On male friendship and the local church

Why do many churches struggle to fix the crisis of American male loneliness?

This piece by Ryan McCormick on the decline of spaces for male friendship is really spectacular. I’ve read so many essays on the topic, most of which are two and three times as long as Ryan’s, and almost none of them produce the genuine insight that Ryan did. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend stopping what you’re doing and fixing that.

I think a lot about friendship and masculinity nowadays. As you can probably guess, one reason is that it’s relevant to me personally. I struggle to make friends. Leaving college was for me, like many others, a turning point; the last several years have been almost exclusively given to work, marriage, parenting, etc. The richest time of friendship in the years I’ve been married were probably the almost 3 years we spent in Wheaton, where I enjoyed getting close to a few coworkers and a wonderful small group. COVID-19 put an anticlimactic end to that, and we ended up moving back to Kentucky last summer. I can’t say I haven’t struggled with the discouragement of losing those men.

Statistically a majority of American men my age are in the same boat, and it gets worse for men when they leave their 30s. Middle-aged men are one of the loneliest groups in the country, so much so that it’s being called a legitimate public health crisis. We probably won’t know for a while the effect that a pandemic and lockdowns had on this, but it’s not hard to guess: men aged 35-64 represented 40% of all suicide deaths before the pandemic.

All right, so: Time to recover a doctrine of the local church, right? Hold on. As Ryan points out in his piece, local churches are more often than not participants in the diminishing of “third spaces” rather than solutions. Here’s a quote from his essay:

It is widely noted in my own congregation that the women have their own small groups and yearly retreats; the men have practically nothing. As Anthony Bradley noted in a recent essay on this site, the American church (even when it is pastored or governed by men) functions mainly due to the involvement of women. Consequently, the social programs that churches typically offer adhere to the norms of contemporary female friendship, e.g., small groups, where church members share life updates and prayer requests. These groups are certainly immensely valuable to men. Yet while I’ve loved each small group I’ve belonged to, they have never produced durable male friendships. What is lacking in the church are groups where a common horizon can be forged between guys.

Let me add another element to this. It seems to me that in many evangelical church cultures, women’s ministry naturally encompasses producing opportunities for friendship in a way that men’s ministry doesn’t. For one thing, as Ryan points out, men’s ministries are often sparse. A typical church’s finite resources tend to go toward facilitating events for the dominant demographic, and throughout evangelicalism the dominant demographic is female. It’s not uncommon at all to find evangelical churches that have absolutely nothing offered for men, or if there is, it is an annual event, one in which a lot of pressure is placed on men to not miss since this will be the only event of its kind for a year.

For another thing, men’s ministry is highly programmed. In the recent past I’ve noticed that my wife will come home after a women’s ministry event and have much to share about the people she talked to and their casual conversations. This is fascinating to me because the majority of men’s events I’ve been to allow little or no space for this. What matters in men’s events is being productive: doing as much Bible study or “sharing” time as possible, and programming events and groups so that men are free to come, download the content, and leave efficiently.

The impression I’ve often got from many churches is that, when it comes to the men, gathering and friendship are thought about instrumentally. They are to be valued to the extent that they represent opportunities to do the “real” stuff of studying the Bible, or praying, or sharing testimonies/accountability questions. What I don’t find in many churches are opportunities for men to come together and form friendship in a natural way, without expectations of a spiritual performance or mastery of biblical content.

In other words, in many of the evangelical church contexts I’ve seen, women are invited into friendship and encouragement, while men are usually only invited into either Bible study or accountability. And some men receive this message loud and clear, and make a point to attend church programming without forming meaningful friendships on the margins; but because these men make an appearance at the events that “matter,” the church infers its men’s ministry is doing quite well.

It should go without saying that this doesn’t describe every church or perhaps even a majority. But it’s been a consistent enough pattern in my own experience that I’ve expressed these thoughts to various people throughout the last few years, and many of them say they’ve seen it as well.

