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Colossian Blog
July 25, 2018 | Michael Gulker

Recovering Our (Theological) Imagination: A Call to Hope


My work provides me near-daily occasion to interact with thoughtful, passionate, and culturally engaged Christians. Whether I’m talking with pastors or leaders regarding concrete relational challenges generated by our political climate, wrestling with scholars or public intellectuals on more abstract questions of engaging post-Christian culture faithfully, or just executing the quotidian tasks of The Colossian Forum with my rather extraordinary co-workers, I’m perpetually immersed in fascinating questions of how to authentically live out our faith in today’s culture. 

 
Yet, there’s a shadow side to this work. Despite their energetic engagement with culture, many folks with whom I interact are plagued by doubt and fear. And despite enthusiastic involvement with The Colossian Forum, some friends candidly share, “You know, ‘all things holding together in Christ’—I’m not feeling it. I’m not seeing it. I’m not sure it’s real.” And they may continue: “I love Jesus, and I love the church, but I’m not sure I belong in the Christian world anymore. I don’t know where I belong.” These comments aren’t from disillusioned youth expressing a faddish critique of religion. Rather, they’re from . . .
      ~ mature, long-suffering Christians who hurt because today’s political           and religious divisions cut them off from conversations with those               they love; 
      ~ parents wrestling with the fear that their kids may leave the faith;
      ~ pastors questioning whether or not the church really is the body of             Christ given all the senseless polemics ripping their congregation or           denomination apart; and
      ~ young people pondering their identification with religious                             institutions that mirror the secular culture. 

As theologian Rich Mouw aptly remarked in a recent conversation, “Zombie movies and dystopian future flicks seem more pertinent to life than the Gospel.” We’re woefully short on hope these days. The future feels dark. What do we make of this? And what do we have to show for all our effort to pass on the faith to those we love? Scripture exhorts us to “give reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15),” yet we are short on hope.
 
Hope doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s not an act of will. Nor is it merely an optimistic view of the future, the fruit of a cheery disposition. Instead, our shared hope ought to be the natural outcome of our faith in what Christ accomplished for us in the past. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection reveal the depth and power of God’s love—a love that overcomes every barrier between heaven and earth, you and me, and the ultimate obstacles of sin and death. By faith, this reality gives us hope. While we were yet sinners (and, as such, enemies of God) Christ died for us. This is our reason to hope. 
 
And because of this hope, rooted in God’s faithfulness, we are freed from sin and the fear of death. We are freed to love others sacrificially, as Christ. “Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) 
 
Given this heritage of sacrificial love, why do we lose hope? Let me try out an idea on you, and I’d love to hear your reaction. 
 
We’re called to imitate Jesus’ self-giving love. We’re called to pick up our cross and follow his example by loving our enemies. What if we don’t? What if we refuse? What if we’ve lost our theological imagination for imitating Christ’s sacrificial love? What if we’ve forgotten all the practical ways we could embody self-giving love in our culture?
 
Could it be that our failure of hope—to be a hopeful people—is related to a failure of theological imagination? Perhaps it is a failure of practical wisdom on how to embody hope. Or, even worse, a stark refusal to love sacrificially, especially across political and cultural disagreements.
 
While we were yet sinners—while we were yet Republicans or Democrats—Christ died for us. 
 
Will we avoid risk and love only those who agree with us? 
 
This is what FOX and CNN offer us. If we lose our theological imagination we will imitate the broader culture by erecting barriers that Christ has already demolished. If we erroneously believe that ideological agreement is the condition for fellowship, then despair and division will be our heritage.
 
Hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness revealed through Christ’s sacrificial love. How will others experience resurrection hope if we don’t follow Christ by shouldering our cross and loving others sacrificially?
 
I welcome your thoughts around this topic of deep division, sacrificial love, and our longing for hope. I look forward to engaging with your responses in the upcoming part two of my musings on hope in a divided world.

