Challenges and Opportunities

When we ignore or reject God or try to define God on our own terms, we ultimately sabotage ourselves.

We end up living with the beguiling notion that little finite beings like ourselves can be the managers of life. We foolishly think that we’re in control.

When we sin against the vertical dimension of life (by ignoring God), we progressively disorient life on the horizontal. We choose fantasy over reality thinking we can define our own reality and follow an individualized morality without consequence.

Foolishly we act as if we are the captains of our fate and the masters of our soul.We turn the good gifts of the Creator (meant for our benefit) against ourselves by failing to honor Him as the Giver. 

Just look around at the horrible mess we’ve made! Our homes are pervasively dysfunctional and broken, our police, judicial and prison systems are straining under unimaginable burdens. Our economy is out of control due to reckless and self-indulgent spending. Many of our social programs are barely holding up (if they can get beyond their own dysfunctions). Our educational system is surviving at best under the strain of major economic challenges and intrusive government policies.

All of this has left pervasive feelings of emptiness and pessimism about the future. 

On the positive side, there is a growing hunger among younger people for what is real, lasting, hopeful, eternal and spiritual.  I realize that you won’t find much of it among the crusty self-appointed intellectual custodians of the academy.  But you will find it among their students.  The students are tired of being stuffed into the culturally mandated, narrow, little world without windows! 

All of this presents the Church of Jesus Christ with a great opportunity to speak truth into the confusion and the mess we’ve made of ourselves and our planet. Never lose sight of the fact that the bad news of our fallenness is the back-story to the good news of the gospel.

We need wisdom to speak truth to others because many forces remain at work to discredit what God has revealed. Mainstream media sources will continue to spread a propaganda-based, anti-God ideology disguised as news. Mainline denominations will take their cue from whatever they perceive to be the cultural mandates of the elite. 

We’ll need courage and boldness tempered with wisdom, patience and redeeming love. We’ll need to follow the pattern of our Savior who humbled himself to love and serve us, not considering His equality with God something to leverage to His own advantage when opposed (See: Philippians 2:3-11). 

As the culture moves further from God, we have an even greater opportunity live out the identity Jesus assigned when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. … “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14).

Jesus encouraged his followers to see themselves as “a town built on a hill” that “cannot be hidden.” He reminded His followers that when “people light a lamp” they don’t “put it under a bowl.” “Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15).

Application to the followers of Jesus? “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Steve Cornell 

18-29 Year olds

For more than 28 years of ministry, I’ve worked with those in the life-phase of emerging adulthood (or, adultolescence).

Over the last decade, I’ve observed some significant changes in this age group that align with many of the conclusions reached by sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls In Transition, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press).

Smith’s work focused on Americans ages 18-29 and his observations on the way young people think about moral, political and religious opinion generally align with my experience.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area but after many years of ministry working with this life-phase and raising four children to adulthood, I offer 10 suggestions for ministry as a means to better serve those we care deeply about. I also welcome feedback (correction, expansion, explanation, etc…).

Steve Cornell

Living on Mission

Eight Identity Markers and Callings of Christ Followers

“Missions is an authorized activity carried out by the tenants on the instructions of the owner of the property” (by Christopher Wright,).

  • Salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13)
  • Light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16)
  • Disciple Makers (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • Witnesses (Acts 1:8: I Peter 3:15-16)
  • Ambassadors (II Corinthians 5:17-21)
  • Imitators of God (Luke 6:35-36; Eph. 5:1-2, 25)
  • Displayers of God’s Glory (I Corinthians 10:31)
  • Agents of Grace (Colossians 4:5-6)

It’s easy to lose focus. Life can become a daily grind of duties and demands filled with distractions and discouragements. Have you ever lost sight of the big picture while trying to keep up with the demands of the details of life? Have you ever slipped into attitudes of defeat or despair? Do you tend to minimize your calling? “I am just a ______________.”

If you want to inject God-centered meaning  back into your life and rejoin the adventure of an abundant life, then recommit yourself to the identities and callings above. You were meant by God’s design for this life. 

Ask God to help you to be aware of your circumstances with a missional perspective. Regain a sense of his callings in your sphere of influence and capture new spheres of influence for Christ.

Most of all enlarge your vision of God’s work to include ministries of common grace. Is it possible that we neglect certain parts of divine calling by narrowly focusing on the spiritual dimension of humanity?

