The 1997 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
“At-Risk Youth, At-Risk Church:
What Jesus Christ and American Teenagers are
Saying to the Mainline Church”
Webster's has two meanings for the term "mainline." The one teenagers know is the practice of injecting narcotics directly into the bloodstream to get a quick high. The second definition means the principle route a train takes to reach its destination.
Pick your metaphor. The term "mainline church" was coined when trains, like churches, were a principal means of getting somewhere people wanted to go. Today, teenagers' understanding of "mainline" paints an ominous portrait of who we are as a church: once-‐able bodies who, after years of steady injections of American culture into our veins, have a dulled sense of who, what, and where we are.
We have reared a generation of teenagers to "just say no" to such behavior, and they're saying "no" to mainline Christianity in favor of visions of vitality elsewhere, many that endanger teenagers. According to a 1991 study released by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, one in four teenagers is "at risk." The church must work with others to create communities of health and hope for young people.
Young people are also making another point. Their exodus from our pews and programs is a form of "tough love" to our denominations, telling us to shape up, to be who we say we are, and to let Jesus be who we say He is -‐ the Savior, even of the mainline church.
In our "I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional" world, it is easy to settle for therapy when resurrection is at stake. Maybe being "at risk" as a church isn't bad if it calls us back to the authenticity young people expect, and the Gospel requires. Maybe mainline churches and teenagers have something in common: a need to be saved.
These assumptions unite the lectures in this volume. The lectures in these pages provide an outline of "what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to the mainline church" from the perspectives of systematic theology, practical theology, sociology, education, and American religious history (and futurism).
These lectures point to a theological foundation for ministry with young people that views youth as part of the mission of Christ and not as objects to be "won" for the propagation of the church. We approach this direction with humility and hope. The future of the church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted when he himself was only twenty-‐seven years old, depends not on youth, but on Jesus Christ. Still, we are confident that young people are prophets in our midst, and that by attending to the "risk" that accompanies adolescence in 1997, we will be better prepared to take the risk that accompanies Christian faith in any era.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary
- “Something to Believe In”
- “Youth Ministry: Historical Reflections near the End of the Twentieth Century”
- “Getting to All God's Kids”
- “What Jesus Christ and African American Teenagers Are Telling the African American Church”
- “Walking with Youth: Youth Ministry in Many Cultures”
- “Volcanic Eruptions: Eruptive Youth Ministry”
- “Promises and Practices for Tomorrow: Transforming Youth Leaders and Transforming Culture”
- “At-‐Risk Youth” “Today's Spiritual Quests”
- “Ministry to Youth Today”
- “Living in an AncientFuture Faith”
- “Youth Ministry: A Celebration and a Challenge”
Living an AncientFuture Faith
“Your time is now.”Jesus (John 7:6b)
All leaders are now anthropologists. The dying Industrial Age cultural paradigm is being replaced by a new culture that requires the fieldwork skills of an anthropologist, the dedication of a missionary, the patience of a saint, the learning page 112 curve of a child, the cunning of a thief, the stamina of an athlete, and the resolve of a Coast Guard sailor."Ah, you're back."
"Was it boring?"
"Did you get very sick?"
"Did you bring back notes you can't make head or tail of and forget to ask all the important questions?"
"When are you going back?" 1
the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but also of faith. A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not fully lived out. 2Faith is embedded in specific cultures and is shaped by forces and commitments that are beyond one's choosing or control.
The phrase "till I come" is often used to translate the Greek in John 21:22,23. Implicit in the Greek phrase heos erchomai, however, is less the meaning of "till I come" than "while I am coming." Jesus is less saying "stay behind till I come" than "stay behind while I am coming." We mistake Jesus' intention when we look only to some culminating moment and not around us for the ways in which Christ is coming all the time. The Gospels are adept at presenting this rhythm of past, present, and future (e.g. Jesus' "The hour is coming and now is"). (John 4:23; 5:25)
The fiftieth anniversary of H. Richard Niebuhr's classic, Christ and Culture (1953), is fast approaching. In spite of Niebuhr's massive contributions, the church needs a theology of culture today even more desperately than when Niebuhr's book was written.
