Newsletter 644 – What’s an Evangelical – And Who Cares?

I rarely pay attention to American presidential campaigns because they continue non-stop and the candidates so often act like immature kindergarteners, with sweeping statements, nastiness, part-truths and mutual character assassinations. Sometimes entire groups of voters—like the elderly, Hispanics, or millennials–are described in simplistic and inaccurate ways. That includes evangelical voters. I rarely identify as an evangelical any more. My theology remains firmly evangelical: It has not changed. But it’s embarrassing to be grouped with people who share my beliefs about God but whose words, actions, and political views are so different from mine.

evangelical 1Last week a CNN reporter published his study of the evangelical sub-culture and identified seven groups, at least in the United States. If you identify as an evangelical in theology, do you fit among the following?

  1. The Old Guard. These people–James Dobson and John Hagee are examples–believe the US is and should remain a Christian nation. Many are highly involved with right wing conservative politics.
  2. Institutional Evangelicals like Rick Warren head megachurches, charities seminaries and evangelical organizations.
  3. Entrepreneurial Evangelicals (Jerry Fallwell Jr. or Kenneth Copeland) often have big ministries, television outreaches, and schools all built on good business models.
  4. “Arm’s Length” Evangelicals such as John Piper and Timothy Keller “talk more about Jesus than about politics.” They avoid political activism and focus more on “feeding the believers” and on charity.
  5. Millennial Evangelicals (Eric Teetsel, Jordan Sekulow and Jonnie Moore) grew up under the old guard and tend to be politically conservative, but they are less opposed to same-sex marriage or environmental regulations, and they are friends with people who don’t accept their views.
  6. Liberal Evangelicals are best represented by Jimmy Carter or Jim Wallis.
  7. Cultural Evangelicals say they are born again and accept evangelical theology but they rarely go to church. They are like nonreligious Jews who still identify as Jewish.

A recent report from the National Association of Evangelicals defines evangelicals as those who strongly believe that:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what we believe.
  • It is very important for us personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

What is your reaction? How much does it matter? Please comment.

Newsletter 598 – Depression and the Fear of Terrorism

PARIS EST CHARLIE 2One of my closest friends is Parisian. He has lived in Paris for most of his life and was there last week. Following the terrorist attacks he sent me an email message stating, in part: I’ve experienced the waves of terrorism in 1986 and 1995 in Paris. I’ve also experienced 9/11 in NYC. I know how to “protect” myself from these tragedies: I usually turn off the TV and limit my access to the media – non-stop media updates tend to format people’s minds and make them more anxious. I do not cut myself off but I deliberately watch less TV and listen more to the radio (to avoid the impact of images.) I listen a couple of times throughout the day – but do not keep the radio on all day long. The more we dwell on negative issues, the worse they get in our thinking and the more entrenched in our brains.

I thought of this when I read the November-December 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine focusing on depression. The authors write that despite diverse therapeutic treatments and anti-depressant medications (most of which work about equally well,) depression is increasing and becoming “the most important public health issue in the world.”

Even so, the “entire mental health establishment still regards the condition as an individual problem, confined within an individual skull.” Without criticizing individual therapies and medications, the PT writers note the massive evidence showing that individual depression is in reality “a vast and cultural problem inextricably linked to the basic habits, mores and expectation of our era.” These include our relentless competition, determination to attain unrealistic goals, and “unflagging desire for more–more money, more status, more power, more stuff and more happiness–all of which can create conditions for chronic low mood.”

Just as an unending (media or other) focus on terrorism can train the brain to be fearful, so too can brains be influenced and depression worsened by therapies that dwell on reciting symptoms or telling affected people that they have a solely genetic or brain disorder that is likely to persist. Maybe we need to get beyond the defect model, honor the strengths of depressed people, and help them learn how to get clear of the mood lowering impact of our changing social values and expectations.

It’s a paradigm change to view depression as a social as well as an individual and spiritual issue. What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 590 – The McDonaldization of Our Lives

McDonalds 2Perhaps you are familiar with the term McDonaldization. It was new to me until last week but, as you can imagine, it refers to our widespread values of hurry, convenience, efficiency and the desire for consistency. Franchised fast-food restaurants are controlled from the top with detailed policy manuals. Almost everything is predictable, including the seating, lighting, and color schemes that are designed to discourage lingering. One writer describes McDonalds and Berger King as drive-through calorie-filling stations that are all alike with consumer commodities that are packaged, marketed and sold. Their advertising focuses on meeting needs, immediately and quickly, like “you deserve a break today!”

