Millennials and Churches

March 5, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeff Wischkaemper, who holds a Ph.D. electrical engineering, and he lives in Knoxville, TN, where he attends a relatively new church plant that is affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

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It’s been six years since my wife and I left the Churches of Christ. Shortly after we left, I wrote extensively about some of the reasons for our departure, and some of the problems I thought Churches of Christ faced moving forward. In a recent discussion with John Mark on the topic of what churches (of Christ) can do to navigate multigenerational contexts – specifically those where Boomers are in charge and millennials make up an increasing number of congregants – I had the opportunity to revisit those posts and reflect on how I see connecting with millennials in a somewhat different faith community.

A note before I begin: Jeremy Marshall’s post here is absolutely worth reading. Because he’s already covered a lot of things I would want to say, I’d encourage you to reflect on his thoughts before reading this. Instead of rehashing everything he covered, I’ll try to supplement what he wrote with a few thoughts of my own.

First, a bit about myself by way of introduction: I was born in 1980, a member of the “micro-generation” that straddles Gen X and the Millennials. I spent 12 years earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees at a state university with a large campus ministry, and actively participated in leadership during that time. During my time in college, I overlapped with friends ranging from the college class of 1996 to the college class of 2013. And yes, I do see a significant shift in the social, political, and religious attitudes of people who are just a few years older than me compared to the people who are just a few years younger than me.

Why do they not want what we wanted?

Because the initial question was addressed specifically to congregations with Boomer leaderships, I’ll start with a pretty bold declaration of what I think the problem (still) is not, namely worship styles. I spent a lot of time beating a dead horse on this when we left, but loud, flashy instrumental music will not help you retain millennials.

My sense is that church leaderships have a tendency to look at worship styles as a solution to millennials leaving the church for a couple of reasons. First, they remember the time when they were young adults who thought worship was bland and stale. For Boomers, creating a dynamic worship experience was a major priority, and to be perfectly fair, a lot of the changes they made were both welcome and needed. But believing millennials are primarily interested in instrumental music is, in a very real sense, Boomers projecting their own desires for increasingly dynamic worship onto millennials, rather than an actual groundswell of desire from millennials themselves.

The more practical reason I think leaderships often gravitate to changes in worship style is that these changes are relatively easy to implement. Most changes to the way we do worship are straightforward, so long as the political will and capital exists. Worship services are something we plan and can exert some measure of control over. Consider the relative difficulty between 1) changing your worship service to include “newer” songs or 2) creating a broad culture of hospitality at your church. The first is a matter of planning and execution. The second requires a new imagination about your church’s identity. It’s easier to preach a sermon about kindness than it is to be kind.

Unfortunately, many of the changes I see as necessary for engaging millennials are changes of the second type. They are changes that aren’t easily controlled or executed, take a long time, and require a lot of introspection both from leadership and laity. To be frank, they are changes many of our churches simply aren’t equipped to make.

Keeping millennials in church requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume. Millennials are not adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments – and ironically, treating them that way tends to push them away, rather than drawing them in.

Three challenges

Difficulty connecting with changing demographics

If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people like you. You are, we might say, on the fast track for eldership.

If you are in the 18-40 age range and you don’t fit this template, though, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you “back on track.” If you happen to be single, for instance, most singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because obviously singles’ primary goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because obviously all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.

The challenge going forward is that demographic trends are moving away from the traditional template: 1) people are not getting married until later in life 2) married couples tend to be waiting longer to have children and 3) couples, even within churches experience divorce at higher rates than in the past. In spite of these trends, churches continue – overtly and covertly – to message that if you aren’t happily married by 25 with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.

Ironically, a survey of Church of Christ members isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most churches would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy. And from the inside, this makes sense. People who “fit” this narrow profile and know the secret handshakes find Churches of Christ to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding.

But people who are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives aren’t on a similar trajectory.

“Gospel” as “sin management”

The traditional story most churches have told for several generations goes like this (forgive the huge oversimplification): “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ, died so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be able to live in heaven with God after we die.” The goal of churches, then, is to help people transition in status from “sinner” to “saved,” and then to help “saved people” manage their sin problem until they can go to heaven. (We would never say this so crassly, of course, but I think that’s a fair characterization of how many churches operationalize their purpose and mission.)

Now, there’s a sense in which that story may be “true,” but it’s a story that presents a solution to a singular problem that an increasing percentage of the population isn’t convinced they have. It’s a story that’s only “good news” if you can first convince people they are sinners in the hand of an angry God. Not surprisingly, the first move in the standard church playbook is to convince individuals of their personal guilt before a righteous and judgmental God – an approach which turns out to not work very well with people who didn’t grow up as nominal Christians.

Notice how much Jeremy in his article talks about story (spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about it below too). Think about how the same series of events and characters can be transformed by what Hayden White calls different modes of emplotment. For example, consider how differently the narrative of the French Revolution can look when written alternatively as a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, and a satire.

The story of God – told primarily as a tale of how to be forgiven and go to heaven after you die – isn’t an epic that captures the hearts and minds of many millennials. That’s not to say they aren’t interested in the story of God; far from it. But we need to take a step back and consider the mode of emplotment we bring to the text and ask ourselves whether a different approach to storytelling might resonate more in today’s world.

Justice, equality, hospitality

Justice, equality, and hospitality are words that Christians ought to have no problems with. And yet, if you ask non-Christians, the church is the last place they expect to find these virtues lived out. In an increasingly pluralistic society, faith communities are judged not by their benefits to insiders, but by how they act toward their non-adherents – those who do not believe.

How does your church (and its members) act toward immigrants (documented and undocumented)? How does your church (and its members) act toward members of the LGBTQ+ community? How does your church (and its members) act toward people of other faiths, (e.g. Muslims, Sikhs)?

Unfortunately, if we take an honest look, I think we will all find that our actions and intentions as Christians fall well short of the challenging words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.”

In the wake of World War II, European philosophers and theologians struggled to understand what had gone so horribly wrong with ethics and morality that millions of “good Christian people” in Germany – in a church that was in many ways more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been – could have been quietly complicit in the deaths of millions of their fellow human beings. One French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas – who survived the Holocaust only because he was protected as a prisoner of war – tried to reground ethical discussions not on an abstract notion of human rights or contractual political arrangements, but on our obligations to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

I don’t believe churches are at the point, yet, where we have been forced to undertake the same reckoning with regard to our complicity in the suffering of others. But we should be aware that even now, we are judged by a watching world on how we respond to the least of these. To the extent that our religion functions as a way to preserve and extend our cultural power at the expense of outsiders, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, we are weighed in the scales and found wanting.

Three ways we can do better…

If you change your story, you change your life

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his prophetic work After Virtue (1981) said this: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Millennials don’t need another self-help book. They know how to listen to TED talks. But they are a generation whose apparent life trajectory is not optimistic; they will likely be the first generation in America to not enjoy a standard of living greater than their parents.

What they want, desperately, is to be part of a community with a story of hope – and we have a story that speaks to that desperation. Scripture tells of a story that says, “God is doing something amazing in the world! God wants to repair all of the brokenness you see around us and set things right again! You have the opportunity to join in a community that is partnering with God to bring about justice and peace and restoration and wholeness?” It’s story that says my identity is not wrapped up in how much I earn, in what my job title is, or in how much I consume; that it doesn’t depend on my gender or race or economic status. Instead, the story of God promises that my identity is grounded in the reality that I am created by God, and that God wants me to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s a story people want to be a part of!

