Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Listening to the Unchurched

Christianity has an image problem.

Many of those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. Simply put, in the minds of many, modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.

And much of that image has been earned. We’ve acted in ways, talked in ways, and lived in ways that have tarnished God’s reputation. As a result, our culture seems to be saying, “Christ perhaps; Christianity and Christians, no.”

Maybe the church needs to listen up.

What would the unchurched tell us if we would listen? It may surprise you. Let’s imagine listening to someone rattle off a few things that, in truth, they very much feel:

  1. I do not consider myself (nor do I feel like I am) a “pagan.” I mean, really?  A pagan? Not sure I like “unchurched” or “irreligious” either, though it’s a step up. Ideally, how about John, or Mark, or Sandra? In other words, my name.
     
  2. I honestly don’t mind it when you invite me to your church or talk to me about God. Just keep it – I don’t know – natural. Like when we talk about sports or movies. I hate feeling like a project. Let’s keep it a conversation between friends and as friends. I could see doing that.
     
  3. Please don’t be threatened by my questions. They really are my questions, and I’ve had them for a long time. I hope that if Christianity is true, it can stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny. Anyway, I would feel a lot better if you were less threatened when I raise questions. I’m not trying to be a jerk by questioning you; I’m just trying to sort it all out. And that means asking you about all kinds of things. I know sometimes it seems combative or aggressive, but God’s questions aren’t exactly tame – much less safe. And for me, the answers are everything.
     
  4. Don’t forget that a lot of my junk is emotional, not just intellectual. And it took a lot for me to say that. I almost don’t know how to get into this, but I’ve been burned, disillusioned, hurt. You may win some of our verbal contests, but it doesn’t usually move me forward. It still leaves me feeling cold, mostly because some of the time the intellectual stuff is just a smokescreen for what I’m really battling. Here’s the last 5 percent: It’s not just whether I can buy into this intellectually, but whether I can buy into it relationally. In other words, are you really safe?
     
  5. I would like to belong before I believe. What I mean is that I’d like to experience this a bit before signing on. Is that legal? I hope so. I think that if I could test the waters a bit it would be helpful.
     
  6. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I know it – like not knowing much about the Bible or Jesus or whatever. Don’t make me feel stupid about it. If you could start at the beginning and explain it all to me, that would be great. Like starting with Genesis and moving forward.
     
  7. Can we agree that there’s a lot of weird stuff attached to Christianity and the Bible? Okay, it may be true, or real, or whatever, but can we just agree that some of it is a bit – bizarre? For some strange reason, it would make me feel better to hear you acknowledge how it all looks and sounds to someone from the outside.
     
  8. What’s up with all the scandals? I’m sympathetic to screwing up – I do it all the time. But what makes me want to puke is how they’re screwing up while they are telling everybody they don’t, or that nobody should, or – you get my point. It makes the whole thing seem like a joke. Just own that you have screwed up (that’d be fine with me, really), or just shut up about not doing it. But this parading and posturing and then being exposed – it just turns me off. It makes me feel like the spiritual one because at least I don’t pretend to be something I’m not!
     
  9. I like it when you help people – care for the poor, house the homeless, tend to the widow, protect the orphan, work for justice against sex-traffickers – that gets my attention and feels authentic. It’s also convicting, because I’m not doing much in those areas. I agree with it, and write a check now and then, but I’m not on the front lines. When you are, it makes me have to listen to what you have to say, whether I like it or not.
     
  10. I’m really open to it all. More than I let on. In fact, I want to feel good about myself spiritually. But I don’t think I could ever measure up. When I really think about God, all I feel is guilt and shame, so I stay away. It would be nice if there was something in all of this that would make me feel like I could – I don’t know – come home?

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Rule for the Mind

I once downloaded a training schedule for completing a triathlon.

It involved a certain number of workouts on a certain number of days, with increasing intensity and duration as the event drew near. It called for cross-training in swimming, biking and running, which make up a triathlon. Along with the workouts, it built in days of rest and suggested dietary regimens.

If I followed the plan, I was assured of being ready for the competition. But I had to follow the plan. I had to subscribe to a set of practices that would enable me to achieve what I desired.

This makes perfect sense to us for physical achievement. It even makes sense in plotting our career goals and financial goals.

It is less common to think of it in terms of our spiritual lives, much less how our relationship with Christ calls us to develop our minds.

But this is the nature of an ancient spiritual practice called a “rule,” which can be traced back to the founding of Benedictine monasticism. Penned at the beginning of the sixth century, Benedict wished to write a rule that would help guide monks to holiness. By “rule,” he intended a guide for optimal spiritual formation. Thomas Moore writes that “every thoughtful person, no matter what his or her lifestyle may be, has a rule,” meaning a pattern or model for living.

Few of us live lives – or more to the point, have lives – that lend themselves to reading, learning and reflection.

We work in the home, office or factory forty to fifty hours a week, or if still in school, carry a heavy course load that allows little discretionary time. We have clothes to wash, checkbooks to balance, emails to read, soccer games to attend. The world is very real, and we live in it as real people. What we should do and what we can do often feel like radically different things, and the discouragement and defeat that comes with the chasm between them is ever present.