Surprising, perhaps, this characterization was stimulated by a new book titled Slow Church. The authors, Christopher Smith and John Pattison, write thoughtfully about how the values which led to fast food restaurants have given rise to what one book calls The McDonalization of the Church. Many of us want churches that are efficient, entertaining, convenient, growing (the bigger the better), controlled by one or a few leaders at the top, and all similar. This is especially common in highly controlled denominations and megachurches with their satellite campuses. Too often they become spirituality-filling stations, specializing in quick step methods and convenience with minimal commitment.

Does this one-method-fits-all McDonaldization seep into our professions and academic institutions under the guise of maintaining standards for training, practice and accreditation? Certainly there is a need for guidelines to insure quality and prevent chaos. But do we risk McDonaldization in our work, classrooms and lives because that is what we want and/or because we have little alternative? Where is the place for innovation and creativity?

There are many ways to express our individuality and still abide by the laws of the land and the requirements of our professions. The Smith and Pattison book shows how we can trim down some of our McDonalized ways of doing church and become more biblical. Can something similar be done with our lives and work? Like many of you, I break out of the mold and use lots of innovation in my teaching, writing, and coaching. And, gradually, I am learning to slow down and cut some of the hurry from my spirituality, relationships, work and life.

How are you doing with this? Please comment.

Newsletter 584 – The Future of Everything

future 4In 1989 the Wall Street Journal reached its 100th anniversary with predictions about what the future would look like twenty-five years later. That’s now. “We got some things right,” the newspaper commented. And got “a lot wrong.”

Last week (July 8, 2014) on its 125th anniversary WSJ tried again with an entire section of the paper labeled “The Future of Everything.” Leading thinkers, innovators and futurists shared their visions on where the world is heading. The editors admitted that this mostly is a form of entertainment but here are samples of their speculations. Before long:

  • Everyone in the world will be online.
  • Privacy will be gone, except for the very wealthy.
  • Cash also will be gone so the economy will be more global.
  • People will live longer and be happier and healthier in old age.
  • Education will be individualized. Students won’t advance from one grade to another. They will advance on what they know.

There are predictions about art, robots, automobiles, medicine, parenting, water and food supplies. There’s the good news that we still will drink coffee like we have since the 1530s. But I did not see anything about changing values, belief systems, terrorism or emerging generations.

Apart from curiosity why should anyone care? Next month I speak a group of doctoral students, leaders and mental health professionals. They all have completed years of rigorous training and skill building but their training is becoming outdated. A bigger question for us all is not what’s coming but how do we keep up?

In part the answer depends on your personality, field of interest, education, aptitudes, areas of expertise and health. Nevertheless, consider this:

  • Never stop learning. Always keep your brain active. Use your own learning style. Do whatever you can to uncover new information.
  • Apply what you learn to yourself and others. Taking in new information like a sponge is only part of the process.
  • Keep connected with others, including those who think differently than you and know what you don’t. I learn from people of different ages, backgrounds, expertise and values.
  • Find someone to help if you need expertise that you don’t have.
  • Take care of yourself. Exercise, rest, and healthy eating keep you sharp, creative, and alert.
  • Keep connected with God. He alone is able to predict and control the future. Trust him to show the way.

What would you add? Please comment

Newsletter #536 – Are Christians Really Different?

wineI was raised in church where Christians were described as being “in the world but not of it.” We learned that movies, dancing, playing cards, alcohol, tobacco, even friendships with non-believers were all taboo. There seemed to be an us-versus-them mentality subtly assuming that we were superior. Even then I wondered if “the world” just saw us as being weird.

 Things are different now. In a stimulating blog post last week (Mereorthodoxy.com), Brett McCracken asked “Have Christians lost their sense of difference?” McCracken is a twentysomething writer and managing editor of Biola Magazine. He writes that when he goes to parties with Christian friends, and then parties with non-Christian friends they are “observably indistinguishable…. We are the same in the toxic cynicism lacing our speech, the obscene language, the general negativity, the way we dress, drink, and smoke, the movies and TV we watch, the music we listen to, the pop culture we consume, and the way we cordon off ‘spirituality’ in a manner that keeps it from interfering with our pursuits of pleasure….And we wonder why so few bother with a Christianity…that offers nothing radically different or new.”

