Back in October of 2015 I completed my master’s thesis @ Wesley Seminary. It’s one of those things that resides on my computer and sits in the stacks at Indiana Wesleyan University Library, but isn’t easily exposed to the light of day. So I thought I would post some of my thesis’ content. The full thesis (Wesley Seminary calls it a “Capstone Project”) is available on this site: jeremymavis.com/capstone-project

My thesis has three components:

  1. A cultural and religious exegesis of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI
  2. The definition and implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  3. A sort of homogenized praxis of engagement with the Gospel to the current post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI culture. It seeks to discern best practices to the transmission and outworking of the Gospel among the existing culture of Hayward’s high school students.

This post concentrates on the first component:

Cultural and Religious Exegesis of Post-Christian High School Students

It is difficult to discern how our culture affects the pool we swim in. The cultural pool of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI is both unique and ubiquitous. It is unique because Hayward is a small, tourism-driven community with relatively wide ranging income disparity. Hayward’s high school culture is ubiquitous because it is not sheltered from the tidal wave of generational and cultural change that is present in the larger youth culture in the West. While the distinctives of Hayward’s unique small town culture are valuable to discern, the wider cultural exegesis of the emerging generational and cultural change among high school students in particular is the focus of this study.

Ortberg (1997) took some time to review a couple of books related to the demise of Christianity and the church in the West in Christianity Today. Ortberg (1997) relays a story about a United Methodist Bishop who was stopped by “a group of 20-or-so year-olds” (p. 40) who asked what the building the Bishop was entering was for. Not only did these young adults not know what a church building was, but they even asked what a church was and, when instructed it had to do with people who followed the teachings of Jesus, they asked an even more profound question: “Who is Jesus?” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 40).

The jaw-dropping conversation cannot be overstated enough: Ortberg’s recounting of the Bishop’s interaction happened circa 1997. This was eighteen years ago. Those young adults are nearing their forties now. Which begs the question:

How did we seemingly arrive at a point in time where one does not recognize a church nor its function within a society as well as who its founder, Jesus, is?

In Christendom and Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray (2010) takes the reader on a journey through the emergence of Christendom and its supposed demise. Murray breaks up the era of the church (arguably when the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost through the present) into three epochs: pre-Christendom, Christendom, and post-Christendom. Pre-Christendom was the time of the church when it was dismissed and an often misunderstood sect of Judaism, but had at its heart a crucified, resurrected, and reigning Lord: Jesus Christ. Murray (2010) describes the pre-Christendom church as “one of the few remaining stabilising and civilising influences” (p. 1) in the Roman Empire. The epoch of Christendom came when Christianity was recognized and legalized by the Emperor Constantine and the church began to enjoy a privileged association with the state “that would dominate Europe for over a thousand years and that still impacts the way Christians think and act” (Murray, 2010, p. 2). Christendom is coming to a slow end—the one where folks would recognize the significance of a church building and the central figure at the center of it: Jesus.  Christendom as a functional part of the relationship between church and state has arguably all but ceased to exist, however the “Christendom mindset,” as Murray (2010, p. 5) calls it, is more deeply embedded into western culture and therefore will hang on much longer than its institutions. Murray (2010) highlights both difficulties as well as great opportunities for the church in the post-Christendom epoch. A well-informed understanding of Christendom and its effects as well as the emerging post-Christendom mindset is necessary for accurate cultural engagement.

Henry Blamires (1999), in The Post-Christian Mind, raises more of an alarm to the marginalization of Christianity in this new reality. Blamires (1999) uses alarmist phrases like “hostility,” “assault,” “campaign,” “brainwashed,” “half-truths,” and “sly insinuations” (p. 9) when he refers to the current cultural climate. Additionally, Blamires (1999) writes about how our secular culture is letting go of the “restraints of Christian culture” (p. 11) therefore displaying “popular contemporary attitudes [and] positions [that are] antagonistic to the Christian faith” (p. 10). At the very least, it seems as though Blamires was asking the right questions related to the direction a culture was headed that seemed to oppose Christianity and discriminate against any cultural moorings it might have. Blamires (1999) argued for a combative approach to the encroaching secularism of the culture. Instead of a quiet and faithful subversion or a subtle corrective cultural engagement, the author encourages Christians to engage in protest and the strategic unveiling of cultures’ systemic marginalization and denouncement of Christianity. In other words, the only way Christianity can combat the emerging post-Christian mind is to actively engage or to become louder than the culture itself. No matter what one thinks about Blamires’ assessment of Christianity or his prescription, at the very least he draws awareness that to not engage in this dramatically changing landscape will be to merely acquiesce and sit idly and ineptly by the wayside.

