions to the narrative and rhetorical tricks behind them (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 12:18-34). While he probably had divine insight into people’s hearts, he also lived in an age where rhetoric was part of a typical education, and he had such a firm sense of his purpose and his mission that he couldn’t be drawn into someone else’s narrative.

If someone actually wants to discuss how the Bible is an inspired document, or how to interpret various texts, or how Christians should think about the authority of scripture, I am more than happy to discuss any of those things—as equals. But if we’re just going to compete over who controls the narrative, and which of us is doing what by speaking, I’m going to play offense, not merely defense.

Atonement: Christ the Victor

I’m glad to see Christus Victor gaining more traction among popular Christianity. There are even a few contemporary Christian songs that borrow some of the concepts. I’ll confess I get a bit antsy, though, because the Commercial Evangelical Juggernaut is really good at appropriating other theological ideas and using them to dress up the same tired theology of power and violence.

There is a great book on the subject, but I think the best way to illustrate it is with the following video.

The best strength of Christus Victor theology is that it takes seriously the whole story of Jesus’ life: incarnation, birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. His incarnation makes atonement, because by taking on our flesh and our frailty, God is with us. Even our human limitations become holy. His birth makes atonement, because he transforms what we mean by power, family, love, and mortality. His life makes atonement, because God has to learn to walk and share, just as we do, making the whole process of learning holy and pointing us toward maturity. His ministry make atonement as God shows us what real humanity looks like, spreading grace everywhere he goes. His death makes atonement, not because he dies in place of us, but in solidarity with us. And his resurrection makes atonement, because even our rejection and our failure to recognize him does not stop God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

By contrast, in the story told by most Western Protestants (“penal substitutionary atonement”), the only thing that really matters about Jesus is his death. As one Christmas banner put it, he was “born to die.” This allows Christians to support, among other things, capital punishment — after all, if God believes in redemptive violence, shouldn’t we?

In the popular imagination, it isn’t even Jesus’ death that makes atonement, but his suffering. Because he bears the sin of the whole world, his suffering must be the most profound and severe in the cosmos, and we elevate the brutality of his death. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, it is simply the blood that makes atonement—not the pain. Sacrificial animals were sacrificed humanely, and the entire point of doing so was that people could enjoy a covenant meal of reconciliation with God.

I think the penal substitutionary view is bankrupt, and will become increasingly so in our lifetimes. Moral violence does not make us safer, it supports bullying, abuse, inequality, and oppression, and it stands in contrast to everything Jesus preached and taught. A theology of God that depends on redemptive violence is the best ideological ally of white straight male supremacy. I believe we are seeing it crumble before our eyes: nearly all of the news headlines these days are about it. I don’t want to sound too optimistic. Violence and the Kingdom of Death can get quite cozy with whoever happens to be in power.

In the Christus Victor story, though, we focus on the things Jesus actually said and did, not the abstract idea of his role as a sacrificial animal. This is why I think Christus Victor is gaining traction, and why it will continue to do so.

I’ve already written about understanding atonement through Jesus as a moral teacher. In my next post, I plan to write a bit about how I’m learning to reclaim and reinterpret the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Atonement: Jesus Isn’t “Just” A Teacher

Gustav Aulen says there are basically three ways to think about how Jesus “fixes things” in Christian theology. (“Atonement” is the fancy way of saying, “How Jesus fixes things”. I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement theories recently, so when a friend posted this article  I found it helpful.)

One theory of the atonement is the “moral teacher” or moral influence perspective. Jesus, through his ministry, death, and resurrection, reveals to a lost humanity both our brokenness and a way to approach God. This is probably the easiest atonement theory for non-Christians and skeptics to swallow, because almost nobody is going to say that Jesus wasn’t a great teacher or moral leader.

But this approach often gets panned by hard-core North American evangelicals because they don’t want Jesus to be “just” a teacher. I have real problems with the phrase “just” a teacher, because I think it makes false assumptions about education and transformation. I think it misses the mark of what “teaching” actually is.