Christian counseling and coaching students often want to bring their beliefs into their careers. Professors urge them to memorize and practice methods, models and popular views of integration. But Christian commitment and faith-practice integration is not so much evidenced by the Bible verses we quote, the rules we live by or the methods that we study and seek to apply. What counts more are the characteristics that we reflect: moral excellence, knowledge about God, self-control, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the others (Gal. 5:22,23; 2 Peter 1:5-8.) Nobody will bring a genuine Christian perspective to counseling, coaching, leadership or even ministry unless he or she is living a vibrant Christian life (difficult to define as that is). We don’t make an impact by being weirdly different from others or by throwing in a few integration techniques while we blend with the secular crowd.

To build on Brett McCracken, would any observer be able to pick you, me, or any other Christian counselor, coach, or leader from their non-Christian counterparts? “In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt.5:13-16)…called out of darkness into light (1 Peter 2:9)? Are we “more often blending in with the dark than with advancing the light?”

What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter #527 – Tolerance and Homosexuality

male homosexualityLiberty University seems like an unusual setting for a gay student to describe his experiences “coming out” about his homosexuality. Atlantic magazine seems like an unusual publication for a captivating and sometimes blunt article titled “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University.” The article (April 2013 issue) is worth reading in part because of its insights and perspective on the current debates about gay issues, including gay marriage. Writer Brandon Ambrosino observes how many Christians and others brashly judge people who are gay. In contrast, many pro-gay people proclaim their tolerance while they intolerably judge those whose values or religious beliefs are anti-gay. There is prejudice, insensitivity and fear on both sides. There also are surprisingly sensitive and compassionate attitudes in both camps.

I read the Atlantic article shortly after reading D. A. Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance. Carson’s writing style can be difficult to follow. Nevertheless his book is thought provoking for any of us who are caught between the views of our culture (including our professions (including psychology or counseling) and our personal values and beliefs. Someone has said that at least in America, “tolerance has emerged as a virtue that is above all others.” Carson shows how groups of people (like many in the media, academia and caring professions) laud their tolerance but are strongly intolerant of anyone whose beliefs or religious communities disagree with the gay agenda. Try questioning gay marriage in a clinical psychology-training program and see the reaction.

In democracies we respect the rights of individuals to hold and proclaim differing beliefs and values. Christians especially – but not exclusively – feel called to stand up for what we believe to be right, to resist what we view as wrong, even if this goes against what society defines as tolerance. But surely there can be respect and understanding even among those who disagree. The Atlantic writer expected his Christian college professors to be condemning when he announced his homosexuality. Instead most were gracious even though they held to their beliefs. The student who feared condemnation from his instructors discovered that he was the one with the most fear and intolerance. What does that say to us who believe that the fruit of the Spirit begins with love? Please comment.

Newsletter #503 – Why Care About Culture?

In response to an earlier newsletter, Ruedi Giezendanner referred me to a fascinating article with a long title, “Cross-Cultural Mentoring: A Brief Comparison of Individualistic and Collectivist Cultures.”

The author, Sunny Hong, reminds us of the differences between individualistic cultures that value individual uniqueness, independence and equality, in contrast to collectivistic cultures where group goals are more important and where there are more firmly defined social distinctions and expectations. Of course there are wide differences between people within any one culture but Western countries (especially the United States) are individualistic in comparison to the collectivistic mindset of Eastern countries including Japan, Korea and China.

Hong focuses on mentoring but her conclusions apply equally to coaching, counseling, leadership, teaching, ministry and broader social relationships. These issues were never mentioned (or perhaps never recognized) in my training as a counselor. My coaching instructors insisted that the principles of coaching apply universally, without need for adaptation. But try taking an individualistic mindset into a collectivistic culture and there can be misunderstandings and communication failures. More harm than good can follow when culturally-insensitive business people, diplomats, missionaries, relief workers and mission trip participants go abroad without awareness of cultural perspectives and differences. This applies in work with neighborhood minorities as well as internationally. Mentoring or coaching in an individualistic culture seeks to help others grow professionally by setting goals and developing ways to fulfill personal visions. This is like parenting where children grow up, leave home and don’t seek further parental advice. In collectivistic settings, coaches or mentors are respected and knowledge-filled gurus or teachers who continue to retain authority and provide wise answers on a more permanent basis. Individual initiative and self-motivation are not valued.

According to Hong’s article, when there are differing expectations and assumptions regarding the purpose of mentoring [or coaching], there often is confusion and misunderstanding for both parties. Cross-cultural people-helping also can be unproductive when there are different views about goals, responsibilities, the meaning of success, boundaries, power, privacy, respect for time, transparency, self-disclosure, and feedback, among others. Before you decide to teach, coach, counsel or lead in other cultures, consider reading Hong’s article. And please comment or share your experiences. Is all of this as important as I am suggesting?