In the spirit of Blamires, Mohler (2004) calls Christian to at least count the cost of engaging the current post-Christian culture.  Mohler (2004) echoes similar themes regarding the emerging post-Christian world that Blamires (1999) and Murray (2010) have already introduced: “the church is being displaced” and marginalized. Mohler (2004) cautions Christians that to “contend for Christian truth in the face of this culture is to discover what it means to be a member of a cognitive minority.” This caution is not meant to dissuade Christians into disengagement, but rather to count the cost of swimming counter to the culture’s current through actually speaking and living contrary to culture’s expectations.

On the positive, yet realistic side of things, there is Pastor James Zerfing (2009) who went on a quest to wrestle with some deep questions he had about the essence of the church, the Gospel that was preached, the mission of God’s new covenanted people in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, and does church and the Gospel matter to this current generation. In an article entitled, Going to Get Wonder-fully Messed Up: Core Values in a Post-Christian World, Zerfing (2009) shares that Christendom ended up embodying a church that supported culture instead of critiqued it (p. 50). Culture’s shift to a post-Christendom world needs a church who will return to its essence as a prophetic voice amidst a rampantly pluralistic enterprise. No longer can the church assume people know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the nature and purpose of His church, and what the people of God in Christ are supposed to do in world that is largely antagonistic to Christianity. Zerfing (2009) argues for a more robust Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology (p. 48).

Returning to Ortberg’s (1997) story of a United Methodist Bishop and the young adult audience he encountered outside of his church who did not know what the building was, what a church did, and who they would worship, it seems there is a unique mix of:

  1. those who are just plain ignorant to the Christian story,
  2. others who are refugees from Christianity who walked away because it did not hold any power,
  3. and those who are largely antagonistic to the Christian faith.

It seems Ortberg’s (1997) account connects with those who are ignorant to the Christian metanarrative, Blamires (1999) seems to tackle those who are antagonistic to Christianity, and Zerfing (2009) can sympathize with those who have found the Christian faith lacking in its power to change a life.

In an interview with Pastor Tim Keller and author Gabe Lyons on America’s God Baggage? Approaching a Post-Christian World, Eryn Sun (2011) shares Keller’s sentiment regarding our current culture: “A relativistic culture on the one hand gives you freedom since there are no moral absolutes—that’s the upside. The downside is ‘what am I here for? If I’m an accident, then I’m not here for a purpose…and I don’t have anything to live for.’” In other words, there are those who live life without the need for depth of meaning (these folks are often ignorant to matters of faith and meaning) and then there are those who have not got a clear answer from the church that offers a cogent and comprehensive sense of meaning in life (these folks have left the church because it has been found wanting). Furthermore, there are those who clearly find meaning in a belief system of their own choosing (as each individual can), but are often unaware of the religious ground they ironically stand on.

In a fascinating article called Toward Spirituality of Post-Christian Disciples of Jesus, author Jeff B. Pool (2011) makes a case that people no longer want to be labeled “Christian” but rather “a disciple of Jesus” (p. 10). Pool (2011) references the label post-Christian disciples of Jesus not because of the extremes on either end of science and religion, but rather the deep sense of betrayal that both humanistic and theistic worldviews have failed to produce. Thus the shedding of the “Christian” label, but there is a reticence to lose the efficaciousness of the founder of Christianity: Jesus Christ. Folks are left to wander in the ecclesial and non-ecclesial landscape because the church’s traditions, dogmas, and creeds speak of rules, regulations, and boundaries, rather than the pursuit of the teachings and practices of a first century figure who did not succumb to the religious order of the day by speaking against it, but at the same time died in order to save it. In Pool’s (2011) words, “the religious commitments of post-Christian disciples of Jesus do not necessarily affirm any specific Christian orthodoxy that may remain in the contemporary situation of religious pluralism [nor] do they necessarily offer any allegiance to a Christian ecclesiastical organization or denomination nor does the political or cultural situation any longer necessarily retain the power to compel such allegiance from them” (p. 23). In other words, post-Christian disciples of Jesus are not encumbered by religious institutions nor loyal by default, but rather open to dialoguing and engaging in various forms of Christian tradition and practice to inform not a specific Christian tribe’s understanding of Jesus Christ, but a holistic, more biblically and historically-centered understanding.