Have you ever sat, literally or figuratively, at teachers’ or professors’ feet and felt a light go on in your soul? Has a special teacher transformed you from one kind of person into another, or ignited a passion in you for something you would never have predicted? Did you hang on this teacher’s every word? Have some of you ever developed a Platonic crush on your teachers that made you want to spend more time with them? Did you start affecting their mannerisms because you wanted to be like them so intensely? The best teachers shape who we become. They reconcile us with ourselves, our neighbors, our world, and our futures. They heal our broken images of ourselves.

If you can identify with what I’m saying, then you know that “just a teacher” is about the worst way you can misunderstand this kind of atonement. I’ve heard people say, “My teacher saved my life.” I’ve been to developing countries where kids walk miles to go to school because they know an education is the only way that they can individually or collectively escape the slavery of poverty. I think these folks have a pretty good idea that teaching can save, and I think they have a pretty good idea of how to relate to Jesus.

I’ve spent most of my life as a student of one kind or another, and I owe an enormous debt to my best teachers, mentors and coaches, who didn’t just teach math or English or running or knot-tying, but living. These people changed me from the inside-out, and they pointed to something and someone beyond themselves. They embodied passion and compassion, and were concerned with teaching the whole person, not just the brain. I should also point out that I’ve also had teachers who never finished high school or held an academic degree, who have taught me about leadership, humility, stamina, praying, and grace.

There are some shortcomings of this atonement theory, of course. It can trade some of God’s sovereignty and grace for a more “up-by-the-bootstraps” image of applying yourself to your studies. It can leave open the possibility of separating the importance of the teacher (Jesus) from content of what is taught. It privileges Jesus’ life and ministry over his death and resurrection. I do see these as common shortcomings in liberal Christianity, but I don’t think they are unsolvable problems. I think at most it just takes clarification of what “teaching” means.

If presented well, the moral teacher theory can make people passionate about studying the Bible and learning about Jesus. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I realized that the parables can be read as jokes. Once I learned that Jesus used humor, I started seeing his wit all around, and I thought, “Now here’s a character I can follow and believe in.”

Even though it’s not my preferred way to talk about Jesus and atonement, I think lots of Christians should give the moral teacher theory a second look. The disciples were students of The Way, and thinking about atonement this way can connect us with their tradition. It can also connect us both to more Eastern ways of doing theology and to critical academia.

If it helps us respect teachers more, so much the better—because they aren’t “just” teachers, either.

My Favorite Biblical Errors: Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37

Usually, people who claim that they read the Bible literally also claim that the Bible contains no errors. Yet one of the reasons I so admire the Bible and consider it authoritative is that it dutifully records its own errors.

One of my favorites is the prophecy of Ezekiel against Tyre in chapters 26 through 29. For three whole chapters, Ezekiel rails against the city of Tyre. Since he believes that the army of Babylon is God’s chosen instrument of wrath against Jerusalem, he is excited to see it lay siege to Tyre.

(When you read this, you have to imagine Samuel L. Jackson’s voice.)

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down its towers. I will scrape its soil from it and make it a bare rock.  It shall become, in the midst of the sea, a place for spreading nets. I have spoken, says the Lord God. It shall become plunder for the nations, and its daughter-towns in the country shall be killed by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 26:4-6)

As I said, for three whole chapters this goes on, with Ezekiel relishing his poetic destruction of the city.

Only one problem: It didn’t happen. Babylon laid siege to the city for three years, but you can’t successfully lay siege to a seaport. I imagine the guards on the walls of Tyre yelling down to the Babylonian tents, “Hey, guys! We’re having a fish fry today! Can you smell it? Oh, hey, what are you having for dinner? Aww, thin gruel again? So sad!”

At the end of three years, the army gave up. So, naturally, Ezekiel went back and tore up his manuscript, right? Or maybe he wrote, “Oops, my bad.”

Nope. He just turned his attention to Egypt!

Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labour hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labour that he had expended against it. Therefore, thus says the Lord God: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 29:18-20)

Nice save, Ezekiel! So, naturally, Babylon conquered Egypt, right?

