At Northern, I teach a Doctoral seminar every year on the cultural/intellectual shifts involving modernity, postmodernity and post-Christendom. Jack Thompson, a Doctoral student in the class and a local pastor handed in a great paper last year. Within the paper were parts of an interview with two twenty-something emerging church type guys. They were leading a house group at Jack’s church. They were also teaching a class and talking about church in ways that was all new to the rest of the more traditional Baptist church. Their words really illustrate the deep cultural shift taking place among the sons and daughters of evangelicals. I used some of this interview in teaching another class yesterday. Much of the content here may be old hat to many of us. Yet it continually shocks me how many churches are unaware of the depth of this shift taking place. In reading it again, I thought it illustrates beautifully the shift that is going on in the new generations of the West. If you are looking for some clarity on these issues, I offer this somewhat lengthy interview as transcribed below. And if you have time, can you answer this: How would your local church receive these two guys, Matt and Jose, and what they have to say? If you have the time, enjoy!
JACK: What have you learned about modernity?
MATT: Modernity was an era of science, proof about things and solid facts. It was a wonderful age of construction and maybe a kind of renaissanceâ€¦. Today, modernists are using apologetics against non-Christians and it was never intended for that. Thatâ€™s the problem. They use books like Mere Christianity to logically try to explain God and his existence then they use Evidence That Demands a Verdict and all of this archeological dig stuffâ€¦ but we were never meant to prove the existence of God. You canâ€™t do it. God is way too big. And then when you think you have a hold on Godâ€™s existence, then you realize heâ€™s just bigger. And people then give up. People today get really angry and say, â€œYou canâ€™t explain God. Donâ€™t even try.â€ And if you think that you can totally explain God as a Christian, then youâ€™re close minded because you are just putting God in a box and non-Christians know thisâ€¦.
JACK: What else have you discovered?
MATT: â€¦In the evangelical worldâ€¦we throw terms like repentance around and how we just try to sell the gospel to peopleâ€¦ going door to door, using the four spiritual laws, which are half-truths anyway. They are ridiculous. Theyâ€™ve only been around about 10 or 15 years anywayâ€¦selling the gospel becomes like selling fire insurance. You just have to believe, intellectually that Jesus is God, and that he died for your sins, and then you are saved and can just sit around for the rest of your life. And I think this is all just so ridiculous because God wants us to move, and go, and do something. It has nothing to do with simple belief. Your beliefs may start something, but actions come out of your beliefs and thatâ€™s the point. The evangelical system says, â€œbelieve the right things, adhere to the correct intellectual things and you are going to be saved.â€ And â€œsavedâ€ to evangelicals is the idea that you are going to heaven laterâ€” then life becomes a kind of a waiting room. But they donâ€™t realize that God wants to save you from traumas of the past. God wants to save you from whatâ€™s going on inside you right now, psychologically, physically, emotionally, spiritually, itâ€™s every part of you that God wants to renew you. And evangelicals forget about this. They make an empty system where all you have to do is have a little bit of faithâ€”whatever that meansâ€”and then you will be saved. And itâ€™s just like becoming a mere shell of a Christian and totally miss the point.
JACK: Do you see decisions to follow Christ as connected to the background of the seeker?
MATT: Right, itâ€™s about the filters we all have. Itâ€™s the parents we grew up with, the culture, the time, the atmosphere, just everything about us. And these filters move into our theology too. Moderns think, â€œWeâ€™ve got it! ! Itâ€™s been over 2000 years and we finally have a good grasp on the Bible and what it means, and we have archeology and all this other evidence and facts and weâ€™ve now finally got it!â€ Unfortunately, they donâ€™t realize that maybe their idea of God and how to understand him and their theology, is like just one way. They donâ€™t understand that itâ€™s not the only way but just one way of thinking which came from somebody before, right. Their idea isnâ€™t the best one, it was just a new one when it came out for the first timeâ€”when they had to fight against the modernist interpretation of scripture. And now, weâ€™re doing it in the postmodern age. And people today are saying, â€œNo, youâ€™re just wrong, and youâ€™re hereticsâ€ and stuff. But the modern viewpoint and how they interpret scripture isnâ€™t the only way or the best or the most evolved. The world is changing. I mean, God doesnâ€™t change, but He is changing us, right.
