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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

No one has breathed more vision and challenge into my vocational world than Bill Hybels and the fleshed-out picture of the church exhibited by Willow Creek. 

I’ve known Bill for a long time. I’ve been in his home in South Barrington and he has been in mine in Charlotte. I’ve stood on the deck of a boat with him where he summered in Southaven. We’ve been on mentoring retreats together. He traveled to Charlotte many years ago to speak at our church in support of a capital campaign. He’s endorsed many of my books. I’ve taught at Willow Creek conferences and at Willow Creek itself. We were just together again this past February when we led a conference together in England.

Which is why his newly revealed, deeply entrenched, shadow life has felt so distressingly… personal. Attempting to reconcile the man I respected (and felt I knew) with what has come to light has been as confusing and disturbing as any reconciliation I have ever had to make. 

And I still haven’t made it.

What people have been able to do is gather leadership lessons from the wreckage. The man (and church) who singlehandedly put the importance of the spiritual gift of leadership in the life of the church on the map for our generation has (ironically, from horrific failure) given us many final lessons.

The lesson most people have put forward has to do with the need for accountability; and, to be sure, that lesson does seem to be the lowest-hanging fruit. As important as this lesson is, the sad fact is that you can have all the accountability structures in the world in place and they will not prevent the willful pursuit of sin in the darkest recesses of a person’s private life. Or hotel room. The greater accountability debacle was not what wasn’t in place, but how what was in place failed. We now know that many, many people knew of both the culture at Willow and the false persona and misdeeds of Bill, yet did not confront him with their knowledge.

Another lesson is the importance of building sexual fences in your life, something I have long advocated. But sexual fences are designed to keep you from falling into the snare of temptation; they are meaningless if you are choosing to willfully pursue sexual misconduct. Sexual fences only protect those who want to be protected; they do nothing for those who do not. 

Many have talked about the pride that comes with “celebrity status,” cultivating an above-the-law mentality in the hearts of such leaders. And, to be sure, pride comes before the fall. And there is the “celebrity status” of leaders itself that is toxic.

Others have rightly pointed out the perils of power. We focus on the sexual side of this sordid tale, but it’s also about the use (and misuse) of power. With #MeToo must come #ChurchToo.

There are so many other lessons: crises in the church are not to be “handled” but met with grace and truth, transparency and honesty; we need to listen and protect and care for those who have been abused and harassed, not self-protect or dismiss; cults of personality or personality-centered churches are patently unhealthy. The list goes on.

While almost every leadership lesson being offered in the aftermath of this mess is spot-on and I must let them seep into my own leadership role anew, a single, simple lesson has seared itself into my psyche:

Whatever the leadership gift can build, a lack of integrity can, and in the end will, destroy.

Bill, along with many other leaders, would often say that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” I’ve said it myself. But no more. It’s not true, at least without serious qualifications. Here’s what is true: Everything rises and falls on integrity. And that is, without a doubt, the most important lesson Bill and Willow have ever taught me. 

I just hate how it was taught.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

For those who may not be familiar with this, here are some of the recent stories in the news of late:

Bob Smietana, “Willow Creek Elders and Pastor Heather Larson Resign over Bill Hybels,” Christianity Today, August 8, 2018, read online.

Bob Smietana, “Hybels Heir Quits Willow as New Accusations Arise Before Global Leadership Summit,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2018, read online.

Laurie Goodstein, “He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly.” The New York Times, August 5, 2018, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

According to research, almost half of all American college students will abandon their Christian faith during their undergraduate years.

Half.

The reason why?

It seems to be far more than simple rebellion against an upbringing, or honest intellectual exploration.

It seems that the school environment itself is the culprit.

The Fuller Youth Institute found that almost a third of college students say their institute of higher learning is not helpful to them in keeping or growing their faith. Most universities would say that examining one’s faith in an intellectually stimulating environment such as a college or university should lead to a deeper understanding of the theological moorings of a childhood faith.

But that’s not what is happening.

According to the research of political scientists Robert P. Putnam and David E. Campbell, “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historical rate (30-40% have no religion today, verses 5-10% a generation ago).”

Another study found that with each year of education, there is a 15% increase that the student will believe there’s “truth in more than one religion” and believe in a “higher power” rather than a personal God.

In A Mind for God, I wrote about my oldest daughter’s experience as a freshman at one of the leading universities in the United States. In her first history course, her professor took it upon himself to announce that the entire historical record upon which Christianity is based is untrue: Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah; none of His followers saw Him as divine until centuries after His death; none of the gospels were first-hand accounts; Jesus was not a religious figure as much as He was a political one; there was never an intent to form any kind of “church”; there were dozens of “gospels,” all of which were thought to be sacred by followers of the Jesus movement; and the four gospels in the Bible today are riddled with discrepancies and errors.

In order to pass her first exam, she had to write that Jesus was born in Nazareth (not Bethlehem), deny Pauline authorship of I Timothy, and maintain that the four canonical gospels are in complete disagreement on the major facts surrounding the death of Jesus—including when He was crucified, whether it was after the Passover or before, and whether Judas committed suicide.

