Why You Should Read The Benedict Option

Ship

Rod Dreher is not an academic.  He has no Ph.D. and does not teach at a university.  Yet, he is able to take complex concepts of philosophy, sociology, history, etc. and explain them in ways that most people can grasp.  He is also not a priest, pastor, or leader of a parachurch organization.  Yet he writes and speaks as a layman with true spiritual depth.  He shares his own struggles, faith, faults, and victories with a transparency and sincerity that we can resonate with.  You would actually like to sit down with him and talk about life.  And this is one of the great things about The Benedict Option:  A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, it is not coming from an academic or denominational leader:  it is coming from the ground up.  And for the Benedict Option to work, that is exactly what is needed to get it going.

Of course, the success of the Benedict Option is also due to its timing.  Though Rod alluded to the Benedict Option ten years ago in his book Crunchy Cons, I don’t know if most Christians would have been ready.  Anyone who read Lesslie Newbingin 40 years ago, or Missional Church almost 20 years go will know the diagnosis of the decline of Christianity in the United States, but during these ten years since Rod mentioned the need for a new Benedict, so much has happened.  The Millennial generation has shifted to the left on social norms and politics, marginal issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights have become new norms, businesses have become arbiters of family values, sports is a tool for cultural enforcement, and what was once considered out-of-control political correctness on our campuses is now ubiquitous.  I don’t need an academic to explain it to me, I see it everyday.

But there are other forces at work too. Technology like the internet and cell phones have brought us amazing amounts of information, but the ability to literally spend our whole lives on pointless trivia.  The “authentic self” that philosopher Charles Taylor wrote of in his masterpiece The Secular Age, reached its apogee in Caitlyn and Bruce Jenner.  Bruce Jenner, a Cold War hero to us in Generation X, became a cause celeb to Generation Z as Caitlyn Jenner.  Transpose that Wheaties picture of Bruce in 1976, winner of the Olympic decathlon and “world’s greatest athlete” with Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, and you see trajectory of where we are headed as a nation.

As Christians we did not want to believe the academics.  Developing as a nation under the canopy of our country as a “city on a hill” from John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity, we always told ourselves we could “go back” to ideal times.  Revivals did help, and many truly believed that with the right focus on the right segments of society, we could still transform the culture.   But we finally find ourselves “strangers in a strange land” to steal a line from Robert Heinlein.  Continue reading

Steps to Cross-Cultural Servanthood

cross-cultural-servant

We know that Jesus came to serve and not be served.  His example sets a high standard for us to follow.  We all should be servants in some way.   But let’s face it, when it comes right down to it, we often are commanding servants, well-meaning but blind servants, or perhaps befuddled servants.  This is especially true in cross-cultural situations.  Often the way we serve is geared to our own culture and may not be appropriate in another culture.  The way we help might be confusing or frustrating to those we are trying to help.  According to a study cited by Dr.  Duane Elmer, 76% of missionaries are of a “duty bound” personality type.  This means they are interested in getting things done and transmitting communication.  They are not that good at receiving information or being sensitive to their hearers.  Think about that.  Those who have the drive to get something done, are often the least likely to listen to those they are trying to help.

Thankfully, Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Servanthood helps us layout stepping-stones to create a path to appropriate servanthood.  Though written for those who are going to be living in another culture, I have used his steps to help train volunteers here in the U.S. working with international students.  I think your training and ministry experience will be greatly improved by walking his path.

So what are the stepping-stones that lay out a path to culturally appropriate servanthood?   Dr. Elmer lists six overall steps:  openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving.

Here is his layout of the steps.

Openness is the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.

Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person.

Trust is the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest.

Learning is the ability to glean relevant information about, from, and with other people.

Understanding is the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people.

Serving is the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and that they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives.

Each definition includes the word “ability.”  An ability, according to Dr. Elmer, is “something we can do, do better and even master.”  And that’s good because we all need to to improve, especially when we are in a cross-cultural ministry.

Each one of these steps has much to offer us in improving our ability to serve cross-culturally, but I only have space to focus on the first two which are needed to begin the journey.

When I was heading up a ministry focused on ministering to international students one of my major frustrations was finding volunteers (both students and non-students) who were “open” to spending time with international students.  Many people were good at making meals, giving money, or verbally supporting what I was doing.  But it was often hard to get people to actually get in the trenches, so to speak, and do the hard work of cross-cultural relationships.  But after reading Dr. Elmer’s chapter on “Openness,” I understand that many people, even while wanting to serve, are not able to be effective due to a limited ability to be open.

