The Church Needs a Gestalt Shift

“Gestalt” – a word some of us academic types use on occasion.  Gestalt has to do with perception, of seeing the whole, all at once, rather than parts.   Many more have surely seen the image of the woman/women that illustrates this concept.  What do you see?

From one perspective you see an older woman with a large nose and a protruding chin looking obliquely your direction.  From another, you see the profile of a young woman looking away from you.   The old woman’s chin becomes the young woman’s neck, which now has some kind of adornment around it.  The old woman’s big nose is the young woman’s chin and jaw.  The old woman’s left eye is the young woman’s left ear. And explaining it takes all the fun out it.

Once you’ve seen one image, it’s hard to see the other. But once it pops into view, once you experience the gestalt shift, you have that slightly exhilarating “I see it!” moment.

Honestly, I don’t know much about gestalt theory.  Some expert reading this  no doubt could modify my view and I would receive the correction gladly.  But I think the metaphor works for what the church needs.  So, let me press it a bit further.

Our perceptions and our perspectives must be trained.  In order for us to see certain things, someone who can see and who is good at explaining and teaching, helps us to see.  This is a major aspect of education.  Even sometimes with physical objects, we need training to see clearly.  And when what we’re supposed to see pops into view, is it not exciting?

After a while, after we have practiced seeing things a certain way, that way of seeing goes underground, so to speak.  It becomes tacit, so much a part of the way we see things that we no longer have to think about how we see things. It’s like second nature to see things as we do. We just see. And we see this way until something happens to unsettle us, to make us aware of something wrong with our seeing.

Well, we are certainly now living in an unsettling time. It’s a good time for a gestalt shift. Who/what will help us see clearly?

The American church needs a gestalt shift. We need to see the whole picture of our world and the church’s place in it. We’ve been trained to see the world’s through the world’s eyes, which clouds our vision and makes us blind to God’s work and God’s call. We’ve taken nominally Christian views and behaviors as Gospel and have traded the real thing for an idolatrous knock-off.

Try this very unscientific experiment.  Take a look at your Twitter feeds, at what Facebook thinks you’re interested in seeing, at Instagram stories.  How do Christians seem there? What is their main focus? What do they seem to care about? What has their attention? Maybe you and your friends and feeds are among the exceptions.  If so, God bless you. But don’t miss the big picture.

Why do most American teenagers (Christians included) place being rich and famous as a high priority? Our young people are a mirror of us. They learned from us. What have they learned? For a while many of us were throwing around the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which aptly describes this counterfeit faith. We used it without understanding it. Our gestalt remained fixed and the phrase vanished almost as fast as it came, as popular Christianity moved on to the next hot and trendy controversy.  But it still speaks (stay tuned for a guest post on this topic).

The church needs a gestalt shift. We need eyes to see and ears to hear. We need to recognize again that Jesus is not only our Savior, he is also our Pattern. We worship him. We also follow him, learn from him and, by his gracious Spirit’s power, emulate him. He is Lord of everything. We march under his banner. We see and engage all aspects of life from this comprehensive perspective.

What if we took some substantial time to focus on those parts of scripture that deal not with our comfort (which we rightly love) but with our calling? Our sharing in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the Gospel, our denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily and following him? What if we zeroed in on what Romans teaches us about dying to sin and the obedience of faith?  What does it mean, after all, to be crucified with Christ?

In Revelation 19, in that great song of the wedding supper of the Lamb, we see that “his bride has made herself ready.” She is beautiful, “clothed with fine linen, bright and pure–for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). There it is. There is the picture of the church. and here is the needed gestalt shift. Let this vision captivate us and chasten us and inspire us to sanctify ourselves, with yielded hearts and eyes wide open and ears attuned to the Master’s command.  We shift our focus. We stop worrying so much about our comfort and protection and we accept that serving God faithfully in all things is vastly more important than our comfort.

It’s time for a gestalt shift.