From my vantage point as a historian, I see the church as having four ways to respond to culture, including the emerging postmodem culture. 3 From my vantage point as a theologian, I see the church's choice profoundly influencing its participation in the unity of spirit and purpose for which Jesus lived and died and rose again. Each of the four modes of relating Christ and culture is a variation on the real "Lord's Prayer," the prayer of Jesus himself just before he left to go across the Kidron valley to the garden. (John 17)
As he addresses God, Jesus first admits, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world," (John 17: 15 NRSV), but then immediately acknowledges that his disciples "do not belong to the world." (17: 16 NRSV) The true path through culture lies somewhere in between. We are called, in Jesus' exact words, to be in the world. Not of the world. But not out-of-it either. Jesus laid out a triangulation methodology of orientation to culture.page 113
We need to hear Jesus say that again. The church as the Body of Christ is called to triangulate: to be in the world, not of it ("my kingdom is not of this world") (John 18:36 NIV) but not out-of-it of it either ("I am not asking you to take them out of the world"). Down through the centuries the church has repeatedly gotten into trouble by getting too cozy with any one part of Jesus' "in-not-of-but-not-out-of-it-either" triangular orientation.
Anticultural. This attitude, in which the church sets itself up in opposition to the prevailing culture, takes the mandate that we are not of this world to extremes. The anticultural bias has been present in the church since the first solitaires sought God among desert caves and sands. Communal attempts at anticulturalism are quite visible today. The 150,000 Old Order Amish who live in the United States and Canada reject "modern" clothing and conveniences (indoor plumbing, electricity, automobiles). In Judaism the Hasids and Lubovitchers offer similar visual reminders that the late twentieth century isn't for everybody.
Both of these traditions embody much that is absent in postmodern life (community, sustainable lifestyles, deep spirituality, etc.). But unless one lives completely cut off from all other human contact, it is virtually impossible to be a successful anticulturalist. You have to live in the world somewhere. The Gospel must be "enfleshed" in some culture. Even the Amish have embraced some culture — that of the early-nineteenth-century German settlers known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Try as they might, they cannot escape the five million tourists — 350 for each member of the community — who annually flock to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, lured in part by an Amish web site supplied by the tourist industry but maintained by the Amish themselves. The Hasids live in the Poland of the 1870s. Everyone must live somewhere in history, in some culture, whether past or present.
There is no place in the Bible where it says that Christians must look like they fell off a covered wagon. And even if they did look that way, they have compromised themselves with a specific culture. I saw an Amish son in Ohio working on a personal battery-charged computer while being driven by his father in a horse-drawn carriage. And as mentioned earlier, the Amish now have a web page, thanks to the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce.
The anticultural image of the future is of an idealized past. Jesus calls us to live out of the past, not to live in it or to disengage it from the present and the future. The past is a wonderful place to visit, but we are not called to live there. Indeed, how many of us would really want to live there? How many of us could have lived there? How many of us would have died there?
As with all endangered civilizations, we must protect faiths that live in another time; they face a stark future and must be protected from outside influences. But to emulate them is to go the way of the dodo.page 114
Like the top of a mountain that provides a great view of what has been and what might be but is no place to live, the past must not be ahistoricized or abstracted from the real world. Stay on the mountain and you don't hear the robin sing or the loon's haunting cry; you don't see the fields of clover or smell the fragrance of flowers. To live, one must go down and enter the world. One must "enflesh" the world for it to be claimed by God.
Encultural. This is the opposite end of the spectrum. Here the church is so anxious to fit in to the world that it becomes merely an extension of the culture and has lost any distinguishing particularity as a culture of its own. The church becomes of the world: "the world is too much with us."
Everyone knows these "golden retriever" churches. If the culture throws a stick, "golden retriever" churches go bounding after it, slobbering and eager to please. Even those who happily own these indiscriminately accepting animals bemoan the fact that if a burglar broke in, the dog would just hold the flashlight for him. Too many enculturated churches are holding too many flashlights for burglarizing forces and figures.
