Friday, September 26, 2014


In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson observes that Christian conservatives are finding themselves under increasing cultural stress. This stress is not only coming from outside, but also from inside, primarily from the millennials in their midst.

“Whatever else traditional religious views may entail,” he writes, “they involve a belief that existence comes pre-defined. Purpose is discovered, not exerted. And scripture and institutions – a community of believers extended back in time – are essential to that discovery.” He notes, correctly I think, that this is NOT the spirit of our age.

I might add that this is especially not the spirit of our age in North America. The prevalent North American conception of the self has more in common with Invictus – I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul – than the Christian notion that I am the purposeful creation of a loving God. The consequences of radical self-construction range from a self-promoting me-first attitude that undercuts any notion of community, to abject despair that one’s life is worth anything at all.

Unlike Gerson, I do not think that this mindset affects only the millennials. I think it affects all but perhaps the oldest members of our churches. In fact, I have a hunch that this attitude was caught by the millennials not so much from society, but from their parents, as Christian Smith suggests.

When I think about what it means to be the church in the 21st century, to be a missional church, I wonder whether part of our mission is to help people, maybe especially young people, realize that this pernicious cultural value of self-construction runs counter to everything the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches. In other words, your worth does not come from striving for success, changing styles or attitudes to fit the next cultural expectation of “cool,” or any other form of self-constructed meaning. These will eventually leave you empty and exhausted.

The Gospel teaches grace.

Your worth comes from the fact that God chose to make you, die for you, and save you from every impulse to self-construct. In fact, there is nothing you actually do to make yourself more acceptable to God, to construct yourself in a way that would render you worthy of his love. Rather than a promise of temporal goods that only add to your exhaustion, grace promises rest.

The only thing grace requires is open hands to receive this most precious of gifts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rural Opportunity

Our congregation is situated in downtown Grand Rapids. The theme for us this year is really a question: What does it mean to be a downtown church? I think it’s a great question and a great theme because it begs us to look beyond our walls to our context and consider how to engage and serve well in that particular context.

Part of that context includes the numerous homeless people, soup kitchens, and shelters that are within blocks of our church. These places are not an unusual feature of the downtown landscape. Most people
realize that urban areas must reckon with poverty and the issues that go along with it. Social justice movements frequently focus on urban areas and these sorts of issues. Likewise, young people and churches interested in social justice also tend to zero in on urban areas or, alternatively, third world countries.

Recently, National Geographic magazine ran an article on hunger in America. One of the “faces of hunger” the article mentions is the working and rural poor. The article notes that this group of people is not the “face” most people tend to think of.  It points out, “as the face of hunger has changed, so has its address.” About ten years ago, the government even replaced the word “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe these sorts of households.

Rural and suburban poverty are both similar to and different from urban poverty. Questions about access to health care, food, and transportation, for example, are often more easily addressed in an urban context.

So what does all this have to do with the church?


Like many governmental agencies, many denominational agencies focus primarily on urban areas and offer help based on an urban model that it not well suited to the particular needs of rural America. My own denomination has many churches that are situated in suburban and rural areas where these problems tend to be overlooked because they are less visible.

So maybe the question my own church is asking is a question all of our churches should be asking. What does it mean to be a rural/suburban church? How might our rural/suburban church be particularly well situated to serve this newer face of hunger in America? What services can we provide to reach out in Christ’s love to those in need, a demographic that might be harder to identify in rural areas than in urban areas?

Its worth thinking about.