The recently deceased Yale theologian George Lindbeck argued that in a pluralistic age persuasion involving fundamental beliefs and ultimate concerns is not simply a matter of dispensing information but is, rather, an invitation to participate in an alternative story. Part of the reason millennials are so turned off from many churches is that the story most churches tell by their lived existence is basically indistinguishable from the story told by the world. At most churches, “being a good Christian” doesn’t look all that different from a vaguely spiritualized version of “living the American Dream.”

If the “good news” your church preaches is, in the words of one Christian author, “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an almost illegible footnote about social/global transformation,” you are going to have a very difficult time retaining people under 40. You can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming while at the same time offering an incoherent and disconnected story. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a Michael Bay movie; possibly entertaining, lots of explosions, action and special effects, but very little substance.

Millennials are looking for a story. The story of God is an epic that has the capacity to animate their lives. But we need to learn to tell that story in a way that connects with their passions and desires, anxieties and fears.

Embracing women

To quote Sojourner Truth, “I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”

Let me pose a hypothetical to you. I know someone who is an expert in couple’s therapy. Literally wrote the book on helping couples get past an affair. They lead seminars all over the world about how to have a better marriage, how to communicate better as a couple, about how to forgive those who’ve wronged you. They’re a past-president of the Division of Couples and Family Therapy at the American Psychological Association. And they are a person of deep faith. And for the cost of gas, I could probably get them to spend a morning strengthening the marriages and relationships of anyone in your church who wanted to come.

How in the world could you say no to something like that?

You could (and many of our churches would) say no, because that person is a woman.

The recent, attention-grabbing Nashville Statement included the following sentence in Article 3: “We deny that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.” One of my female friends replied, “You wouldn’t have to explicitly deny that females are unequal in dignity and worth if it weren’t implied by the entire history of [your organization].”

I know that for this audience, addressing this issue is poking a bear, and I know there are a lot of complementarians who will push back against me on this, but as a husband, brother, and friend of dozens of highly educated women let me make this abundantly clear: when you argue that women aren’t “less than men,” but that they “just have different roles (like teaching children’s classes and baking casseroles and sending sympathy cards),” these women would reply in a similar way to my friend above – you wouldn’t have to assert that women aren’t less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice. 

I want to say that again: you wouldn’t have to assert that women are not less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice.

My wife and I will never attend another church that doesn’t respect her talents and gifts, and the talents and gifts of other women, and doesn’t give women the opportunity to use the talents God has given them in settings where men are present. And we’re far from alone. In my small group, there are two women with Ph.D.’s (one of them a New Testament professor) and one medical doctor. Each of them grew up in small, conservative churches where their talents were dismissed and devalued, or worse still appropriated by boys who passed the girls’ work off as their own. Each of them has a story of hurt and resentment that is not only a barrier between them and most Christian communities, but sometimes a barrier between them and Christ.

You can jump up and down on any verses you like, but I will tell you that the lived experience of an increasing number of women suggests that the way complementarian theology is enacted is frequently damaging, not only spiritually, but on a deeply personal level. If you ignore that pain, or worse still perpetuate it, you will find an increasing number of millennial couples who will be unwilling to listen to you about anything else.

Our churches have to find ways of recognizing, valuing and listening to the talents of all members of God’s family. Spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Stop trying to be relevant. Start thinking about formation.

Too many churches get caught up in a never-ending quest to be “relevant.” If you want to connect with people under 40, think instead about how your church changes the people who are in it. Klyne Snodgrass writes: “[W]hen people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return, ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.”

Stories are identity-forming. They are how we organize the world around us. Again – if you change your story, you change your life.

MacIntyre’s phrase for people who live without a grounding story is “anxious, unscripted stutterers.” Because of a long series of choices I don’t have space to go into, many churches have lost their organizing story, leading many of their members to become anxious, unscripted stutterers.

Imagine if you asked your church the following three questions:

1) Who do you/we believe God is?
2) What do you/we believe God is up to in the world?
3) If God is doing something in the world, what should your/our response be to that?

My guess is that regardless of whether your church is “conservative” or “progressive,” your members would have a difficult time answering those questions without resorting to “Sunday school” answers (e.g. “God is love!”). These questions are a good baseline for understanding the direction that your church is headed, and the direction your members are being formed. James K.A. Smith has written extensively about how all of us are constantly being formed. It’s worth asking in the context of this question, “What is the direction of formation in most Churches of Christ?” Or, as I asked myself when we were in the process of leaving, “If I take the values and beliefs of this church to be my own, what kind of person am I going to be in 5 or 10 years?” Ultimately I didn’t leave because of personal disagreements, ineffective leadership, or vapid teaching (though those things were all present). I left because when I took a hard look in the mirror, I didn’t like the person being formed by the values of that church.

Wrapping up

I was listening to an interview with the CEO of a tech startup a couple of weeks ago, and he made a very interesting statement: “You get the investors you deserve. … If you’re trying to attract investors by going around saying, ‘We’re going to blow it up on every street corner!’ then you’re going to get investors who have those expectations of you. On the other hand, if you say, ‘We’re trying to build something that’s going to survive for the long haul,’ you’ll get investors who are more patient and willing to let you take time to do things right.”

My general observation is that many times, churches get the members they deserve. If your church is trying to attract people based on your flashy worship service, it shouldn’t surprise you when you lose members to a flashier worship service. If you’re trying to attract people because you have good preaching or children’s programs, it shouldn’t surprise you when those people jump to the next church that comes along and “out churches” you. But if you’re building for the long haul – and if you’re really taking the time to create a community around an identity-forming story, a story that changes the world – then you have the potential to not just weather the storm, but thrive within it.


The Segregation of Black and White Churches of Christ in the Postbellum South

February 26, 2018

S. W. Womack (1850?-1920), father-in-law to Marshall Keeble and a leader in the African American Church in Nashville (particularly the Jackson Street Church of Christ, which he helped plant in 1896).

When A. B. Lipscomb, who was the managing editor of the Gospel Advocate at the time, asked Womack whether he would help put together a special issue of the Advocate “for the colored people,” he agreed and hoped “it would help to correct the attitude that now exists in some places toward blacks.”

Womack continued: “I think a more friendly attitude by the white people toward us would help [in the present, JMH]. I will never forget the grand privilege that the white church of Christ at Lynchburg, Tenn., gave the colored people during their first protracted meeting just after the Civil War, in 1865, held by Brethren Brents, Lee, and Trimble. We were invited to attend and seats were found for us. In this meeting I heard my first gospel sermon and a lasting impression was made on my heart. A short time after that, in the fall of 1866, I was baptized by a white preacher, old Brother T. J. Shaw–‘the man with the old Book in his head,’ the people called him. We were allowed to meet and worship with them for a number of years. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we were all waited on just alike; the wine and bread were not brought to us at the same time it is brought to us in some of the churches that I meet with for worship now. The attitude of the white people of that church toward the colored people was then, and is now, a great uplift to me” (GA, 1915, 1326).

At the conclusion of his article, he wrote: “Only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none; and the blacks seem to stand that way toward the whites. I am proud to say, however, that it is not that way with the writer. When I begin with the year 1865 and think of such men as Dr. Brents, Lee, Trimble, T. J. Shaw, Darnell, Dixon, Bolding, Barrett, Fanning, the Sewells, the Lipscombs, and many others, who, in holding their meetings, would ask for room and seats for the colored people, and, after preaching would come around and shake our hands, I am made to feel very grateful. These things were a great help to me; and what has been helpful to me will be helpful to others also, if put into practice. I hope you will not only write and say many good things, but do as those good old men did—show your faith by your works” (p. 1327).

