Thinking Out Loud

May 21, 2013

Firsthand Faith: Making the Family Beliefs Your Own

Like authors Ryan and Josh Shook, I grew up in a Christian home. Years ago, I remember giving my testimony to the church high school group and being very clear that it wasn’t enough to simply ‘adopt’ the faith of your father and mother because that’s all you had; you had to take ownership of it in a more objective sense. Just because you were born in McDonald’s doesn’t make you a hamburger.

Firsthand Ryan and Josh ShookThe Shook brothers — sons of Kerry Shook whose book One Month to Live attracted much attention — have developed this concept into Firsthand: Ditching Secondhand Religion for a Faith of Your Own (Waterbrook Press). Although the book is written expressly to people in this particular faith situation, early sales of the book indicated that Firsthand struck a cord with Christian kids in their late teens and early twenties; the very people that statistically experience a great faith upheaval in what can be pivotal and transitional years. Here’s a sample:

We watched our parents step out in faith and plant a church when we were boys.  They had very little money at the time, just a dream God had placed on their hearts to reach the lost and hurting.  They started with fifteen people and from there it dwindled to eight after the first gathering.  Five were our family!  Now thousands are part of the church.  But we know all the little miracles God did along the way as our parents would step out in faith and watch God come through.

We feel as though we’ve had front-row seats to watch God working in our parents’ lives as they’ve taken risks in faith to obey God’s call.  But in a sense it’s been their experience, not ours.  We need our own experiences of stepping out in faith and watching God act. We don’t want front-row seats anymore.  We want to be in the game! We want to see God at work up close and personal in our lives.   (p. 108)

The structure of the book is notable. Each of the chapters is followed by a section called Making It Real, which is itself divided into Other Voices (quotes from people in similar situations) Think About It (a short study guide) and Might Try This (a variety of action steps and links to short films by Ryan). In addition to the Other Voices section, the book is very much the product of interviews with young adults whose journey contains the type of faith crisis the book addresses.

Firsthand is a resource worth knowing about that allows a specific audience to reconstruct the foundations of their faith. I’m not sure why the religious publishing division of Random House chose to do this in hardcover — especially when its target market is the demographic most likely to download rather than purchase a print copy — but the $17.99US/$20.99CAN price has not dissuaded buyers. It should also be must reading for anyone who works in high school and college-age student ministry.

A copy of Firsthand was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Waterbrook Press’ Canadian distributor, Augsburg Fortress.

July 5, 2012

The Paganization of Daniel Surrey: A Short Story

Ten years ago a fresh wave of new authors and speakers breezed through the Evangelical landscape. With the seeker-sensitive initiative now entrenched for two decades, the discussions about how to do church accelerated, along with a renewed look at what exactly constitutes a church.

Emerging, Emergent, Missional, Post-modern; words that might have been foreign-sounding in the ’90s became part of the broader discussion in the new century, and the movement was not just a crusade of words; there were changed lives to back up the new approach.

None of this was lost on Daniel Surrey. With just enough counter-cultural DNA to resonate with the new movement, Surrey was a deep thinker whose relationship with his conservative church had possibly always been fragile. While the new breed of writers and communicators may have been missed by those part of the Evangelical status quo, Surrey jumped in with both feet; attending the conferences, buying the books and downloading the audio teachings.

To know his past, it was quite a change. Daniel and his wife Bonnie had raised five children in the Sunday School, midweek kids ministry programs and finally the youth groups of their groups. They had been bus captains, ran the car washes and been chaperones on the junior high winter ski trip. Bonnie was part of the women’s ministry and Daniel had served two years on the church board and was a relief teacher for the largest adult Bible study class. You don’t do all that and then expect to simply go off the grid and drop off the radar.

Their church attendance record suddenly plummeted as they took in house church meetings, alternative worship events, and even did the backyard “we can worship God better in nature” thing during the summer months. As the fresh look at ecclesiology gained traction, it became increasingly easier to find people of like mind. They finally wrote a letter to the Evangelical church in which they had invested a quarter of a century and half their lives, and requested their names be removed from the membership rolls.

Since part of the missional ethos involves being incarnational, they quickly joined a number of community groups involving everything from woodworking to organic gardening to roots music. But their greatest personal investment was in the area of social justice projects. Anything that reached out to the marginalized was fair game, and they gave countless hours of their time to just about every charitable project going.

One particular project particularly energized them, to the point where Daniel eventually took on a leadership role. The housing projects in the south end, next to the coal-fired power plant were home to people who had no aspirations for living elsewhere. Abuse, addiction and chronic unemployment gave way to various types of health and financial problems, and also left the people in those projects as prey for unscrupulous landlords.