Nope again.

My favorite theory is that Ezekiel became the model for the story of Jonah, which was written to be read not literally, but as a satire of the hellfire and brimstone prophets. Jonah is a frustrated prophet who fumes when God fails to destroy Israel’s enemies. In contrast to Ezekiel’s logorrhea, Jonah just stomps part way into the city, utters one line, turns around and stomps out. He wants so much to see the bad guys punished that he wraps himself in his own private hell of resentment and bitterness. God, in contrast, can’t bear the thought of hurting the children or even the cattle (Jonah 4).

There is a dialogue going on in the pages of the Bible, where competing theologies are trying to describe God’s history with God’s people. I don’t deny that there are authors who believed that God would punish cities by starving their populace, so that families would be torn apart, people raped and sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 28:30-34), and parents would be forced to cannibalize their own children (verses 54-57). Job, Jonah, and Ruth (among others) critique that theological view. And for Christians, Jesus is the final repudiation of that theology (Matthew 5:43, John 9:3, Luke 13:4, Mark 15:34). Good and bad things happen to people not as God’s rewards or punishments, but because stuff happens. What God makes out of it, and us, is where grace happens.

Anti-religious detractors like to point out these errors and blood and guts passages in order to portray believers as foolish or barbaric, but for me, these errors are awesome. The editors and compilers could have edited out Ezekiel’s mistakes, but they didn’t. They could have harmonized the gospels, the creation stories, and the histories of the monarchy, but they didn’t. The Bible is not a monologue—it is a dialogue. To me, that’s what makes it believable. What’s even more cool is that we are invited to participate in the dialogue, which doesn’t end even when you close the book and the people say Amen.

This Sunday, the sermon topic at Saint Junia’s preview service will be on the Two Creation Stories (Genesis 1-3). I’ll be sharing why it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to believe in evolution, considering that we already have more than one creation story in the Bible. Come join the dialogue!

Dear Neutral Christians: You Have Already Chosen a Side

What I find even more annoying than the flap over Chick-fil-A —even more irritating than all of the polarization and heated rhetoric flying about—are the people who try to self-righteously stand aloof from the fray. To me, even more disheartening than the posts about standing up for traditional heterosexist values and fighting a culture war are some of the comments I’ve read like,

“Jesus isn’t honored by this arguing”
“It’s just a sandwich.”
“Jesus wasn’t interested in political correctness.”

This is the rhetorical equivalent of people who said things like

“It’s just a lunch counter”
“Who cares where you sit on the bus?”
“The church should stay out of the civil rights movement.”

I’m not surprised – not one bit – that Christians lined up outside of Chick-fil-a stores yesterday. I’m not surprised that they leapt to the defense of Dan Cathy. There were plenty of God-fearing Christians who lined up behind Governor George Wallace as well. What does disappoint me are all the “neutral” Christians who think it would all be okay if we just didn’t keep talking about it.

FYI – if you call supporters of gay marriage “arrogant,” or say that they are “shaking a fist at God,” (Cathy’s words) you are not just stating your Biblical belief. You are demonizing opposition to your beliefs. So instead of interpreting the Bible differently than you, I, as a supporter of gay marriage, become the enemy of God. Instead of seeing the world through a different lens, instead of merely interpreting the Bible from another perspective, I have a character flaw—arrogance. I take offense at such claims. It is not because I’m being “politically correct.” I am responding appropriately to offensive rhetoric. It is the same offense one might take at the CEO of a major corporation calling women or African-Americans “uppity.”

When you, as a Christian, claim I am off-base for taking offense at his words, you have chosen a side. And that makes me angry. If my anger makes you uncomfortable, I’ll also point out that I am not gay. I don’t have a right to one fraction of the anger my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters feel.

My anger comes from the fact that I am trying to build a church in which all people can know the love of Christ. I want to let people who have been burned by church and turned off by the bigotry of some Christians know that they can believe in Jesus without being a fundamentalist, that the origins of Christianity are in the radically inclusive love of Jesus for women, eunuchs, children, foreigners, uncircumcised Gentiles, and even people of other religions (like Samaritans).