In other words, something happened between 1866 and 1915. Apparently, churches were more segregated, and there was more animosity toward African Americans.

American history helps us a bit here—the reconstruction South and the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

In 1874, Daniel Watkins, an African American from Nashville, TN, asked David Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people as are willing to hear and receive the truth” (GA, 1874, 281). Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it” (GA, 1874. 282). Further, “If the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes” (GA, 1874, 283).

Later that year, on October 9, a “consultation meeting” was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, TN, which included one African American named Daniel Watkins, who was commended as a preacher and church planter, among the thirty or so participants.

On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations” (GA, 1874, 1017-8, to which Michael Strickland alerted me).

There is no indication that the resolution was adopted, but the resolution itself reflects a movement among white churches to encourage segregation.

David Lipscomb, who was present at the consultation, took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (GA 1874, 1020).

When, in 1878, David Lipscomb heard about an African American who was refused membership in a white church, he wrote this: “Nothing is more clearly taught in the Bible than that Christ came into the world to break down middle walls, family prejudices, natural animosities, race antipathics, and to unite the different kindreds, tongues and tribes into one undivided and indivisible brotherhood. The race prejudices in the days of the Savior and of the apostles were just as strong as they are to-day…We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the community for persons of separate and distinct races now. The race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love and brotherhood in Christ Jesus. We believe it sinful to do otherwise now..For the whites to reject the negro is to make the whites self-righteous, self-sufficient, exclusive and unchristian in spirit…[Those who resist the participation of African Americans in white congregations] show a total unfitness for membership in the church of God. A church that will tolerate the persistent exhibition of such a spirit certainly forfeits its claims to be a church of God…Our treatment of the negro at best is that of criminal indifference and neglect. To discourage and repel him, when, despite that cruel neglect on our part he seeks membership in the church of God, is an outrage that ought not for a moment to be tolerated.”.” (GA, 1878, 120-1).

While Lipscomb opposed segregated congregations, he also had a paternalistic and assimilationist attitude toward African Americans in those congregations. He thought, given their proclivities to “over-much religiousness or superstition” created obstacles to their “knowing the truth,” and it was “a misfortune” that “the colored population ever attempted separate religious organizations or separate worshiping assemblies,” which he regarded as “unscriptural” despite the “difficulties” that “might have arisen in their worshiping together” (GA, 1874, 281). Indeed, “the negroes needed the care, the counsel, the oversight, the instruction of their white brethren” (GA, 1874, 282). Since “in the providence of God they were freed,” it is a Christian “ambition and desire to encourage, instruct, and elevate them” (GA, 1874, 283).

In other words, even Lipscomb—who was beloved by many African Americans in Nashville and in other places—was shaped by the assimilationist and paternalistic racism of his time (see Kendi’s history Stamped from the Beginning). That is quite a somber warning for all of us, especially if we claim there is not a racist bone in our bodies.

Lipscomb, nevertheless, has harsh words for the whites who encouraged separate congregations. It seems to suggest that northern whites encouraged and promoted this tactic as part of their agenda during Reconstruction, and then this was continued during the Jim Crow era. “The whites who came into the country to use the blacks for selfish ends, encouraged the forming of separate churches that through these organizations they might control the blacks. The white members of the churches of this country, when themselves not guilty of a narrow and unworthy prejudice against church association with the colored members, gave way to a cowardly fear of the prejudices of others.”

By 1915, times had changed. Womack noted that “only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none.” African Americans now worshiped in congregations segregated by the attitudes that formed by the Jim Crow south.

There were, of course, segregated churches before the Civil War, including Nashville where the first African American congregation in Nashville was planted in 1859. But these increased throughout the lifetime of David Lipscomb and S. W. Womack and much to their disappointment. The influence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow shaped how churches segregated themselves into white and black.

We are still dealing with the effects of that history today.

May God have mercy!


Millennials and the Oregon Trail Generation: Suggestions for Doing and Being Church with Them

February 8, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeremy Marshall who is the Minister of the Word at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. He is married to Megan. He holds a B.A. in Bible and M.A. in New Testament Studies from Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, TN. He enjoys exploring the intersections between biblical theology and popular culture, especially music and film.

I commend these suggestions for your consideration, and they are open for discussion rather than prescription.

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In recent years there’s been ample discussion and debate about how churches can reach and retain Millennials—those born from about 1984 through about 2001. A neglected micro-generation in these discussions is the so-called “Oregon Trail Generation,” or Xennials, those born roughly between 1977 and 1983—a cohort of which I am a member, and which I believe has significant gifts and a helpful outlook that can be very useful to the church moving forward. Many in both of these cohorts have fled their churches in recent years. But now some of those who’ve left are considering a return to some sort of church. Below are fourteen observations for doing ministry and life with and among Millennials and Xennials, many of who could rightly be classified as “Nones” and “Dones” when it comes to church experience.

1) You can’t assume they know “basic” Bible stuff. Even some of them who’ve been “in church” their whole lives. You may meet who grew up in church who don’t know Noah from Moses, or the story of Elijah and the ravens, or that Hebrews is a book in the New Testament. Don’t look down on them for this. And never put down their previous church experience, deficient as it seems to you. Something about Jesus has captured their imagination, and we ought to celebrate that.

2) Number 1) is actually a blessing. First off, it means they may be coming to us with less baggage, in terms of old denominational and hermeneutical squabbles. But it also means God is blessing us with an opportunity to tell our story afresh–to tell God’s story afresh. Isn’t that awesome? This permits us to be simply who the church was always meant to be: a people with a wondrous story to tell. A story as old as the heavens and the earth, and which will echo in the new heavens and earth.

3) If you’re blessed enough to have God guide these contingencies into your congregation, know that they do want to hear a story that makes sense to them; that makes sense of their lives and their world. They’re longing to be part of a larger story in a world that has forgotten the stories that make us truly human. I’d suggest you get a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Read it. Meditate on it. Internalize it. These Xennials and Millennials, these Nones and Dones, are rabbits looking for a safe and supportive warren to build their lives in.

4) It’s really time to brush up on the best of historical theology, because the questions these folks will bring to you have already been answered well by faithful saints of old. some titles I’d suggest up front include: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection; the Anabaptist martyr stories in The Martyrs Mirror; Augustine, Luther, and Calvin on the Psalms; Jonathan Edwards on Religious Affections; Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System; and the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find them incredibly relevant, and you’ll probably learn a few things, too. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Remember observation 3), above: they want to be part of an ongoing story, a long-standing conversation about things that really matter.

5) Related to all of the above: I’m finding that they don’t like topical sermons full of proof-texts. They don’t want or need scattershot preaching. But they do want to be led into a story by a tour guide whom they can perceive as a peer. Not as an “authority” telling them “what to do.” Detailed eschatological timelines (complete with maps) and waxing didactic and pedantic over the intricacies of the psallo argument will tend to turn off folks from these cohorts.

6) Related to 5): Why don’t they tend to appreciate topical sermons? Because they’re smart enough to know how easy it is to manipulate the text to favor a preconceived idea. These young people–especially the ones who might come with church baggage–have been trained well in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Proof texts just don’t work on many of them. Thank the Lord!

7) Related to all of the above: I’m not saying to be an exclusively “expository” preacher, either. But I am strongly suggesting preaching textual sermons. Gently guide them into the old, old story. Make helpful observations along the way. And maybe give them one application to take home with them based on the story. And then let the story and the Spirit do their work.