Some forms of enculturation assume the congruence of church and culture. It is assumed that the primary symbols of the church and of the culture are identical. The church sees itself in some way as representative of the culture at large, and prides itself on its shaping, transforming role. In this enculturation, civil religion and faith religion become one and the same. Churches in nations where the two grew up together often exhibit the most radical forms of enculturation.
Other forms of enculturation involve identification with a specific subculture — whether ideological, professional, or geographical. These churches become so painfully "politically correct" that any attempt to articulate a transcultural value judgment, a moral absolute, or a biblical truth is quickly shuttled away to committees (a representatively correct one, of course) instead of witnessed to the world.
"Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me," Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:10 (NRSV). The church is to identify with the world's needs, but not its desires. As St. Augustine pointed out, "We move spiritually not by our feet, but by our desires." When our desires are shaped by the culture and not by the Spirit, we become children of the times, not children of the Spirit. The "new spirit" promised by the Scriptures becomes a "now" spirit.
Countercultural. As the name predicts, these churches and theologians have their roots in the sixties. In fact, the typical countercultural church is probably heavily populated by "boomers" — children of the sixties who, according to Wade Clark Roof's work, are deeply divided between "traditionalists" (54 percent) and "counterculturalists" (46 percent). 4
The countercultural church tries to take seriously Jesus' dictum that his disciples are not of this world. Thus the church as a countercultural culture offers the world an alternate way of living and a reading of the culture that cuts against some grains. But while the countercultural church is not of the world and is in the world (though it resents having to be there), it is most often out-of-it in an academically page 115 fashionable or politically "in" way. To be in the world means to be with the cultural and intellectual coteries of the day, but never of them.
In order to distinguish itself from the rest of the world, the countercultural church describes itself with aggressively isolationist language. Instead of wearing odd clothes or using horse-drawn surreys, it uses vocabulary to cordon itself off from the world with such profound half-truths as "let the church be the church," or "the problem before us today is not how the church will serve its culture" or "the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world." 5 Counterculturalists speak of the church as an "outpost," "beachhead," or "colony," and designate true Christians as "resident aliens" or "anachronisms" or "old/young fogies." The countercultural church can even come down with a worse case of "remnantitus" than the anticultural church. 6
The problem with the countercultural model is that it creates an artificial wall between Christians and the world God loves so much that God sent Jesus to die for it. Jesus did not ask God to take us out of the world. In fact, Jesus' opposition to the temple-based religion of his day, which led more than anything to his condemnation and death, was precisely because he opposed the temple cult's concept of holiness as separation. 7 We are not somehow grandly "above" the political, economic, scientific, technological, or artistic influences of our times. The countercultural church tries to find theological rationale for purposively and proudly remaining out-of-it.
The church is not so much a refuge from the world as a rescue shop and redemption center in it and for it. Even Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. "For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (John 3:17)
Incultural (or Intercultural, which stresses the interdependence of cultural embodiments for mutual enrichment). The aim of the incultural church is an incarnation process first demonstrated in Jesus' own incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation is this: if our Savior joins us where we are, not where we ought to be, what excuse do we have not to join people where they are, not where they ought to be? If Jesus descended into hell and founded his church at the very "gates of hell," what hells need we fear?
Incarnation is not enculturation or acculturation. It begins with Christ and then moves to a host cultural context, not the other way around. Lesslie Newbigin rightly insists that the Gospel only retains "its proper strangeness, its power to question us" when we are faithful to its suprarational, supranational, and supracultural nature. 8
Jesus himself set forth some cultural principles for his disciples to follow and demonstrated the incultural method at work: Jesus told the seventy to "stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you" (Luke 10:7 NIV), adding, "When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you." (Luke 10:8 NIV) Earlier, when Jesus sent out his disciples, he gave them the freedom to stay — "search for some worthy person...and stay at his house until you leave." page 116 (Matthew 10:11 NIV)
Paul was only following in his master's footsteps when he admonished the church to contextualize the Gospel in the culture: "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22 NRSV) No wonder that by New Testament times, the church had become inculturated...at Rome, at Ephesus, at Corinth, at Antioch. The church was fast becoming a global ekklesia of grassroots koinonia. 9
The incultural Christian realizes that the Gospel travels through time not in some ideal form, but from one inculturated form to another. In the words of one theologian, the "fiction" of a "pure and naked Christianity" has done much damage. 10 What missiologists call "the culturally indigenous church" is the aim of the incultural church.