So how does the local church address itself to the crisis of loneliness in American men? I think Ryan’s essay gives an important clue. In order for the local church to become a living solution rather than a cliche to throw out when you don’t know the answer, churches have to think hard about the material causes of isolation and loneliness among men. Are men lonely because there are not enough one day conferences and Bible studies? Or are they lonely because the environments and contexts in which male friendship thrives are disappearing? Does Christian formation for men depend primarily on how much Bible knowledge they are able to put on a sheet of paper, or how emotionally transparent they can be a weeknight gathering? Or does it depend on something deeper and harder to manufacture?

As with many things, if we’re not sure of the answer just yet, we can always identify what we have been doing and ask if it’s working. Well, is it?

The post-COVID malaise

If I had to guess one of the most pressing problems facing Christians in the aftermath of this accursed pandemic, I would guess that it won’t be an active dismissiveness or “I don’t need that” attitude about the local church. Instead, the struggle is likely to be the exhaustion and sense of futility from fighting the digitalization of all of life. It’s not, I think, that scores of evangelicals will suddenly think they don’t need the church because of YouTube livestreams. It will be that scores of evangelicals feel like their efforts to be “tech-wise,” to swim against the tide of life-by-internet and prioritize analog and physical experiences, have been mostly pointless. We were trying to live more in the embodied moment, and then a virus happened and we saw just how necessary the protection a screen creates really is. Even if we want to overcome that, how could we?

In other words, I think we’re going to be facing a post-COVID malaise rather than a post-COVID revolution. This malaise has already been given extra strength by the inexplicable determination of certain health officials and journalists to talk the vaccines down—a determination that has almost certainly slowed the national recovery and created vaccine hesitancy unnecessarily. I know beyond a doubt there will be millions of Americans listening to that and reasoning that their days of going to church are over—not because they don’t want to, and not necessarily because they’re afraid, but because they don’t see the point. If the dangers hover over you the second you leave your house, no matter what you or your neighbor does, there’s only so much you can endure that emotional and cognitive burden. If a coworker knows you went to church, would they be upset with you for “creating risk” (what a slippery way to use words!)? Besides, you can probably listen to the sermon more attentively at home.

The post-COVID malaise may sound like a test of what we really believe about local congregations. But I actually think this is somewhat misleading. The malaise will be more of a test of what we really believe life is supposed to feel like. Fighting through this kind of malaise is going to feel, at many different times, like you’re doing life wrong. Fighting the omnipresence of screens, the immediate answers they offer and the stress they seem to offload, is going to feel like strenuous exercise when you know you’ll be dead of cancer in a week. The nagging feeling that you’re not supposed to feel this low level anxiety and self-doubt about everything will translate to, “So why do you choose to feel it?”

And this is where we have to remind ourselves of something very important: This world is broken and fallen, and living and become the way our Creator meant for us to live and become often feels difficult in a broken and fallen world. Becoming “tech-wise” isn’t about impressing Christian neighbors or appearing like sophisticated parents. If it is about that, it’s not worth the kind of trouble that the post-COVID malaise will bring us. But it’s not. It’s really about living as image-bearers in proximity with other image-bearers. It’s really about keeping our souls open to knowing and being known, over and against the anonymity and digital obfuscation of screens. It’s about putting social anxiety, insecurity, and even shame before the gentle and lowly Jesus who heals. It’s about fighting the good fight of faith.

So how do help ourselves and each other fight the post-COVID malaise? Right off the top of my head:

  • Don’t assume that those fearful or slow to come back to church just “don’t get it.”
  • Get vaccinated when you can.
  • Invite people to your home
  • Protect relationships, not time.
  • Delete social media apps and set defined parameters of use.
  • Watch movies with family and friends, not YouTube by yourself.
  • Try something like what Brett McCracken calls the wisdom challenge.
  • Sleep.

Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


image credit

A Brief Postscript On Abuse, Church, and At-All-Costs Evangelism

An unbelieving husband’s body in a church pew is not worth more than his abused and vulnerable wife.

