A Class this Summer
This summer I took a class at Seminary called “Cultural Dynamics in Ministry.” Essentially, it was a cross-cultural missions class. It was a one-week intensive, which means you go 5 days in a row from 8-5 and do all the lectures for the three-credit-hour course in one week. To top it off, we had a first-time visiting professor from Asbury Seminary. He is a fairly well-known Christian Anthropologist (emphasis on the anthropologist part) who has quite a bit of experience in foreign missions. However, he’s very much NOT a theologian, which created conflict in class. He held quite different theological views from me in many areas, and a few that came to the forefront were soteriology (The study of salvation) and ecclesiology (The study of the church). For those who know the terms and what they mean, he was an Armenian with a bit of charismatic leanings and an un-recognized semi-pelagian view of human nature.
In the class we talked about things like contextualization (What parts of Christianity are really just cultural additions to Christianity? What is the “naked gospel,” the simple truth that can cross all cultural borders? How do we take that “naked gospel” and fit it into another culture without losing the truth? What effect has American Christianity had on the global church?), Urbanization (The fact that more people live in cities than who don’t, and that’s a new global phenomenon.), and Globalization (The fact that people travel a LOT more than they used to, for work, or for pleasure… 200 years ago, it wasn’t that uncommon to meet someone who’d never left their home state, or even home town). We talked about limits, means, and methods of reaching a different culture, and preaching in a multi-cultural world.
I’m telling you all this so you understand the context of what I’m about to share, it’s what I learned about myself from the class.
I’ve realized that I’m a dinosaur at twenty-four.
Let me explain.
What I Learned
In this class I realized that much of the material in lectures made me feel like an un-person at times. In the class, the students and professor made grand sweeping statements (and had obvious feelings) about “how people are.” They said that people care about stories more than facts. People want relationships more than ideas. They said that theology doesn’t interest people, they want practicalities. People want application, not information.
The repetition of these ideas really got to me. It left me going, “None of those describe me, but we keep making these statements universally applicable. Am I a lesser human being because I like theology? Do I not count because I find meaning and peace in well-argued ideas more than a compelling story? Do I not matter just because I value truth and holiness more than my relationships with some people who do not value such things? Where am I in these seemingly foolproof schemas proposed by these high-minded anthropologists? Everyone else seems to agree that these are true about humans, but they’re not true about me. Am I not human?”
These feelings of isolation in class affected me in ways I didn’t expect.
For many of the conversations in class, I sensed an elitist attitude toward me, for my own perceived elitism. Two instances in class really struck me this way that I remember, and both have to do with a deeply held theological conviction that I consider to be centrally orthodox. These are things that I will honestly say that I think first century, sixth century, sixteenth century and twenty-first century Christians should, and would, all agree on.
The first instance was related to ecclesiology. We were shown a video of various stages of African church development and were given a spectrum from primitive to developing with some stages in-between. There were a few services that (to the average American eye) would be indistinguishable from a tribal rain dance. But there was always the assumption that they were truly Christian churches, just some being under-developed.
When asked to vote about where we thought they were on the spectrum. I abstained from making those judgment calls. It was my honest opinion that none of them were churches because none of them preached the gospel (in the admittedly small snippets of video that we saw). Their expressions and methods of worship were varied, but I didn’t once see or hear anyone express the idea of repentance or the forgiveness of sins. Without those things present, I don’t think you can call a gathering a church.
At the time, I didn’t think it right to engage in a discussion on that level, since that wasn’t the point of the exercise, but I also would have been voting that none of those gatherings were even on the spectrum of options given to us. What could I do then? I could be a jerk and argue about how none of them were churches, I could betray my conscience and just vote for whichever one seemed to have the most support, or I could abstain and look like an elitist or a coward. I ended up going for the third option.
