Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 70 years later: Living With God Without God in a World Come of Age

2015 is a significant year for World War Two remembrances—the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland, the liberation of concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and of the end of the war itself.

For Christians, it is also a time to remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian and opponent of Hitler who was executed by the Nazis 70 years ago, on April 9, 1945.

Arrested in 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote many letters while in prison to his friend, Eberhard Bethge.

In the letters, later published in the book Letters and Papers from Prison, he speculated about what faith would look like in a world where people no longer seemed to have any need for God—a time that seems very much like our own.

“In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt,” he stated, adding that “it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without God—and, in fact, just as well as before.”

“As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, God is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”

In what he called a “world come of age,” where humans have learned to deal with all questions of importance without reference to God, Bonhoeffer suggested that Christians would need to develop a new way of thinking about their faith and God.

This new way, he said, would lead “to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him . . . Before God and with God we live without God.

Since he was killed before he could flesh out his enigmatic ideas, they have puzzled theologians and others for decades.

Some have interpreted him calling for a new kind of believing that abandons most tenets of the Christian faith, or even predicting the death of God. But most theologians agree that the central question Bonhoeffer was trying to address was: How can Christians proclaim their faith in a world where many people no longer have need of God?

At a time when Canada is becoming increasingly secular, and faith is being pressed to the margins, this is a relevant question—especially for those who feel that faith is being threatened or even attacked. 

Some seem too long for the days when Canada was seen as a “Christian nation,” and where the church held a prominent role.

But Richard Beck, a professor at Abilene Christian University, suggests that Bonhoeffer actually saw these changes as good thing—not something to be wished away.

“Christianity, to be Christian, needs the world to come of age,” Beck writes. ”For only in the world come of age can Christians fully understand both God and the gospel.”

And what is that understanding? For Bonhoeffer, he says, it is the crucifixion of Jesus, the act where God became weak and powerless and let himself suffer and die.

In this world, there is no room for what Bonhoeffer considered a “false conception of God"—God as a strong and powerful ruler—but rather the "God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness."

So how should Christians live out their faith in this world come of age? By serving others, Bonhoeffer says.

God, he wrote, is to be found not out there, in some other-worldly plane, but in what he called a “this worldliness,” or "in the midst of our life" and all its “problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities."

The church, he went on to say, is only the church “when it exists for others . . .  the church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.”

I’m no theologian, and I can’t possibly do justice to the issues Bonhoeffer raised in this short space. But it seems to me that his ideas, written in a prison cell 70 years ago at the height of Nazi ideology and oppression, can help people of faith navigate the issues that dominate our time and age today.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Rise of the Dones—Done With Church, That Is

One of the fastest growing religious groups in Canada today is the nones. These are people who, when asked if they have a religious preference, say “none.”
But there’s another group that is also gaining numbers.It’s called the dones. These are people, mostly Christians, who still strongly identify with their faith--but are “done” with going to church services.
Someone doing research on this group is sociologist Josh Packard, author of the book Church Refugees and head of the Dechurched Project at the University of Northern Colorado.
According to Packard, the dones used to be some of the most dedicated and active people in their congregations. But now they are tired of going through the same motions every Sunday, whether that's liturgy or four songs and a sermon.
Speaking of sermons, many are through with them, too. As one person said: “I’m tired of being lectured to.”
For some, it's being done with the seemingly never-ending business of trying to keep the organization of the church alive. “I just kept thinking that Jesus has to be bigger than subcommittees," said one. 
For others, it’s a desire to be more engaged outside the church. “Now that we’re out we have time and energy to spend on our community,” said another of their volunteering. 
Last year the Barna group, a U.S. organization that researches faith and culture in that country, published a list of reasons why people say they are done with the church. 