Looking at Leviticus

Recently, I have been reading and listening carefully to the book of Leviticus. For most of us, this book does not rank high on our favorite Bible book list.  It is also the subject of unnecessarily heated debates about biblical authority. I’m not one whit interested in the debates.  I simply want to share some fairly surface-level observations from my recent experience.

In a powerful way, Leviticus applies Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Yahweh is the Lord’s name.  There is no other god and Israel will have no other gods.

The Lord’s people, obviously, belong to the Lord.  Whatever else we might conclude about specific statutes on particular situations or conditions or relations, Leviticus makes clear that one of the central purposes of those regulations is to remind Israel of who is the Lord and that they belong to him.  Some harsh language is reserved for the ones who prostitute themselves with other deities, like goat demons.  The same vision applies to us.  However we work out how to understand the Law in relation to the New Covenant, Leviticus reminds us, “Remember to whom you belong and don’t slip into looking like all the surrounding nations.  If you’re going to enter into covenant with the one true God, then stay focused on God’s mission and don’t fall prey to aping the nations.”  This exhortation seems especially apt for us Christians in this season.

Being God’s people means absolute loyalty to God because being God’s people means serving God’s mission.  Idolatry is not simply a breaking of some arbitrary rule.  It is a repudiation of our identity.  It quite literally points to the impossibility of saying that we are God’s people then acting like we’re just like all the other nations.  If there is no discernible difference between God’s people and those who are, as Paul says, “earthly minded,” then we fail God’s mission and deny our identity.  One gets the sense, as one reads Leviticus, that so much about purity and impurity, clean and unclean, have to do with loyalty to the covenant.  There is always the danger of aping the practices of pagan nations.  God’s people need to be set apart to serve God’s purposes and the more we look like everyone else the more serving the mission becomes impossible to maintain.

Justice is proportional.  We find the famous lex talionis in Leviticus – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and so on.  If you read that verse in context, you get a very clear picture that this law limits justice and seeks to eliminate revenge.

The Lord is a forgiving God.  This is a major feature of the book and it is easy to overlook in all the trying to figure out the meaning and significance of all the instructions about sacrifice.  Various kinds of offerings are enjoined precisely so that the people experience forgiveness.  God seems determined to stay in relationship with a people who are known to be stiff-necked wanderers, just like us.  We may find the specific instructions strange or hard to understand, but that forgiveness is the goal is unmistakeable.

I recommend careful, prayerful reading (and listening) to Leviticus.  Of course, I would say that about every book of the Bible, but it seems like an extraordinarily good time for Christians to re-visit the Torah and to meditate on these statutes.  In so many respects American Christianity has lost its way.  We are not “a peculiar people,” as we are supposed to be or, maybe it’s better said, some of our peculiarity is downright sinful.  Being God’s set apart people in the right way is of utmost importance.  If we give it time and space in our hearts, Leviticus helps to light the way.

Resurrection Realism

“So we do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

You can find this statement in 2 Corinthians 4:16. It’s relevant for thinking about the meaning of Easter. As several of my pastor/scholar friends have pointed out recently, Easter is not just one day.  It’s a season that goes until Pentecost (when things really heat up).  The season gives us opportunity to think slowly, to dwell on the Easter story, to ponder anew what the Almighty can do.  Has done.

A common problem appears when reading a verse like this one from Saint Paul’s writings.  “Outer nature” is thought to refer to the physical body and “inner nature” is thought of as something spiritual apart from the physical.  This view is deeply entrenched in popular thinking, partly because it seems to make so much sense. The physical body’s decay as people age is empirically demonstrable.  What remains after the physical body dies?  The spiritual part, or so it seems.  To think this way, however, is to miss the Gospel promise.

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away…” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek text.  How about other versions? The New English Bible says “outward humanity.”  The NIV simply says “outwardly” and the ESV matches the NRSV, “outward nature.”

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” says the NRSV.  The NEB says that we are being “inwardly renewed.” The NIV balances its adverbial expression with another, “inwardly.”  And the ESV again matches the NRSV with “inner nature.