Evangelicals sometimes will reduce the Christian life to one thing. Sometimes that thing will be faithful church attendance. When this happens, the way these Christians speak of what it means to be a believer becomes radically attendance-centered, and often seems comfortable with a trade-off between going to church and acts of mercy, personal holiness, etc. You can often detect this attitude in churches that are filled with very superficial relationships. No one really has the knowledge or the will to get involved in the life of someone else. All that matters is that everyone’s there on Sunday.

Sometimes we’ll reduce the Christian life to individual Bible reading and prayer. When this happens, presence at church is usually one of the first things to be sacrificed. In the off chance you do spend time with this person, they will often say something theologically suspect, and you’ll realize that this weird, untrue idea would not last very long in the company of more seasoned believers. But of course, one has to be in such company first.

And then sometimes evangelicals, especially those on my own branch of the tree, will reduce the Christian life to evangelism. These brothers and sisters talk of the church as if it’s a gas station on the world’s highway; you’ll need to stop occasionally to get refueled, but then you’re back on the road again. When evangelism becomes the end all, be all of Christian faithfulness, everything takes a back seat to reaching out, sharing, witnessing, etc. Anything that could possibly prevent a non-Christian from coming in or staying in the presence of other believers is immediately opposed and discarded. If it doesn’t result in people coming to church and making decisions for Christ, it’s not worth keeping—whatever “it” is.

I thought about this dynamic when I was reflecting on Paige Patterson’s controversial story about pastoral counsel he gave to a wife who was being abused by her husband. Patterson has since apologized for the offense taken at his words, and I don’t want to litigate the controversy right now. What struck me as I thought further about his comments was that the counsel he gave this woman fits a pattern I’ve seen so many times growing up in conservative evangelicalism. No, I’ve never heard a pastor say he was “glad” a woman came in with two bruised eyes (and that’s why I do think the outrage over the comments is fair and just), but what I have heard, literally thousands of times, is that we cannot say or do anything to an unbeliever that would cause them to flee from us. If a non-Christian is willing to sit in church, our rejoicing at their presence should outweigh any other consideration…because isn’t that why we’re here?

To express joy at an unbelieving husband’s presence at church while his abused wife stands in front of you is a severe case of Christian reductionism. Why does her battered, vulnerable body not matter as much as her husband’s rear end in the pew? There’s certainly nothing biblical about the idea that the presence of an unbeliever in church hearing the gospel is the supreme good of Christian ministry that cannot be topped. In fact, the biblical teaching of church discipline makes the opposite argument: That it is worth it to remove from fellowship a person whom you think might not be genuinely born again if doing so models the discipline of Christ and preserves the integrity of the church. Excommunication would not make sense, and would not have been commanded by the Spirit through Paul, if an unbeliever needed to be “plugged in” more than anything else.

Similarly, some evangelical churches have abandoned or ignored orthodoxy out of concern that it drives unbelievers from the church. This is the same mistake, though more palatable for many of us. A fear to confront sexual sin that leads to shifting beliefs or inconsistent praxis is the same crippling reductionism that ultimately harms both Christians and unbelievers. I wonder how many evangelicals who nod and cheer when this standard is applied against crusty Southern Baptists and domestic abuse would hedge and squirm when the topic turns to sexuality and gender. The Bible punches both left and right.

Patterson’s story reminded me how severe the consequences of this reductionism can be. When the Christian life becomes about only one thing, we become willing to move other facets of faithfulness out of the way to have a clearer shot at the one thing. The hardest part is that evangelism, out of all the things we can reduce to the Christian life to, does not feel reductionistic. It does not feel like slighting the other parts of Scripture. It feels like maximal obedience. That’s why we often don’t stop ourselves until some intensely ugly sin shows itself.

I wish the woman in Patterson’s story would have experienced a more full, a more holistically faithful vision of the Christian life, instead of being told that her husband’s sin was no big deal as long as he showed himself in church. I wish many of the churches that I know from childhood would have recovered a more balanced obedience, instead of having cookout after cookout until the body finally shriveled and died (or going door-to-door with the Romans road while having not the foggiest clue what the Bible says).

We can do better.

How to Wreck Christian Love

Caring about love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. It’s a gospel concern.

