TMT: is it killing our churches?

At SCBC we’ve been studying the material that came from the Fuller Youth Institute study on churches that are doing well with young people: Growing Young. We need to, we are mainly an ‘older’ congregation! One chapter suggests empathising with young people. It mentions ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ as a common feature of ‘Christian’ youth in the USA. The ugly descriptor comes out of Smith and Denton’s broad study of youth and religion in the USA.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

MTD starts with the ‘golden rule’, and thus places stress on doing good. If the beginning is at least biblical. After all it was Jesus who taught ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Mat 7:12; Luke 6:31) and Paul continued this teaching (Gal 5:14). MTD soon absorbs a strong dose of the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the greatest of these is happiness. On this view, God’s primary business is not enforcing morality, but making things comfortable for us. Aside from this function as supernatural Valium, God might almost as well not exist. Thus their choice of ‘deism’ rather than ‘theism’, although the degree of activity this view allows to God is greater than in classical deism.

I think however, that as I listen to students, and on Facebook, or even in church, whether or not the descriptor works well for young people in the USA it is wrongly worded for NZ.

Therapeutic Moralistic Theism

In reordering the terms (as well as reclaiming ‘theism’) TMT changes the equations significantly. Listen to people’s prayers! Whether intercession for others or supplication for themselves, God is always asked to ‘put things right’ and remove the sources of our discomfort. Rarely, if ever, is God asked to pardon our sin, and only the extremists request divine vengeance on the persistently immoral. No, the key term is ‘therapeutic’ — indeed, if one ever hears attempts at apologetics in everyday life they are couched in terms of God the omnipotent Valium. Believe and pray and your life will be smooth and pleasant, as well as long and peaceful.

Though this is where morals come in, because we recognise that God does have some interest in ‘good behaviour’. If someone is ‘bad’ then God is hardly free to reward them with the promised pleasant life. So, since morality is almost exclusively understood in terms of sex, stop sleeping around, get married, and above all do not have sex with someone of the same gender, and you’ll be right!

Of course the ‘theism’ in my revised descriptor is no more like traditional theism than the deism in Smith and Denton’s was like traditional deism. For though this god is highly involved in everyday life, guiding surgeon’s hands and offering divine diagnostic skills to physicians, as well as changing traffic lights on prayer requested schedules and providing parking spots almost whenever they are required, this god has no real eternal significance — for everyone goes to heaven, even puppies and kittens (though not nasty snakes or mosquitoes).

How TMT is killing Christianity

If TMT sounds horribly like the Christianity you hear too often, beware. Since it is so ‘nice’ TMT provides no challenge. The supernatural welfare state, with a sugar coating of benign liberal capitalism, can never call us far from our ‘comfort zones’. Though [w]rapt in cotton wool as we are these zones seem as tightly restricting as swaddling cloths the call to transcend them usually requires little more than smiling at a stranger, or eating some strange foreign food (though, naturally, nothing really extreme).

TMT is theism, since god is present and active. (Oh, so active coordinating all those surgeons and traffic lights!) Yet it is theism-lite, since this god is merely concerned with this world and its quotidian concerns. It is as god whose kingdom is no wider than our horizons.

What the young want and older people need

What the young want, somewhere sometimes deep beneath the cotton wool, is to be challenged, to be invited to live a life less ordinary — is this all there is? The daily round, the common task, the nine to five treadmill, ending in death or retirement (which is like heaven, but with less health and energy, so perhaps death is preferable).

Older people by contrast have usually had time to experience the deception that follows when even supernatural Valium fails. Long ago when they prayed and prayed for someone’s mental unbalance to be righted, or for a child’s disability to be cured… or more recently when they asked for the latest draught to be sweetened in the bitter cup of life…. They need to learn that God’s interventions are mysterious and wonderful, but not a daily command performance. That God is not a convenient god to be ordered to provide comfort and restoration on our schedule.

TMT is killing the church because it fails to inspire the young, and it fails to comfort the old, and if it cannot do those things then it is ultimately useless.

Peace and refreshment among the suburban bricks and concrete

This is the land we have bought to build our church on. Currently it is an Avocado and Kiwi orchard. Just about everyone who visits speaks of green, of orchards or an oasis amid the suburban bricks and concrete.