In many ways, this was tame. A study of faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities found that 67% of faculty members either “strongly” or “somewhat” agree that homosexuality is as acceptable as heterosexuality; 84% support abortion rights, and 75% support extramarital cohabitation. Fewer than a third described themselves as regular churchgoers. When the Kansas Board of Education approved new science standards for teachers in public schools that questioned Charles Darwin’s teachings on evolution (merely allowing the idea of “intelligent design” to be discussed), the director of the National Center for Science Education responded, “Those kids are in for a big shock when they go to college because they’re going to learn that what they had been taught by their teachers in high schools is a lot of rubbish.”

Little wonder that cultural observers from Christian perspectives, such as Charles Colson, offered the following concern: “With the ever-increasing number of college professors who use their classrooms to indoctrinate students rather than educate them, the views expressed and the lack of viewpoint diversity is deeply disturbing.”

I will never forget my daughter calling me, immediately after emerging from her first class, almost in tears over the statements made by the professor about her faith. Even with a firm worldview, coupled with years of reading and instruction that enabled her to know how spurious the professor’s claims were, she was emotionally shaken that her most deeply held values and convictions had been defamed and assaulted so vigorously. Even more, her heart was breaking over the 300 other students in the class who sat passively, taking notes, accepting the professor’s statements uncritically as fact.

So this August, as you pack up your minivan or SUV to take your son or daughter off to college, give them one last word of advice. Not about binge drinking or safe sex, money management or proper nutrition. All well and good, to be sure.

Give them a word about their souls and the importance of a grounded faith.

And then pray for them.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Study: Education Liberalizes Religious Views,” USA Today, August 3, 2011, read online.

Marybeth Hicks, “College Students Need Help to Keep Their Faith,” The Washington Times, August 2, 2011, read online.

Robert P. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace.

Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter and Neil Nevitte, “Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty,” The Forum (Manuscript 1067), 2005, read online.

Charles Colson, “BreakPoint: Money Talks,” October 12, 2005.

Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2011 and is published annually to serve parents in preparation for taking their students to college.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

A large and growing number of parents – particularly parents of Generation Z children – are themselves in the “nones” category (those claiming no religious affiliation). And we live in a day and age where it has almost become a parenting sin to be overprotective, so the pendulum has swung the other way where today’s parents are underprotective (I recently blogged about that HERE.).

So how does an underprotective parent who is also unchurched raise their child spiritually?

Not well.

As journalist Ruth Graham started an article she wrote in Slate: “I’m the kind of Christian that many adults warned me about as a child: I’ve been a church member for most of my adult life, but I have at times gone years without regular attendance, my theology is squishy and I don’t really pray, to name just a few qualities that put me on the breezy outer edge of Christianity’s big tent. I think of myself as ‘religious but not spiritual.’”

This is a textbook description of the spirituality of a typical “none.” And, as I detailed in my book The Rise of the Nones, the real mark of the “nones” is not a rejection of God, but a rejection of any specific religion. When it comes to content, dogma, orthodoxy – anything spelled out or offering a system of beliefs – they’ve gone from “I believe” to “Maybe” to “Who knows?” When pressed as to what they do hold to, they collectively answer, “Nothing in particular.”

Simply put, they are spiritual, but not religious.

They may not want to say, “I’m a Baptist,” but that does not equate with, “I don’t believe in God.” In other words, there is a strong reticence toward labels of any kind. It might help to visualize it in terms of a religious axis and a spiritual axis, creating four quadrants.

The caricature of the “nones” would place them in the “Not Religious, Not Spiritual” quadrant, but that would be inaccurate. The vast majority belong in the “Not Religious, Spiritual” quadrant.

“Not Religious, Spiritual” is not a disavowal of faith or belief. Instead, it is the rejection of a label related to faith or belief. In years past, an unchurched individual might still claim to be Baptist or Catholic. Now there is great cultural freedom to drop the label entirely. The speed with which this has happened supports an old thesis of church historian Martin Marty, who wrote a book half a century ago on varieties of unbelief and who thought that religious cohesion “has long been overstated.”

John Green, a senior research adviser at Pew, breaks the religiously unaffiliated into three groups: first are those who were raised totally outside of organized religion; second are those who became unhappy with their religions and left; and, lastly, are those Americans who never really engaged with religion in the first place, even though they were raised in religious households. “In the past, we would describe those people as nominally affiliated. They might say, ‘I am Catholic; I am a Baptist,’ but they never went [to services]. Now, they feel a lot more comfortable just saying, ‘You know, I am really nothing.’”

So what of Generation Z? Or more particularly, their parents?

As Ruth Graham went on to write: “Somehow the gruel-thin texture of my adult faith has never troubled me. Or at least not until this summer, when my infant daughter careened into my life—including my spiritual life, such as it is.” She reflected that she wanted her child to know certain religious stories and songs, almost out of nostalgia for her own childhood, but “I don’t want her to be afraid of a hell I don’t believe in, and I don’t want to lie about what I believe.” She ends by saying: “I dread the day when my daughter asks me if the stories in the Bible are true. My real answer is that some of them are and some of them sort of are and some of them aren’t.... That should work for a 3-year-old, right?” 

No, it shouldn’t.

But it’s what we have to work with.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, Meet Generation Z.

Ruth Graham, “Why Hold a Child Hostage to My Doubts,” Slate, November 9, 2015, read online.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, “As Protestants Decline, Those with No Religion Gain,” USA Today, October 8, 2012, read online.

Dan Merica, “Survey: One in Five Americans Has No Religion,” CNN, October 9, 2012, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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