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Losing Faith in Church
December 12, 2018 | Rob Barrett
Losing Faith in Church
A young man in the circle decided to be vulnerable: “I have never seen an example of a Christian life in church that I want to follow.” What happened next shocked me. One by one, the others in the circle nodded their agreement. I shook my head in astonishment and they shook their heads in wonder that I found this unanimous sentiment surprising. We had gathered a group of young people to talk about their experiences of church. The conversation had started off with the expected themes: the sermons, the music, the youth group, and the conflicts. But the mood changed when the “I have never seen…” voice spoke up. I reflexively brought up mental images of the many faithful exemplars who had invested in me. I couldn’t imagine my own life apart from all that they had taught me by their (very different) examples. So what was I to make of this poor young man who hadn’t been steeped among such saints? Was he just blind to what surrounded him? One of the “me, either” voices elaborated on the theme: “It’s not just church. My parents are Christians, too, but their messy divorce said something very different to me.” Stories and experiences began to flow, with one common element: The Christian lives around them hadn’t reflected the words preached, the Scripture read, and the professions spoken. These young people perceived that something was terribly wrong with the faith spoken or the faith lived…or both. (Im)plausibility Structures Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. Something was missing around the circle that evening. There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing. Upon hearing such complaints, it would be easy to accuse them of hypocrisy or laziness. Shouldn’t they attend to their own spiritual lives rather than judging those around them? We might do well, however, to listen carefully and ask ourselves how their doubt could be a gift that challenges us to live a more plausible faith. In a recent book, Walter Moberly incisively explores the importance of the lived existence of the church as a plausibility structure for faith.[1] Drawing on Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge, Moberly argues that the church “is indispensable for giving content to, and making accessible, the enduring and universal significance of the biblical witness.”[2] For us to become Christians in the first place, there must be a community that persuasively embodies the faith. We come to faith not merely by evaluating the Christian worldview as philosophically viable, but through significant people in our lives who live it out in rich, compelling, and beautiful ways. Beyond our entrance into the faith, these models are also required for remaining in the faith. As Berger puts it, “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.”[3] For the young people in that circle, the church’s performance of the faith was a crumbling plausibility structure. One doesn’t need to look far for possible sources of disappointment in the church. We are assailed almost daily by headlines of sexual abuse by Christian leaders from all strands of the church. As horrible as the abuse itself is, the more damning parts of the story are the follow-on efforts at keeping everything quiet, image control, and protecting leaders and institutions. As the holy-sounding words of confession, repentance, and forgiveness are trotted out, young people are watching carefully, and they have sensitive baloney detectors (to put it mildly). When the secular media lead the way in caring for the downtrodden and naming the problems, and when the state decides it must enact mandatory reporting laws to force church leaders to do the right thing, is it any wonder that these other secular structures of life have more plausibility? While not everyone has a connection to sexual abuse (though far too many do), most young people today have LGBT friends. They know that many Christian sexual minorities are struggling to faithfully bring their inner experiences into harmony with their religious commitments. Are the adults in their churches offering a pathway to Christian flourishing for these friends? Dogmatic proclamations must sometimes be made, but also important is the manner of life that leads up to, through, and beyond such proclamations. If the church fails to provide a plausible vision for these friends, no wonder doubt about its plausibility for one’s own life, which is similarly complex in its own way, might not be far behind. Examples could be multiplied. Research by the Barna Group has revealed six themes young people cite in their explanations for their disconnection from the church. They characterize the church as overprotective, shallow, invalidly exclusive, anti-science, simplistic and judgmental about sex, and intolerant of doubt.[4] One way of drawing this together is that they find Christians unwilling to engage the complexities of the world as it really is.[5] What do they see Christians doing when the uncertainties and pressures of life mount? Do we, at that point, leave our faith at the door and tap different resources to make sense of the world and guide our action? If we do, we inadvertently testify to the implausibility of our faith. A Way Forward In such times, what might it look like to testify to the adequacy of Christ? Has God truly given us everything we need (2 Peter 1:3), even when facing the truly complex challenges of life? If it is indeed true that the lived experience of the Christian community is important for making the claims of the Christian faith plausible, then our first responsibility to those doubting their faith is clear: We must be the church. We must live as the Christian community we claim to be. If we are to be persuasive about the truth of the Christian faith, we must live true, persuasive lives.  