8) Related to all of the above, but especially 1). This might be especially a paradigm-shift for those of us in Churches of Christ, though I’m thankful to observe this practice has been waning the past couple of decades. “Turn in your Bibles to …” used 20, 30, 50 times in your sermon will not work anymore, because you can’t even assume they know where Genesis or Esther or 2 Thessalonians is. It really wasn’t a great strategy to begin with. Probably we should thank the Lord for this: it means God has given us a generation that renders moot the strange idea that the more you quote from the Bible, the more “biblical” a sermon is. It’s not “biblical” when you’re ripping many of those passages out of context; ignoring whole swaths of scripture because they don’t fit your “pattern”; and overloading people to the point that they can’t be noble Bereans who search the scriptures to see if these things be so. Why should they have to look up 40+ scriptures and make sure you were preaching them correctly?

9) Preach the whole Bible, even the weird parts. Even especially the weird parts. I recommend using a lectionary–at least for a season. And deliberately preaching the unfamiliar passages. (I prefer Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary, but the Revised Common Lectionary is also great for preaching all the Bible. Both also get the church back into the discipline of the public reading of scripture having an essential role in the church’s worship.)

10) Put the scriptures in their place. They’re supposed to lead to Jesus (through the nudges of the Spirit), who shows us the Father. Make sure you say that out loud from time to time, if for no other reason than to keep yourself honest.

11) They neither want nor need propositions, a checklist, or a list of demands. They need a story to live by, and they need a supportive community to live it with. They may ask difficult questions about this story, and you may be tempted to just “tell them what to do.” Please resist that temptation. (I’m preaching to myself first, because I’m wired to be a “fixer.”) They will come to you (or someone else in the congregation) with the questions provided they experience the church as a safe place to explore, with safe people to explore with. Be that safe place. Be those safe people.

12) The church will need to provide a more casual, family-like environment for these folks. However, that doesn’t mean circle up the wagons and be all insular. Should the church be a “haven in a heartless world”? You bet! But we also must be open to the world. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between a church that feels like family, and cult. Don’t be culty. (Hint: sectarian is culty.)

13) Because of student loans and the general gutting of the middle and working classes, the Millennials and Xennials will probably not be able to contribute nearly as much financially as previous generations. This is a reality we’ll all need to accept. I’m going to be rather blunt: This is the new normal. Deal with it. But here’s the upshot: These cohorts are also generous with their time and talents and whatever possessions they have provided you send them on a compelling mission. The church of the 21st century will need to be lithe, streamlined, efficient, supple, pliant, and not program-heavy. So give them a compelling vision. Equip them. And crowd-source the dickens out of your ministries. Tips: be simple. Collaborate with other churches, ministries, non-profits, and even local government to do good. Focus on people, not programs. Be situational. Focus more on one-time or ongoing, simple, contextual, local opportunities for ministry that make sense for your church and arise organically.

14) Above all, resist the temptation to present the Bible as a source for “life-hacks.” We’re finding out now that most “life-hacks” don’t actually make your life better or easier, and can actually cause harm. Real life is messy and complicated; and so is scripture, sometimes. When I say resist the temptation to Bible-based life-hacks, resist trying to craft one-size-fits-all “solutions” from the scriptures. Resist theological platitudes. For every Matt. 7.14 (“the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult”); there’s also a Psalm 119.45 (“I will walk around in wide-open spaces, because I have pursued your precepts”). Is the way narrow and difficult; or is it wide-open spaces? According to scripture, the answer is somewhere between, “Yes”; and, “It depends.” Tension is life-affirming.

This isn’t meant to be read as an exhaustive or systematic checklist. It isn’t Fourteen Simple Steps to Reaching Millennials. These are suggestions and starting points, based on my own experience as a minister; as a member of one of these generational cohorts; and dozens of hours of conversations with people of these generational cohorts, both within and without the church. To put these into practice may take considerable work, sacrifice, and a willingness to examine our churches and make changes. But I’d also add, I believe it’s worth it. Because I don’t intend these fourteen observations just as a gimmick to reach and retain a certain generation. I believe many of these are simply best practices for a healthy, functioning church.


Transforming Encounter: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Assembly

November 6, 2017

On October 28, 2017, the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas, hosted me for a morning of study.  I introduced their Sunday curriculum entitled “Transforming Encounter: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Assembly.”

The lesson outlines for the series are available here: Transforming Encounter Amarillo 2017.

My audio introductions to the lessons are available:  Audio Session 1, Audio Session 2, Audio Session 3, and Audio Session 4.

 


I’m Confident You Will Do More Than I Ask (Philemon 21-22)

November 2, 2017

Paul has set a high bar for Philemon.

Given Philemon’s social world, Paul’s requests are astounding. As Philemon’s slave, Onesimus has neither social status nor civil rights. Onesimus cannot sit at the same table with his master. He cannot marry whom he chooses, and he has no real options other than what Philemon decides.

As this letter is read in the context of Philemon’s house church, there is enormous cultural (even political) pressure on Philemon to conform to conventional Roman social norms. His neighbors are watching. His peers, in and outside of his small Christian community, live in a social world that cannot imagine any sort of equality between masters and slaves. Their relationship is asymmetrical. The master literally holds all the cards, and any chink in that armor has the potential to tear apart Rome’s social fabric and economic power. The memory of Spartacus still looms large in the first century A.D.

Nevertheless Paul’s requests assume a different kind of community where slaves are equals before God; where both slave and free are heirs of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29). Paul himself places enormous pressure on Philemon from within the Christian community to (1) regard Onesimus as a fellow-member of the family of God, a brother, (2) welcome him just as Philemon would welcome Paul, (3) charge any debt to Paul, and (4) refresh Paul’s ministry by receiving Onesimus in peace. What Paul asks is extraordinary in the social world in which Philemon lives as the head of a household. This is a high bar for Philemon given the several levels and intersecting realities at work here: (a) Philemon’s Roman world; (b) Philemon’s own household; and (c) Philemon’s house church. This is a complicated situation.

We might say Paul is manipulative, but Paul’s intent is to apply this brotherly pressure without apostolic demand. How else might Paul persuade Philemon without commanding him? It seems to me Paul does this rather well.

We might say Paul is passive-aggressive, but Paul is overt in his requests and rationale. Paul intends to influence Philemon; he is active rather than passive.

Yet, Paul thinks this is a matter of Philemon’s “obedience.” What is the nature of “obedience” here? One might suggest Paul is demanding Philemon to obey his requests and make good on Paul’s expectations, but this runs counter to the kind of response Paul wants to nurture and cultivate in Philemon’s life. Paul does not use his apostolic authority to compel Philemon’s “obedience.” I don’t think Paul wants Philemon to obey his apostolic authority.

On the contrary, it seems to me, Paul wants Philemon to live out the story he confesses to believe. In other words, the “obedience” Paul envisions is Philemon’s embodiment of the Christian narrative in this situation. Does Philemon truly believe the story he confesses? Is he willing as a master to serve the slave, even to become a slave in the eyes of his social world, including his public, household, and church realities? Is he willing to be Jesus to Onesimus?

Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a cruciform narrative, that is, a kenotic Jesus who suffers for the other and empties oneself for the other. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a familial reality between people who live together in this new community. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a common partnership for the sake of the gospel rather than social rank or rights. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a Christocentric life in which both slave and free participate as family, as members of God’s household.

Obedience means Philemon will receive Onesimus as first and primarily a member of God’s household rather than his own household. This is how, in the first century world, the gospel transforms slave/free relationships within the Christian community. Within God’s household both slave and free sit at the same table; there is no distinction as they are both heirs of the Abrahamic promise.

I also think Paul believes this relationship—as family within God’s household—will transform how slave and free interact within the social household. In the ancient world, the household included the immediate family and also slaves, workers, and extended family. It was, in many ways, a small village that was supported by the head of the house.