According to Dr. Elmer, several skills are needed to be open.  These skills are:  suspending judgment, tolerance for ambiguity, thinking gray, and positive attribution.  To sum these skills up, perhaps we should say that we need more cultural mental “margin” in how we think about others.  Perhaps things will not make sense in the beginning, but with time we will come to see the patterns that do make sense in the lives of others.  By not writing someone off early in the relationship due to miscommunication, unexpected behavior, or prejudice, we remain open for more understanding and those long-expected “aha” moments.  Being open to those who are not like us is the gate to cross-cultural servanthood.

What I like about the chapter on “acceptance” is how he describes obstacles that prevent us from accepting others.  He lists five:  language, impatience, ethnocentrism, category width, and dogmatism.  Each of these obstacles have impact on our ministry to people from other cultures, but one that really interested me was “category width.”  Narrow category width people don’t have as many categories for classifying experiences.  Thus when they experience something that seems culturally “different” they may just place it in the “wrong” category.  This person, this situation, this behavior is “wrong,” so I need to move on.    For those with “wide category width” they are able to create new categories for “cultural differences.” You can see how having “narrow category width” sets up conflict between missionaries/servants and those they wish to help.

So how does Dr. Elmer’s steps help us become better servants?  Discovering, learning about, and processing these obstacles is a great training exercise to improve one’s ability to be a better servant.  Reading through the list of steps and then asking yourself or team questions about how they relate to your ministry will bring out issues you most likely have not thought about.

  • Do you care if your team is building trust with those you are serving?  Or do you “serve” from a position of power?
  • Do you want to learn from those whom you serve?  Or do you just want to teach them?
  • Do you see integrity and value in the culture of those you minister to, or do you just want to change them?
  • Is your serving affirming their dignity and empowering them to live God-glorifying lives?

I could go on and on with the questions, but I think you are getting an idea of how you will be challenged yet encouraged by reading Dr. Elmer’s book.  Doing cross-cultural ministry can be an exciting, spiritually rewarding ministry.  It can also be a frustrating and draining ministry.  But the good news about working with young student volunteers is that you can begin bringing up these issues and improving skills before natural tendencies that make cross-cultural ministry difficult get deeply ingrained in them.  Start laying out your steps for this very important journey.

Five Disruptions That Could Shake UP College Ministry

IMG_3099In his 2011 book, College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture,  author Stephen Lutz listed five trends that could shake up college ministry as we know it.  I love looking forward at coming trends, but also backwards later to see where predictions were correct or off point.  Lutz’s book is about half way through the ten year span that he forecast from, so now is a great time to look back.  By the way, he did a great job in picking out these five topics.  If you have not read his book.  You should.  Here are the five possible disruptions in no particular order of importance.

The Higher Education Bubble Will Burst

The rapid growth of Higher Ed was built on the largest cohort of college students ever, plus years of low-interest rate student loans.  But that was before the Great Recession.  With tuition costs at an all-time high, and loan obligations stretching out  longer, people are increasingly wondering if college is worth it.  Institutions themselves are overextended and making cuts.  The system as we know it may not be sustainable for much longer  p. 172

 Five year laters there seems to be no large-scale drop in enrollment of students.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 20.2 million students expected to attend college in the fall of 2015.  This is up 4.9 million from 2000.  Though the 20.2 million is slightly down from its 2010 high, it does not seem crippling.  See the data here.  But we still have five years to go.  Can cost still go higher?  Will a flight to community colleges cripple some colleges?  We will see.

Technology Will Distance, Disperse, and Depersonalize Connection to Students

The rise of online learning is a profitable boon for Higher Ed, but it’s not an unmixed blessing.  The lower cost and easy accessibility of online higher education make gaining a college degree easier for older students with families or those who can’t afford living and learning on campus.  But among other things, online students miss out on gathering as a group in a classroom, learning not only from their professors but from their peers.  p. 173

Since students will not be spending as much time on campus, it will be harder to meet them, round them up and expect to minister to them in large groups.  Instead Lutz sees campus ministry having to go outward and smaller to reach people.

More

The future of all campus ministry may look like what’s happening at community colleges around the country–large but disjointed student bodies, moving targets that are exceedingly difficult to reach.  p. 174

This is, perhaps, the hardest to verify in numbers, but we know it is happening.  More and more campuses are integrating distance learning with online classes and online tests and homework.  Students are able to have a more flexible schedule, but it also shows the fractured lifestyles that we all live now.