Already the land on two sides has been bulldozed flat, building has even begun on Kiwi dream big one story homes on 600m² sections. They are lovely houses, but they hardly have gardens or ‘yards’. Soon the third side (they have already cleared the Kiwi and begun the earthworks) will become a primary school – one of the biggest ‘green’ splashes among the houses.

We see our site on the roundabout next to the school as Te Oro (The Orchard) with some of these trees perhaps making a processional entrance to one of the sacred spaces (church, outdoor sanctuary/cinema/BBQ area?). I’d love to keep not only some trees, but also some Kiwi, perhaps as a pergola over the outdoor sanctuary/cinema seating.

But we want to build other spaces where people can come for peace, refreshment… to be equipped for life… maybe a pre-school…

Judgemental Old Testament God: 1. Nasty God to punish poor Moses like that

I have been reminded recently how often Christians and non/ex/anti-Christians alike speak of the God of the Old Testament as if this was somehow a different person from the God of the New Testament. One of the stories often cited for this harsh judgemental picture of God, that is assumed to be the norm in the Old (defunct/out of date) Testament is his refusal to allow poor faithful old Moses into the promised land.

People often cite Num 20, where they say God lashes out at Moses for a trivial sin, or worse punishes Moses for Israel’s sin. But is that what happens?

Moses is perhaps the greatest hero in the Old Testament. Through him, God freed the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. God chose him to mediate the covenant between the Lord and Israel. Yet in Numbers 20:12 he and Aaron are told they will not bring the Israelites into the promised land. What’s going on? Is God being arbitrary, withdrawing favour as ancient gods used to do?

At first sight situating the passage seems to exacerbate the problem. The passage runs from Num 12:1 or 2 (v.1 is a summary bringing the story up to date while v.2 sets the scene for this passage). Once again, the people complain, comparing the plenty of Egyptian life with the hardship of the desert (vv.2-5). Once again, Moses and his brother Aaron seek God, and again God announces a miracle (v.8). In v.9 Moses begins to do as God has commanded. So far so good. The people are gathered (v.10), Moses strikes the rock, and water is delivered from the stone (v.11).

Yet God’s response is to declare:

Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num 20:12)

If we look closer, things are not as simple as my summary painted them. When Moses and Aaron have gathered the assembly of Israel in front of the rock, they say:

Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (Num 20:10)

There is no mention here of the almighty God who performs the miracles for Israel, like the plagues and sea crossing that freed them from slavery, just “shall we bring water”. Moses and Aaron fail to proclaim the Lord as the source of these signs and wonders, they encourage the Israelites to focus on them.

Setting the story in the wider context of the flow of Scripture, we see it’s full significance. It occurs in the five book unit that Jews call Torah, or “instruction”, the heart of their Bible. We, Christians, call it Pentateuch (five books) and it is the introduction to our Bible. Genesis forms an introduction to this introduction, and in the other books Moses is the central human character. Deuteronomy, which closes the collection, contains Moses final speeches and his death. Back in Genesis 15, and again and again through the patriarchal stories, God repeated a promise of descendants, land and his own presence and help. By the time of the making of the covenant at Sinai two of the three promises have been abundantly filled. The narrative through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerns the slow journey to “the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” as the close of Numbers puts it (Num 36:13). So, the whole book of Deuteronomy takes place on the threshold of the promised land.

So, our story (Num 20:1-13) is pivotal, explaining why Moses does not enter the promised land. It therefore explains why the Pentateuch (the “books of Moses”) ends with God’s promises incompletely fulfilled. All of this highlights the importance of Moses and Aaron’s “error”, failing to give God the honour that is due is a most serious offense.

When Christian leaders take pride in what they have accomplished, when Christians fail to acknowledge the giver of all the blessings that surround us, we also fail to trust the LORD, and neglect to show his holiness before others (cf. Num 20:12). That is not a little oversight but a most serious business!

The bulk of this post originally appeared in the NZ Baptist, but the article has been removed there so I am reposting the content here.

The church on the hill

The church on the hill

The fluorescent cross on Mt Roskill is like a church on the hill visible for miles…

Back in the day you wanted to be the church on the hill. Visible from all around the neighbourhood, ideally with a big fluorescent cross to make things more obvious – the church was the centre of the community. It was the place people went when disaster struck. There for hatch, match, and finally dispatch services, but also an ever present comfort in time of trouble.