But what could this possibly mean? Our first reaction to such a mandate might well be to humbly confess that we have both failed to do so and, then, that we cannot help but fail. A truly faithful life “worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1) might well seem to be beyond our grasp and even our comprehension. Who can live out the mandates of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? When has anyone lived up to the “simple” command to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34)? Which Christian community has fulfilled Paul’s summons to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” as he emptied himself and became a servant unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11)? If the plausibility of the faith depends on our performance, we may well wonder if the faith must remain forever implausible. However, the challenge we face is not to become what we cannot be. Rather, it is to speak honestly as we continue our pursuit. We can speak truthfully because we are confident in Christ, not ourselves. That the church is filled with flawed disciples should surprise no one. That such a church might dare to tell the truth about it, just might.  Moberly acknowledges that the people of God make the faith plausible despite how “disappointing and frustrating their performance often is.”[6] Where does that leave us? If we accept our first obligation of “being the church,” our second obligation is then to invite others, perhaps especially the doubting, to observe and participate in this life of the church. As Moberly observes, this shared life of the church will always be under negotiation,[7] which is a nice way of saying it will be filled with conflict. If our faith is to truly intersect with reality, the complexities and conflicts must be received as part of that truth. It must be that Christ will, somehow, graciously glorify himself exactly there. We don’t have the option of inviting doubters into an unspoiled church, only a conflicted, challenged one. This is exactly the place where plausible testimony to Christ originates. The New Testament church was filled with conflict and failure. Even a quick scan of Acts and the epistles reveals this plainly. The scriptural testimony assures us that Christ isn’t defeated by conflict within his body. Rather, his presence in the midst of it opens up new possibilities for witness even amidst the brokenness. Indeed, perhaps the beauty of the gospel shines most brightly in the midst of our conflicts handled openly and honestly, with full trust that God will work alongside us to restore what we have broken. Recapitulating the examples above, perhaps Christian faithfulness is not negated but becomes apparent particularly in the midst of our pained attempts at responding honestly to the plague of sexual abuse within the church, our faltering handling of our sexuality, and the crucible-intensity that can arise within marriage. In our hard-pressed situations, the life of Jesus is revealed, if only we will testify truthfully (2 Corinthians 4). I was formed as an adult Christian in a church where it was well-known that marriage was a difficult road. This was talked about in sermons and by couples who were taking it one day at a time. Marital challenges were one of many places where Christian commitments became decisive on the journey of life. This was important to me, not only to prepare for marriage, but as a plausibility structure for the way of Jesus, which sustains the inevitable collisions between covenant love and human sinfulness. What shouldn’t be an option for us is lying and covering up the difficulties and conflicts. The real church—the one that gives plausibility to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is messy, complicated, contested, and plausible. My mother likes to tell the story of my 5-year old commentary on her scurrying around to tidy the house for guests. I am said to have asked, “Why don’t we let them see how we really live?” Yes, why not let the doubters see how Christians really live? Even if this sounds like a good direction, in my experience it is always difficult at any given moment to take a step toward vulnerable transparency. Each messy situation has its own excuse. “We should wait until we know better what we are doing.” “Being honest about these particular things would only tear people’s faith down.” “There is too much at stake in this case to say what is truly going on.” But it is exactly in these toughest of situations that the opportunity is richest. Are we willing to testify to the difference the way of cross and resurrection makes when we are facing our own crucifying challenges? For some reason, we too often think that faith is bolstered by hiding the difficulties Christians face. Quite the opposite. Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away.  