The emotions of how to deal with all of that in the moment were surprising to me. I felt like everyone thought I was being an elitist, but I mean it with a sincere, burning, and melancholic conviction when I say that I believe those people aren’t saved, and they need God to open their hearts and minds to the true gospel. Add to that swirling pool of emotions the fact that I was being asked to pass judgments on these gatherings from the evidence of a 5-minute video of their gatherings and what I saw was missing the essential component to Christianity. In the end, I had to just suck it up and let people think I was an elitist because I couldn’t explain all of what I felt in a concise and clear way at the time.
The second instance was when I got into a bit of a tangent about sin. Again, I view the truth that all are born dead in trespasses and sins as one of the essential points of Christianity. Humans are born sinners, by nature, and to believe otherwise is to affirm some form of an ancient heresy called Pelagianism. The professor and I were going back and forth a bit and I pressed him a little too strongly trying to get an answer to the question of what he meant by “sin nature.” I think after a few minutes of uncertainty I said, “Okay, but babies, when they pop out of the womb: sinful or not?” From my perspective, the only Christian answer to that question is “Yes. Sinful.” The consistent testament of Scripture and Church history is clear on that point. Pelagius is the guy who would have said, “No, babies are innocent, not sinful.” He was condemned as a heretic.
Even to that direct question, the Professor’s answer came back unclear, inconclusive, and (in my opinion) wimpy.
However, the tension in the room, from my perspective, seemed to be, “Stephen, you’re being such a jerk about this. It’s not that big a deal. You’re such a theological elitist who cares too much about winning arguments.”
I can think of few things that are bigger deals than the depravity of man. Human sinfulness is the reason the gospel is good news. Again, I mean it with a sincere, burning, and melancholic conviction when I say that if we don’t get that question and answer correct, then all is lost.
These are some of the things I hold as supremely important, and I was blind to the fact that I am part of a dying breed in holding them as such.
I learned from this class that I am going to be viewed as an elitist who “cares more about being right theologically than about people.” But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s because I care so deeply about the people who are lost that I care so deeply about getting these theological questions right. If we get them wrong, the people are lost.
I learned from this class that, even in a seminary setting, I am alone in that I care oh so deeply about the word of God. It is at the center of my life, and I implicitly thought that I would find kindred spirits at Seminary, but now I realize that I am always going to be misunderstood as a judgmental elitist by some, a bigot by others, and irrelevant by more still. I’m a dinosaur at twenty-four. I find more camaraderie among the works of John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, Saint Augustine and John Calvin than I do in a seminary classroom.
I have outdated views. Even in a seminary setting I’m “too theological” and too quick to argue. I feel like a segregated snob for being comforted by my theology instead of being comforted by counseling, because I’m being told at every turn that “theological answers aren’t real enough for people” and “they don’t satisfy people on a practical level.” They do for me, though. They do for me.
Nobody understands me. Nobody cares about my feelings. Nobody can relate to my pain.
And then I realize… Wait a second… I am a nobody! I care about all of this stuff. I am completely being self-centered right now. This kind of self-pity and hyper-self-realization everything-is-about-me-and-my-feelings bull is exactly the kind of thing I hate! I do fit in with everybody else because I’m a whiny brat! So everything I’m feeling about being isolated is wrong, because by feeling it, I negate its validity, I’m no longer isolated: everyone is a self-centered sinner! So guess what? I’m a self-centered sinner like everyone else, who needs God’s grace and forgiveness.
Funny how that works out. The gospel ends up being true and I end up being an actual sinner saved only by grace. Who’d’ve thunk it!
It just comes back to the good news that my sins are forgiven because of Christ. It comes back to theology. It comes back to truth. Maybe everyone else just needs to get better theology, and I need to quit getting caught up in the world’s idea of normal. Maybe now I can fix what I said earlier. Some theological answers DO satisfy on a practical level. They do for me. And they can for you too, if you just take the time to understand them and recognize that they are true, then assimilate them into your worldview. When that happens, quite often the problem they address goes away.
Boy, I love how the creator of the universe knows more than me. It’s quite a load off my mind.