Jones on the Tom Oord Controversy

Tony Jones comments on the recent controversy surrounding the termination of Tom Oord from Northwestern Nazarene University:

1) I have no doubt that the enrollment at NNU is down and finances are suffering. The explosion of evangelical colleges in the second half of the 20th century flooded the market with a glut of schools. Too many. As GenXers fall away from church, their kids are less likely to attend evangelical schools. But the real crisis for these schools will be in 10 years, when Millennials start sending their kids to college.

2) Many schools are getting more conservative in response to this downturn, but that’s exactly the wrong strategy. They’re doing it to appease their aging Baby Boomer donors. Yes, the Baby Boomers currently have the money to finance these schools (and, for that matter, non-profits (remember the World Vision controversy) and churches), but the better long-term strategy would be to find a moderate path that also appeals to the more open and inquisitive Christianity of Millennials.

I share this for two reasons: 1) The speculation is that Oord got into hot water with NNU administration over his publicly stated sympathies toward evolution. I have no idea if that’s true, but even if it did get him fired, the fact that a well respected evangelical scholar at a conservative Christian university felt comfortable being open at all about his belief in evolution demonstrates the massive changes that have occurred in the last 20 years. 2) Jones is right about the future of Christian Universities. There is a wave of Millennials coming whose notions of faith are radically different than the evangelicalism I grew up in. If you think you’re alone, you’re not.

Faith is changing

So, I’m a Christian and was a minister for a long time. Mostly in churches that were very serious about how the shape and structure of church could be adapted to fit culture. This largely just boiled down to having very casual church services. Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops, guitars on stage. You’ve seen it. This style was invented in California, but its nearly ubiquitous now. The churches I’ve been part of have been exceptionally good at it. Contextualization is what we call it. I still believe in that. More than ever before, actually. As they’re fond of saying in the seminary I attended, you shouldn’t have to cross cultures in order to come to Christ.

But it seems increasingly clear that there are more significant changes afoot – deeper than merely the form of church, deeper than the styles of culture. For lack of a better way to put it, I wonder if faith itself is changing. That is, I wonder if there is an essential shift in the notion of faith and the desire for religious belonging within Americans today that may be a deeper factor in the decline of American religion. Maybe that change is more responsible for this decline than, say, the more-or-less archaic trappings of church or even the church’s ongoing feud with the world.

I’m oversimplifying. Of course. How people conceive of and experience faith is wholly subsumed within the cultures of their church or the wider society at-large. Your faith is undeniably formed by how you worship, who you worship with, where you live, what you drive, how you dress, and so on. We can’t really pull these things apart. But – if I ever get around to making it – that’s kind of my point. Despite the church’s efforts to remain separate (partly to protect faith from being changed), this inextricable-ness means that everything is always changing everything else. But even that’s not quite what I’m getting at. If I had a thesis it would be something like this: faith is changing, not being changed. By which I mean that perhaps the faith of a rapidly increasing number of people is both becoming something new and causing something new, quite in spite of the church’s efforts to remain essentially the same.

So I want to explore that. And I want to explore it by hearing people’s stories. I want to pretend that we can disentangle the church and her people from our context just enough to examine the tangles and the spaces in between and perhaps catch a glimpse of the possibility of what’s going on. I want to do this partly because that’s how we learn, partly because I’m addicted to people’s stories, and partly because this is getting way too big to ignore.

I’m sure you’ve heard. About the quietly-yet-rapidly-growing number of people who are walking away from all forms of institutional Christianity. I’m also thinking of those who are pioneering new ways to be people of faith, Christian and otherwise. If you look and listen you’ll notice that massive numbers of Americans are crossing the borders of faith, staking new territory, pioneering new ways of being faithful. Maybe you’re one of them.

This is what Borderlandz will be about for the next year. Making space to hear people’s stories about how their faith is changing. Listening and learning, discovering new possibilities, creating a safe place to connect.