Recovering Evangelicals Need Less Roaring and More Rohring

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Richard Rohr is a Catholic, Universalist mystic, and he writes the kinds of books recovering evangelicals need to read. Whether or not you agree with me, just reading this post won’t nullify your salvation, so hear me out.

If you need a few minutes to memorize a few extra verses from Romans or if you want to hyperventilate in front of a picture of Billy Graham, have at it. I’ll wait.

Mind you, I’m not writing this for evangelicals in “the establishment” or who would rather do yoga (the Eastern religion also known as “stretching”) than listen to a Catholic, Universalist mystic.

I’m writing this for you evangelicals who have either had it with the whole evangelical thing, are inching their way out of Christianity altogether, or feel like the evangelical subculture is just a bit much right now. Perhaps some things aren’t quite clicking. Perhaps you’re secretly struggling with doubts. Maybe you’re just burned out and feel a bit hopeless. You’re also most likely “roaring” against the inconsistencies, false promises, or doubts you didn’t see coming.

And if you feel like you’re burning out, bowing out, or the whole thing is just a giant bait and switch offering anxiety and infighting instead of peace and joy, there could be worse things than listening to a Catholic, Universalist mystic.

I know there are a lot of you who are either on your way out or deeply disappointed with evangelicalism. Every time I talk to someone in their 20’s or 30’s, it seems like I hear yet another story of someone who signed on to follow Jesus with high hopes of salvation, meaning, and life-change. The truth of the Bible was exhilarating, going to church was relevant, and you simply couldn’t do enough for Jesus.

At a certain point, things start to unravel a bit. It’s often gradual, but it may be accelerated by a tragedy or difficult situation. There’s almost a script we all followed over the years. We all fell off the same cliff of high hopes.

In my own case, I was drowning in theology, Bible study, and churchiness while in seminary. It was as if one day I woke up and reading the Bible more, getting more truth, or attending more church didn’t cut it when it came to connecting with God. In fact, all of my solutions became my problems since the thought of them failing meant my faith would fail. When you’ve been given the best, purest, most orthodox doctrines and you still come up empty, distant from God, and even more distant from your neighbors, maybe the next step shouldn’t be doubling down on more of the same. Maybe you need a bit of a shift without necessarily throwing everything out.

I know that some people will accuse you of throwing everything out by merely listening to a Catholic, Universalist mystic without the intention of hammering him with a book by John MacArthur. Nevertheless, these accusers forget that smart people can interact with ideas and spiritual practices from someone in a different theological camp without adopting that person’s theology and practices in whole. We can learn something from a Catholic, Universalist mystic without abandoning the core evangelical commitments to studying scripture, personal piety, saving faith through the death and resurrection of Christ, and proclaiming that Jesus is King.

I’m also not here to rip apart anyone’s life choices here. If you get a lot of life from reading theology and Bible study in the evangelical fold, that’s awesome. I have no idea why some people struggle where others prosper, but I never want to make the mistake of criticizing someone for not finding life or hope where I have discovered it in abundance.

In the midst of this mire of despair and uncertainty, I suggest we stop roaring at each other about our theology or whatever and talk a little bit about Richard Rohr.

Rohr is no evangelical. Like I said, he’s a Catholic universalist. You don’t need to buy into everything he writes about. Heck, I’ve skipped some sections in his books when he gets lost in his own spiritual formation jargon or harps a little too long on a pet peeve. However, Rohr offers three really important challenges to issues that often bog down evangelicals. If you’ve been struggling within the evangelical fold, Rohr directly addresses topics that I have found personally frustrating and difficult. Here’s a little overview of how Rohr could help evangelicals:

 

Stop Fighting Tribal Wars

As a former evangelical culture warrior who than dabbled with some of the emerging church stuff, I’m tired of fighting. First I was fighting the world. Then I was fighting the mainstream evangelical subculture. Then I was fighting some of the progressives who I thought had gone too far or thought they could do a better job than the Holy Spirit at bossing people around. In a sense I’ve been the same exact person who was combative, tribal, and absolutist. I just switched my theology and proof texts. I was just as uncaring and judgmental no matter what I believed. I hadn’t actually changed the way I interacted with God and with other people.