Connect the pattern in the following passages and imitate it in your life.

Can we imitate God’s grace in relating to others?

Acts 14:15-17 – The apostle Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Lystra and God performed a miraculous healing of a lame man. The people who saw this began to worship Paul and Barnabas as if they were gods.

“We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 

Acts 17:24-29 – The apostle Paul speaking to philosophers in Athens described the activity of God in the lives of all people. 

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth … He gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Seeking Common Ground

  • The apostle emphasized the universal reach of God’s activity: God ”gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”
  • The apostle encouraged those who are unredeemed to recognize the nearness of God as so significant that, “in him we live and move and have our being.”
  • He exhorted them to view themselves as God’s offspring and to respond to his universal command to repent.
Imitators of God’s common grace:
  • As witnesses (Acts 1:8), we encounter people who are not receptive to the gospel.
  • We love them deeply and desire to see them know God but they are not open to hear a verbal witness of the gospel.
  • While we “let them go their way” we don’t have to leave them “without testimony or witness.”
  • We can follow God’s example and show them kindness and bear witness in ways that are meant to invite them to “seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:24-28).

Steve Cornell

Common grace and the local Church

Younger evangelicals tend to be suspicious of some of the non-negotiable lines drawn by their spiritual predecessors. This is particularly the case where those lines were used to make strong distinctions between those (Christians) who were in from those who were out.

Suspicions only increased where strong emphasis was placed on separation from those outside of the true Church (meaning us) and where the exclusivity of “our” group was emphasized.

This aversion among younger evangelicals is particularly fueled by the fact that the old separatist approach so often came with the hypocritical baggage of legalism. When leaders don’t deal firmly with the logs in their own eyes but readily splinter-check the eyes of others (Matthew 7:1-6), young people are quickly turned off by their hypocrisy.

I think that some of these realities in the Church have indirectly contributed to an increased interest in themes of common grace and shared humanity among many younger believers. Many of them grew weary of the separatist model and became increasingly suspicious of the over-renouncing they experienced in their evangelical upbringings. Instead of  abandoning the faith, they pursued different ways of living it, ways that inclined more toward commonality than separation.

This is not all bad. The separatist model itself was ridden with overreaction. A corrective response was needed as long as it did not become another overreaction albeit in a different direction. There are some glaring examples of such overreaction among a few prominent younger evangelicals. The backgrounds of leaders like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (though a bit older) fit the concern. There is profit in an ongoing conversation about this pattern.

There may also be a need for  deeper reflection on a theology emphasizing aspects of shared humanity. Such theology should be based in the fact that all people are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9). Among other things, this means that all people share deeply significant blessings and responsibilities. All humans live under God’s common grace as recipients of blessings outside of the boundaries of salvation. We need more thoughtful connection between these truths and our practical theology.  Christopher Wright, (following in the steps of his colleague, John R. W. Stott), has recently focused on this theme in his book, The Mission of God.

“Every human being on the planet is known by God, considered and evaluated by God, called to account by God” “To be human is to be addressable by one’s Creator—with no regard for ethnicity or covenant status. God can speak to an Abimelech or a Balaam or a Nebuchadnezzer as easily as an Abraham, a Moses or a Daniel” (C. Wright, The Mission of God).

Scripture reminds us that, ¨To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:14). ¨The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1).  “Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).

In his helpful book on this subject, Richard J. Mouw acknowledged that,

“The standard formulations of common grace teaching have often had an unfortunate feel of passivity for Christians. They have depicted a transaction between God and unbelievers with virtually no attention to the active role of the Christian community in ‘delivering the goods,’ so to speak, of common grace.” (He shines in all that’s fair: Culture and Common Grace,” p.80).

I am simply suggesting that effective ministry to younger evangelicals should include concern for these themes. Perhaps attention to the following four questions could facilitate discussion.

Four questions

  1. In what ways does God care about the actions and achievements of unbelievers that are not linked directly to issues of individual salvation?
  2. Are salvation categories adequate to cover all of God’s dispositions toward human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed?
  3. How do we take with utmost seriousness the lines between those who live within the boundaries of saving grace and those who do not, while at the same time maintaining openness and active appreciation for all that is good, beautiful and true outside of those boundaries?
  4. How should answers to these questions be reflected in the ministries of local Churches? 