But that’s not all.

Most of us work in places where the ultimate virtue is “success” and the god on the throne is money. The vast majority of our colleagues do not share our relationship with Christ. While this holds great promise for personal evangelism, it holds equal peril in regard to our minds.

We are immersed in a context that wars against taking captive every thought for Christ. Our dilemma is that we do not have the time to develop our minds, and where we are forced to spend our time tears apart what little of a Christian mind we have. 

We need to recapture a sense that the development of our minds is a spiritual discipline.

We must do it intentionally, and even counterculturally. Unfortunately, many Christians do not see how study and reflection can be spiritual disciplines. Yet Dallas Willard writes that a spiritual discipline is any activity “undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His Kingdom.”

To the Romans the apostle Paul said, “This is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). And in speaking of the transformation itself, the tense of the Greek verb is the present imperative; thus Paul is literally saying “keep on” being transformed through the ongoing renewal of your mind. 

Our very transformation as Christians is dependent on whether our minds are engaged in an ongoing process of renewal in light of Christ. Our minds are deeply spiritual, and so developing our minds must be a spiritual discipline. Or as Os Guinness has written, our passion is not for academic respectability but for faithfulness to the commands of Jesus: “thinking Christianly is first and foremost a matter of love – of minds in love with God and the truth of his world.”

Rules are not merely lofty ambitions but gritty realities that must be pursued in the midst of daily decisions. If we do not impose a will or intent on our lives, they will be buffeted by every circumstance, every “urgency,” every demand, that comes our way. And we will seldom, if ever, sit down and read a book, take time to reflect or engage in learning experiences. We must lay claim to our life before other things lay claim to it for us.

To develop and then maintain a Christian mind, we need a real rule. Something that will take the scattered, frantic activities of life and carve out space and time needed to honor God with the full development of our intellect.

The key is discipline.

This is what a rule is – an organized set of practices we follow in order to tend to those things which would not be tended to otherwise.   

Every rule, in this sense, will be different. And rules will also change depending on our season of life (a young mother’s rule will be vastly different than the woman’s enjoying her grandchildren) and whether or not it is an intellectual rule, a devotional rule, a physical rule, and so on. But what is constant for us all is the need to drive stakes in the ground and declare “This I will do” or “This I will maintain” as a matter of ordering our life. 

This is the nature of a rule – a set of disciplines, decisions, and impositions we make on our life in order to prevent the tyranny of the urgent from stealing time away. With a rule, we achieve what we most want. If we don’t, then time will escape us.

It will be taken up by the mundane, by what screams the loudest, by what tempts us most, and we will not have the time to develop our minds …

… the way God has called us to develop them.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Community, Cause and Corporation

What, exactly, is a church?

If you think it’s a one-dimensional, simplistic enterprise, then you are in for a rude awakening. Or more likely, you are experiencing enormous tensions that you don’t have a clue as to the source.

The truth is that a church is a complex entity that has at least three dimensions: it is a community, a cause and a corporation. And knowing how to focus on each one, not to mention balance them against each other, is one of the most decisive tasks you will ever engage in.

I’m not making these dimensions up. In Philippians, Paul calls Epaphroditus his brother (community), his worker (corporation), and his fellow-soldier (cause). This one man was all three to Paul – and people are often all three to you. 

For example, think about the church as community. Paul once counseled Timothy to relate to older men as fathers, younger women as sisters and older women as mothers (I Timothy 5:1-2). When talking about the church as a cause, the New Testament tends to use military metaphors; think of the armor detailed in the sixth chapter of Ephesians. The church is also an institution with a corporate dynamic, with officers such as pastors/elders, deacons, and those with the gift of administration.

Why is this so important to grasp?

If you are in community with someone, then you are a family. If you are in a cause together, then you are an army. If you are in a corporation together, then you are a business. These three dimensions are vastly different from each other in more than just metaphor – they have different core values, different key persons, different ways of entrance and exit, and varying ways of payback. 

Consider values.

In a community, the greatest values are, arguably, love, loyalty and mutual support. In a cause, the greatest value is winning. In a corporation, it is effectiveness. Could there be some tension between love and winning, or love and effectiveness? 

Or think about roles.

In a community, the roles fall into such things as father, mother, brother; in a cause, it would be general, lieutenant, or sergeant. In a corporation, one thinks of a CEO, a president, or an employee. You relate to someone as father in a vastly different way than you do as either general or CEO. Approaching someone as an employee is not the same as approaching them as a brother. 

And think of the tension between these three when it comes to key people or heroes. In a community, the key people are often the ones the community rallies around, meaning the weakest. Think of the way a family revolves around a newborn. In a cause, the heroes are the ones who are the most committed. In a corporation, the most honored are usually the most productive.

And perhaps most tricky of all, think of how you exit each of these dimensions. In terms of leaving a community, well, you don’t. You are part of a family, or family of origin, forever. You can’t ever really leave. When it comes to a cause, you have to desert or, if honorable, die in the effort. In a corporation, you either quit, are fired or retire. 

