Friday, May 15, 2015

The future of the American church

What will the Christian church in the United States look like in the next generation? And who will be part of it? Only God knows for sure. But, as the song goes, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

The Pew Research Center, which measures numbers, noted that the results of a survey released earlier this week indicated that the percentages of Americans not affiliated with any religious group has risen sharply, nearly eight percentage points, over the past seven years, driven largely by the so-called millennial generation. The survey didn’t try to explain comprehensively why this is happening, but I have my suspicions.

I suspect too much of an emphasis on and expectation of maintaining “tradition.”

Long gone, of course, are the days where you were born, reared, married and died in one singular faith tradition without questioning. But it seems to me a lot of that has to do with the growing lack of insularity between different traditions, with people moving among them as never before around the time I was coming up. (Until 1998 I was a lifelong Presbyterian of a fairly conservative bent; while I still think of myself as Reformed, that theological school is not a “test of fellowship.”)

I do get concerned, however, with my generation’s emphasis since the 1980s on a national “Christian heritage,” with a couple of state legislatures working on bills to make the Bible their official book. And I wonder if people in their 20s and 30s — those who would be the ages of my children if I had any — are rebelling against that because a higher percentage of the “nones” come from that generation than the population at large.

You see, “tradition” implies “establishment,” to which God never called us as a church because when you become establishment you invariably also become liberal, watering down some Biblical essentials for the sake of getting along in society. What became the religious right beginning in the 1970s and drove the culture war some 30 years ago melded conservative politics with liberal theology, with the fight against “gay rights” actually fitting into that category because all the Bible has always said about homosexuality is, in essence, “Don’t bring that into the church.” Trouble is, our efforts to marginalize gays then have in fact backfired tremendously, with even a number of evangelicals supporting same-gender matrimony.

Some folks are already saying that American society will crumble if people stop going to church; I question that because Europe has been pretty secular for decades, if not centuries, but tends toward stability. I suspect they fear a loss of privilege, an understanding that their values aren’t to be challenged or even questioned. But to me, it also signifies a lack of trust in God to preserve His people, especially since many of them cry “persecution” at the drop of a hat. (Truth be told, you can’t be persecuted if you’re in a position of power.)

I can’t say with any certainty just what the future holds for the church in American society. But I do know Who holds that future so I’m not worrying about it, and we may simply need to adjust.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Praying against Hillary?

In 2008, I received a chain email imploring Christians to pray that Barack Obama would be defeated. (I responded that it was an appropriate request that God wouldn’t honor.) Next year, faced with the near-inevitability that Hillary Clinton will take the White House, I’m sure that some will pray the same useless prayer.

So if you’re praying now that someone will defeat her, stop it. Tout de suite.

To understand why, consider the motivation for people to pray for the defeat of another: Lack of trust in God to preserve His people. In fact, the eyes of those do so are clearly not on Him; they want to tell Him what to do so that they can live in this country under the assumption that their convictions rule the culture. In other words, it’s about nothing but self-preservation, and when He’s not trusted He’s under no compulsion to act.

It could be that things could get even worse the more they pray. Not only will she have access to an ark of cash, which people will gladly give her, and an unprecedented army of volunteers, but any complaints from her enemies will be — and in fact are already being — met with derision. That is to say, the doom-and-gloom scenarios about which they “prophesy,” I would say falsely, will cause people to vote for her to spite them and make her even more popular. I thus predict that the manufactured email and Benghazi “scandals” will come to naught. If anything, her candidacy could be a boon for Democrats nationwide.

Bottom line, if you have to spend your time and energy denouncing the person you don’t like, that means that someone you do like must not have all that much, in anything at all. You’ve thus already lost, sorry to say.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Baltimore — a game-adjuster?

Another urban riot of course has taken place as the result of a death of an African-American man in police custody, this time in Baltimore. And of course, the first thing people think about is white racist cops out to brutalize the black community.

What’s different about this is — well, much of Baltimore’s political leadership is black. And, in a twist, six cops have been indicted on homicide charges. Oh, and by the way, three of the cops are black. So what may be going on here?

I have two theories.

One, if my experience is any indication, the black community in many cases suffers from social isolation — some of that, frankly self-inflicted. I grew up in a black neighborhood that wasn’t “ghetto,” and yet I found few neighbors in many of the places that I frequented as a child. (Mom, not being a native of Pittsburgh, used to take us to a lot of cultural events, such as a “Nutcracker” performance every Christmas, a marionette theatre troupe and a local conservatory that to this day sponsors a quarterly flower show.) I personally loved going the Three Rivers Stadium to watch the Pirates play but as a teen routinely went to games alone.