What are the implications for the Roman household when shared by members of God’s household?

For whatever reason (and we imagine some below), Paul did not demand or necessarily envision the manumission of slaves in a Roman household shared by members of God’s household. He certainly thought it should transform how masters treat their slaves (e.g., Colossians 4:1) since those masters are part of God’s household (they themselves also have a master). At the very least, Paul believed their Christian commitments demanded fair and equitable treatment of their slaves, and this treatment was not simply a higher standard than the Roman social world but the standard of Christ’s own cruciform life.

While it is possible Paul hoped that Philemon would free Onesimus (which how N. T. Wright reads the “more” in Philemon 20), it seems more likely that the “more” is Paul’s desire for Onesimus to share the burdens of ministry with him during his imprisonment (and perhaps beyond). Paul hopes for “more” in that he hopes Philemon will send Onesimus back to Paul.

But why doesn’t Paul ask (even demand) Philemon free Onesimus? We might wish he had done that explicitly and forcefully. As modern readers, we would certainly be more comfortable with that, and we are disturbed it is lacking in this letter as well as other Pauline letters (as well as the whole New Testament).

Why is not Onesimus’s freedom, then, the main thing? Justice would seem to demand that. I wonder what Paul would say to our question.

Perhaps it was not an option. The social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse resulted in freedom for slaves. But the social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse confessed a Lord who was not Caesar or subverted Caesar. Christians did the latter but not the former. Why?

I wonder if the rationale might be something like this. To confess Jesus as Lord is the fundamental orienting commitment of the Jesus movement. It is essential and necessary to its existence; it is the primary confession. There is no movement without it.

Paul intended, it seems to me, for this confession to function as a leaven in the lump of his social world. First, and primarily, it must transform how the house church functions: the poor and rich, the slave and free, male and female eat at the same table there. There can be no compromise on this point. The heart of the gospel is at stake if table fellowship within the Christian community is interrupted by such distinctions.

Secondly, Paul intended to, as a matter of process and progress for the gospel (confession of Jesus as Lord), transform the social world of the household within Roman society. There Paul regulates behavior and motives, and there he also plants seeds that will transform the household so that it no longer conforms to Roman social expectations but to gospel ones.

Third, we might guess—but there is nothing certain here—Paul hoped for the transformation of society as well through the gospel’s witness. Perhaps Paul thought the whole world would be made new through the gospel, but there is also a Pauline realism that recognizes the world lies in evil and will not bend to the gospel easily or quickly. Ultimately, however long the world continued, God would transform and redeem the world through God’s own act. Perhaps, then, Paul had no concrete expectation that the world would be rid of slavery though the gospel embodied this hope in the Messiah who liberates slaves. The one who was free became a slave so that the one who was enslaved might be free—that is the gospel (Philippians 2:5-8).

Perhaps Paul does not demand Philemon free Onesimus because Paul begins at the level of personal reconciliation within Philemon’s house church. This is his primary objective so that Philemon and Onesimus live together as reconciled brothers in the church and eat at the same table of the Lord.

Perhaps this will also lead to the transformation of Philemon’s own household itself where slave and free share life together in love and mutual respect, even if does not entail—given the social context—Onesimus’s freedom. That witness would glorify God and serve the mission of Jesus. Perhaps it will lead to “more”….maybe even Onesimus’s freedom and the freedom of other slaves in Philemon’s household. We don’t know.

What we do see is Paul’s desire for a reconciled community in Christ, and we know Paul hopes this reconciled community will, one day, include the whole world. There, we might imagine, the full justice of the kingdom of God would emerge and the kingdom would realize the honor due to all God’s imagers.

In our contemporary social context, we have more opportunities (e.g., voting) and mechanisms (e.g., legislative democracy) to peacefully effect change as we embody the gospel. That was not Paul’s social world, and he could not effectively and peacefully start a social revolution that included freedom for slaves. Instead, he planted churches—missional communities—where the goals of the kingdom were embodied as a witness to the coming reign of God over all the world when all slaves would live as free human beings.

I do wonder, however, how Onesimus thought about all this. He takes a great risk in returning to Philemon’s household because he has no assurance that Philemon will act “Christianly.” I assume Onesimus volunteers to return, and he assumes the risk. As such, Onesimus himself initiates reconciliation with his own kenosis as he gives himself over to the other for the sake of reconciliation as a brother in Christ. That seems unimaginable to me, but this may be exactly the sort of way in which the gospel transforms us.

Paul does not ask for Onesimus’s freedom. He asks for something more important—reonciliation. And, at the same time, Paul believes reconcilation will transform their relationship….perhaps including, ultimately I think, freedom.

What this demands is mutual kenosis, a self-giving that surrenders to the other for the sake of the other. Paul surrenders to Philemon, Onesimus surrenders to Paul in returning, and Philemon is now called to surrender to Onesimus. In this way, the gospel works reconciliation, and reconciliation will bring transformation.


October 31, 2017 –500th Anniversary of the Reformation

October 30, 2017

The Reformation in a nutshell: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone as taught by Scripture alone.

• Grace alone (sola gratia) means that God took initiative, supplies grace for every good work, and completes God’s work in us, and this includes a cooperative grace by which human persons partner with God in God’s mission in the world.

• Faith alone (sola fidei) means that trust in God’s work in Christ is the exclusive, orienting, and foundational root of every good work God completes in and through us, and this is expressed and given concrete form in both sacraments and life.

• Christ alone (solus Christus) means that God elected Christ as the sole ground of our salvation, and this entails that all spiritual blessings are found in Christ and only in Christ.

• To the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria) means all things come from the Father through the Son in the Spirit and everything returns to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and this excludes any kind of boasting except in what God does.

• Scripture alone (sola scriptura) means that the oracles of God handed down to us through the church are the sole norm for Christian faith and practice, and this Scripture is interpreted in the bosom of the church which is committed to the canon of truth, who is God revealed in Christ.

Comment:

I actually think these principles find common ground in the Great Tradition of the church, including Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Roman Catholic theology. There is a substance to each of these points that is affirmed by all three great traditions of the church–Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Their interpretations vary to one degree or another, but the common ground is also substantial.


Three Requests (Philemon 17-20)

October 25, 2017

Up to this point, Paul’s letter has greeted the community where Philemon serves, thanked God for Philemon’s service in that community, and described his relationship with Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Only now, in verses 17-20, does Paul get to the point. What does Paul want Philemon to do? Why is he writing him?

Paul only uses the imperative mood—typically commands or requests—four times in Philemon. Three are in this section (verses 17-20) and one in verse 22.

  • welcome him as you would me (v. 17)
  • charge that to my account (v. 18)
  • refresh my heart in Christ (v. 20)
  • prepare a guest room for me (v. 22).

This litany of requests—one on top of the other—is focused on the central reality Paul wants to emerge within Philemon’s believing community. Probably the best word for this, which itself epitomizes the central focus of the Christian Faith, is reconciliation.

As this letter is read at Philemon’s house church where Philemon’s other slaves, his family, and other believers are present along with Onesimus himself, Paul envisions this community as a reconciled one, where slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female share life together as a family, the body of Christ. The question remains, however, whether Philemon will express the heart of his own faith by reconciling with Onesimus.

The three requests present in verses 17-20 build on each other. The first lays the foundation for the others.

If you consider me your partner (koinonon), welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.”

Paul assumes a partnership or fellowship in the gospel. Philemon and Paul are co-workers and dear friends in the shared life of the family of God. If this communion is real—if Philemon is authentically committed to this shared life—then Paul not only requests but expects that Philemon will welcome Onesimus.