My devotional reading this morning was in Romans 14. I admit this passage is a tangle for me. On the one hand, Paul adjures Christians to refrain from judging each other. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (v 4) On the other hand, isn’t “Judge not” one of the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied passages in all of Scripture? How can I make sense of verse 13, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer,” and the final verse of Romans 13: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”? Aren’t those in tension?

Yes and no. Here’s what I’m thinking.

It is possible to wreck Christian love and unity by preaching the truth (like Rom. 13:14 above) in a way that assumes that my struggle is the same struggle that everyone else is having.  When Paul says in verse 23 that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats [meat, presumably produced in pagan marketplaces and likely offered to false gods], because the eating is not from faith,” he’s revealing the heart of the matter. The issue is conscience. Christians whose consciences do not condemn them are free to eat the meat, because they are eating “in honor of the Lord” (v 6). Their consciences are not haunted by the false gods. By contrast, the Christians whose consciences do condemn them should refrain, because a willingness to eat when your conscience is pricked is a sinful species of unbelief, and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v 23).

The fault line of disunity within this community is right here. Christians who are eating assume that the problem with the Christians who don’t eat is ignorance, or failure to realize their freedom. So they eat in front of the weak-conscience Christians in order to shame their conscientiousness. Paul rebukes this as making “your brother to stumble” (v 21). On the other hand, the weak-conscience Christians may pass judgment on the Christians who eat, reasoning that their problem is that they simply don’t care about the worship of idols or about purity in holiness.

Interestingly, Paul does not affirm either camp’s view of the other. He does say that “nothing is unclean in itself,” but immediately adds that “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (v 14). Each camp is right AND wrong. They’re right to follow their conscience, but they’re wrong to assume they know what’s going on in the hearts of the other believers. This is what it means to “judge” one another in the way that Jesus forbids. There is indeed purity and holiness which we must exhort each other to, but we cannot exhort each other to it if we are convinced we can see inside everyone’s motivations.

This passage rebuked me. It brought to mind things I’ve written in the past, like this piece. I still agree with everything I wrote there, but I don’t believe the way I’ve applied it has always—or even often—been good. For example, I can think very clearly of examples where I saw someone on social media say they were seeing a certain movie, or I noticed a particular DVD in a friend’s house, and I drew conclusions in my heart about where they must “struggle.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the struggles I envisioned for them were identical to my own struggles. Inferring from their entertainment to their spiritual life was tempting for me because it let me validate my own experiences and not think of myself as “weak.”

This wrecks Christian love. It wrecks Christian love by empowering self-righteousness. It also wrecks Christian love by keeping believers away from each other in meaningful community. That’s the tragic irony of self-righteousness; it thwarts actual righteousness by making sure that people don’t really enter into the joys, sorrows, temptations, and triumphs of others.

It wrecks Christian love too by undermining our watchcare over each other. “Do not cause your brother to stumble” assumes you that you have a stake in your brother’s spiritual life. But if you think of believers whose lives don’t look exactly like yours as spiritual lepers or pariahs, how can you think you have a stake in their spiritual health? Isn’t it more important in that case to play the prophet, and use social media and blogs to passive aggressively shame them? And all the while, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” goes ignored.

There’s an old cliche that says that “Speak the truth with love” is the dividing line between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives stop at “Speak the truth,”  liberals skip over it and say “Speak with love,” while the gospel says “Speak the truth with love.” It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one. Caring about Christian love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. Reformed Christians especially need to hear this, because we often feel satisfied merely if we’re calling others to repentance. That’s not how Paul thinks. Let’s never pit Christian love and Christian purity against each other. And let’s not assume that what God is doing in our own hearts is exactly what he’s doing in everyone else.

A Falling Out for Christians and Public Schools

Rod Dreher reprints a correspondence between one of his readers and their child’s school principal, regarding a teacher’s lesson on transgenderism and sexual orientation. As the emails indicate, the parents had requested advance notice if their child’s classrooms were going to teach on the topic, so as to officially request an exemption. When that didn’t happen, and the child received a day’s worth of ideological training on gender, the frustrated parents reached out to the principal.