Some scholars, like Douglas John Hall and Max Stackhouse, prefer the word "contextualization" to "inculturation." Hall's case for inculturation as integral and inevitable to the integrity of the theological method is based on the doctrine of the incarnation:
Contextuality in theology means that the form of faith's self-understanding is always determined by the historical configuration in which the community of belief finds itself. It is this world which insinuates the questions, the concerns, the frustrations and alternatives, the possibilities and impossibilities by which the content of the faith must be shaped and reshaped and finally confessed. Conscious and thoughtful involvement of the disciple community in its cultural setting is thus the condition sine qua non of its right appropriation of its theological discipline. 11
Stackhouse's distinction between the "textuality" of the church — its faithfulness to the Gospel — and its "contextuality" — its faithfulness to the world in which it finds itself — is absolutely critical. 12 If Michael Carrithers is right when he argues that the crucial human attribute is adaptiveness, 13 then what makes us truly human is our ability to change our ways in response to new social situations.
God reaches all peoples and all ages through culture. 14 There is no such thing as an unmediated Gospel. In the words of the Vietnamese theologian Peter C. Phan, "All theologies, then, are necessarily local theologies, ineluctably contextualized, indigenized, on the way to full inculturation. There is no such thing as Christian faith by itself (fides qua), existing pure and unalloyed in the depth of one's heart, in some prelinguistic or alinguistic state." 15 The incultural model uses the knowledge, the ignorance, the strength, and the weakness of the indigenous culture to incarnate Christ for its age.
To be sure, incultural churches must clearly and cleanly distinguish between content and container, between "who they are" and "how they function." The incultural model takes into account the coordinates of its time, but creates a new page 117 spirit of the time. It doesn't just catch the spirit of the age; it helps create a new spirit. It is in touch with the culture, but not in tune with it. The issue for the incarnational Christian is not whether the Gospel will be inculturated in this electronic age, but how the Gospel will be inculturated; not whether our social context shapes the experience of the Gospel, but how and when.
In order to avoid becoming an obedient lapdog or a rebellious hippie, the incultural, incarnational contemporary Christian must learn to distinguish between that which aids in the transmission of the Gospel and that which is merely postmodern static. 16 A postmodern incultural, incarnational church gladly uses all the technological advances of culture in order to witness more effectively to a technological world. "Inculturation from below" is the only authentic inculturation, where "below" includes whatever is on the streets — from the poor and oppressed to popular culture. Postmodern spirituality as well as intellectual and artistic endeavors must come to terms with popular culture. 17
Missiologists like Aylward Shorter, president of the Missionary Institute of London, have done the most to argue for the inculturation of the Gospel and the decentralization of authority in the evangelization of the Christian faith. 18 W. Reiser defines inculturation as "the process of a deep, sympathetic adaptation to, and appropriation of, a local culture in which the church finds itself, in a way that does not compromise its faith." 19 The best definition, however, comes out of an African context:
The inculturation of the church is the integration of the Christian experience of a local church into the culture of its people, in such a way that this experience not only expresses itself in elements of this culture, but becomes a force that animates, orients, and innovates this culture so as to create a new unity and communion, not only within the culture in question but also as an enrichment of the church universal. 20
How does the church continually inculturate itself without losing the integrity of the Gospel? 21 Are there any biblical guides, principles, or metaphors to help us live out this AncientFuture faith in whatever age God has chosen us to live?
One of the earliest images of the church in Christian art is that of a boat. The image of the church as boat, and of tradition as anchor, has adorned our holy spaces ever since.