If Protestants are anything, we’re tribal. It’s what I love the most and hate the most about us. We always reserve the right to break away. That can be awesome if the global leader of your church commands armies and functions like a one-world government (There are reasons why the first Protestants called the Pope the Anti-Christ!). But what started as a reaction to the corruption of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages soon turned into tribal in-fighting as we fractured endlessly with each other over theology.

I still care about theology a great deal. However, I’m tired of fighting over my turf. I’m tired of trying to classify people as sinners or saints, safe or sinister. Our mission to reach those outside the evangelical fold may have resulted in an unintended obsession over who’s in and who’s out. Is there a better way to spend my time than attacking an opponent or defending someone in my tribe?

While Rohr is motivated in part by a universalist theology in his call for Christians to lay down their arms in their fights with each other and those of other faiths, he still makes a compelling case to stop fighting our little turf wars and to turn toward Christ. His critique is a call is to something bigger rather than a kick out the door for those who misbehave.

Rohr is onto something. Evangelicals have obsessed over preserving pure doctrine and maintaining clear “insider/outsider” categories. Every divisive issue with evangelicals is rooted in this desire to know who’s a sinner and who’s a saint. Some have called this “bounded set” thinking. We have passwords (so to speak) and codes of conduct, and they determine who’s in and who gets invited to a concert with a surprise evangelism message.

Rohr is firmly in the “centered set” mindset. He calls us toward Christ at the center, and he encourages us to define ourselves according to God’s love for us rather than which boundaries our denominations or churches set. Rohr would probably call his approach more of an “open set” mindset, where we create room and stillness for God to meet with us. God is already present with us, so we aren’t necessarily even moving toward God. God has already moved toward us, and he encourages us to open ourselves to this possibility so that God can redefine us around his love.

I don’t follow Rohr’s more Universalist teachings, but evangelicals could really benefit from his focus on becoming renewed and transformed “in” Christ rather than fighting to preserve our doctrines “about” Christ.

Evangelicals could also use a less antagonistic approach to other religions. At the very least we should recognize some common practices and goals with other faiths, even if we can’t swap Jesus with the Buddha. I’m sure that Rohr would be happy if a few more evangelicals wanted to give yoga a shot, but that never comes up directly in his books.

Whether or not we unfurl our secret yoga mats, Rohr also has something to offer those of us who feel like Bible study just isn’t cutting it.

 

Practicing the Presence of God

Evangelicals have a strong tradition of Bible study and spiritual disciplines. We have historically been really good at self-denial and writing commentaries, the latter surely aiding the former by taking away from time that could otherwise have been spent smoking, drinking, and dancing.

As I hinted earlier, I had grown weary of adding one more thing to my spiritual life. I’ve always felt like I needed to add more prayers, more disciplines, and more study. Every time I tried to add something else, it either failed to produce the desired result or I couldn’t keep up with it. As it turned out, I didn’t need to spend more time on spiritual practices. I needed to change how I spent my time.

If you’re worn out and weary from always adding one more thing to your spiritual life, Rohr will drive home a major reality check. Rohr suggests that we often fill our lives up with some many “things we have to do” in order to hide from our true selves: our identity in Christ. So while we can use Bible study, prayer, or spiritual practices to help us discover that identity, the act of doing these things can divert us from the deeper work of silence before God. We can resort to ticking off boxes, whether that’s boxes for doctrine or practices, as the true measure of our faith.

Rohr has helped me see that measuring, adding, and learning are all poor substitutes for abiding. It all sounds a lot like a branch abiding in a vine, and the most life-giving (and “safe”) evangelicals have been the ones who focus on abiding rather than behaving since those who abide will figure out the behaving. There is nothing we can do to change the immediacy of God among us, and with the Holy Spirit among us, we don’t have to “work” to invite God to be in us. We aren’t chasing after a God who is always one step or several steps ahead of us. We have to work to see that God is already in us, and I hope you can see how much hope and joy we can find in that approach to things.