After initially not responding, the principal replied:

As a mother and school leader, I can empathize with the challenge of keeping up with what our children are exposed to and wanting to be their first teacher on so many issues.

I also think well of [the teacher]. She has shown herself to be a proficient teacher and student advocate.

I do not recall a conversation about how we would handle conversations about transgender issues, but I cannot imagine agreeing either to censure such material or inform you in advance. I am sorry if [the teacher] or I led you to believe such a request would be honored.

The book used is one that is a respected text in honoring the diversity of our children. It is a text that explains a real situation that many children face in self-acceptance, acceptance by others and being true to themselves. We feel the classroom is the appropriate place to share such messages.

We would not request that these themes require permission, or clearance with families. (Different than courses on sexual education, for which we do require permission.) Quite the contrary, families have asked that we enhance our curriculum to be more inclusive of all the different groups our children and families represent, and we feel that this book achieves this purpose.

Here’s what frightens me about this. I cannot imagine a reason that the parents would lie about having talked to the principal previously. There’s nothing to gain from a lie like that (especially since the reader who showed this exchange to Dreher does not reveal the name of the school/principal/teacher). There is, however, quite a bit to gain for a school in misleading parents to feel more in the know about sexual diversity training (which is what this is, not education) than they actually will be. Of course, I don’t know that this principal lied to the parents, so it would be irresponsible to say absolutely that she did. And that’s kind of the point–the alleged conversation was off the record, so the parents can’t prove that anything was agreed to or that their trust has been betrayed. If this were a whistleblowing case involving a CEO and an employee, I think I know where initial public empathy would lie.

Up to this point I’ve resisted the idea that Christian parents have a positive moral obligation to withdraw their children from public school. I still think laying a burden where Scripture does not should be avoided at nearly all costs, and I know these issues affect lower income families in a much different way than they do upper-middle class ones. To that end, if I were a pastor, I wouldn’t (I think) say from the pulpit that parents shouldn’t enroll their children in public schools.

But I have to admit that the exchange Dreher reprints is terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because it’s a naked assertion of authority that is beyond accountability. It’s terrifying because I cannot conceive what the parents could have done differently while assuming the school and its administrators were acting in good faith. It’s terrifying because the lack of nuance, the lack of sympathy, and condescending tone of the principal in these emails suggest that there is no space in her moral imagination for people who have the concerns of these parents. They simply don’t appear on the school’s radar. They don’t count. What matters is pleasing those who want compulsory transgender training in the school, even if it means being duplicitous with parents who have religious or moral scruples.

It feels more and more like the arc of history is bent in the shape of a bow, and its arrow is pointed squarely at people like me and my family.

My honest advice to orthodox Christian families right now would be to do everything possible–financially, logistically, even geographically–to have your young, school-age children spend their days at traditional institutions, or at home. And my urgent request to Christian churches would be for local congregations to quickly move to help families with this burden by organizing part time school opportunities as much as possible. If churches have to wait on that new gym in order to pay some volunteer instructors to teach 2 or 3 days per week, why not? If local churches have a strong group of stay at home moms, or dads with flexible schedules, why not engage these members to be proactive in Christian education? In thinking about public mercy ministries that churches can invest in, I can hardly think of a mercy ministry that would make a larger kingdom imprint than a part time day school. The moment and the opportunity is right there.

Oh, and as a postscript: How do progressive evangelicals who rebuke conservative Christian families for not supporting public schools reckon with all this? If you can look at this episode and come away still thinking that the real problem are moms and dads who want to do a “white flight” out of public schools, I’m afraid you’ve reached Sean Spicer-levels of objectivity. This isn’t a group of privileged Benedict Option religious fanatics who want their elementary and middle schools to teach the 10 Commandments on Thursdays. We’re talking about families whose only request is that their children not be forced to learn a destructive, secular liturgy. And that request is increasingly beyond the pale for public schools. Who is fleeing whom here?

What Hogwarts Can Teach Us About Friendship

Why were the Harry Potter stories so wildly successful? What was it about them, as opposed to hundreds of other “young adult” novels, that embossed onto the consciousness of a generation? Why are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of their US publication with the same kind of enthusiasm as if the books were published last Christmas?