Which, for me, raised the question: Why didn’t we go to such places? And it seemed that because I enjoyed such events, and still do, I was persona non grata among my black peers for being too “white.” You wouldn’t believe just how much of an issue that was back then. In fact, some years ago I learned that many black residents of the Los Angeles area have never seen the Pacific Ocean despite being a relatively short drive.

According to another article, I think in The New Republic, many African-Americans in the ‘hood have roots in the South, which subscribes to an “honor culture” where, if you’re offended, you literally take the law into your own hands because of lack of trust in the political system. That explained a few things, such as their unwillingness to “snitch” on drug-dealers ravaging their communities — and, if one chart is to be believed, the states with the highest number of deaths per capita are in the South, with Louisiana at the top. This may be why “Stop the Violence!” marches, of which we have at least one in Pittsburgh every year, have precious little effect, not to mention mistrust of the cops.

Needless to say, such issues don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. But at least they may open some eyes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More meditations from the dance floor

This past Saturday I attended an East Coast Swing — think “jitterbug” — dance because I was in the mood to get my groove on. And that I did.

While there I noticed three younger women, college-age I presume, all of them beautifully-dressed — one was wearing a short rose-colored dress with black lace shoulders and tights to match the shoulders and another a short powder-blue dress. I got dances with all three of them during the night; as I was twirling the woman in blue the hem of her flaring dress brushed up against me.

While thinking about that today and recalling books by my favorite author John Eldredge, I remembered why just dancing with them — I wouldn’t remember their names if you told me and might never see them again anyway — reminded me how a healthy dynamic between men and women should feel.

One, while it’s OK in that particular place for a woman to ask a man to dance, and I’ve been approached any number of times, in each case that night I was the one who took the initiative; for the sake of for a man’s psyche, that’s as it should be. Being that I’m old enough to be their fathers I wasn’t about to ask any of them on dates, but in this instance it just felt comfortable asking a total stranger to dance (it didn’t always).

And I would surmise that the young ladies themselves also wanted someone to notice them — as I said, their outfits were snazzy. (They certainly got my attention!) Eldredge believes that women, especially younger ones, need to feel chosen and lovely, so I feel I played my part as well.

I walked away that night feeling affirmed and hope they did, too. Would that happen to guys and gals all the time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mixed emotions

I’ve always believed homosexual conduct to be morally wrong, and about a decade ago I took a public stance against same-gender matrimony.

That being said, I’m not up-in-arms about a possible Supreme Court decision that might legalize it around the country.

And that’s because the folks fighting it are interested not so much in “marriage” but in maintaining social control and cultural authority. You see, in doing so they ended up compromising it.

How so? Well, way back in the 1970s they decided to make active gays into a special class of sinners, especially to raise money for para-church media "ministries" that became empires in their own right but, as it turns out, having precious little influence in society at large. Truth is, they go off on these crusades to perpetuate themselves but make a lot of enemies in the process.

I know what some of you might be thinking: We don’t want to raise our children in a decadent society. To that I respond, “Where you do think you are — heaven?”

Let’s not forget the early church, which was a friendless, underground movement that nevertheless eventually wore out the Roman Empire, lived in a time that likely doesn’t compare to what we face — probably much worse than today. So how did it survive? Not by demanding “privilege” but by living the way that God told it to, without political power at that.

Why can’t the American church do that? Well, it’s become too worldly.

In one sense, a blow against “traditional marriage” might be a key to spiritual renewal because once the trappings of Christianity fall out of favor in society we might finally turn to God — because He was there all along. That’s why I don’t see a ruling for “gay marriage” as an entirely bad thing, even though I won’t agree with it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Singleness — one male’s view

Something I’ve noticed about the literature available on being a single Christian in a couples’ world: Virtually all of it is written by women. It’s as if we single men don’t exist except for the possible sake of being a partner.

Now, I readily admit that part of that has to do with men generally not being writers and thus probing deeply into the question, but a part of me still feels somewhat marginalized with a male perspective on singleness being virtually non-existent. (Perhaps I should be the one to start, so here goes.)

I’m a rare breed — a middle-aged Christian man who has never experienced matrimony. I could get into several legitimate reasons why that’s the case, but as much as people (again, mostly women) say that singleness is not a sign of spiritual immaturity, for us never-married men it really might be the case.

