A number of years ago I was standing around in a bookstore and a book title caught my eye: They Like Jesus But not the Church. I don’t always choose books in a sophisticated manner, but this one seemed to ask a question I was genuinely interested in, so I purchased it. Dan Kimball, the author and a pastor from Santa Cruz, Calif., has a deep concern for the presentation of the gospel to the next generation in the United States. The book is really the story of Dan sitting in a Starbucks and asking people who came in two questions: “What do you think of Jesus?” and “What do you think of the church?”
He found almost universally that people he talked to had a very positive opinion of Jesus but had only negative perceptions of people in the church. There are many reasons why, but Dan believes one of the primary reasons that people have less than positive feelings toward the church and Christians is because we are a very insular community. We have our own Christian music, coffee houses, gyms, social gathering places and dating services, and we have avoided relationships with people in the “real” world. His book is a call to action and engagement with people who would not share our perspectives.
After reading the book I invited Dan to speak at our faculty retreat, and it was a very engaging time. I did discover that Dan dresses differently (jeans and T-shirts) and wears his hair spiked. I also found, though, that appearances are deceiving. Although he might dress differently than me, his faith in Christ is real and dynamic. We have become good friends, and Dan has actually joined our work with students. He will be teaching in classes at George Fox and leading something we’re calling the Origins Project.
I asked Dan to write a brief introduction to his interest and calling to the university.
Whenever I hear that emerging generations aren’t interested in theology and doctrine, I always wonder how those who believe that conclude what they do. I travel quite a bit, speaking at college campuses and conferences around the country, and I am also on staff at a local church where 36 percent of the membership is made up of college students. In my work I have found that there is a resurgence of interest in doctrine and theology. At Vintage Faith (our church in Santa Cruz) we wrapped up a 14-week Sunday teaching series this spring that focused on the historical doctrines of the Christian faith. We taught the doctrine of the Bible, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We taught on salvation, sanctification, angels, demons and Satan. We taught on heaven and hell and the various views throughout church history on the end times. We focused on doctrine!
What was fascinating and encouraging was that, during this series, we had the highest attendance since we planted the church. We had special theology open forums where people got to ask questions and share their opinions and discuss them with a professor from a local seminary. We had teenagers and young adults who made decisions to put faith in Jesus for the first time during this series.
I know we are living in a post-Christian world. What I mean by that is that more and more people grow up lacking an understanding of the Bible or its narrative. You may remember that in the Old Testament, in Judges 2:10, it says “. . . another generation grew up who neither knew the LORD nor what He had done.” We are living in just such a time. So this means more and more people will be asking questions about the Christian faith, and Christians will need to be prepared to answer these questions. So there is a natural climate right now for a desire to know doctrine and theology at many levels.
When I taught our church during this series, we stressed we wanted to avoid the dangers of the extremes in theological and doctrinal debates. For example, some have moved to ever-increasing forms of neo-fundamentalism, overly tightening theology and claiming we need absolute certainty in so many doctrines that aren’t essential to faith in Jesus. What might be non-essential doctrines? It might include ones such as the doctrine of creation, where some argue that you cannot be a part of the faith community unless you believe the world was created in 24 hours or a certain number of days. Or if you aren’t a five-point Calvinist then you are wrong in your understanding of the Bible and salvation. Or if you don’t hold the same end-times beliefs as another (such as believing in amillennialism versus premillenialism) then you are wrong and even non-orthodox. There is nothing wrong with having opinions about some more minor doctrines, but when we do this and then think everyone else is wrong, it becomes a subtle form of fundamentalism.
The other extreme is shifting into what is currently known as progressive or emergent theology. This is where there is a desire to question and rethink historical doctrines of faith and become so open in opinion that even major doctrines of faith become questionable and not essential to our faith. Some in the emergent community believe that the Scripture is not fully inspired, that Jesus did not pay the substitutionary price for our sins on the cross, or that Jesus did not raise from the dead.
What I love about George Fox University is that we are avoiding either extreme and remain solidly evangelical. True evangelical theology encourages diversity but remains orthodox. You can have varying opinions on doctrines and theology as evangelicals but be committed to historical orthodoxy. Such doctrinal statement like the Lausanne Covenant reflect this view, which was written to try and avoid either extreme out there, but be a healthy third-way middle. You see this in the George Fox University doctrinal statement.
This is also what I love about my new role leading the Origins Project at George Fox University. The Origins Project will be exploring how churches and schools can be training and equipping new generations to see their lives and vocations as being on mission for Jesus. So we will be having lots of theology discussions because being on mission means you will have questions raised. But we will be looking at how one does not need to shift to either theological extreme out there to be on mission in the world today.
In fact, in my travels as I get the privilege of seeing what God is doing out there in churches today, the most thriving, growing churches with new generations coming to faith in Jesus are ones that hold strong historical orthodox theological beliefs of the Christian faith. Go to any city and find out what are the thriving and growing churches with new generations a part, and almost every single time you will see they are churches that are not compromising their doctrines and historical orthodox theology.
We may need to shift how we teach as learning styles change. We may need to develop different expressions and ways of how we do “church” today. We may need to address theological questions that a generation before may not have asked as much. But that is only a part of the adventure of it all. We need to be addressing theology all the more today, and the good news is that that there is a growing hunger to learn theology and doctrine, not less of an interest. I’m thrilled to be serving with George Fox University to be at the forefront of how to missionally teach theology and live out our theology in our increasingly post-Christian world. The potential for impacting lives with the gospel of Jesus is incredible, and I look forward to seeing what will be ahead in all this.
Dan will present a message titled “Crazy Bible?” at the Reasons To Believe apologetics conference at South Valley Community Church in Gilroy, Calif. To learn more, visit svccchurch.com