Here’s one theory. The Harry Potter books have become cultural touchstones because they are not really about magic, or heroes, or even good vs evil. They are really about friendship.

Friendship is the rosebud of American culture. Its the thing universally acknowledged as necessary and good, and the one thing that every mechanism of our daily life in a flat, atomized society violently resists. Particularly for readers of Harry Potter who were the first to grow up in a culture shaped by the internet and social media, the friendships depicted in the novels seem almost like a shameless daydream. Hogwarts is the epicenter for a kind of intimacy and interdependence that, for many of us, exists only in such fairy tales. Friendship–the kind that ties together Harry, Ron, and Hermione– is rare.

Not long ago someone asked me if I could recall the happiest period of my adolescence. I didn’t have to think long. The ages and the years are fuzzy (I was homeschooled, so all grades run together in my memory), but I could instantly remember a season of life where I was surrounded by friends from church. Though I couldn’t tell you what kind of Bible teaching impacted me then, nor most of the books that I loved, I could readily paint a mental picture of what it felt like to be tied into a group of others who cared about and looked out for me. It was a season that the college years destroyed, since most of the kids in the youth group went to different schools, and a large number used the opportunity to drop out of church altogether. When the rhythm of student ministry life was gone, so were the friendships. And the same is true for most of us, whether the rhythm is from church, or school, or neighborhood. Mobility cuts through friendship like a scythe.

Except at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter universe, there’s no choice necessary between friends and “the next step.” In fact, as the mythology of the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the friendships are part of the triumph of the good. The final victory over evil demands love seasoned through the years. Every time that Harry tries to accomplish by his own strength, even if his motivations are noble (like keeping his friends out of harm’s way), Ron, Hermione, and others intercede on his behalf.

This is the kind of spiritual friendship that cannot be adequately described in a context that sees shared hobbies or mutual ambitions as the extent of belonging. It’s a spiritual neighborliness that is hard to find in many churches, as ruthless age-segregation and perfunctory programming bring people together just long enough to send them away again. This liturgy of loneliness is one well-learned by many adults, especially men. In J.K. Rowling’s universe we get a vivid depiction of male friendship and compassion, as a stark contrast to our own disenchanted time, when many young men are isolated and many older men are pathologically lonely.

The Potter novels charm so many because they are an unembarrassed confession that friends matter, and that despite the best efforts of technology and consumerism, we human beings simply cannot get over the fact. That is perhaps one reason why an aggressively self-determining, self-authenticating Western audience somehow feels at home in a fantasy that clearly hearkens to a more standardized, more ritualistic experience of life. Our time has moved past antiquarian boarding schools or formalistic liturgies, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the bestselling novels of the modern age.

All to often, Christian voices do not challenge the relational damage of modernity. How many evangelical parents are willing for their children to explore alternatives to a far-away university? And how many youth ministries set up programming and structure that incubates young adults from the rest of the church, reinforcing the idea that the goal of life (even the goal of faith!) is to assimilate as long as possible into your assigned demographic? It’s ironic that many evangelicals were more worried about readers of Harry Potter becoming wizards and witches than they were about their becoming atomized, self-reinventing American dreamers, anxious for Rob Bell to teach them what it means to be spiritual.

If Christian communities cannot offer friendship, what can they offer? Part of believing the gospel at all is believing that it wasn’t given to individuals, but to a church. There’s much conversation right now about recovering a biblical ideal of church membership. Good! But a body part that never responds to the other body parts is probably dead, even if it’s still attached. Friendships weren’t created by God to disappear as quickly as they tend to. Covenant membership means friendship if it means anything.

Perhaps the best thing evangelicals could do to learn this is to put down the church growth manuals and the target demographic research, and read some Harry Potter.

Would You Leave Your Church Over Politics?

Question: Would you, Christian, ever be so disappointed in the political views of your pastor or fellow church members, that you found yourself unable to even bear going to church anymore?