Narrowing the discussion to the cultural issues surrounding the emerging generation, Dr. Tim Elmore (2010), in Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future, speaks succinctly to the generational milieu our young people are currently growing up in. Elmore says that “more than any previous group, this younger population has been defined by technology… this population, born in the 1990s and afterward, has literally grown up online” (2010, p. 13). Not only is this emerging generation the most connected, but it is also the most “overwhelmed” (Elmore, 2010, p. 19) and stressed, “overprotected” (p. 22) and unable to function very well on their own, and “overserved” (p. 25) and entitled. It seems that generation iY or millennials, are extending their adolescence because most things in their lives are taken care of for them by their parents or society as a whole. This delayed entrance to adulthood produces a sociological phenomenon among high school students that makes them potentially lazy, waste time, and change preferences (i.e. jobs) quite regularly. According to Elmore (2010), there is not much immediacy or societal motivation for an older adolescent to venture out on their own in their early twenties. This newly-minted cultural reality presents unique challenges for an ecclesial environment to share the good news of Jesus Christ. A high school student might think: “What is the motivation for such a discussion and why is it important now? I’ve got enough time to think through these things in the future. I would rather text, surf social media or play video games.”

Youth Pastor Brock Morgan (2013) chronicles his journey of being confronted with post-Christian high school students when he moved from the West Coast to New England in Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call. Through a seminar at a youth worker convention, Morgan heard about this unique new world that high school students are encountering and being baptized in called post-Christianity. It was not until he moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, did Morgan realize how post-Christian the church, its students, and the surrounding culture were. “The biblical narrative no longer has any coherence,” Morgan (2013, p. 26), in our society or among its youth. “Students are growing up with different worldviews and different religions all around them [and] the world is flat, which means my students and your students are not so far apart” (Morgan, 2013, pp. 26-27). In other words, the worldviews offered to Pastor Morgan’s students in Greenwich, CT are available to students in Hayward, Wisconsin because the Internet and its proliferation of ideas are not bound by state borders nor regional restraints. In prior generations, differing viewpoints on a subject or alternative worldviews were primarily available for collegiate students and beyond, but are now accessible to high school students and younger. Morgan shares that “every public school student takes a class called ‘The Myth of Creation’ [that] is not a science class about evolution; it’s a class that basically breeds agnostic thinking” (2013, p. 26). Wrestling with deep questions of life, meaning, and religion has long been a hallmark of the academy, but not typically engaged at the level of secondary education. Furthermore, one could concede that post-Christianity’s amalgamation of multiple worldviews is simply paganism revisited. Each person can make up their own god (language in past generations) or create their own truth (current language). Current post-Christian culture repeats earlier versions of paganism in a more socially acceptable package.

Finally, Kenda Creasy Dean (2010) in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, clearly lays out her thesis: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school” (p. 3). In essence, students do not just graduate from high school, but they also graduate from Christianity. The Christian story and its corresponding ethics are appreciated and embraced in elementary school and often into middle school and sometimes into high school. However, in this current post-Christian society, it seems any vestige of the true nature of the Christian narrative that might be present in a high school student is long gone after graduation. It is imagined that a student appreciates Christianity as an extracurricular activity that was good for when they were young, but now that they are old, they have moved past such childish ideas and grown up. It is difficult to imagine a true and integrated faith failing to remain sticky in a student’s heart just because they are moving on into the adult world. That is, unless, the faith communicated is not really an accurate understanding of the faith of Jesus Christ and is an imposter. Dean (2010) calls out the imposter: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is persona happiness and helping people treat each other nicely” (p. 29).

It seems a well-intended yet bastardized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has invaded the Christian faith and has succeeded in turning the hearts of many adults and, by extension, their children away from the true Gospel, which leads the conversation in somewhat of a new direction: What is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and secondly, how does one engage post-Christian high school students who have been immersed in the gamut of worldviews and ideas?

Photo credit: Creation Swap
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