The world is filled with people offering quick fixes and easy answers. Christian communities have the possibility of offering a richer vision of human flourishing, one that rings truer. When we confess our lack of easy answers and vulnerably invite others into our difficult places of struggle, the difference the gospel makes becomes apparent. The little miracles we so often overlook—humbly asking for forgiveness, praying without seeing results, receiving communion, caring for an ailing spouse, and on and on—become apparent as the miracles they are when they flow from Christ’s presence in our midst, especially when we’re simply doing what Jesus commands and not trying to impress anyone. When we invite doubters to “come and see,” to come up close and inspect the body of Christ, wounds and all, we offer a testimony that is more than intellectual argument and manicured image. We offer an example of Christian faithfulness fit for the real world. Such a faith marks out a pathway worth following as it points forward to Christ as the only one truly worth following. [1] R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith (Baker Academic, 2018). This concept was suggested earlier by Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP Academic, 1995), 182-93. [2] Moberly, 101. [3] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967), 158. [4] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Baker Books, 2011), 91-93. [5] Kinnaman, 98. [6] Moberly, 101. [7] Moberly, 153.   Rob Barrett is the Director of Forums and Scholarship at The Colossian Forum.   We rely on the faithful support of those who envision a more beautiful church, especially in the midst of conflict.  Please consider making a year-end gift today. 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Giving Testimony to Our Unity in Christ
June 29, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Giving Testimony to Our Unity in Christ
Just as the fall football season launches, we at The Colossian Forum will be hosting our first annual conference at the Haworth Conference Center in Holland, MI, September 20-22. Can a theologically rich conference compete with our national obsession? We believe It can, especially when its theme—Moving from Fear to Hope—addresses the mounting cynicism and despair within our shared public life, overflowing into our closest relationships and faith communities. Scripture speaks of “the hope we have within us” (I Peter 3:15), but at times hope’s pulse is faint amid cultural wrangling and confusion and difficult personal interactions.  So, let’s stir up the hope within us. We invite you to join us for two days as we engage together in the practices of our faith that fuel hope and enable us as Christians to live beautifully and faithfully together. Let’s rediscover a simpler, more profound, discipleship that recreates a Spirit-empowered community that acts like Jesus in the face of post-Christian complexity and conflict. Consider the following reasons to attend our Colossian Forum Conference in September. Grow a deeper understanding of “conflict as opportunity for spiritual growth and witness” Discover a fresh approach for engaging divisive issues within your church or faith community Learn practical skills from others following this new mode of discipleship Engage in joint worship that returns you to the heart of the gospel Renew your vision of hope—a vision built on Jesus Christ alone Take part in a two-hour Politics Forum, where Christian thought leaders will guide our reflections on current political divisions Perhaps the most compelling reason to attend is the conviction that, as believers, we must be of all things, “reconciling people.” Stanley Hauerwas says it so well:  “That conflict is part and parcel of Christian unity means that the unity of the church is not a unity based on agreements, but rather one that assumes disagreements should not lead to division but rather should be a testimony to the existence of a reconciling people.”* While September 20th seems a summer away, our early registration discount will disappear, June 30th.  Venue size limits attendance, so we encourage you to commit now before seasonal activities intervene. Register now for a discounted $125 fee for this two-day experience that includes four meals and an opening reception. Student discounts (50%)  and scholarships are available. Our speaker lineup—including workshop presenters—is not to be missed.  Dr. Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Seminary will be both speaking from his personal commitment to pursue peace and the unity we have in Christ. Dr. Mouw emphasizes the “spirituality” that must undergird our efforts toward unity—spiritual traits such as empathy, curiosity, teachability, and humility. How we cultivate these traits through Christian practices is a significant focus of content provided by our gifted cadre of speakers:  Jenell Paris, Messiah College; Mwenda Ntarangwi, Nairobi, Kenya; Michael Gulker and Rob Barrett, The Colossian Forum.  Workshop presenters include Rebecca DeYoung, Calvin College; James Calvin Davis, Middlebury College;  Chris DeVos, The Colossian Forum; Joe Liechty, Goshen College; Trisha Taylor, Counselor; Parisa Parsa, Essential Partners.   Centered strategically within the conference is our Public Forum, Political Division: Moving Toward Hope held nearby at 14th Street Christian Reformed Church. For two hours, the public will join us for this timely conversation.                         You will enjoy Michigan in the fall. Haworth Conference Center is on the campus of Hope College and within a winning football pass to fantastic dining and shopping in Downtown Holland. If you need lodging, we’ve arranged special rates at three local hotels, including Haworth. We look forward to welcoming you in September! Questions? Please email or call  616-328-6016.  * Hauerwas, Approaching the End, p109, as quoted in Forbearance by James Calvin Davis, p17