To be totally honest, before today, I would have dismissed this theoretical as too ridiculous for serious contemplation. It seems to me self-evident that the kind of people most likely to regularly attend church are not the same kind of people who would just decide to stop going over an election. That feels intuitive to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who admitted to abandoning their church over red vs blue.

I did however see this Twitter comment today.

Now of course, the problem with writing in response to posts on social media (and the reason I usually don’t do it and tend to look down at the practice) is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, exist in uniquely strong cultural vacuums. I’m sure the author of this tweet is telling the truth about hearing from all those people who’ve quit church since Donald Trump was elected. But I’m also sure that the people she has heard from do not represent any kind of serious movement or trend. When something written about a handful of people gets a lot of shares on social media, it’s easy to mistake something that merely reverberated in your particular slice of Twitter for something with actual consequence and meaning outside the internet.

Here’s the thing though: I do worry that the notion of leaving your church over political disagreements is one that can sell easier right now than it could have 20 years ago. In fact, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside college campuses, for example, finding out that there are some Christians who can’t bear to attend church because of who the President is shouldn’t stun you. It bears the stamp of the hyper-polarized, relationally recalcitrant age we live in.

Not only that, but it also seems to comport with a trendy spirit toward the institutional church, particular amongst younger religious Americans coming out of a conservative Christian childhood. It’s a spirit I’ve written about before in regards to the “purity culture” debates. The fastest way to get hip young evangelicals to heap praise on your blog is to write about how dangerous and worthy of suspicion the local church is, and to insist, contra the backward-minded (and probably Trump-voting) fogies, that if a church ever betrays your trust or makes you feel unhappy, you should leave–that church at least, and possibly faith itself (if doing so helps you get your groove back).

If you know this kind of culture within evangelicalism, then it’s hard to read about adults who can’t attend church post-election 2016 with much empathy. And that’s not a good thing, because there is something prophetic to be said about the way some church leaders and ministries turned their backs on their own theological identity in order to sell their politics. It’s good that people are grieved over that.

The problem though is that this response to sin and failure within the Body of Christ is simply trafficking in one kind of consumerism in response to another. Yes, many Christians do not have a consistently Christian politic. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, some of them leaders. Yes, there is much to be ashamed. Yes, yes, yes. But none of this should be a surprise, and none of it is a caveat to the importance of the church. To stand over and above your brothers and sisters in the faith and say, “Your political sins disqualify you from my presence,” is to turn the entire gospel of the church on its head. It’s an intensely therapeutic and self-oriented relationship to the Christian faith.

It’s also giving politics way too much credit. The failure of many of us evangelicals has been to let politics subsume our Christian theology and identity. We’ve been “Christian conservatives” instead of conservative Christians. But that failure won’t be remedied by merely allowing our faith to be subsumed by a more progressive or more contemporary politic. Christians who cannot allow themselves to be in the same church as those who hold opposing political beliefs are, whether consciously or not, looking for a religious faith that is ultimately subservient to their politics.

One of the glorious benefits of Christian church membership is the opportunity it gives us to be shaped and formed, with others, by truths and practices that we did not create and that we cannot co-opt. And this process begins immediately in the local gathering of the church. When you find yourself worshiping and praying and confessing and hearing and singing alongside those who in any other walk of life would be an utter stranger to you, you are experiencing not just more inclusive relationships, you are experiencing spiritual realities that transcend even human relationships. When the bodies that share your pew but not your politics recite the same covenants or the same creeds as you, the idea that we are all the sum total of our own ideas explodes.

But all this is lost in a religious culture that understands church and spiritual disciplines as just more possibilities for self-actualization. The idea that a stodgy institution, filled with hypocrites and culturally illiterate patriarchs, actually deserves a self-crucifying kind of loyalty is not one that you’ll find in the pages of bestsellers. In the age of merciless autonomy, life can and should be blown up and traded-in for whatever works today. Eat, pray, love–what, to whom, and with whom you want! Spiritualized versions of this, even if accompanied with harrowing first person narratives of the horrors of old time religion, are no better in the end.