Welcome is a significant theological word. Paul uses it three times in Romans 14-15 to describe how believers should treat each other, that is, strong believers should “welcome” weaker believers (Romans 14:1, 3; 15:7). Paul roots this “welcoming” in how both God and Jesus have welcomed us into God’s own life. We welcome—or “accept”—each other because God has already welcomed us. We welcome each other because Christ has already welcomed us. We do not pursue this course out of some self-interest but “for the glory of God.”

To welcome the other, and for Philemon to welcome Onesimus, is at the heart of the gospel. If the gospel means anything, it means the Christian community must reflect God’s own welcoming, and if God has welcomed Onesimus into the family, so must Philemon. In other words, Onesimus appears in Philemon’s house church as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave. Within the Christian community, his status is family rather than slave; his status is heir rather than servant. Whatever status Onesimus bore in the social world of Roman, in the familial world of the body of Christ he is a brother.

Indeed, Paul requests Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. In other words, Onesimus status—as part of the family of God—is no longer one of a slave but a brother. And Onesimus is no second-class brother but one who should be received, as per Paul’s request, as if he were Paul himself. Paul identifies Onesimus with himself and expects that Philemon will receive and treat Onesimus like he would receive and treat Paul. This elevates Onesimus’s status—it is the status that belongs to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, a member of the body of Christ.

Moreover, “if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” With his own signature (“I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand”), Paul signs an “I owe you” over to Philemon.

Though Paul could have asked Philemon to forgive any debt since Philemon owes Paul his own life (perhaps because Paul is Philemon’s father in the faith), he does not exercise that right or privilege. Instead of seeking an equal exchange, Paul assumes whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. Paul forgoes his rights (what Philemon owes him) in order to assume the status of debtor to Philemon.

In this Paul embodies the gospel itself. This is a kenotic move. I allude to the word Paul uses in Philippians 2:7 to describe the move the Son makes when he becomes incarnate. Though the Son was existed in the form of God as an equal with God, he “emptied himself” when he took on the form of a human being. This “emptying” is kenosis; it is self-giving.

Paul does the same here. He “empties himself” by taking on a debt that does not belong to him. Instead of asserting his status or exercising his right, Paul embodies the gospel in this self-giving or self-emptying. In this moment Paul embodies Christ for Onesimus’s sake.

When Paul asks for Onesimus’s debt to be charged to him, Paul models the gospel in a way that calls Philemon into that same way of living. Just as Paul is willing to live kenotically, so Philemon is called to live in a self-emptying and self-giving way as well. Even though Paul is willing for Philemon to charge everyting to Paul’s account, Paul’s own self-emptying example, which is an imitation of Christ, also calls Philemon to empty himself as well.

This leads to the third request: “refresh my heart (splagchna) in Christ.” His request renews Paul’s thanksgiving where Paul expresses joy and hope for Philemon’s consistent practice of his faith as he continually “refreshed” the “hearts (splagchna) of the saints” (verse 7). Paul is grateful for Philemon’s faithful history, and Paul asks Philemon to continue his faithful walk by refreshing his own heart. Paul’s heart, we should remember, is Onesimus himself (verse 12).

In other words, refresh Onesimus! The word carries the meaning of rest, renewal, and rejuvenation. It is as if it were a new beginning or a new start. Refreshment is reconciliation.

It is difficult to imagine exactly how this might have looked on that day when this letter was read to the church at Philemon’s house. One can imagine the looks, the tension, and the anticipation.

Did Philemon welcome Onesimus as a brother within the community, or did he treat him as a slave who must honor his superior? Did they embrace as family members or did Onesimus kiss his ring?

We know Paul’s hope and expectation but we don’t know what happened. The letter is open-ended. We don’t know the rest of the story. We don’t have any postscript which says, “And Philemon…..”

What we have, however, is a narrative that challenges us as it challenged Philemon. And the question for us is what will we do? How do we receive each other?


No Longer Just a Slave (Philemon 12-16)

October 16, 2017

Listening to this letter within the community of his own house church, Philemon hears Paul’s affection for Onesimus. He is not only Paul’s child but Paul’s own “heart.”

“I am sending my heart back to you,” Paul writes.

This simple statement has several significant rhetorical functions. First, Paul not only does not secretly hide Onesimus from Philemon by keeping him in Ephesus (presumably) but returns Onesimus to Philemon. Paul holds nothing back. He is, we might say, “above board” with his “beloved co-worker” (verse 1).

Second, rather than hiding this from Philemon, he fully invests in their relationship by returning Onesimus to him. Paul makes the first move toward reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon to which—I presume—Onesimus is fully committed as well. Onesimus seeks reconciliation, too, as I imagine a scenario where Onesimus approached Paul as a mediator between himself and Philemon (in contrast to a runaway who happened to meet Paul in prison—but we don’t know the real situation).

Third, Paul commends Onesimus. Not only is Onesimus now “useful” to both Philemon and Paul, he is Paul’s own “heart.” This is not the normal word for “heart” in Greek; it is a word similar to our metaphorical use of “guts.” It is the emotional center of a person—their guts (in Greek, splagchna). This communicates both Paul’s affection and hints toward Paul’s hopes for the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Earlier Paul commended Philemon for how he had habitually refreshed “the hearts (splagchna) of the saints.” Clearly, Paul wants Philemon—and will request such in a few moments—to refresh his own splagchna, who is Onesimus.

“I am sending my heart back to you” is how Paul initiates the reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. It is a first but risky—for Paul but more especially for Onesimus—step toward reconciliation, which is the central purpose of this letter.

Voluntary, Not Out of Necessity

Given the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon (presumably Onesimus is Philemon’s slave), Paul regards Onesimu’s “service” to him as something that Onesimus renders in the place of Philemon. This is substitutionary language; Onesimus stands in for Philemon. This is how Philemon serves (diakone) Paul during Paul’s imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. We might even say this is part of what Paul may have meant by calling Philemon his “co-worker” in verse 1, though more is probably intended (such as past relationships as well).

Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him to continue this service. We presume he could have kept this secret from Philemon, though that seems unlikely given their relationship. He may have retained Onesimus and simply informed Philemon by letter about the fact or askedPhilemon to consent to what Paul had already decided to do.

Paul, however, chooses to return Onesimus, initiate a process of reconciliation, and make his request in a way that applies the least possible demand upon Philemon (given the power/authority relationship implicit in their history). Paul wants Philemon to act out of love rather than duty (verse 9) and to act as one committed to the story he believes rather than under the pressure of an obligation without authentic, heartfelt consent.

Paul wants Philemon fully involved in the decision. He does not want to do anything without Philemon’s knowledge (gnomes) because he wants Onesimus’s service to arise out of Philemon’s decision rather than out of some kind of necessity. This is something Philemon must decide voluntarily, that is, what Philemon truly wants. It cannot be forced or arise out necessity (anagken).

Interestingly, Paul makes exactly this same point when seeking to persuade the Corinthian church to share their resources with the poor, Jewish saints in Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8. Because God loves a cheerful giver, God does not want any gifts that arise from “compulsion” or “necessity” (anagkes). As in the letter to Philemon, Paul does not “command” but requests, and the request is not an apostolic imposition of authority but an appeal to the Corinthian’s investment in the story that they claim to believe.

That is what Paul wants and it is that for which he prayed earlier in the epistle. In verse 6, he hoped that their shared faith would give Philemon eyes to see the “good” (agathou) that the community (the whole church) is doing “for Christ.” Now, Paul offers Philemon the specific opportunity to participate in the “good” (agathon) Paul is doing for Christ as a prisoner for the gospel.