JACK: What do you think about evangelicalismâ€™s idea of salvation?
JOSE: I find it interesting in the NT, that when Jesus talks to his disciples, he never asks them make a decision. He asks them to make a commitment.
JACK: â€¦to â€œFollow me.â€
JOSE: Yes. They had to leave their houses. It was a great commitment.
MATT: And they knew what it looked like. They knew what they were getting into.
JOSE: Yeah, they did know what they were getting into. Jesus used harsh words at time like when he said, â€œLet the dead bury the dead…â€ (Lk 9:59). They were tested and knew what Jesus was about. So they had to make a real commitment. It wasnâ€™t only one more year of my life. It was like two, three and the rest of their lives. They knew that. It was like a marriage. When you get married, you donâ€™t do it with just the first person you findâ€¦. You have to get to know the other personâ€”you have to experience who they are and ask questions, and then you make the commitment. I mean, we are supposed to be the church, the bride of Christ, and we expect nonbelievers to find Christ by answering a certain way to a bunch of dumb questions? Do we really expect them to make a commitment based on that? I mean, how stupid is that! Nobody does that in their right mind today.
JACK: So youâ€™re saying the motivation for making a decision to follow Christ has to be right?
JOSE: You have to fall in love with Christ. You canâ€™t just get married because you want to get out of your house. That marriage is ruined in that case. You have to fall in love with the real person.
JACK: Often evangelicals will throw â€œhellâ€ at people to get them to make a decision. I suppose youâ€™re saying that this can also be wrongâ€¦.
MATT: â€¦The idea of hell was borrowed from the pagans. The Pharisees took the concept of hell from the pagans to scare people to following God and Christ just pretty much takes their language and throws it back in their face. So then the question is what hell is really about? Jesus uses images like â€œGehenaâ€ outside the city gatesâ€”an actual garbage dumpâ€”so that they understood the imageryâ€¦. But the thing is that Jesus never pushed hell into somebodyâ€™s face. There were a lot of people that did come up to him who were honestly seeking God. Jesus had infinite patience with them. But those individuals like the Pharisees who were getting in the way of people following God, people who were honestly seeking and asking questions about who God is, and how to follow him, Jesus just got their face and tore them apart. How dare you get in the way of people honestly seeking God. You know, the rich man came up to Jesus, and asked him, â€œHow do I follow God? Iâ€™ve followed all of the Ten Commandments.â€ And whether he believes him or not, Jesus just says, just sell all of you stuff. Jesus didnâ€™t throw him in the back of the stage and say, â€œWhat do you mean you have followed all of the Ten Commandments! You havenâ€™t done that! No one can do that! Youâ€™re going to Hell!â€ No, Jesus takes him a step further and goes, â€œFine, if you love God so much, just sell your stuff.â€ Jesus seems to always push us further. He challenges us, right.
JACK: It seems to me that in your class, you are also challenging us at Immanuel to change our attitudes towards decision making, salvation and following Christ.
MATT: We were created for something biggerâ€¦. Evangelicals today have this system where people are â€œsavedâ€ and donâ€™t go to hell and Christians are wasting away what it is supposed to be for them. The Christian faith is supposed to be a way of life, and weâ€™ve made it a constrained belief system. The Greeks would say that the end is the goal and the journey is just how to get there. The Jews would say that the journey is the point. We have to understand that as Christians we are going somewhere. The journey is important. Itâ€™s the experience of going and growingâ€¦
JOSE: Well, we do have eternal life. But the problem with many evangelicals is the idea that we are going to have eternal lifeâ€”we are going to be saved and are going to heaven. God really wants us to live now, and people donâ€™t understand that. He wants us to live today. We donâ€™t have eternal life just when we die, but we have it right now and we are supposed to live life to itâ€™s fullest.
JACK: We are supposed to have the Kingdom of God right here and right now, not just in the future.
JOSE: Yeah, itâ€™s right here. And we do this by living. How many Christians today donâ€™t fully live? They just exist.