Evangelicalism could use better politics. But first, it needs members. It doesn’t matter how well we know the social justice implications of the kingdom if what we mean by the “kingdom” is merely the sum total of our individualistic lives. The church is imperfect, not despite me and you, but precisely because of me and you. Keep that in mind the next time you think of politics and feel tempted to skip Sunday.

Sitting Athwart History

Today I’m re-upping this post from May 2016. 

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for mere pulpit partisanship. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom and the end of slave trades, but also one that built monasteries. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.

Policing the Purity Police

As someone who is generally sympathetic to the ideological quadrant from whence arguments like this one come, I am slow, usually, to critique writers who call for more purity, more clarity, and more protection for men and women in the church. That said, I think telling brothers and sisters in the local church that they ought not communicate ever over text message is an unhelpful burden that probably causes more issues with church unity (which is as just as much a command as sexual purity) than it solves.

But let me say one thing. Every time a piece like this one makes waves on social media, I honestly can’t figure out which is more discouraging: The original, misguided argument, or the patronizing, vaguely antinomian response. No, I don’t believe a wholesale prohibition of texting is wise or helpful. But I also don’t believe that such an idea is inherently worse than its opposite, or that the so-called “purity culture” which it represents is actually a more live threat to the lives and marriages of believers than adultery is.

I’ve said this before, but it bears saying again. It just feels like whenever the same anti-purity culture personalities pile on a sentiment like the one in the article, what they are really protesting is far more than just the article, or tweet, or policy in question. It feels like they are protesting the motivation behind it. It feels like what is really offensive in this scenario is the notion that men and women have moral obligations of sexual purity on them and that these obligations might actually matter more–for them, their families, and for the church–than convenience or fun. I’ve never been able to shake this suspicion when I see conversation about how harmful the “purity culture” can be. I absolutely agree that virginity and chastity aren’t the chief values of the Christian life, and that a person without either is no further from the gospel than a person without kindness or patience. 100% correct. But the Christian faith demands holiness in our sexuality, and it’s not shy about suggesting drastic measures to pursue it–such as, say, excluding a person from the fellowship because of who he is sleeping with.

Is there a point to be made about unnecessary sexualization of male-female friendships in the church? You better believe it. A church body that looks like a middle school dance, with boys on one side and the girls on the other and awkwardness in the middle, is a deeply sad sight. When the Bible says to love, serve, prefer, forgive, bear with, rejoice with, admonish, and care for one another, it is not addressing only males or females. And evangelicals have often failed to grasp this. I heard a man once advise single guys in the church not to date the girls there because a breakup would cause awkwardness on Sunday morning. That kind of advice reinforces all kinds of bad ideas about how men and women should relate to one another in the body. We can, must, do better.

But I’ll be honest. I don’t think we’ll get there if we make critiquing purity culture a priority. The article about texting was written by a man who sounds like has some ill-formed notions of what the church community should look like. But that doesn’t mean all of his notions are wrong. He is absolutely right that 1) adultery is wicked, 2) sexual sin begins way before the clothes come off, and 3) preventing sin, abuse, and devastated families requires active obedience, not just passive. Do many of the people calling his article “outrageous” and “sexist” and “ridiculous” agree with these 3 points? If so, why the outrage? Why the scorn? Why can’t we admonish someone for following his noble intentions to an ignoble end? Why is the reaction to an article like this so fervent, so incandescent in its sarcastic dismissal of the very idea that we ought to fight for sexual purity, rather than merely hope for it?

Perhaps you think things like the Billy Graham rule are too far and not helpful. You could be right. But if such a rule makes you angry, perhaps you should ask yourself why. Does it make you angry because it seems to get in the way of sexual obedience? Does it make you angry because it seems to undermine faithfulness to the covenants we make with our husbands, wives, children, and church members? Or, is it possible that it makes you angry because it cuts at your sense of freedom, happiness, autonomy, and fun? Is it possible that your resentment of “purity culture” is rooted less in the (real) damage that it does to the cause of Christ and the kingdom, and rooted more in resistance to the idea that God could make counter-cultural demands of us?

If your right arm offends you, cut it off, even if you’re holding your phone.