These English translations render two words in the Greek text: “exo” (ἔξω) for “outer” and “eso” (ἔσω) for inner or within. “Exo” we recognize in scientific language, such as “exoskeleton.”  Some animals have their skeletons on the outside. It’s paired with “endo-“(endoskeleton, on the inside) rather than our word here, “eso.” Notice the nice alliterative parallel, exo and eso, outer or outward and inner or inward.

What we don’t have here is “physical” or “material” set off from “spiritual.”  And we should not think in such terms. If I could, I would open up every Christian’s memory bank and expunge the idea that “outer” means “physical” and “inner” means “spiritual.”

Reading scripture closely, noticing details, helps to re-wire our thinking. Notice that 2 Corinthians 5 finishes what chapter 4 started. “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).  I love the contrast between “tent” and “building.”  Paul’s Jewishness is probably showing here, with an allusion to the distinction between tabernacle and temple, which helps us ponder the difference between the temporary and the permanent, between the tent’s transitory nature and the solidity and stability and glory of the building.

In using these terms, we know that we are dealing with metaphors. In 1 Corinthians 15, we have agricultural metaphors to point to the same reality.  We are sown, like seeds, a fleshly (sarkikos) body and we are raised, like the plant sprouting from the ground, a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  These metaphors point to something real.  A real body though different from anything we now know.

Jesus’ resurrection body is not a metaphor. Through Christ, in the resurrection life, God peels off our sin-damaged bodies and clothes us with a gloriously alive body.  That is what 2 Cor. 5:1 says by “a house not made with hands.” By God’s power, we leave the temporary tent and move into our eternal home, a building made for us by God.

On the third day, he rose from the dead…

O death, where is your victory?

I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The Bible is very realistic about life’s troubles. It also boldly bears witness to the resurrection promise. It’s real.

“His Winnowing Fork is in His Hand”

(I wrote this post, as you can see, two days ago.  I felt like I should sit on it and let it simmer before I hit “publish.)

It’s Palm Sunday afternoon, 2020.  We have never seen a Holy Week like this one.

I’m holding Sunday School classes via Zoom, which is a wonderful gift in the stay-at-home world we inhabit.  I “attended” worship online and am grateful for all the dedicated pastors and staffs putting together a modicum of a worship environment online.  Many of you are regularly putting thoughtful and encouraging words in social media.  Thank you.

And I’ve been thinking, praying, reading, and thinking some more.

This morning as I was reading the Bible, a scripture-laced thought – from another passage that I was not reading – came to mind: “His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  These words come from John the Baptizer (Matthew 3 and Luke 3) as he called people to repentance in preparation for the Lord’s coming. He proclaims, “One more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat…”

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.” When this word came to me as I was reading/praying, I thought of the sinister implications, of a future time of final judgment.  Doomsdayers and others who seem to revel in speculating on God’s final reckoning use language like this.  I am not and don’t want to be understood as though I am.  Still, this pandemic affords us an important moment for self-reflection. We can stop looking for scapegoats as to the cause of the virus.  Whatever else God might be doing during this time, he is calling us to penitent reflectiveness.  We should be doing it anyway.  It’s Lent.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  I come from farming country and I always enjoy scripture’s agricultural metaphors.  This one, as many know, relates to harvest, which is always an exciting and rather nerve-wracking time.  Having gathered the crop, farmers in ancient days used wind winnowing  to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The wheat berry is surrounded by a sliver of dry husk that has to be separated from the wheat.  After threshing, which got most of the big stuff out of the way, harvesters used either a fork or a basket to toss the wheat up into the wind.  The wind blows through the tossed wheat and the chaff, which is very light, dislodges from the wheat in the action of winnowing.  The wheat falls to the ground into a nice pile of relatively clean, useable grain.

Winnowing separates the good and useful from the worthless.  It cleans.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  The metaphor is perfect for what Christ does.

There will come a time when God does this work of separating in a final sense, those whose names are written in the Book of Life from those whose aren’t.  I gladly leave that work to the Divine Lawgiver and Judge.  I am interested in the separating that God is doing right now.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand” applies to us now and to the contents of our hearts.  Some separating needs to happen.  The chaff (sin) needs to go.  The good fruit needs to emerge.  The world needs Christians to be more like Christ.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  Winnow away, Lord.  Winnow away.