MATT: I agree. A person has to get to know Christ, what he does, what heâ€™s about, what itâ€™s like to be a Christian. They have to know that thereâ€™s going to be hard times ahead but itâ€™s the best possible way to live because they were created for something bigger. I mean thatâ€™s the gospel message for me. You are created for something bigger and beautiful, more than you have ever imagined. Itâ€™s epic, itâ€™s for God. Itâ€™s wonderful and beautiful and Godâ€™s going to help you along the way on this journey. And He wants to heal you, and you are going to do great things in this world. You are going to do things involving love and beauty, and peace, and justice and kindness. And you are going to spread it to the ends of the world. And thatâ€™s what it means to be a Christian. And if theyâ€™re not into that, then theyâ€™re not into God. Iâ€™m not going to fake them into thinking itâ€™s going to be some beautiful life, you know. Because then you get a whole bunch of angry Christians like I was beforeâ€¦.
JACK: Postmoderns will emphasize a new ecclesiology for the church todayâ€”emphasis on be the Churchâ€”be the body of Christâ€”be a communityâ€¦
MATT: Moderns donâ€™t like the idea of a commitment to Christ because they would rather see numbers of decisionsâ€¦. Honest commitment is scary for many evangelicals today because it means that salvation is out of their hands. It is then up to God and the Spirit to work inside of the seekerâ€¦. They maintain their techniques because they want to keep evangelism in their hands. They donâ€™t have real faith that God is going to make Himself attractive to the seeker. They just have to give up trying to control everything and let God do His work.
JOSE: Often times modern churches try to make things appear cool. â€œLetâ€™s just make God cool for the seeker. Letâ€™s make him relevant to our society or to our culture.â€ Whatâ€¦God is God! He is cool.
MATT: Also, it seems like today, Christians have to be cool people. And actually I donâ€™t try to be coolâ€”Iâ€™m not that cool anyway. Iâ€™m kind of a nerd. But I am who I am, you know. Iâ€™m not cool or different around my friends. My friends understand me. Iâ€™m not any different around them. Iâ€™m just being myself.
JACK: How can Immanuel come to terms with the new postmodernity era ahead?
MATT: The world is postmodern. So what does it look like to be the church in postmodern era? I donâ€™t like the idea of Immanuel trying to be a â€œpostmodern Church.â€ We are the church. We are one body. It is just that we are going to have to reinvent some things to be able to fit into todayâ€™s culture. Something Rob Bell said is that you call yourself postmodern, then you are not. I was postmodern even before I realized what that term meant. Itâ€™s just a mindset and itâ€™s a culture. You donâ€™t try to be a postmodern church; you just try to be relevant to the time. Itâ€™s not anti-modern, itâ€™s postmodern â€”emerging out of the modern world. We are growing out of it, pushing to the next step. But we are coming out of modernity. We donâ€™t deny it. We look at church history and think itâ€™s beautiful, and modernity had its place, but it is over. And itâ€™s not like postmodernism is better, but it is more relevant. Itâ€™s just growthâ€¦. Is a two year old more important than a fifty year old or vice versa? And itâ€™s not that emergents are rebelling against the modern church; itâ€™s that we are asking questions because we have to.
JACK: Do you see a need to try to bridge the gap between the young postmoderns and the older traditional members of the church?
MATT: Yes. It would be really bad if we had this group of people who were postmodern and emergent and this group modern and traditional. This would be divisive. This is why people often leave churches. Some people feel unwanted and just leave. We have to have an understanding at some point. And we donâ€™t want another denomination. The emergent church is not a denomination. Itâ€™s a new way of understanding church within every denomination. This is huge. It is something about the faddish aspect of the emergent movement that it becomes a denomination. They had an emergent church conference for a couple of years, and Brian McLaren showed up and absolutely hated it. He was like, â€œWhat are you trying to do, for an elitist group or something? Weâ€™re trying to bridge and accept and bring everyone together, right?â€ They missed the point altogether. The point is to move away from the church being like a country clubâ€¦.postmoderns are not trying to destroy the modern system. If the modern system works for them, then coolâ€¦. But I am just trying to get people to follow God whether it is modern or postmodern.