Much men’s ministry often doesn’t help us because it tends to be geared toward guys with families and thus focuses on “leadership.” Nothing wrong with that, as I’ve myself gone through a leadership course that my church offers; the trouble is that such leadership gifts often have yet to be cultivated in us and we often can’t spend time with other godly men in the meantime because they just don’t have it to give. It's even worse if you’re not into sports (though I am).

Moreover, the reason we’re single is that, for the most part, women just haven’t been romantically interested for one reason or another. Asking women on dates is nerve-wracking as it is, and taking the chance of being turned down — and, in this context, it really does represent personal rejection whether a woman who says no means it that way or not — is too great a risk for many of us, especially since we’re the ones supposed to take the initiative, so we do spend a lot of time alone or in unfulfilling singles groups. (This is why, for us, “waiting on God” is impractical.) We tend to be more socially inept than women anyway precisely because we’re men and thus need tutoring and practice in such matters; many of us simply don’t know how to operate.

Lest you think I’m being self-pitying or cynical, I’m speaking mainly from past personal experience because things have begun to change of late. Some years ago I did get to spend some good one-on-one time with a godly woman; though that’s no longer the case, I can’t underestimate the effect it — more accurately, she — had on me. Later I got back into social dance, which apparently the ladies think I’m pretty good at. (To be truthful, sometimes the attention they give me even makes me nervous.) And more recently I’ve become involved in a singles group at church that does focus on dating, with everyone encouraging everyone else on his/her respective journeys.

I wish to stress that I haven’t “wasted” my single years pining for a spouse; I took the time to finish college and, after graduating and getting a job in my field, began to develop a parallel music career; a man especially needs something to bring to the table, I know now, and there’s no time like the present to develop it. I just wish we in the church would pay attention to guys who haven’t “arrived” yet; we could use the encouragement.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tilting at windmills

In the 1999 book “Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?”, Cal Thomas, vice president of communications for the late but hardly lamented Moral Majority, mentioned something I didn’t know: James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family,” once threatened to run for president as an independent because the Republican Party wasn’t moving on “social issues,” specifically gay rights and abortion, as quickly as he wanted. His intention was to pull social conservatives out of the GOP to show just many supported that agenda and the party had better heed.

Except for one thing: He apparently grossly overestimated that support, which is likely why I and others hadn’t heard.

Earlier this week, according to Right Wing Watch, Dobson predicted “civil war” were the Supreme Court to favor same-gender matrimony, and I understand that cases are coming to the Court to be decided soon.

Of course, Dobson’s been wrong before and since. Before the 2008 general election he wrote a hysterical screed giving predictions as to what might happen by 2012 were Barack Obama to become president — and virtually none of those predictions have come true. So why would anyone believe him now?

Not only is the idea of “civil war” far-fetched, but just whom would his supporters fight? And with what? I suspect that if his supporters were to do that they would end up utterly isolated, with no allies to speak of; if anything, we're virtually there already.

Here’s the problem: According to the op-ed “A Christian Nation? Since When?” by Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” and published in the New York Times, business groups, in reaction to the New Deal — which they despised — reached out to a number of Christian clergy and successfully married capitalism with the faith to a point where, by the 1980s, evangelicalism was tied to, shall we say, “what’s good for General Motors.” I’m sure that conservative Christians were counting on the support of big business to fund its social concerns.

Big mistake.

The first chink in that armor: The business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, in 1988 headed by Bill Clinton, reached out to business to a point where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed Republicans before, declined to endorse a presidential candidate in 1996. Today, the Koch brothers, who announced that they plan to spend nearly a billion dollars in the next campaign mostly on “conservative” candidates and are thus despised by the political left, nevertheless support abortion rights and gay marriage.

And when the state of Indiana passed a “religious freedom” bill that would essentially allow business run by Christians not to serve gays for religious reasons, a number of business groups decided or threatened to pull out of the state, the capital Indianapolis especially being endangered because it’s now a popular convention hub.

Why? Because appearing to discriminate against gays would be bad for business — due not to any anti-Christian “gay lobby” but personal relationships and the money that gays could bring in. Money talks, remember, and for that reason the understanding of a “quid pro quo” turned out not to be viable.

So that’s where we stand.

In the 1980s many believers, thanks to Ronald Reagan, took for granted political power that they thought they had but really didn’t. So now we’re facing court decisions that may not favor us — and we’re facing them alone because, as it turns out, most people never cared about the social issues that we do. I predict that Dobson’s “civil war” will fizzle out quickly, if it gets started at all.