What will Philemon do? Paul has not yet made any specific requests.

Something Has Changed

Whatever Paul might actually request, verses 15-16 reflect the ground for the request. Something has changed.

We don’t know exactly what precipitated the separation of Onesimus from Philemon. Perhaps Onesimus ran away. Perhaps a problem arose between Onesimus and Philemon—apparently, Onesimus is indebted to Philemon in some way (v. 18)—and Onesimus went looking for Paul to moderate the dispute or help with the problem. Perhaps Onesimus is not a runaway but seeks to resolve a problem by enlisting Paul’s help. We don’t know, though it appears Onesimus initiated the separation.

But the separation has a serendipitous result. Onesimus has become a believer. Though Paul uses the word “perhaps” to soften the pain of the separation as he prepares to make his requests, the word seems to indicate that Paul himself believed that this was a “God-thing” (we might say today). His strategy may be more rhetorical than theological. In other words, Paul uses the word to open the eyes of Philemon to a possibility without making any assertive claim (though Paul may have believed the claim itself). In Paul’s mind, the separation resulted in good, and God is the one who works all good things and brings good out of broken circumstances. God is at work here, and the “perhaps” reflects Paul’s humility as well as his rhetorical approach characteristic of the whole letter.

Relationship between Philemon and Onesimus

 

Previously

Now
Separated Returned
For a while Forever
In the Flesh In the Lord
Slave Brother

 

What changed? In a word: status.

Whatever we may say about slavery in the Roman empire, the status of an enslaved human being was at the bottom of the social ladder. Slaves had no inherent legal rights; they had no power within the social order, which was fundamentally a top-down, hierarchical system. This extended to all facets of their lives, including who they might marry, to whom their children belonged, and their inability—except by the grace of the master—to change their situation. Slaves were powerless within the Roman social order. However some might mitigate the reality of Roman slavery by comparisons with other social situations or slave conditions, life as a slave in the Roman world was dehumanizing.

As I read verses 15-16, Paul contrasts the slave world of the Roman society with the familial world of the house church (or, the fellowship). In the flesh, Onesimus was separated from you and useless (v. 11). I take “flesh” here to mean not only a kind of physicality but also a kind of existence in the social order of the Roman world. We live “in the flesh,” that is, we still live in this broken, sordid order that characterizes social relationships in wider society. In that order, Onesimus is a slave. It is a social reality.

At this point in the letter, he still is a slave, though not (just) a slave. Paul has made no request that Philemon release or free his slave. Onesimus is returned as a slave, not as a free person. The “in the flesh” relationship still exists.

But something has changed.

Onesiumus is now a brother, a member of the family. He is more than a member of Philemon’s household as a slave. Now Onesimus is a member of God’s household, the fellowship of the body of Christ, which is fundamentally relational and mutual in character.  It is a shared life; it is a fellowship (koinonia), a family or relationships that are mutually enriching and reciprocal.

This move is powerfully significant. Though the Roman social order still exists as part of the old creation (“in the flesh”), new creation has broken into that order through a familial relationship of sister and brother “in Christ.”

This new creation, though its presence is incipient within “the flesh,” is a subversive element for the social order not only for the Roman world but for the old creation itself.

However, at this moment, Paul does not employ this new creation theology to make a specific request but only to not the change of status. His requests will follow in the next few verses.

Imagining the Change

We might imagine this change of status in the context of the social world of this house church in Colossae in this way in order to illustrate the significance of Paul’s announcement.

In the Roman world, slaves did not eat with their masters. They served them during their meals. They would stand around the tables or prepare food elsewhere, but they did not sit at the table with them.

In Philemon’s house church, we might imagine that slaves sat at the same table with their masters as they ate the Lord’s meal together—not simply bread and wine but a meal honoring the risen Lord where communion was shared across all the social barriers that are part of “the flesh” (old creation).

In contrast to the surrounding Roman social order, what we would see at the Colossae house church was a table where men and women, slave and free, and Jew and Gentile would eat a meal together at the same table.

Onesimus was more than just a slave; he was now a brother.  In one world, he is powerless to sit at the table; in another world, he is invited.


How Can I Ask for This Favor Without Wrenching it from You? (Philemon 8-11)

October 9, 2017

Paul could demand it.

Paul is “bold enough” to “command” Philemon to grant Paul’s request—whatever that is—because “in Christ” Philemon has a “duty” to obey. Paul could assert his authority, whether that is apostolic (though Paul nowhere uses that title in this letter) or relational (as if “you owe me”). Paul resists asserting his authority.

I suppose one could read his unwillingness to assert that authority as an assertion itself. In other words, it is a kind of back-handed manipulation. When Paul says he does not want to assert his authority, some say, Paul is actually asserting that authority. This puts Philemon in an impossible situation. If he acts contrary to Paul’s wishes, he will find himself outside Paul’s righteous wishes. If he complies, then he submits to that authority…perhaps for the very reason Paul does not want him to do so, that is, because Paul—in so many words—demanded it.

Paul himself is in a difficult position.

What Paul wants is for Philemon to act out of love (agape) rather than prescriptive coercion. He wants Philemon to internalize this decision so that it arises out of a shared love rather than out of a begrudging submission to authority.

In other words,Paul wants Philemon to internalize his acting so  that it is formed by the central story of God in Christ rather than imposed by some external authority. Paul gives Philemon the opportunity to humble himself by loving another in a way that cost himself something rather than to merely comply with an apostolic command.

Paul hopes Philemon will perform the story of Jesus the Messiah in his situation, that is, to have the mind of the Messiah (cf. Philippians 2:5). What I mean is this: just as Jesus, though he shared equal divine status with God as he existed in the form of God, emptied himself in order to take on human form and participate in the human condition. This emptying is kenosis; it is self-giving for the sake of the other at a cost to the giver. That is Christian love (agape).

Will Philemon himself perform that story? Does he believe it that deeply? Will it shape his actions?

Paul lays it on thick. He reminds Philemon of his age (“old man”—probably in his 50s) and of his imprisonment for the sake of Jesus the Messiah. Perhaps this is about “pity” or “wisdom,” but I tend to think it is about relationship. Paul is an “old man” in the faith as well as old chronologically. Paul has status in the community as an elder statesman in the community. This is furthered by his willingness to suffer for the cause of the Messiah; he is a prisoner. What I hear in this message is the encouragement to imitate Paul’s own performance of the story. Paul has lived this story for a long time (“old man”) and he is willing to empty himself for others by suffering imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.

But is this not further manipulation?

There is little doubt Paul intends to persuade, and he uses this rhetorical strategy toward that end. But that is not necessarily manipulation.

Suppose a particular authority figure wanted to encourage a person to act out of their own internal convictions rather than because of imposed authority. They might request the action without mentioning the authority, but the authority would be assumed. To ignore that authority is its subtle imposition. To name the authority and to disavow its application  is to clear the air, acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” and perhaps effectively rid the situation of any subtle imposition.When we want to encourage authentic action, it is better to name the authority relationship and not apply it than to be silent about it. Silence is as much a potential manipulation as naming it. Indeed, I think naming it takes away the imposition.

For example, how might a parent ask his/her child to do something for them but not in  a way that assumes the parent asks out of their authority status? I can imagine that I might say something like, “Son, I don’t want you think that you have to do this because I am your father; I want you to do this because you know it is right. And I will not force you to do it.” My hope is that my son would act out of the principles I have cultivated in his life rather than out of fear of whatever consequences he might imagine I would impose if he did not do what was right.