I have been trying to make the case to such folks that the bigots are a loud minority of Christians. All those people who lined up outside of a fast food restaurant to make a point (what was the point, exactly?) just made my job harder.

Please do not tell me, condescendingly, that I should not be offended by the words of a self-avowed conservative Christian to a Baptist press. I have no problem with the president of Chick-fil-a stating a belief. He could believe in young-earth creationism. He could believe that only people baptized by immersion will be saved. He might believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. But if he says that I am shaking my fist at God because I don’t believe in the exclusivity of immersion baptism, or that I’m arrogant for believing in evolution, you’ll pardon me if I don’t eat at his stupid restaurant.

And if my offense at his comment offends you, or if engaging in a debate about symbols and what they mean is somehow problematic for you, or if you want to say that somehow I’m disconnected from God’s redemptive action in the world because I’m angry about it, then you can take your irrelevant gospel and get out of my face. You do not get to speak for Jesus, or tell me that Jesus isn’t concerned about what concerns me while defending the words of someone who is certain – certain! that Jesus is all concerned about homosexuality.

I will not abide that double standard silently. If Dan Cathy can speak for God, so can I. And so can any of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I will keep telling of a God who shows no partiality.

Neutral Christians, I hope your derision of the whole argument is not your attempt to stay above the fray and keep your pretty hands clean. You are just as much a part of the political world as any of us. Paul makes the same point when he addresses the arguing Corinthians. Some said “I belong to Paul.” Some said “I belong to Apollos.” But the really self-righteous said, “I belong to Christ.”

Sorry, you don’t get to “transcend” politics. Even Jesus didn’t get to do that until after the politics and the religion of his day killed him. God was willing to get God’s hands dirty in the politics of our world. Your attempt to avoid taking a position by declaring “a pox on both your houses” or saying “both sides are guilty” is not a witness to the risen Christ: it is a cynical move to side with the powerful against the weak without the courage to say that that is what you are doing.

I understand. I totally do. It is always scary when someone invites you to leave your world of privilege and side with the oppressed. Even if your sympathies lead you in the right direction, your self-preservation instinct is strong. It’s the same reason Peter didn’t wave his arms in the courtyard and say: “Wait! You’ve got it all wrong! He isn’t talking about the kind of revolution that you think!” He tucked tail and ran because he was afraid of being crucified. It’s the same reason Reinhold Neibuhr (a brilliant theologian and someone I admire) told Martin Luther King “wait, you’re moving too fast.”

When Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he did not say it to a secular world that didn’t want Jesus. He said it to a religious community that was not sure how they could accept uncircumcised Gentiles as equal members of their church. So to all you appeasers who think you are being peacemakers, I level this charge: you are ashamed of the gospel. You do not believe in the power of Christ to include your gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as co-workers in the kingdom. You have sided with the powerful against the powerless, because that’s the safe place to be.

I’m not saying you are bad Christians. Some of you are wonderful Christians. But we all make mistakes, and sometimes we do what we do out of necessity. Even Paul played both sides of the cultural arguments of his day. Though he didn’t believe eating meat sacrificed to idols would cut you off from Christ, he wasn’t going to press the issue for the religious sticklers (1 Corinthians 8:8-9). Peter likewise buckled under pressure from the religious conservatives of his day (Galatians 2:11-12). And though Paul stood up to the religious conservatives for Titus (Gal 2:3), he did not do so for Timothy (Acts 16:3). We pastors know that it is often important to buy time in the middle of social change.

But I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of Christ for salvation, for both straight and gay, for God shows no partiality. I am not ashamed to say that Dan Cathy’s version of the gospel is different from mine. I’m sure he’s not a bad guy, and he loves Christians who think like him. But, like Paul, if eating such meat offends my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, “then I will never eat a chicken sandwich again.” Because that’s what Christians do.

Three Practical Steps for Christians Who Want to Change the World

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The following is taken from the conclusion of my book, God Shows No Partiality.