Starting to get dizzy with the complexities?

Sorry to pile it on … but we haven’t even arrived at the tough part.

Think about knowing which hat to wear. Someone is not performing well at all, but you know that part of it is based on personal issues in their life. Do you wear the corporate hat of performance or the community hat of concern? In truth, it might be both. They may need a word from you as their general to pick up their pace for the cause and also need a father-figure at a moment of weakness.

Let’s move the conversation to the macro level. What about these dimensions for the church as a whole?

This is critical.

Most leaders have a tendency toward one or more of these dimensions. They are more community oriented or cause oriented. Seldom does one person have all three in good balance. Most who are close to me would tell you that I have a large cause component, a healthy corporate dynamic, but have to work hard on the community part. 

But it’s not just people – it’s the church as a whole. This is the macro part. If the church is oriented primarily to the cause, then it will leave in its wake a trail of burned-out bodies of those who gave their lives to the effort but had little supporting them along the way. If they are oriented toward the corporate side of things, then they will be efficient and organized – and dead, dry and formulaic. If they lean toward community too much, then they will turn inward and rarely reach their growth potential. After all, the point is to know everyone, right?     

Two big lessons: know and work the three dimensions and compensate for where you are naturally weak or strong.

First let’s talk in terms of knowing and working the three dimensions.

At Meck, we’ve learned to put this into our vocabulary. I’ll talk with someone and say, “Listen, I’ve got my corporate hat on with this, just so you know.” That helps them receive it in that light and not be offended that I didn’t have my community or cause hat on. It cuts both ways, of course. 

A staff person comes in to see me to admit a performance breakdown, but says, “Listen, can I talk about this with a community hat on for a minute?” A good leader is able to switch between the hats with ease and knows which one to wear for which setting. Sometimes it’s tough, like when someone is clearly in need of community but you can no longer let their life issues impact the corporate dynamic. Sometimes the most community-oriented thing you can do is help them transition away from vocational ministry so that they can address their personal issues in a less demanding environment. 

And the natural tendency of the church? It’s simple – compensate.

If you are naturally more community oriented, surround yourself with cause-driven staff and volunteers. Or if you are adverse to the corporate side of things, find people who aren’t.

But regardless, make no mistake, the church is all three: a community, a cause and a corporation. Your job is to know which hat to wear – and when –

… and to keep your church from wearing just one.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

On But Alone

The Net Generation has come of age constantly exposed to computer-based technology. They do life differently than any other generation; the way they think, learn, play, interact, communicate, purchase, build wealth, create … it’s all different from the way previous generations went about the same tasks. And not only is this transforming our minds, but also the very nature of our relational world.

But what does this mean?

While we live in a world that is “always on,” the heart of the change to our relational lives is simple: “We spend more time alone than ever before.”

And apparently, more time doing nothing.

Studies show that for people under the age of thirty, the Web is mostly a time killer. On any given day, 53 percent of all the young adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine go online for no particular reason except to have fun or pass the time. So what is isolation and waste doing to us?

More than you might imagine.

As Maggie Jackson titled one of her books on the matter, we are distracted. Relationally distracted. Her lament is simple: How did we get to the point where we keep one eye on our Blackberry and one eye on our spouse – in bed? How did we get to the point where we tweet on vacation, text during family dinners, read emails during meetings and classes, and learn about our spouse’s day on Facebook?

Of course how we got to this point may not be as important as what it is doing to us. Jackson’s conclusion is direct: “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” Studies bear out her concern.

According to the psychological research of Larry Rosen of California State University, teens who spend an abundance of time on social networks like Facebook are more likely to show narcissistic tendencies and display signs of other behavioral problems. Specifically, they become more prone to vain, aggressive, antisocial behavior. It’s certainly giving rise to new forms of harassment, from cyber-stalking to cyber-bullying.

The 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study also found that heavy media use, amplified and energized by the internet, is associated with behavior problems, poor grades and obesity. According to the study, the “heaviest media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.”

Perhaps one of the more intriguing studies related to the way the internet affects our behavior researched the relationship between texting and lying. A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Business Ethics found that people are more likely to lie via text than any other form of communication, such as when compared to face-to-face communications, video conferencing, or audio chat. The researchers say that lying via text makes intuitive sense because it is known as lean media, which means it doesn’t convey the important emotional cues that signal someone may be lying – such as stuttering, twisting your hands nervously, or darting your eyes. When lying is covered up by lean media, it opens the door of temptation to lie even more.

So it isn’t simply that the new media are changing how we do life, they are changing the very character of our lives. We do not simply text each other; who we are to each other changes because we text.

In the past we have called ourselves a race of Homo sapiens, which means “thinking beings.” Lee Siegel suggests that perhaps we should consider a new name: Homo interneticus. Our primary identity is quickly becoming “connected beings.”

But all this connecting seems to have left us feeling more alone than ever before.

On … but alone.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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