The Twentysomething Soul #4 – Nones (Don’t Believe Everything You Read about Them)

In this last installment on my little series of reflections from Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley’s book, The Twentysomething Soul, I focus on that oh so slippery demographic category, The Nones.  This cohort of emerging adults has suffered a good deal of misunderstanding in public opinion.  I’ll summarize a few of the chapter’s most important findings and offer a thought or two along the way.  Because there is so much confusion about the Nones, I will quote from the book more extensively than I did in previous posts.  Forgive the length.  I rather wish I could just quote the whole chapter.  Better to read the whole book.

“Nones” make up somewhere around 30% of the Twentysomething age cohort.  As careful readers of these studies recognize, and as Clydesdale and Garces-Foley point out, the numbers do not support the standard secularist narrative about the decline of religion, even though there has been a significant shift in identity:

The rise of the Nones, especially among Americans under age 30, has been a popular news headline, but this label is widely misunderstood.  Though Nones indicate no religious affiliation, it does not mean that they have no religious beliefs or practices.  Religion is a complex phenomenon with individual and social dimensions, including affiliation, belief, and practices.  While some Nones are ardent secularists, a solid majority of Nones hold beliefs in a supernatural or transcendent reality, and some appear quite conventional in their beliefs. (p. 143)

To sort out the 30%, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley use four sub-categories:

  • Unaffiliated Believers (17% of the 30%) – these Nones often pray, read their Bibles, and, on occasion, attend worship.  Why are they unaffiliated?  There are several relevant answers, but I am convinced that the main two are: (1) we did not properly catechize and disciple them, because (2) we ourselves are not properly catechized and discipled, therefore have not properly passed on our faith.  “Properly” is a very important qualifier.
  • Spiritual Eclectics (17% of the 30%) – they borrow beliefs and practices from a number of faith traditions and philosophies.  One out of three Nones view God as a “spiritual force” (p. 155).  While we label them with “spiritual,” “the term ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ did not appeal to most Nones, a finding that runs counter to characterizations of today’s young adults, especially Nones, as a ‘spiritual but not religious generation” (p. 156).  This observation emphasizes the need for us not to impose a misleading interpretive grid that drives a wedge between spirituality and religion.
  • Philosophical Secularists (12% of the 30%) – “reject religion or spirituality in any form” and choose a philosophical explanation of reality as a rival to religious views (see p. 145).  We could put here the young people influenced by the so-called militant atheism of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  (Secularists in the academy misleadingly love to generalize about Nones under this banner.)  They think about the meaning of life very or fairly often (p. 156), so they are at least somewhat engaged with faith-related questions.
  • Indifferent Secularists (54% of the 30%) – these young people “express no interest in any type of worldview” (p. 145).  I would add, though, that expressing no interest in a worldview does not mean that they don’t have one.  I would also argue that their apparent lack of interest in spiritual questions can be mostly attributed to the dominant pedagogy in American education.  They have (mostly) learned to mimic the attitude of indifference.  We teach by what we talk about all the time and we teach by what we never mention.

Let’s add some approximate numbers to these percentages.  If there are 42.7 million people aged 20-29 in the United States, how would these sub-categories appear numerically?  (I hope I did the math right.)

  • Unaffiliated Believers: +/- 2.2 million
  • Spiritual Eclectics: +/- 2.2 million
  • Philosophical Secularists: 1.5 million
  • Indifferent Secularists: 6.9 million

These identities can be fluid (p. 145).  The authors give the example of “Joe,” who was initially labeled as a Philosophical Secularist, but shifted his thinking and practice, which prompted the researchers to move him into Spiritual Eclectic.  Remember, these conclusions come from personal interviews.  That these identities can be fluid is directly related to the fact that we humans are social beings who are influenced by our contexts:

We do want to draw attention to the role that context plays in shaping these changes.  Universities, where our first interviews with religiously unaffiliated twenty somethings occurred, are on the whole more welcoming settings for Nones than other settings–such as family homes, neighborhoods, community organizations, and workplaces, and these latter contexts can foster exploration of religious and spiritual resources by post-college Nones…Our point is this, when Joe’s context changed from secular-and-spiritual-friendly to religious-and-spiritual-friendly, Joe changed with it (p. 146).