What I have found in teaching the Bible in both the academy and the church is that the people who believe in the Bible most literally are often the least literate about it. They may have memorized favorite scriptures that support their ideas of what their faith means, but they do not often take trips through the minor prophets, and they have no idea what the Babylonian Exile was. They are essentially writing their own Bibles, and the versions they come up with have little to do with the actual history and social movements that created the religion of ancient Israel or that gave birth to the church. When I press literalists about their interpretation of scripture, asking them to explain contradictions or inconsistencies in their favorite texts, they invariably will complain that I’m reading too literally, that I’m nitpicking or reading too closely.

My gripe with progressive Christians, on the other hand, is that they have often ceded the Bible and Christian history to Christian fundamentalists and literalists. They have been on the defensive, relying on generalizations and failing to engage believers with powerful Biblical rhetoric. Having been wounded one too many times by scripture-wielding exclusivists, perhaps they are reluctant to engage scripture on social issues at all.

But the history of the early church and God’s activity among us is a powerful witness. In writing this book, I have hoped to challenge progressive Christians to actively engage the Bible—not with proof-texts and scriptures cherry-picked to support a given position, but with thoughtful exploration using the best scholarship available.

Doing so will inevitably lead to resistance. There are plenty of people who believe they own the Bible, and that it is their right to clobber people with it. Sometimes these are unwinnable battles, and engaging them is a waste of time. In one well-known parable, Jesus describes hearers of the gospel as different kinds of soil (Mark 4:1-9) and the seed planted in them faces different obstacles to its growth. There are many reasons people may resist this message: demonic resistance, selfishness and materialism, or social pressure. Yet the slogan I have been promoting in this book is one the world needs to hear. By making it better known, we will transform the Bible from a sword into a plow. Perhaps instead of waging a war against sword-wielding Christians who will not be convinced, we can plant new seeds among those who are receptive to the Good News. At the end of the parable, after all, there is a harvest—thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

If you, dear reader, are someone who does believe that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), if you look forward to the day that the powers and principalities are unmasked, there are some practical things you can do to turn the rhetorical sword the Bible has become into a plowshare that helps bring new life. Here are some practical steps.

First, Christians who believe in the salvation of the world should delve deeply into scripture. It is essential to study the Bible closely, to listen thoughtfully to what the authors say and do not say. Do not accept the pious reflections of preachers or the footnotes of popular study Bibles as the word of God. Read multiple translations, and be open to diverse interpretations. Ask how a given scripture might sound different to a white man, a black woman, or a religious or political prisoner. Ask what situations the authors faced and what voices they were arguing against. Study the Bible with people who have diverse theological opinions so you can hear with new ears. Be willing to read against the grain.

Second, if you want to resist those who use the Bible as a weapon, you must exceed them in good works. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is essentially a long discourse on how the new community should not only reject the principles of the Christian Pharisee faction, but distinguish themselves in practice. Their righteousness “must exceed that of the Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). If progressive Christians want to be taken seriously by the world, they must out-pray, out-give, out-do, and out-sacrifice their fundamentalist siblings. They may not remain, as one pastor friend describes them, “tippers instead of tithers.” They must live lives of exceptional moral conduct and generosity. If they do not, they will face two consequences: they will lose their social persuasiveness and they will become hypocrites themselves. This exceptional moral conduct is not just a matter of surface religiosity. It is about a transformation that happens to the soul (Matthew 5:44).

Third, you must spread the good news. The word “evangel” literally means “good message.” Fundamentalists tend to be evangelical because they believe they are saving people from hell in the afterlife. Progressive Christians are trying to save people from hell in this life, but they often fail to be evangelical even though I believe their good news is often more compelling and more exciting. I believe the news is just as good now as it was in the first century. If we do as Jesus instructed and spread this good news to all the earth, then burgeoning Christian movements in developing countries will not criminalize homosexuality or silence the voices of women. People in America will not be able to reject Christianity out-of-hand as intolerant and irrational—but only if this message spreads.