Conservative evangelical leaders are generally comfortable discussing doctrine and faith. Most evangelical pastors were taught to expound the Scripture in their formal education. This is our strength, generally speaking, even though I do not think we realize some of our glaring weaknesses that show up in this area of our strength. We can also discuss vocation, work and cultural engagement, but with a much less clarity and passion. The latter, namely cultural engagement, is too often conceived of in terms of rejection/restoration, huge category mistakes that I am challenging in my blogs this week.
A marvelous example of these points can be made by looking at the recent history of the “modern” home school movement. (Remember, generally there were no other types of primary schools in early America!) My wife and I resisted the first appeal of the home school movement as a radically anti-public response to educating our two children. We finally agreed to look at this movement as an option when we took a hard look at the education that our son was actually receiving in our local primary school. The story is, at least to us anyway, interesting.
My late father-in-law gave us a family vacation at Disney World in 1983. Our son was in fifth grade and our daughter was in first grade. We went to the school and asked for the assignments our children were expected to fulfill so that we could tutor them in order that they could keep up with their class work. Anita was a certified Illinois secondary school teacher so this request seemed very simple to us. When we saw the work that they were asked to do we were stunned. We began to ask one simple question: “What on earth is going on in their classes day-by-day?” The conclusion we reached, by the time we returned from Florida, was clear – we could do much better as teachers than the local public school was doing. (Remember, we were both educators so this is not a rap on all public school teachers nor a defense for all home school parents, some of whom have no business teaching their own children from what I’ve seen over the years.)
So what kept us from taking this step sooner? The short answer is that “home schoolers” (especially the parents and the movement in general) turned us off. We saw a widespread reaction against culture running throughout the whole movement. I was a local pastor who believed that my role was to be in the community as salt and light. This would happen by my presence, not through my absence in protest. So we began to home school the next fall (grades two and six) but with great fear and some nagging questions about at least a half dozen concerns. Our son would home school for three years and our daughter for eleven. Some saw us as pioneers!
We were the first home schoolers in our local congregation. I actually wrote a paper on our decision that was intended to inform our church about our decision process and conclusion so that nothing would divide us into the three camps; e.g. home school, public school and private school. Over time our congregation had all three types of schooling choices inside our community. The “issue” never created one single problem.
Over time we were impressed that the home school movement was growing up as people matured and reactions softened. I believe that the movement is far more diverse and balanced today. I rarely find evangelical churches where this issue divides people the way it did in the 1980s and 90s. (Sadly, one church was birthed in our area where the primary cause of their organizing was to be a church made up of home school families. I preached to this church once and someday you should ask me about this “one time” experience in preaching about evangelism in such an isolated and socially unbalanced context.)
I tell this story for a reason. While I do believe evangelical churches and leaders can and do discuss vocation, work and cultural engagement far better now than they did even a decade ago they still have major problems when it comes to connecting personal (spiritual and daily) transformation with social (cultural and city) transformation. The broadness of evangelicalism includes many varied expressions of the church but on the whole a significant majority, at least among those in the older generations, seems significantly unable to see how personal transformation can and should impact social transformation. As a pastor in my twenties and thirties I had no clue how to teach faithful living in modern America. I preached the Bible and believed the Spirit would lead my people to do whatever it was that he wanted them to do in their personal, private life. What mattered was being in church and hearing the Word preached.
As time passed I began to understand the great social transformation that followed the 1960s. An increasingly secular, anti-religious culture was forming but few saw this clearly until late in the century. In time we would arrive at the place where we had an entire generation (millennials; e.g. born after 1982) who would walk away from most religion in a major way. Now 20% of Americans say their religion is “none.” Yet the number of those who desire a deeper spirituality and faith is still very high. By the 1980s I was observing these changes with more interest and by the 1990s I was just beginning to grasp what was actually going on. All of this led me to ask questions in the 1990s that brought me into some emotional and relational conflict with my slightly older peers. Their answer to this problem was simple: “Preach the ‘Reformed’ faith’ and teach churches the confessional standards of the post-Reformation age.” This would, in their view, rescue the church in our generation. I knew in my gut that this was not right so I began, around 1998, to search for answers about what I saw happening in the American church at large.
This is how Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989) became a significant book in my journey. I first read it in 1990. I underlined a lot of passages and tried to grasp the importance of the book. I was disturbed by it but I had no way to process what it said about faith and politics. Then I read it again, now a decade and a half later. Most of the author’s argument then resonated deeply with my view of the church and the culture. This is why I quoted it so extensively in my blogs last week.
I have now adopted a more specific strategy rooted in the prophecy of Jeremiah as seen in chapter 29. My friend Dr. Stephen Grabill has called this strategy “the flourishing effect.” (He will be writing about this but these words are taken from private conversation.) Stephen believes that there is a deep connection between faith and work and this connection holds the key to what he calls, borrowing from the sociologist James D. Hunter, “incarnational, faithful presence.” I’ll say more about what this actually means tomorrow.