I find encouragement in these observations.  Based on my reading over the years, as well as my experience working with college students, the vast majority of them are unfailingly interested in “life” questions.  They want to talk about their God questions with trustworthy people.  They are not the aversive skeptics that they are often made out to be.  I have made the appeal many times to churches simply to offer friendships and transparency to college students. Start there.  (It takes time.) Don’t throw more programming at them.  They are over-scheduled, as it is.  They need models and exemplars from among ordinary Christians whose lives show that they are committed to the way of Christ.  Don’t worry about being perfect (flawless). They already know that we aren’t and they don’t really need or want us to be.  They want to see how real, honest-to-goodness Christian discipleship looks.  And works.

The reference to higher education in the block quote is telling and requires a little detour.  In the studies that I have read, students attending overtly Christian schools (often called confessionally Christian, with chapel and other requirements like a Bible or theology course) often report crises of faith at higher rates than their counterparts at public or so-called church-related non-sectarian schools.  Why?  Because their Christian professors introduce them to challenging content.  This fact does not fit the many prejudices about Christian schools as places of narrow indoctrination.  Ironically, at church-related colleges and universities, students almost never encounter this sort of experience in the classroom.  It is relegated to campus ministry groups or some other place where “faith” is allowed.

At public or non-sectarian, church-related colleges and universities, the default position is too often “secular-and-spiritual-friendly,” as noted by the authors.   To the degree that a school’s ethos sees overlap between spirituality and religion, then the positive role of religious faith is generally acknowledged.  To the degree that spirituality is lifted up as the superior alternative to religion – that is, where faculty and staff frame spirituality in positive terms and religion in more restrictive and even negative terms – then a default position of pluralistic spirituality characterizes the school’s ethos.  This is particularly ironic for church-related schools who claim a relationship to the Christian faith but generally suppress that faith out of a desire to be open and welcoming to people of all faiths and no particular faith.

Let me drive that point home a little more strongly.  Church-related colleges that function so as to avoid the purportedly negative aspects of a strong Christian identity – as if that identity promotes narrowness, exclusivity, and the loss of academic freedom – easily slip into a different kind of narrow dogmatism.  The dominant faith is one that fits nicely with American civil religion.  Whatever that religion is, it is not Christian.

Back to the Nones.  After looking at a number of factors such as civic engagement and registering to vote, the authors note that Nones share several characteristics with the religiously affiliated, but also differ  with the religiously affiliated in one very important respect (other than the obvious one about religious affiliation).  They “are more privatized in their outlook and behavior than religiously affiliated Twentysomethings” (p. 160).  They “appear to tolerate institutions rather than seek them out and join them” (p. 160).

They keep politics and social institutions at an arm’s length, preferring the periphery of American public life.  Not only is our republic the worse for these citizens’ disengagement, life at the periphery is challenging and marked by frequent turnover (161).

How, then, should churches respond to the Nones?  Certainly, we interact with Twentysomethings with attentive care.  We listen to them.  (I have failed at listening too often.)  Mainly, we invite them into relationships.  We have conversations.  We share from our hearts.  We draw from our stock of doctrinal understanding and experience as we share our hearts with them.  (If you need to grow in your knowledge of Christian doctrine, get busy!)  That’s it.  It is not rocket science.  It is witness, pure and simple.

The final chapter in the book is titled “Practical Postmoderns.”  It is a rich summation and provides more nuance than my generalizations in these four posts could include.  I do hope that what I have shared has prompted thought about the church’s ministry with/to Twentysomethings, especially with college students.  I have said many times over the years that college students are among the most talked-about and least understood group of any that the church targets for mission.  It’s time to up our game and use the resources provided by scholars like Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, and others they name.  It’s time to get serious (again) about reaching the rising generations.

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