Surrogate Parent

If there’s one criticism I consistently hear being leveled at the Church, it’s that we’re irrelevant. Our message — both in our songs and our preaching — simply doesn’t matter to the daily lives of ordinary people. Someone even launched Relevant magazine as a way to combat that mindset, especially among younger folks. (Wait. Does saying “folks” make me sound old and irrelevant?) The quest for relevancy led to the rise of the seeker movement: churches discarded anything “old” to attract “seekers,” those looking for a “relevant” church (hence this is also termed the attractional church model). Hymns, neckties, organs, pulpits, and a host of other things became irrelevant — and were subsequently discarded with little to no further reflection.

The preaching in those attractional churches is designed first and foremost to be, well, attractive. That’s not a bad thing — until you think about it. It puts an emphasis on avoiding negative topics, like sin and hell. It frequently eschews exposition of the biblical text for a more topical approach. That quickly descends into un-anchored motivational speech (to be fair, expository sermons often become mere theology lectures). But, it is said, at least those topics are relevant. They engage issues in the daily lives of ordinary people. Yes, but they just don’t seem to do so by anything more than proof-texting.

At its base, the quest for relevancy changes the nature of church services. Not only its form, which is always subject to change, but its nature. Church becomes a consumer product, entertainment, instead of participatory adoration. Moreover, it shifts the primary place of discipleship from the home to the pulpit. That may not sound like it, but that’s a problem.

I firmly believe all preaching must be evangelistic in nature — and overtly so. Yes, other concerns are addressed, but a sermon must present the gospel in order to be an actual sermon (I expand on this elsewhere). That means it is of limited use for teaching us how to theologically navigate such things as Facebook, the opioid epidemic, or tattoos. These things are best considered in a small group discipleship format. Ideally, that setting is the home, as Christian parents catechize their children and equip them to reflect on their life experiences from a Christian perspective. This is one reason discipleship should begin in the home. Beyond that, small groups based out of a church are good resources, as are larger-group teaching times.

This is my ideal, but ideals often crumble when they collide with the real world. Let’s admit very few parents engage in home discipleship, and with the rise of the Nones from Millennials and Gen Z (those who list religious affiliation as “none”), it’s fairly probable the average age of conversion will increase as those not raised in Christian homes come to faith as adults. Younger people who begin to attend church for the first time will need — and indeed want — clear moral teachings, biblical principles they can apply to life. In short, they want the “relevant,” and the local congregation becomes a surrogate parent to teach them the things they never got at home.

On the one hand, it’s tragic the church is now forced to play the role of home-based disciple-maker. These truths were to be passed down to our children and our children’s children. They were not. The people should have been taught at home how to think theologically. They were not. That we now, as a Church, must alter our worship to provide basic moral education signifies the failure of the family unit and our experiment in abandoning our Sunday school classes and small groups.

On the other hand, Cyprian of Carthage once said, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother.” The local congregation is a place for fellowship, for nourishment, and for worship. It provides nurture in many forms. That’s why she is our mother. If other mothers fail at the task of discipleship, then she will step in as a surrogate mother of sorts, adopting the orphan and instructing him/her in the paths of righteousness. That is the only way she can see her children saved.

Part of that instruction, however, is a simple truth, a basic axiom: the Christian faith is always relevant. Scripture, whether chapter and verse or underlying principles, will always apply to any situation. The realm of public theology is designed to create pathways, bridges between “real life” and the pertinent texts/traditions. We would do well to promote the discipline and help act as the surrogate parent for so many who come to our doors without knowing anything in advance.

Just not at the expense of true worship, of adoration, of praise of the One we came to learn about. God is not a thought experiment; He is a Divinity with whom one relates. May we evangelize and teach. May we baptize and catechize.

May we parent.

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Wisdom of Religion

Recently I began delving into wisdom literature. The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs occupy a unique place in the biblical canon, and sometimes they prove difficult to use in preaching. I admit I have the bad habit of using Proverbs simply as source corroboration and proof-texts: I take another passage and supplement my message with supporting proverbs. To be fair, it’s not like Proverbs offers consistent narratives throughout. It’s mostly a collection of gnomic, pithy aphorisms that occasionally sound too close to a fortune cookie for my personal comfort. (Take, for example, Proverbs 18:9: “One who is slack in work is brother to one who destroys.” *Cue gong.*)

In fact, the format of Proverbs and the overall structure of its sayings has me researching how biblical wisdom literature compares to other extant classical wisdom texts, specifically in Eastern philosophy/religion. If Proverbs reads like the Tao Te Ching, for instance, are the two related in some fashion? Are there similar themes? Is there a universal wisdom tradition they reflect? Is the syntax of the sayings a specific vessel designed for wisdom literature?  Unfortunately no one else seems to be asking the same questions. After scouring my seminary’s library, I found a single article comparing Solomon and Laozi on happiness. That’s it. Plenty of things comparing various Ancient Near East wisdom texts (Akkadian, Sumerian, Egyptian, Jewish, etc.), plenty on Chinese vs. English proverbs, but not a single study making a full analysis of biblical wisdom literature and classical Eastern wisdom teachings.

Despite the overwhelming lack of scholarship on this topic, I think it would provide great insights into comparative theology. How does the Bible’s wisdom compare to the Tao Te Ching? The Quran? The Bhagavad Gita? Surely each features a particular flavor of wisdom, and that wisdom would naturally be oriented towards living a religious life. Of course, one can go too far in the theological study of wisdom — consider Russian sophiology, for example — but on the whole it would provide a quick way to assess theologies, values, and daily practices of a given religion.

Let’s go back to Proverbs for a moment. Proverbs is primarily concerned with orthopraxy — right actions, right living. It offers insights on everything from business deals to parenting, encompassing the whole spectrum of human experience; there is little it doesn’t cover. It always speaks, however, from a uniquely Jewish perspective. In fact, it offers the following as the seventh verse of the entire book: “The fear of the LORD [YHWH] is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). All the wisdom that follows is thus based in the fear of God, and only with this threshold condition met can wisdom be properly applied (and lived).

This tells us two things about Judaism (and subsequently Christianity). First, it is a religion concerned with the mundane, with daily life, as much as it is the divine. Second, it is a theistic and theocentric religion. God exists — only the one God — and life should find meaning in relationship to Him. A God-less life is folly, fundamentally unwise.

Other wisdom writings reveal similar things about their respective religions. Turning again to Taoism, the Tao Te Ching is silent regarding classical theism (Taoism being pantheistic, not monotheistic, with a small pantheon of minor deities), but it speaks volumes about daily life. All of this is evident strictly from the way it presents its wisdom sayings, again all in gnomic forms.

Clearly most religions aren’t simply beliefs about the divine, nor are they mere collections of rules for daily living. They are both, and this admixture is most prevalent in the wisdom writings. If wisdom itself is a staple feature of religion, then wisdom becomes a religious enterprise and a religious goal. But do we see it that way? Probably only rarely, if at all. Our view of wisdom is generally far more utilitarian than religious. Wisdom is reduced to nothing more than rules for the application of knowledge, not ways to draw closer to God or true virtue/enlightenment.

May we learn to be wise, but wise in ways which first and foremost lead us to God — the intended purpose and end of wisdom.