What did people tell them? They find church to be irrelevant; they don’t find God there; they don’t feel that doubt and honest questioning is welcome; they don’t understand the sermons; and churches don’t feel friendly.
It’s happening in Canada, too. Winnipegger Doug Koop wrote about it last summer for the Canadian evangelical magazine Faith Today.
In his column he noted that many of his 50-something peers used to be active in their congregations, but now are “making the institutional church more of a back-burner item, less of a lifestyle.”
For some, he said, it was the result of a crisis of faith. But for most, there was a simpler explanation.

“They realize,” he wrote, “that weekly worship service attendance no longer provides them with the sanctuary and inspiration it previously delivered.”
Instead of going to church on Sundays, “they are largely content to worship more serendipitously and attend Sunday services irregularly.”
Ontario pastor and blogger Carey Nieuwhof has also given thought to this phenomenon, writing a post titled Ten Reasons Even Committed Christians Are Attending Church Less Often. 

Among the reasons he suggests why some Christians going to church less frequently are the general busyness of life, the ability for people to access whatever they you want to know about theology on their phones, and a failure to see a direct benefit from attending services.
He also cites the disappearance of guilt. There was a time, he says, when Christians felt bad if they didn’t go to church. Today, he says, “the number of people who feel guilty about not being in church on Sunday shrinks daily.”
For Nieuwhof, the rapid fall in church attendance is a “truly radical change, the kind that happens only every few centuries,” on par with “what happened to the church after Constantine’s conversion or after the invention of the printing press.”
Hyperbole? Maybe. But I see it happening in more and more churches. Maybe it’s happening in yours, too.
Or perhaps you, yourself, are one of the dones.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Blessed Are The Geek

I was in Calgary the same weekend the city hosted its annual Comic & Entertainment Expo, or Comic Con. It's an opportunity for those who love role playing games, science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics to come together to celebrate what some call "geek culture." You might think that geek culture has little overlap with religion, but a few Christians are trying to build connections between the two worlds--as I discovered when I met two members of Geekdom House in Winnipeg earlier this year. 

It used to be that geeks were objects of derision, seen as solitary loners (and losers) who were obsessed by fringe subjects like comics, video games, science fiction and fantasy.

Today, those fringe subjects have gone mainstream. What is called "geek culture" is everywhere.

"Never before has the boundary between geek culture and mainstream culture been so porous," wrote Noam Cohen last year in the New York Times in an article titled We're All Nerds Now.

"Whether it is TV series like The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley, or comic-book movies such as (2014's) top-grossing title, Guardians of the Galaxy or the runner-up, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or fantasy-based fiction like the Game of Thrones books (and HBO show), once-fringe, nerd-friendly obsessions like gadgets, comic books and fire-breathing dragons are increasingly everyone's obsessions."

That may be true for movies, TV, books and games, but one place you won't find much geek culture is the church. But now a few Winnipeggers are hoping to change that through a new ministry called Geekdom House.

I met two of the founders for coffee recently. Kyle Rudge is the morning show host at Christian radio station CHVN. Allison Barron is a graphic designer.

Rudge, 34, grew up playing video games, while Barron, 25, has loved fantasy, science fiction and board games ever since she was a child. Both are proud members today of the city's nerd and geek community.

But while they love geek culture, they found the church wasn't sure what to do with it -- or them.

"Geeks don't feel welcome in the church," says Rudge, noting that many churchgoers view video games and fantasy as childish or inappropriate for Christians.

They wonder why this is since the Bible itself contains geek-type things like dreams, visions, quests, mysterious appearances, miracles and fantastic stories. And some of the greatest fantasy writers, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, were devout Christians, they note.

But when members of a congregation take a deep interest in fantasy, science fiction and video games, "the church doesn't know what to do with us," Rudge says.

That's where Geekdom House, a new website and gathering, comes in.

The idea for the ministry grew up out of a home Bible study that Rudge, Barron and a few others are part of. During weekly meetings, they watch a TV show like Firefly, described as a "space western science fiction," and then discuss the moral, ethical and spiritual questions raised by each episode.

As word got out about the meetings, they met other geeks who indicated interest in combining their love of science fiction, fantasy and video games with their faith -- and the idea for Geekdom House was born.