Scriptures for deeper reflection

Acts 14:15-17

“After the miraculous healing of a crippled man, the people rushed Barnabas and Paul to worship them. Listen to their response:

“Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 

These are descriptions of God’s activities—not toward those who believe, but toward unbelievers. “He has not left Himself without testimony” (Verse 17).

Acts 17:24-28

The apostle also addressed these matters to the philosophers of Athens:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” 

Steve Cornell

The best hope for our nation

 In a recent piece for Huffpost Religion, Christian Smith (professor of Sociology, Notre Dame University), suggested that the emerging generation (those in what he calls “adultolescence”) has rejected sectarian conflict over religious differences that dominated American life a few generations ago and turned to liberal whateverism.

“This outlook reacts against sectarian conflict by dramatically discounting the claims of religion. The more aggressive side of this view asserts that religion per se is pernicious and should be eliminated or radically privatized. The more accommodating side says religion is fine as a personal lifestyle commodity, but that religious inclinations are ultimately arbitrary and should not be taken too seriously.” (Smith)

In his recently published book, “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” (along with his co-authors), Smith described the world context that allows liberal whateverism to make sense.

“Many emerging adults have few considered moral bearings, are devoted to mass consumerism, routinely become intoxicated and engage in casual sexual hook-ups, are civically and politically uninformed and alienated.”

When it comes to religious or moral opinions, this generation “opted for the more accommodating ‘whatever’ default. Anyone could take religion or leave it. It was an individual ‘opinion’ that didn’t matter much.” (Smith)

Belief in Karma?

“Most interesting was the belief of a significant minority in “karma.” This meant to them simply the idea that, in some mysterious way, good and bad people would get what they deserve in this life. Few emerging adults know anything about the religious traditions that seriously teach karma. ‘Karma’ is simply a reminder that they should try to do the right thing and a substitute for anger or revenge against bad people by believing they will soon get their comeuppance. Karma is a way to try to sustain justice in our moral universe without having to appeal to a personal God or a real judgment day.”

“As a sociologist, I view this belief in karma as socially functional and psychologically therapeutic. But I doubt it works over time.” (Smith)

A better way?

Smith raises an interesting question: “Is there not a better way for all of us to take religion more seriously without descending into sectarian conflict? That is one of the most important questions of our day.”

Authentic religious pluralism

Seeking a better way, Smith proposes rejection of both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism. He then invites commitment to “an authentic pluralism.”

“Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that ‘all religions are ultimately the same.’ That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private ‘opinions.'”

“It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.”

“We as a society and a culture have much to learn about ourselves from teenagers and emerging adults, both good and bad. One of those things, I believe, is the need to get beyond not only sectarian conflict but also liberal whateverism, to a more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism.” (Smith)

A culture of honor or law?

But is it possible (and what will it take) to have this “more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism”? Have we already moved too far away from a culture of honor? When people refuse to honor others and their property, the only apparent way to maintain civility seems to be the force of law and imposed forms of tolerance. Have we become a culture of law?

The virtue of honor once exerted far more influence for restraining inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors. As a valued social virtue, it was taught in the context of family, mentored through parental example, and reinforced through community expectations.

Honoring others means (among other things) treating them with a protective form of respect. It flourishes in humble hearts that place a high value on their fellow citizens. To harm another or to hurt his property is to dishonor him. Such actions devalue others. Honor shares the company of virtues like gratitude, courtesy and respect. The disappearance of these virtues is evident everywhere in the cultural life of 21st century America.

This is where things begin to break down and liberty is put at risk. Absent the virtue-forming influences of family and wider cultural expectations, social authority in the form of law and punishment must enforce honor and respect. A culture lacking a shared value of honor, leads to expansive social authority over individual conduct. A culture of law, however, is not a good substitute for one of honor. Law is more of a consequential force than a positive culture shaping reality. Obviously, human flourishing cannot exist apart from some degree of law and law enforcement, but expansive law rarely provides the best context for such flourishing.

But when everyone does what is right in his own eyes and looks out for himself at the expense of others, society suffers and law enforcement must increasingly regulate individual lives to protect civility. This cuts to the nerve of our national dilemma. The fact that America has put more of its citizens in prison than any other nation (1 out of every 100) is a (mostly unnoticed) revealing social indicator. Our prisons are carelessly overcrowded and unable to offer reform. Our judicial system is weighed down with political interests and economic pursuits. Our social programs are poorly run and our families are increasingly dysfunctional. Meanwhile our tax burdens only increase. 

