A recent discussion in the blogosphere caught my attention, especially for the issues it raises for churches, pastors, and ministry leaders these days.
It started with Derek Rishmawy’s post, “Who Are You Sleeping With?” My Conversation with Timothy Keller. Rishmawy describes going to the 2013 TGC conference and attending a breakout session with Dr. Keller on the subject of revival. After Keller taught, there was time for questions. Rishmawy asked the presenter what some of the obstacles are in our contemporary culture with regard to repentance, revival, and renewal in the churches.
Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication.
The author ends up seeing Keller’s point.
Just as C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity all those years ago, there are few of Christianity’s teachings more offensive, unpalatable, and likely to drive people away from hearing the Gospel than its sex ethic. Many college students and young adults don’t want to turn to God, or at least not the kind of solid God you find in the Gospel, because He has opinions on sex we find restrictive.
Culturally that’s just where we’re at.
The post goes on to say that we live in a culture of people like Augustine, the great Bishop who struggled mightily with concupiscence. The church must therefore speak boldly and confidently to the issue of sex, not in a shaming or holier-than-thou fashion but in a way that helps people see sexuality as the good gift God gave us so that we may desire to live sexually healthy and holy lives. We must not fear to address such matters, but neither should we run down the lascivious and creepy path that far too many have taken (see the article in her.meneutics this week: “I’m Sick of Hearing about Your Smoking Hot Wife”).
We do not know who God might be calling us to present with the Gospel’s call to sexual holiness. Keller’s challenge is for the Church to humbly but boldly call the Augustines sitting in our pews and local city coffee shops, bound fast in sexual sin, to turn and repent by the Spirit’s power to the true liberty of the Gospel. Only when Christians are courageous (and wise) enough to deal with our sex issues will we see ”sleepy Christians waking up, nominal Christians being converted, and hard to reach cases being extraordinarily converted”—in other words, revival.
Rachel Held Evans responded with a cautionary post. She was especially concerned that the article seemed to imply that sexual guilt was the primary reason young people have doubts about the faith. After noting that Derek Rishmawy had issued a helpful clarification to what Keller said and his subsequent post, she nevertheless thought that this perspective has been common enough that it should be addressed.
So she made the following points:
- The suggestion that the primary reason young people have doubts about a variety of Christian issues is because they have guilty consciences is dismissive and hurtful.
- Correlation does not mean causation. In young adulthood people often deal with spiritual questions and doubts. At the same time they are thinking about sex and getting involved in more serious relationships. The link between the two realities may not be as cut and dried as conservative Christians have interpreted it to be.
Evans summarizes her argument with these words:
As I’ve said on multiple occasions, most young adults I know aren’t looking for a religion that answers all of their questions, but rather a community of faith in which they feel safe to ask them. A good place to start in creating such a community is to treat young adults like the complex human beings they are, and to take their questions about faith seriously.
Rachel Held Evans received some pushback on her article. Some of the responders thought she was being unfair to Keller and so on. I don’t really want to get into all that, but I thought one of the best comments was by Ben, who wrote:
I lead a college ministry and I want to affirm a few things: Doubts and sexuality are on the table for discussion. They are both too important to ignore. Sometimes they are related. Sometimes they aren’t. But you don’t know until you start talking and asking. I ask my students about their relationships (my assumption is that people are sleeping together) because no one else will and our sexuality has a huge impact on how we live and interact with each other and God. Anecdotally: the times in my life where I experienced the greatest doubt/most considered throwing in the towel were the times I was experiencing the most sexual un-health and loneliness. I know that isn’t true for everyone, but if that pastor had asked me that question, I would have said, “No one, but I want to.”
Everyone in this discussion had something valuable to contribute, but in the end, I think Ben said it most succinctly: “…you don’t know until you start talking and asking.”
In the end, it is about relating to people, talking to them, listening to them. It’s about real conversations and real life, life in all its complexity and mystery. We simply don’t know how all these things are related, or what God will put his finger on in a person’s life to get that person’s attention. We can, however, be good listeners and love our neighbors. We can earn their trust and become friends in ways that will allow us to have honest interactions.
We might consider consulting Jesus, who has a bit of experience in dealing with doubters and sexual sinners. Seems to me he was both gentle and direct, patient and challenging, awakening faith, hope and possibility where once there was only the fog of doubt and bondage.
If we could somehow communicate him to others, not just rules and “truths” and principles we think we’ve learned about him, then maybe something similar might be awakened in our friends: a willingness to walk even though the way is dark, a hunger for wholeness and peace.