Non-Traditional Student Will Become More Traditional

I can say with certainty that on this one Lutz was right on.  In researching for Generation Z and North American trends, I can see the non-traditional student becoming more traditional.  Lutz sees more of these types of students:  older, part-time, more females than males, and a huge change in the demographics of students.

In addition to non-traditional students, we’ll also need to adapt our methodologies to appeal to students of differing ethnic and racial backgrounds and cultures.  Many college settings remain overwhelmingly white, but as the demographics of North American continue to shift toward a majority of minorities, Higher Ed is following suit.  p.175

In July of 2015 a U.S. and World Report article came out declaring the younger than five demographic to be more than 50 percent minority.  It also pointed out the huge growth in multi-racial marriages and the children that are being born to this age group.  See the article here.  Generation Z is now entering college, and will be the most diverse generation in US history.

Combining with technology, transferable credit, and huge cost increases, more and more students will look at crafting their own academic learning paths that may pull from multiple campuses, and learning venues.

The elephant in the room for many ministries will be reaching an ever-growing minority demographic.  Churches, campus ministries, and para-church groups will have to reach minority groups, and transition leadership to those groups to make any lasting impact.  It’s going to be disrupting to many groups, but for those who get it, it will lead to more students reached on the campus.  It didn’t take ten years to prove him right on this one.

College Ministers May Face Diminished Access to Secular Campuses

In 2010 the campus ministry community was reeling from the Hastings case, the Supreme Court case that allowed the Hastings Law School to restrict clubs on campus from excluding members, even those who disagreed with the club on matters of religion and policy.  What followed the ruling was the decision by the California state university system to not recognize numerous Christian clubs for excluding those who did not hold to their doctrinal beliefs.  Later, the California university system walked back from that policy.  However, in many ways, that drama was overshadowed by the Obergefell case which finally legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.  That case was quickly followed by lawsuits, issues relating to transgender rights, and a recent bill in the California senate which would allow homosexual students to sue religious colleges and universities for discrimination.

From Bilola University

The provisions of the proposed bill represent a dramatic narrowing of religious freedom in California. It would mean faith-based institutions would no longer be able to determine for themselves the scope of their religious convictions as applied in student conduct policies, housing and restroom/locker facilities, and other matters of religious expression and practical campus life. Though the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by both the U.S. and California Constitutions, SB 1146 would make religious institutions like Biola vulnerable to anti-discrimination lawsuits and unprecedented government policing.

Even though the state senator who introduced SB 1146, decided to pull the bill, we should still be concerned that the bill got as far as it did.  In fact, he has hinted that he could possibly reintroduce the bill at a future time.

In looking at these situations and the general trend, Lutz’s speculation seems entirely possible.

Eventually, many more campus ministries may have to figure out how to function without full university recognition or legal sanction. . . . We ought to be working on navigating the coming challenges with grace and humility, adding value and generally seek to bless our campuses, and planning the future model of our ministry in the event that we have to go “underground.” p.176

He is right on this point, but the question is do enough churches, campus ministries, and Christians grasp this point?  Looking forward, it seems that the fallout of Obergefell and a tendency to restrict religious liberty will continue, and will affecting Christians on campus tremendously.

What is your ministry doing to prepare in case it cannot retain its RSO status?

Financial Sustainability Will Be Challenged

The next ten years will likely mark a significant decrease in the North American base of ministry funding, as approximately 100,000 churches will disappear.  The world War II generation will be gone, and the Baby Boomers (now at the peak of their earning power) will transition from giving to organizations like ours to receiving Social Security, Medicare, and the like on reduced incomes.  p. 176

He hit it right on.  Though we are only five years from the book’s publication, we have seen the International Mission Board of the largest Protestant denomination pull back hundreds of missionaries from the field, and other data that tends to show a demographic tsunami which will affect church patterns shortly.

In his book, The Great Evangelical Recession (published in 2013, two years after Lutz’s book) John Dickerson echoes Lutz in his concern over future giving in a chapter entitled “Bankrupt.”  Looking at stats from the SBC, there were mixed results in the 2015 report.  Numbers for members and baptisms were down slightly, but giving was up slightly.  But we still have five more years to go. Of course these are stats from just one denomination. What exactly will happen?  We do not know,  but those doing collegiate ministry would be wise to start thinking out of the box to figure out how to grow staff who can generate income through support raising, or bivocational ministry.

I hope after reading about these five possible disruptions you will be encouraged to pick up a copy of College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture, and think about how you do college ministry, and what you need to do to get ready for the next five years.  You will be challenged.

Hear Steve talk about these five disruptions as he talks with me in the No Campus Left Podcast