The church is hearing calls from all over to stay "anchored" to "doctrinal moorings." Even outside the church, futurist Faith Popcorn's new book, Clicking (NY: HarperCollins, 1996), outlines sixteen new trends, one of which she calls "anchoring" and defines as "spiritual exploration in which we ground ourselves by looking back at the past — to prepare for the millennium and beyond."
The use of the same "anchoring" language gives one pause. Isn't the place for page 118 the church on the high seas? Is not "anchoring" antithetical to launching a ship? How can the church move into the future when "anchored"?
If one exegetes the biblical image of "anchor," one of the key texts that immediately surfaces is Hebrews 6:18-19, where "hope" is said to be like an "anchor" that is "set before us." We are instructed to move ahead in safety and confidence by casting our anchor forward and then "grasping the hope set before us." (REB) Now here is a strange image: that of casting an anchor into the future and winching one's way forward by holding on to the past for dear life.
Anchored to the rock.
Geared to the times.
Billy Graham's first slogan
The biblical image is clearly one of casting an anchor ahead, not behind, and then pulling oneself forward. At a conference near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a naval officer from the Second World War helped me exegete this image when he told how battleships he was on survived terrible hurricanes in the Chesapeake Bay. It was in similar fashion that sailors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wormed their ships through tight places or dangerous spots.
It seems that when a storm or turbulent seas threatened a ship that was docked in harbor, a crew of eight or nine sailors would be sent out in a motor launch or motor whale boat with the mission of hauling the ship's anchor onto planks set across the stem of the launch. Motoring out to sea in the midst of the storm as far as the chain would take them, the sailors then lowered anchor, and the ship winched forward into deeper water on the anchor chain. 22 One casts the anchor forward for another reason: to establish a pivot point from which to cast off, set sail, and stay untangled from other boats, booms, docks, rocks, and other hazards.
In the legend of the Welsh Prince Madoc and his discovery of America, his ship got stuck in the Chesapeake Bay. After trying every way conceivable to get the vessel unstranded, the crew came to Prince Madoc and asked if there were anything he could think of for them to do. He responded, "Kedge on our anchor." So they rowed out with an anchor, dropped it as far into the sea as they could, and then winched their way toward it. 23 The ancient sailing practice of "kedging" is what I mean by the AncientFuture methodology of moving into the future.
The AncientFuture methodology inculturates the Gospel in every time and clime, especially when the ecclesiastical ship is docked in harbor and a storm is brewing or boiling at sea. It works equally well when just the opposite is the case, and one must find a way to move with no wind. To get the church back out on the high seas and away from hugging harbors or going nowhere, it prophesies its way forward by "kedging off" — dropping an anchor (in Christian art, the symbol of the tradition) into the future, even into the midst of force-ten gales, and then pulling itself by that anchor into the future. Until "there [is] no longer any sea" (Revelation 21:1 REB), we will need in every age to cast the anchor of tradition page 119 into the future and then winch our way forward. Like the lowly worm, spider, and clam, the church locomotes by throwing an anchor of tradition ahead into the future and pulling itself to it.
The wisdom of the future is found afresh in the past. The ancient will always be the future. This AncientFuture methodology seeks to create stock situations anew, not to do away with the old or introduce the novel. The key to contemporaneity will always be continuity. The admixture of oldfashionedness with newfangledness, the old and the yet to be born, is the only sure-fire recipe for stability and strength amid changing times.
The more authentically traditional one becomes, the more relevant one's ministry. Good news is old news. Our aspiration is not to create a church that is "good as new," but "good as old." "Good as old" is better than "good as new." The problem with the church today is not that it is "too traditional"; the problem with the church today is that it is not traditional enough. It has held the future to a frozen version of the past. It has reduced the rich, full tradition of the Christian faith to a bounded set of rituals, formulas, or principles — liberals call them "stands," conservatives call them "fundamentals."