In the same way, Paul named the “authority” option in order to set it aside as a motive for action, and the best way to call Philemon to act out of love rather than duty was to name it and thereby nullify it. To not name it has a greater subtle manipulative power than naming it.

Paul is clear: he wants Philemon to act out of love. And Philemon will need it because Paul’s request is about Onesimus.

This is the first time Onesimus is named in the letter.

It must have been a tense moment when that name was heard in the reading of this letter to the church in Philemon’s house. Consider who was there—Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, neighbors and friends, and other slaves in Philemon’s household. Onesimus is there, too. Perhaps Tychicus was also there. Perhaps he read the letter to the church (cf. Colossae, Colossians 4:10). This was a communal moment. Everyone’s eyes were on Philemon, then Onesimus, and then back-and-forth!

Whatever the problem between Philemon and Onesimus, the whole community hears Paul’s appeal. I wonder when Onesimus was named whether everyone turned their eyes to him and wondered why Paul is so concerned about Onesimus (presumably—at this point in our study—a runaway slave).

Onesimus, Paul writes, has become a Christian; he has become Paul’s child (teknou). Paul was his father, which is a common image Paul uses for the relationship between himself and his converts (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Timothy 1:2).

How did this happen? We don’t know.

What we do know is Paul is in prison (in my opinion, Ephesus). We might imagine that for whatever reason Onesimus sought out Paul as a mediator between Philemon and himself. It seems unlikely—though, of course, possible—that Paul and Onesimus “happen to meet” in prison (which presumes Onesimus was himself a prisoner). I think it more likely Onesimus knew Paul from his relationship to Philemon and therefore wanted Paul to help him in the situation he found himself. Ultimately, however, we don’t know.

Whatever the case, Paul and Onesimus met, Paul led Onesimus to trust in Jesus the Messiah, and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

As Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, the situation has been transformed. Absent from Philemon’s house, Onesimus was useless to him but now is useful for both Philemon and Paul. Where value was once lost, it has now been restored. But Onesimus’s value is much greater now than it was previously because Onesimus is now also useful to Paul as well as Philemon.

We still don’t know what the request is. We only know that Paul wants Philemon to accede to it out of love rather than duty, and he wants Philemon to recognize Onesimus is now living in a different story than previously.

Philemon and Onesimus now share the same story; they are both children of God (cf. Philippians 2:15) and both are committed to the story of Jesus the Messiah.

What difference should that make in how Philemon treats Onesimus?

We shall see.

 

 

 


I Give Thanks: Paul on Philemon’s Faith and Love

September 27, 2017

For those familiar with Paul’s letters, it is no surprise that Paul follows his opening salutation with a thanksgiving. Like the opening itself, we should read this thanksgiving as more than formulaic. Rather, it introduces themes and concepts upon which Paul builds in the body of the letter, including his three requests or hopes. Paul’s thanksgiving, like his opening and closing, lays some groundwork for those requests and cultivates an atmosphere where Philemon (and the church in Colossae) might live out the narrative of Jesus in this situation.

Thanksgiving (Philemon 4-5)

“I give thanks to God” are the first words Paul addresses to Philemon specifically in isolation from others. When we start a difficult conversation with someone in gratitude, we start with common ground, humility, and appreciation. When we start with the positive, focus on the good, and embrace what is shared, then we are empowered to talk about the difficult dimensions of our lives together. Moreover, when this gratitude is oriented toward God for others, then we humble ourselves before God’s gifts to us in other persons, and we situate both them and ourselves under the reign of God.

Paul’s letters offer small windows into his prayer life. While those windows don’t tell the whole story, of course, they do suggest a habit of prayer in which thanksgiving and intercession figure prominently. His prayers were, apparently, filled with people as he remembered his associations in the gospel. He named them and stayed connected through prayer if not also through presence and letters.

More specifically, Paul is particularly grateful for two things. First, he gives thanks for Philemon’s faith toward the Lord Jesus, who is Israel’s Messiah. This is a way of describing Philemon’s most basic orientation toward life—faith (trust, allegiance) to the Lord Jesus. Faith is the conviction that Jesus is Lord rather than Caesar; it is a commitment to love the God of Israel above all else. One might say it is one way in which Paul affirms the first commandment, that is, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. Philemon loves God through his allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

Second, Paul affirms Philemon’s love for people, specifically for “all the saints.” This, of course, expresses the heart of the second greatest commandment, which is to love your neighbor. In this light, Paul is grateful for Philemon’s commitment to loving God and loving neighbor. Apparently, Philemon lives this.

Faith in Jesus and love for others is the heart of Christianity. 1 John summarizes it in exactly the same way: faith and love (1 John 3:23). Paul’s thankfulness recognizes Philemon’s participation in the story of God revealed in Jesus.

I wonder if Paul anticipates his requests when he stresses how Philemon not only loves the saints but “all the saints.”

Intercession (Philemon 6)

When Paul remembers Philemon, he gives thanks and he also intercedes for him. He petitions God will actively accomplish the purposes of the kingdom in Philemon’s life.

There are some difficult translation problems in verse six. For example, does “fellowship of the faith” (NASB, literal translation) mean the “sharing of faith” (NRSV, as in evangelism, the spread of the kingdom), a “common faith” (NEB, as in a shared commitment to Jesus), or participating in the faith (HCSB, as in Philemon’s active generosity). Whatever the precise meaning, the term koinonia (fellowship, commonality) signals a shared community or something shared with others in the community, and “faith” is the content or context of that sharing and commonality. The point, however construed, reflects the partnership and community Paul and Philemon share.

Paul prays that this common faith—if we read it that way—would become “effective” or “come to expression” (NJB) as Philemon recognizes all the “good” that they—Paul and Philemon together (“us”)—do for Christ.

Paul’s request pushes for a deeper understanding of this commonality that yields positive goods within the community for the sake of Christ. Paul prays God will work in Philemon in such a way that Philemon will comprehend and embrace the good God is doing within the community, including Paul. He wants God to show Philemon the good that God is accomplishing “among us” for Christ. The “us” assumes a deep connection between Paul and Philemon, a shared mission. They both see the good God is doing, and how they both participate in what is happening “for Christ” (literally “toward, for” rather than “in” Christ) or “for Christ’s sake” (NASB).

Paul prays for Philemon’s growth and development. Everything is about Jesus; it is for the glory and honor of Christ. God is working good through Paul’s ministry and in Philemon’s life for sake of the kingdom. Paul wants their “common faith” to become even more “effective” (energized or operative) as Philemon’s grasp of what God is doing expands and deepens. Philemon, Paul desires, must see beyond his own circumstances and see everything through the lens of what is “for Christ.”

Refreshment (Philemon 7)

Paul has high hopes because he knows Philemon’s faith and love has already been effective within the community. Paul sees his own intercession coming to fruition because Philemon already has a track record of loving the saints.

Philemon has “refreshed” the “hearts of the saints” in so many ways. We can only speculate what that refreshment was. Perhaps it is Philemon’s generosity, or perhaps it is patronage of the church through hosting the community in his home, or perhaps it is some other acts of love and kindness toward the people in his community (“the saints”). We don’t know, but it is sufficient to bring Paul “great joy and encouragement.”

Paul writes this letter—and thus makes his requests—out of this basic experience with Philemon: joy and encouragement. Philemon’s life has put a smile on Paul’s face and reassured his heart.

This is who Philemon is, Paul believes. He is a person of faith who loves the saints and generously refreshes their hearts. The people of God, as Paul represents them, rejoice over Philemon’s work and are encouraged by his life.

May God, Paul prays, deepen Philemon’s grasp of the good God is doing in the world among us for the sake of Christ.