It’s biblical, Jesus talked about a city on a hill, a light that should not be hidden under a bushel.1 So one of the features of the property that God2 has given to us – aside from the miraculous decision to add a big primary school slap next door – is its location. Just at the very top of the hill, on the edge of the ridge above the new Lakes development. Wow! A church there fronting on the new roundabout, with even a modest spire and that fluorescent cross will be visible almost all the way to the Kaimais.

And yet…

Today, in NZ, the church is no longer the centre of the community, people no longer default to churches for hatch, match, or dispatch. When they need a bridge over troubled waters it’s the insurance company they call, not the pastor. Or WINZ, or the doctor… For a church to be accessible today it does not help to be slap on the top of the hill. Fluorescent lights will be ignored.

As one of the Windsor Park people3 at our meeting last night neatly expressed it, the website is today’s hill top. If people want to find us (and Google tells me that in January people did, 800 times) they can easily get directions from GoogleMaps, and quickly decide if they like the look of us by a quick gander at the Church website.

But before they do that we have to earn their interest. We won’t earn it with flashy buildings (the Warehouse and the Casino will always outflash us) but by being a place they come to for other reasons, by being people they have learned to trust.

So, there’s no need for us to build the church slap on the roundabout, not even on the street frontage at all. Rather there in prime position we need something that invites people in, that offers the hope of rest and peace in a busy and dangerous world…

  1. Whatever one of those might have been, we must never hide our lights under them. (Matt 5:14-15) []
  2. Aided by some very generous giving, and a seesawing property market here in the Bay of Plenty, and the wonderful work of Christian Savings – back in the day when they were still just Baptist Savings. []
  3. PS I think it was Murray Thatcher. []

Creation in just six days: Asimov explains

Moderating “Unit Quality Assurance Forms” is normally a fairly dull but useful way to earn (part of) a living. Today however I was presented with a gem of a short story by Isaac Asimov1 It dates back to the distant days when I was doctoral student. It explains why Moses described creation in just six days. The story had me roaring with laughter in just a minute or two.

Sadly looking Google seeking more info to led me to James McGrath;s blog, which in turn led me to another blog where some spoilsport claimed in the comments that the story was not Asimov’s “How it happened” but pseudigraphal. Research on Google Books led to no firm conclusion, indeed it seemed to confirm the doubters.
However, saved the day, offering a copy of Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine v01n02 (1979 Spring) there on pages 64 and 65 the gem appears.

Asimov’s “How it happened”

  1. A favorite author since I was a teenager. []

American Fathers’ Day and a blog about God as mother

I can’t remember if I have yet linked to The Mother God Experiment. Sadly due to the way Facebook hides our non-friends from us, placing their messages into the outer darkness, I only discovered Susan Harrison’s work recently.

Her blog is a fascinating exploration of what it means (and how we can) begin to explore thinking of (and speaking to) God as mother as well as father.

So, when she invited me to do a guest post for (American) Fathers’ Day I said “maybe”. Being a decisive sort of chap! And knowing how difficult mothers’ day is in churches, and how much more contentious fathers’ day is, or would be if we actually celebrated it, then started to say, “no”. Being a cautious sort of chap!

But I couldn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to all those trying and (being only human) failing to be good fathers. So here is my guest post:

Father’s Day Boycott?

Chance, providence, and the justice of God

Two friends1 have in different ways prompted this post. One is a technologist trained in the sciences, who in the context of dissatisfaction with understanding the how of a particular area of theology wrote:2

Can someone tell me how I can learn to become more comfortable with mystery?

The other is someone who is troubled (in the context of talk about unmerited suffering and the justice of God, by me ascribing much that happens to “chance”.

The justice of God has troubled me all my life, as far back as I can remember I have been aware not only of “those less fortunate” but even of those who suffer acutely for no just cause. The book of Job is a comfort, Job does not know why he suffers, complains bitterly to God and demands a hearing for his complaint against the injustice of the creator. His judicial complaint receives no hearing, except by human judges who fail to accept his plea (the three friends, or even more Elihu, who not having actively participated before steps in in Job 32 to sum up, which he does ineptly and justifying God by failing to admit the justice of Job’s case).  However, before the book ends Job receives two responses from God which, though they do not respond to Job’s accusation, remind Job of who God is and of how wondrous it is that a creature can relate to their Creator!

The answer to (almost?) all the big questions is a deeper layer of mystery.