Postmodern leaders are visionaries spellbound by the past. An AncientFuture faith unapologetically lives out of "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 3 NKJV) Postmodern leaders keep the past and the future in perpetual conversation. This is how we distinguish genuine newness from nowness.
Poet/graphic designer William Blake admonished his readers to "Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead." 24 Modem society was a culture that consumed its own past. In contrast, postmodern pilgrims honor those "bones of the dead," and make those bones live. (Ezekiel 37) "Moses took with him the bones of Joseph," reads Exodus 13:19. (NRSV) Moses didn't leave without taking his past with him. Those bones were the symbol of the Hebrews' history, prompting them in their struggle to remember, equipping them in their war against forgetting.
We must not go anywhere without carrying the bones and stones of memory with us: the memory of our past, the memory of our ancestors, and the memory of our holy places. Those bones and stones are the memory of the future. At the heart of worship is deep anamnesis, or re-membering.
Postmodern pilgrims strive to embody what I call an AncientFuture faith. Like the French composer Saint-Saens, who adhered to classical principles of music while at the same time functioning as a formal innovator of surprising resourcefulness, an AncientFuture faith brings together tradition and newness, institution and inauguration, innovation and consolidation. The church exists as a preservatory of the past as well as a laboratory of the future.
The AncientFuture methodology is the "hermeneutical retrieval" of traditions from the past and their re-appropriation into twenty-first-century settings of ministry. It is not a nostalgic capitulation of the present to some romanticized "golden age." Rather it is a "recapitulation" (Irenaeus) 25 or "retrieval" (David Tracy) ofpage 120
the past into the future, a recovery of the past and its appropriation into new contexts, or what some Asian theologians call "repeat without repetition."
The three steps to this "retrieval" are trust, translation, and turbocharging ("reintegration"). First, one must trust the tradition, and trust it enough to carry it out into an uncertain future. Trust combines exegesis with ethnology as one tracks the transcultural truths of the faith. The AncientFuture Christian lives out of the past, not in it.
The initial cast of the anchor is critical. Just as in fishing for trout, the chances of really hooking on to something significant diminish with each cast. In fact, after seven casts that come up empty, a fisherman should consider moving to another place in the stream. The same is true for the AncientFuture Christian.
One of the biggest problems in this first step is learning the difference between "tradition" and "bad habits." A helpful metaphor in making the distinction is that of scaffolding. When we build a church, we use scaffolding. But when the church is completed, we take down the scaffolding. How ridiculous it would seem if ten, twenty, or thirty years later the scaffolding were still up. There are a lot of churches whose scaffolding has never come down, who cling to the scaffolding as if it were the church. They have confused the "scaffolding" of institutions with the "tradition" of the saints.
Second, one must translate the tradition so that the familiar is given new meaning and power. Once one trusts tradition enough to discover it again for the first time, one then delivers that tradition in a way that the tradition has never seen before.
Notice that the word chosen here is translate, not transform. When one transforms something, one changes its essence. In translation, one is transferring transcultural truths into a new cultural context. The work of contextualization is translation, not transformation.
Just as Jesus "recapitulates" the human race, 26 so we are to recapitulate the Gospel for every culture. Jesus took the old Scriptures of Israel and recapitulated them in a new light; we take the new teachings of Jesus and reinterpret them in light of the old Scriptures of Israel. We recapitulate them within the context in which God has placed us. This is what it means to be "disciplined" disciples.
Third, once the tradition has been trusted and translated, it is our mission to turbocharge it for a new day, to find a way of bringing it back that fastens it on the memory and imagination. The act of turbocharging harkens back to the past while heralding the future at work.
When archaeologists were finally allowed to dig in what some call Christianity's holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, they were astounded to discover on a wall beneath the church a red and black graffiti drawing of a boat, with the Latin words Domine ivimus under it — "Lord, we went," the beginning page 121 words of Psalm 122, the psalm of pilgrimage. 27
When will we go? The AncientFuture church enters uncharted postmodern waters by casting the anchor of tradition ahead of us. In the words of the Coast Guard motto, "We have to go out; we don't have to come back."