While the south end projects outreach had its beginnings with Christian people and church support; with Bonnie’s constant encouragement, Daniel was determined to expand the scope of the project, to the point where partnerships were formed with individuals and agencies from the broader community.

Soon, the work began to downplay its Christian origins and intentions.

With each passing day, something changed in Daniel Surrey. He met a lot of good people waging this battle for social justice, because when you’re giving help to people who are poor or disadvantaged, the people who tend to join in that fight are indeed good people. They are good because they are created in God’s image, and they reflect that nature in their desire to spread compassion and care.

Their beliefs, however, take a variety of forms. One can still serve in this type of environment, but it’s also true that a house is known by the company it keeps, and before too long, Daniel was being influenced more than he was influencing. His personal belief system at this point was more the product of syncretism than any one particular systematic theology. He had been absorbed into another world.

Which is where I last saw him, through a broadcast on the local community access television channel. He and Bonnie were there at the dedication of a new triplex to house three families, and several representatives of aboriginal spirituality were banging drums and passing some kind of large pipe, while a New Age Shaman conferred words meant to impart some measure of financial blessing and fertility — he mentioned fertility ten times even though all three families had children — to the homes’ new occupants.

And then they all shared a vegetarian potluck meal which centered around deep fried cauliflower, which may have offered some theoretical health benefits in its conception, but those benefits had been diminished by the degree of breading and deep frying. But before they ate, they paused for “a word of thanks” and Daniel Surrey, the former Evangelical Church board member began his “prayer” with an address to “the great spirit of the earth and sky and sun and moon,” at which point I completely tuned out whatever words folllowed.

And I listened to the drumming and watched the passing of the smoking pipe and thought, ‘The secularization of Daniel Surrey is now complete.’

The cable television reporter then did an interview with Daniel, where he talked about the amazing things that can happen when people lift themselves out of their own pain and peril and circumstances by self-will and determination, and my mouth formed the words, ‘You’ve come a long way, Daniel Surrey. A long way.’

February 3, 2011

Deconversion: Because Crossing the Line of Faith Works Both Ways

I’ve been reading the blog, Losing my Religion by Jeff McQuilkin since long before I started one of my own.  Maybe he had me at the title.  Jeff’s blog has always been at the leading edge of discussions on the issue of faith and doubt.

This one is a longer post, it might take you a good five minutes at least, and then I hope you’ll also track with the comments people have left there.  It’s about two people he knows of which one (to use language we use in this blog) is moving away from the cross while the other is moving toward the cross.

It’s also about faith that it is intellectual versus faith that goes beyond the mind.  It’s about objective absolute truth versus the subjectivity of belief based on empirical evidence.

It’s about you.  It’s about me.

Not long ago, I was browsing through my Google Reader, kind of sorting through and unsubscribing from blogs that had become inactive, and I came across a “good-bye” post from a fellow blogger. He had been struggling with his faith for some time, and I’d tracked with him for awhile because he had expressed such honesty and candor about his doubts and his feelings. This post was several months old (I was admittedly behind in my reading), but he’d written a good-bye post to close out this particular blog because he had finally decided there was no God, and he was now an atheist. Since the blog was about struggling with faith, and for him there was no more faith to struggle with, he’d moved on to write a new blog about atheism.

When I read his words, my heart sank in grief, and I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I only know this person from his writing–I don’t think we’d ever even commented on one another’s blogs–but I felt this profound sense of loss, and I grieved for my brother who had struggled so long and had come to such a sad conclusion. I say “sad,” because when I look at my own life and struggles, I cannot imagine the amount of sorrow I would feel if I ever came to the conclusion that there had been no divine purpose in it all, that all this time I’d been muddling through on my own, that there was really no One watching out for me. Never mind the implications of the afterlife–even the idea of living in the here-and-now with no belief in God (especially if belief was once there) is a completely devastating thought to me. This is why I grieved so for my brother who had lost his faith.

I am acquainted with another atheist for whom I don’t feel the same sense of grief and loss; in fact, I feel a bit of hope. In hearing him talk about his own struggles with faith, it’s actually apparent that he wants to believe. He’s not a militant atheist, and is friendly to Christians, even admires them; he says that the only thing that really keeps him from crossing the line into faith is that he is so analytical that he can’t get his mind around the idea of the supernatural. In short, his logical mind gets in the way.

From my perspective, the biggest difference between these two atheists is the direction the struggle for faith is taking them. For the latter, I think his path is ultimately toward Christ; he would totally be a Christ-follower if he could just overcome the mental block, and I have hope that one day this will happen for him. For the former, he’s coming from the opposite direction–he once had faith (or at least belief), but got disillusioned, and for one reason or another his doubts were never satisfied. So he walked away from Christ.

But despite this difference…

…continue reading here…

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