What is the answer?

Increased government is the default answer of most politicians. But where has this taken us? Many see t as a big part of our problem. Throwing more tax-payer money at government programs simply prolongs the agony on the way to our inevitable demise.

Virtue-forming influences

The American experiment has taught us that a free society is the best context for human flourishing. But freedom cannot flourish without deeper commitments to personal and civic responsibilities that promote healthy social order. We cannot afford, therefore, to be indifferent to the need for virtue-forming influences through families and Churches. Without widely shared virtues like honor, narrowly defined self-interests will threaten the common good. Liberalism without virtue and character ultimately destroys itself.

I believe that Churches must renew their roles in the lives of families and communities for the common good of society. As Churches become humble, redemptive and truth-telling communities of love, they will serve as surrogate families for redeemed people. Churches that believe the gospel are advantage because they minister holistically to humans. They see people as bodies and souls in communities connected with their Creator-Redeemer. The gospel goes beyond physical and development needs to address the ontological need of spiritual life as a gift from God (Titus 3:5-6). 

As a transformed community, the Church is called to: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). In a pervasively dysfunctional society, regaining such a vision for the Church is not only a matter of obedience to the Lord, it may also be the best hope for our nation.

Steve Cornell
Senior pastor
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551

Perhaps truth matters to them

Downloads of sermons by Mark Driscoll, (the preaching pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington), number more than 100,000 each week. More than 10,000 attend his Church and the majority are young people. Driscoll is intelligent and not afraid to tackle deep subjects. Yet he is mostly known for his controversial, no non-sense, in-your-face preaching style.

So why would large groups of young people who have been force-fed large doses of tolerance want to listen to a preacher like Driscoll? Is it his raspy voice, black skateboarder’s jacket and white T-shirt? Perhaps it’s his fearless willingness to talk about anything in public? He openly rejects the image of “weepy worship dudes” and has little patience for those who “sing prom songs to a wussy Jesus who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”

Is it possible that Driscoll connects with so many young people because they have a deep sense that truth matters? These “kids” have lived under the social demand, “Be nice, or else!” Their education has been in a context of imposed tolerance (with no exceptions tolerated!). They’ve endured a required civility prohibiting them from being too passionate about anything that upsets others. Yet all along they were smart enough to see through the agenda-driven, political correctness that celebrated only the approved perspectives.

Although forced to check their religious beliefs at the school door, they weren’t fooled by what was happening. They saw through the hypocrisy that made some information and areas of discussion off-limits. They knew what was going down when only one perspective was permitted for public expression and discussion?

Perhaps they’re just fed up and Driscoll offers a kind of “I’m fed-up with it!” style and tone that resonates. He’s a “Cut with the crap and be real!” communicator. The previous generation would have responded to Driscoll with more skepticism. But the “whatever” generation has been forced to ride through storms without an anchor. They’ve watched their families and communities disintegrate while being socialized to put on a facade that says: “We have no disagreements with anyone and everybody likes everybody.”

Not surprisingly, The Office became one of their favorite television shows. It takes the ultimate “whatever?” approach to all things political, social and moral. The main characters use low-key, sarcastic humor on every imaginable issue of political correctness. Race, gender, sexuality, class association, religion, all is fair game for humor! After years of being forced to affirm all religious, moral and political viewpoints, it makes sense that they enjoy the genre of The Office. Most of them are tired of having the boundaries of passion defined for them by politically approved beliefs. Humor simply became their language of dissent, and perhaps, their means of detox.

Most of these young people have come up through an educational environment that assumes the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever will be. The only real world, as the assumption goes, is the world of the five senses. This is a version of reality without transcendence, mystery, and especially — without God.

For more than 26 years of ministry in a college town, I’ve worked closely with this age group. Each Sunday, I teach their class between our two worship services. In the last decade, I’ve noticed some clear changes among younger singles. I see a growing hunger for what is real, lasting, hopeful and spiritual.  Unlike many of the stodgy, self-appointed intellectual custodians of the academy, these students are tired of being forced into the culturally mandated, narrow little world without windows.

Truth matters to this group and I think this is partly why they like to listen to preachers like Driscoll. More importantly, it’s why so many of them have decided to follow the one who said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6).

Steve Cornell

See: Whatever Happened to Tolerance?