Evangelicals have a tendency to keep working harder and harder and harder to get closer to God, to learn more, and to be more obedient. Rohr reminds us of the good news in the Gospels: seek and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened.

The disconnect comes when we don’t know how to seek or where to knock. Instead of telling us to do more in order to find God, Rohr suggests that we actually do less. As little as possible in fact—as “waiting” on the Lord sets the bar pretty low for us.

 

The Point of It All

At the end of the day, evangelicals are left asking, “What’s the point of it all?” Why do we go to church, read the Bible, pray, attend small group, and read books by Christian authors (like me!) who wave around MDiv’s and drop in self-deprecating jabs at the evangelical subculture? Why bother?

Perhaps the thought of avoiding hell was enough to get you in the door, but fear is a lousy motivator for the long term. It’s awesome for short-term survival. As in, seeing a shark fin in the water will strike enough fear in you that you’ll swim really fast for the shore. However, you can only swim so fast for so long. In fact, for many of us, I would guess that some evangelical teachings on salvation feel like we’ll either reach the safety of the shoreline or a lifeguard will save us, but he’s really unhappy about it because we’re such wretched people.

Evangelicals can be a bit frantic and uptight sometimes. We’re the ones who went forward for multiple altar calls and multiple baptisms throughout our childhood and teens just to be sure we got that prayer right. We’ve had sleepless nights because of end times predictions. We’ve tried to be holier, tried to win God more glory, and fretted over the many times we’ve failed at both.

So what gives? Why is all of this such a struggle? And why bother? Is this really all about avoiding hell?

You may have guessed from the above sections that Rohr has something to say about all of this. Just as we are called to open ourselves to God and to abide in Christ, we practice disciplines such as silence or lectio divina or centering prayer in order to be transformed by a union with God. It’s not just learning about God or obedience, Rohr suggests it’s an actual mystical interaction that we’re after. This is where life change and direction comes from.

We may not even know what exactly has changed. We may not be able to put it into words. It’s not really something that we do. Rohr would say that it’s something that “is” in the present moment. We have been present with God and God has been present with us, even if that presence sometimes feels like silence. In fact, our expectations for God or spiritual experiences can hold us back from receiving God’s presence since we’re too busy looking for something else.

That will sound a bit vague if you’re new to Rohr’s teachings, but I think he hits at one of the greatest struggles that so many evangelicals face is the fear of God’s absence. We fear silence and being quiet before God because we’re afraid that God won’t show up. We focus on the outcome and experience.

Rohr chops away all of that anxiety and calls us to be still. We can be present before God and wait. Over time, God will unite with us and shape us. It’s not a three step or twelve step process. It won’t feel easy or natural for us, and perhaps those reasons alone are the most compelling reasons for struggling evangelicals to give Rohr’s teachings a try.

 

My Challenge for Struggling Evangelicals:

If you’re worn out or struggling with evangelicalism, I have a suggestion for you: “Roaring” against the failures of particular leaders, theologies, or traditions won’t help you take a step forward or heal the wrongs of the past. We need a shift in perspective and perhaps in our direction. We could do a lot worse than taking a few pointers from a Catholic Universalist mystic, so here’s my challenge:

Read and blog/journal about one book by Richard Rohr in the new year.

You can ask for the book as a Christmas gift. You can buy it in secret and cover it in brown paper so your friends don’t know what you’re up to. You could even have the book shipped to the home of a trusted, non-judgmental atheist friend. Whatever works.

Here’s a list of some books to consider:

 

Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

Immortal Diamond: The Search for the True Self

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Yes And

The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See

 

Not sure you want to go that far? You can sign up for Richard Rohr’s email list and get daily readings from his books and talks. They’re short and to the point. Some may prove more relevant than others, so stick with it for a month before ditching it.