Through it, they want to "reach out to the Christian nerd and geek community, to share the God we love and the sub-culture we love," says Rudge.

Nerds and geeks who aren't Christians can also participate, Barron says. "We want to invite everyone to be part of the community. Everyone is welcome."

Geekdom House’s website also hosts an online magazine called Area of Effect -- the name comes from a powerful spell in the board game Dungeons and Dragons.

Plans are underway to start holding monthly meetings; next month local pastors who want to know more about geek culture and faith are invited to play various video games, and then discuss the theological concepts that grow out of them.

Geekdom House isn't the only ministry geared for geeks.

In Maryland, Kenwood Presbyterian Church offers a "Geek Church" service where geeks are invited to "come as you are, come with doubts, come with questions, come in cosplay if you'd like. We like pop culture, sci-fi, fantasy, comics, anime, and we like thinking about how our faith intersects with them."

In Australia, Williamstown Uniting Church hosts the Church of the Latter Day Geeks. During services, people attend in sci-fi costumes, and readings from the Bible are interspersed with readings from books like Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Here In Winnipeg, Rudge and Barron want to "crash the Bible" and geek culture together through Geekdom House "to see what happens."

If you want to see what happens when they do that, visit them at

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Can Religion Help At-Risk Youth?

Another young person in the care of Child and Family Services was assaulted this week, bringing to mind the painful case of Tina Fontaine, who was murdered in summer. But what can be done to help? Lots of ideas are proffered, but nobody mentions religion--even though studies who being religious can make a difference, as I wrote in 2004.

What can be done to alleviate youth crime and help at-risk youth in Winnipeg?

The question arises after the latest incident, where a 17-year-old girl was mugged by 10 teenage girls on Portage Avenue last Tuesday.

The victim's father spoke for all of us when he said: "I feel sorry for this city. There is a major social problem. I don't know how it can be solved."

Fortunately, many people are trying to tackle the issue, focusing on things like poverty, education, employment and family breakdown, among other things.

But one approach that never seems to get mentioned is religion—which is strange since numerous studies show that youth who are religious are less likely to do drugs or commit crimes.

A 1985 study by Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman found that church attendance is a better predictor of who escapes poverty, drug addiction and crime than family income, family structure and other variables.

Christian Smith, who directed a study for the National Study of Youth and Religion put it this way:

“Kids who go to church regularly or who say that religion is important in their lives are much less likely to be involved in various forms of substance abuse, get into trouble, commit crimes, are less involved in violence, to have school problems and have difficulties with their parents.”

“They are more likely to behave safely, try to stay healthy and be involved in volunteering, sports and other community activities."

Another study, done by the U.S. Centre for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, found that religious youth are less likely to commit crimes, fight, drink-and-drive and carry weapons or use drugs and alcohol.

According to the Centre's director, Byron Johnson, "religion is one of the best predictors of avoiding crime and delinquency."

There’s also a link between religion and higher self-esteem. 

The U.S. National Study of Youth and Religion found a statistical association between the two when it studied 12th-graders who went to religious services at least once a week, or who professed deeply held spiritual views.

According to the study, teens who said religion was important were significantly more likely than non-religious students to enjoy life, think their lives were useful, feel hopeful about their futures, be satisfied with their lives and enjoy being in school.

Why would going to church, temple, synagogue or mosque make such a big difference for youth?

According to Glen Elder, who has studied the connection between youth, poverty, crime and religion, "what you have in the role of the religious community is a selected group of people who share values and are committed to the success of the child. Somebody always has his hand on your back."

Of course, just going to religious services iisn't a panacea for a young person who lives in a gang-filled inner-city neighbourhood, or who has to deal with physical or sexual abuse. Many more things need to done and addressed.

But at a time when we need every tool in the toolbox to help at-risk youth, religion is one thing that is almost taboo to mention.

But maybe we need a few brave politicians, social workers, police, judges and others to ask the question: Can being religious make a difference for at-risk youth and their families?

The answer seems to be yes.