generational shift

I think many if not most of us felt it yesterday – that we are entering not just a new administration, but a new generation of leadership.
People are talking about “boomer” and “post-boomer” perspectives, and perhaps some will use the language of “modern” and “postmodern” too. A friend of mine in Europe said we should consider ourselves having moved from the 9/11 era to the 01/20 era. However we define the shift, President Obama embodies it, and today I’m thinking about a parallel shift that is taking place in many of our Christian communities. I’d like to explore the theological shift by making 8 connections with the President’s Inaugural Address.

1. Connections to the past … without being tied up in the past, or, continuity without conformity.

“I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.”

Again and again in his address, Pres. Obama referenced the past … and this after a campaign based on change. But he understands that there is a kind of fidelity to the past that betrays it, and a kind of break with the past that is the truest kind of fidelity. (Thanks to Pete Rollins for this language.) So Pres. Obama thanked Pres. Bush for his generous help in the transition, even though he deeply differed with the former administration’s policies. Similarly, those of us involved in the emergent conversation about theology and mission need to show gratitude and respect for leaders of past generations, even as we move on. Here is some more of this tied-to-the-past-but-not-tied-up-in-it language from the address:

“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”

To faithfully face the need for change and then to wisely, prayerfully, humbly lead – that’s what made leaders of church history into leaders. So it has been. So it must be.
2. The realities of crisis … Pres. Obama summarized the crises of our nation like this:

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

More and more of us believe that our faith communities are in profound theological and pastoral crisis. Like the new president, we must see both the surface and deeper levels of crisis we face in our churches – it won’t be enough to simply deal with the style of music or preaching or structure without dealing with the deeper issues of theology and spirituality that must be addressed. More and more are waking up to realities like these from David Olson’s 2008 Zondervan release “The American Church in Crisis.” (Thanks to David Dunbar for these quotes.)

Ever since 1939 polls have indicated that on any given Sunday about 41% of the American public attends church. But Olson presents evidence that actual attendance is really 17.5%. If we measure the category of “regular participants” (those attending church three out of eight Sundays), the segment of church-going Americans only rises to 23% (pp. 26-29).
During the period from 1990 to 2006 church attendance on any given Sunday remained steady at approximately 52,000,000 people. However, during this same period the population of the United States increased by a similar 52,000,000. In other words, church attendance has not kept pace with population growth (pp. 34-36).
While the evangelical wing of the church shows stronger growth than Protestant mainline churches or the Roman Catholic Church, it still declined in 22 states during the period from 2000 to 2005. In the period from 1990 to 2005 evangelical churches almost kept up with population growth (pp. 36-38).[2]
And lest those of us in the evangelical tradition begin to feel smug about our “success,” we should recognize that a significant portion of the growth in evangelical churches comes from mainliners and Roman Catholics who “switch in” at a higher rate than evangelicals who “switch out.” (pp. 58-59). Obviously this kind of growth has no impact on the larger, un-churched population.

Consider Obama’s next lines as they could be spoken in reference to the church:

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.” ‘

Theological quick fixes – bail-outs, if you will – are not a good long-term strategy for church health and vigor. We need deep shift.
3. Call to unity and collaboration rather than polarization and petty squabbles:
Pres. Obama said …

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord…. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Fear, conflict, discord, petty grievances, false promises, recriminations, worn-out dogmas … sound familiar? We’ve been taking short cuts in faith just as we have in politics, and they don’t work. They’re no substitute for authenticity and maturity. When we give up the short-cuts – whether to converts, amen’s, big crowds, or big offerings – and when we start dealing with our real issues, suddenly we find ourselves able to come together, collaborating for the common good.
4. Call to honest repentance, bold risks, and big dreams
The President said …

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
… Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Standing pat, protecting narrow interests (and egos), and putting off unpleasant decisions … these have been as characteristics of many of our religious communities as they have been of our Congress. Our churches need the same kind of creative action called for in these lines from Obama’s speech:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

5. Proclamation of a new era … launched by new questions and new answers:
Most striking to me in Pres. Obama’s speech were these lines:

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them— that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

“The ground has shifted beneath them” – this is what has happened to many of our sincere but inflexible religious leaders. The old battle lines between liberal and conservative have now become prison walls – and more and more of us need to leave those ideological prisons behind. The Pres. is saying we’re asking the wrong questions in many cases: it’s not whether government is big or small, it’s whether government is working that counts. He provides a second example from the economy: it’s not whether markets can produce wealth, it’s whether they’re producing wealth only for the already-prosperous:

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

If you’re asking the wrong question, having the right answer is a delusion. How many of our religious questions fall in this category – what Tony Campolo and I called “adventures in missing the point?”
6. A new attitude toward “the other”
The global tension between Radical Islam and the West can be framed both politically and religiously. Resolving it will require both political and religious leadership. So many Christians have been happy to default to an us-them mindset with our Muslim neighbors, keeping the old Greco-Roman method of conquest, domination, and defeat alive, and leaving untried the way of Jesus – that seeks for reconciliation, even at the cost of great sacrifice. Here’s how Pres. Obama tried to change the tone of our American engagement with non-allies – I’ll quote him at length:

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

What kind of message do we as Christians want to send – to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, skeptics, and non-religious people? Are our fists clenched in aggression even when they’re folded in prayer – or are our arms and hands open, like those of Jesus?
7. Three top priorities: Poverty, peace, planet
Obviously, as someone who wrote a book about global crises, I was pleased to see the President focus on exactly the issues I believe are key: peace, poverty, and the planet. Here’s what he said about the latter two:

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

When will we bring the central resources of our faith to bear on the critical crises of our planet?
8. Responsibility – not blame
The ugliness of blame – whether in politics or religion – is that it is inherently disempowering. If others are responsible for our problems, then what can we do to solve them? We are empowered when we move beyond blaming others to taking responsibility ourselves:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the source of our confidence— the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

I love that last line, because it avoids on the one hand the hubris of thinking that we can solve our problems without God’s call and help, and on the other hand the incapacitation that comes from a deterministic view of divine providence. I know Pres. Obama makes no claim to be a theologian, but I think he gets it exactly right: God calls us to shape our destiny … and that destiny is not predetermined: it is created through a partnership between human beings and the Holy Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 3:5 ff).
The address closed with a reference to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, which evokes the language of revolution – not in the violent sense, but in the sense of radical, courageous change.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

The ground has shifted. Old questions miss the point. New questions need to be raised – new approaches, new ways of seeing and believing and working together. Those new approaches will only bring good results if they are combined with old virtues and ancient wisdom. Government needs to be reborn in this new world, and so do our religious communities.

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