If all of that still sounds like a bridge too far, there are lots of other books you can read to help you break out of a post-evangelical malaise. Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson wrote an introduction to contemplative prayer called Mystically Wired. I also wrote a book called A Christian Survival Guide that provides some really simple steps you can take toward praying with scripture and cultivating contemplative prayer, as well as help with other hot topics that give evangelicals fits.

Of course if none of this appeals to you, that’s fine. Catholic Universalist mystics aren’t for everyone. However, if you ever reach a point where you feel like your faith is faltering or you can’t figure out how to encounter Christ in your day-to-day life, I know a guy who can help.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join The Churches of Christ

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Today’s guest post is by my friend Adam Ellis, a pastor and theologian I always look to for perspective and sanity on the most difficult theological topics. He’s also my number one source of Buechner quotes, and I always hold it over him that I met Buechner once but unfortunately startled him during the encounter because he was having a hard time carrying something and I came from out of his line of vision to help him. Back to Adam, he pastors a congregation in the Church of Christ denomination and offers some compelling reasons to join him (provided you don’t mind moving to South Carolina!): 

 

Frederick Buechner says most theology is essentially autobiography. I’d argue the same is true of ecclesiology. That being the case, there are a few things you should know going into this. I’m the preaching minister for a small congregation affiliated with the churches of Christ. I’m also the son of a Church of Christ preacher. I was a youth minister for various churches of Christ for over a decade, and I have a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from a school associated with the churches of Christ. My point is, when it comes to churches of Christ, I’m about as dyed-in-the-wool as they come.

Have you ever enthusiastically agreed to do something that you thought would be easy and fun, only to discover that it was more challenging than you originally thought it would be? That’s me…writing this post. The whole undertaking is fraught with difficulty for someone like me presuming to talk about people like us. It’s a little like trying to explain what you love so much about your family. For everything you love, there are faces and relationships that cannot be reduced to bullet-points. There are embarrassing moments that you either try not to think about or you learn to laugh at yourselves.

My first impulse is to talk about the obvious distinctives one might notice if they attended a church of Christ worship gathering. I could talk to you about our tradition of a cappella worship. Some congregations in our tradition are beginning to use instrumental music in their worship services, but even in these cases there is still a certain reverence for the beauty of four-part harmony. I could talk to you about our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (Communion/Eucharist). I could (and many might think I should) spend some time talking to you about how we practice believer’s baptism. However, I don’t really want to talk about those things here. These are much longer and more nuanced conversations than the task at hand allows for. I’ve been asked to tell you what I love about churches of Christ and why you might want to be a part of this tradition, and that’s a different conversation altogether.

Churches of Christ have their roots in the American Restoration Movement, which also gave birth to Independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ. The movement began primarily as a unity movement in response to the rampant bickering, division and in-fighting many saw among the different denominations (sects) in the early 1800’s. Two early leaders in the movement (arguably it’s “founders”) were Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander. Thomas was a minister for the “Old Lights, Anti-Burgher, Associate/Seceder National Presbyterian Church of Scotland”, and Alexander was in training to follow in his father’s vocational footsteps. You read that right, by the way. It was a sect of a sect of a sect of a sect. Both essentially broke official ties with this group over the group’s closed and exclusionary communion (eucharist) practices. However, their intention was not to break off and start another sect. Their intention was to draw the circle wider, not smaller.

They practiced open communion. In a revolutionary document titled The Declaration and Address, Thomas declared that division was a horrid evil. He said that the church could give no new command where scripture was silent, and that while creeds may be useful, they must not be used as tests of fellowship. His son Alexander concurred. Alexander was an incredible communicator and helped the movement to spread. Although they were often referred to by others as “Campbellites”, they refused to take sectarian names for their churches, preferring terms intended to be merely descriptive like “christians”, “disciples”, or “churches of Christ”. The sentiment is probably best summed up by another early leader named Barton Stone in a document known as The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling…”

It’s easy to get confused, so sometimes you’ll catch some of us forgetting about all of this and perpetuating exactly the same kind of sectarianism we were intended to transcend. However, I believe unity is woven deep in the DNA of who we are as a people and when we lose our way, we eventually tend to find it again.