In responding to people who complain of the injustice of life3 I point to Job, but even more to Jesus who in Luke 13:1-5 makes clear that much (all?) suffering in this world is not justice meted out by a vengeful or benevolent Creator but simply chance.

To say this, however, is not the whole story, for in Scripture there is no such thing as “chance”. When Joseph (in Gen 37) wandering aimlessly in the land around Shechem just happens to meet the one man who can tell him where his brothers have gone and so sets in motion all the rest of the events of his life, Bible readers know this is not random. When Ruth (Ruth 2:3) just happens to glean in Boaz’ field (in all the fields of Bethlehem why did you have to pick this one?) we know this “happening” is not random. And when Amos pondering war other disasters says:

Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?
(Amos 3:6)

He recognises that the bad, like the good, must be ultimately laid at the door of the Maker of All.4

This chance that is not random, like the unloving injustice of the God who is love, and justice, is a mystery. It is one we cannot understand in this life. Though perhaps God on a stick, Christ crucified, points towards the resolution of this terrible paradox.

  1. Well actually one is a friend of a friend. []
  2. In a Facebook post, so I won’t give their name. []
  3. Why do really horrible things happen to good people? []
  4. As also did Job (Job 1:21) []

More on old cheeses

Just a quick note.

I omitted to note that Jesus seems to express something close to the ideas in my last post1  when he says to activist enthusiast Peter:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)

  1. Which hopefully is something quite different from the last post for me! []

Personality and theologies of aging

A few days ago I posted on Facebook a link to a post from six years ago: Does Jesus make me whole? As a result, I was challenged again to reflect more on the theology of aging. By this I do not mean, how younger people can cope with the older ones, nor how the old can cope with their state. rather I am concerned with the fact that: “As far as I can see no work has been done on the part the process of aging and decay plays in the divine economy.

My central question starts from a recognition that God has designed human life, and indeed the universe, to age. Entropy is as basic a “fact of life” as birth and death. We talk a lot about theological understandings of the ends of life but we take little if any notice that between (as well as the excitement of childhood and youth with their growth and development, and the fulfillment of seeing the next generations begin their journeys) we all (unless we die young) face a significant period of decay!

Bill Black’s post that I linked to has since moved homes here: I’m Sorry But Jesus Doesn’t Make Anybody ‘Whole‘ now as then you should read it. He finds meaning in this life under entropy: “Rather we are made alive and empowered to love – God intends all of our relationships to experience this transformation…

I’m sure he is right.

Immediately following my repost Barbara and I headed up to Auckland to spend time with our granddaughters (just 5 and 2). I love looking after and spending time with young children. Their lives are so vivid, they are continually (every wakeful minute of the day) learning. I also enjoy it because (being an INFP on the Myers-Briggs personality scale – sometimes called “nurturers’) I get deep satisfaction from being needed and from being able to care for others. It why (apart from the following pleasure of eating) I enjoy cooking. Aging, though, gradually shifts the balance. we are less and less able to care for or nurture others, and more and more have to depend on them to care for us.

The opposite of my personality the ESTJs are sometimes called “Executives”. They have a powerful sense of right and wrong, dedication and dignity, they are valued for their advice and common sense. For them, hell is “An incredibly impractical person is put in charge of all of your major life decisions. You have to do whatever they say and are powerless to argue or reason with them.” (at least according to Thought Catalog).  Guess what, for most ESTJs this is just what happens to their world as they age. (Of course, the rest of us do not think of ourselves as
“incredibly impractical”, but that is how most of us seem to the incredibly practical ESTJ!)

Perhaps, this learning of a new and different sort of dependency (undoing or remaking the independence learned in youth) is a significant part of aging. Perhaps, also the nature of the growth is different for different people….

I will leave another comment on this (about people with Alzheimer’s/dementia) for another post.

The Marcion Option

Still reconnoitering the book I was struck by this in the intro to chapter 3 (93-4), I find it difficult to see how he can defend the claim whilst reading passages like Mat 5:17ff. or Luke 16:14ff.:

[T]he NT as a whole understands Jesus to be the supreme revelation of God that culminates and supersedes all others.

The word “supersedes” seems to me Marcionite, and in direct contradiction to what Boyd has argued elsewhere. I’ll have to see what he really means when I look closer. (On similar grounds to claims that when Paul appears to deny women’s teaching ministry in church settings he cannot mean this as it contradicts his practice elsewhere, I will need to look for other ways to understand what Boyd is saying…