I’ll always remember the words of one of my professors from grad school. He said, “Here’s the thing about our people: If you can show it to them in the Bible, they can go there.” I’ve found this to be true and life giving. We always assume that there is more to learn. We assume scripture always has more to teach us. When I was growing up, I remember my Father telling me over and over again, “Don’t take my word for it,” when it came to matters of faith. I also remember him telling me that if I found that something he believed wasn’t right or true, I should move on. This is the prevalent attitude I have found in churches of Christ. Ideally, we try not to just believe a thing simply because it is the “Church of Christ” thing to believe. The question, “What do WE believe about that,” doesn’t really make sense in our context.

Each of our congregations is autonomous, and is ideally led by lay-leaders called “Elders” in partnership with a minister or ministry staff. There is no over-arching power structure to which we answer. There are pros and cons to this arrangement. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom to follow our consciences in the pursuit of truth, or, as a friend and mentor from another tradition once told me, “Churches of Christ are great, because you don’t have to turn the whole ship.”   On the other hand, I’m typing this post with the full knowledge that there will be some from churches of Christ who will feel quite strongly that what I have written is not representative of them at all.

Even so, I love these people. I love them like the quirky, complicated, wonderful family they are. They taught me to study scripture like it mattered…to try to speak where the Bible speaks, and to allow for difference, nuance, and ambiguity where the Bible is silent. They taught me to keep digging, to keep searching, to never be complacent or merely prop up the status quo. They gave me the space to grow. If any of that sounds appealing, maybe they could do the same for you.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

AEAdam Ellis is the husband of Dana and the father of Emma & Chloe. He has a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from David Lipscomb University, and he worked for over a decade in youth ministry in various congregations across the south eastern United States. For the past 6 years he has been employed as the preaching minister for a congregation in South Carolina, and he’s been working on the side as an adjunct university Bible instructor. Frankly, he’s kind of a geek about theology and pop-culture, but his wife and daughters love him, so he’s ok with it.

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

 

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Free Books to Read This Summer

A Christian Survival Guide a Lifeline to Faith and Growth

Paying for books is so last century. This week you have a chance to pick up several of my books for completely free or to enter a giveaway to win a print copy.

For starters, my publisher is giving away 15 copies of A Christian Survival Guide in a Goodreads giveaway.

Just hop over to Goodreads to enter.

A Christian Survival Guide takes on some the most challenging questions in the Christian faith:

  • How do we interpret the Bible 2,000 years after it was written?
  • Is Hell really a place of eternal conscious torment?
  • Is God actually able to deliver us from evil?
  • Do we need someone to deliver us from God’s violence?
  • Are we unworthy of Jesus if we’re “ashamed” to share the Gospel?

These questions and many more are addressed in A Christian Survival Guide. It’s not a book that will give you all of the answers. Rather, you’ll be given a place to think through the options presented from scripture so you can take your next step.

Of course if you don’t want to take any chances, you can pre-order A Christian Survival Guide today so that it will arrive on its July 27th release.

Pre-order on Amazon or from the publisher

 

Over at NoiseTrade Books I’m currently giving away two eBooks:

The Coffeehouse Theology Bible Study Guide

If you’re tired of only reading theology from white North American males, this is the book that will introduce you to the conversational approach I take in Coffeehouse Theology and walk you through a series of Bible studies with insights from historic and global Christian perspectives.

Download the Bible Study Guide Today.

 

A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book

A Path to Publishing is my big picture introduction to book publishing that walks new authors through the basics of book publishing from developing an idea, to writing a book, to marketing a finished book. It’s ideal for commercial and self-publishing, and I’ll answer every question that new writers ask because I wrote it right after I asked all of those same questions.

Download A Path to Publishing Today.

 

If you need some personal interactions, encouragement, and feedback in order to take the leap into publishing, but you can’t afford a writing conference that costs hundreds of dollars, you can also sign up for my Journey into Publishing online community. We start on August 14th and will meet for six online sessions. The cost is only $60

Learn more about my Journey into Publishing community.