Interview
Friday Five Interview: James Emery White
Doing savvy ministry in a post-Christian culture.

Today's interview is with James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. James is also an author, his latest book being Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated. Today, we talk with James about young people, post-Christian culture, and developing an "Acts 17 church."

1) It seems the dominant narrative is that evangelicals are losing their young people at a rate faster than in previous generations. Is this borne out by your research?

Yes. Millennials are arguably the first American generation to grow up in what I would deem a post-Christian culture. And what we are observing is that the traditional cycle of young people dropping out of church during high school or college, but then returning after marriage or children, isn't taking place. They are not returning.

2) You spend much time on the "nones," those who don't identify with any religious group. Does this reflect the collapse of a nominal civil religion?

That isn't helping, but I think the larger issue of a post-Christian culture that has been shaped by such processes as secularization, privatization, and pluralization, is more causative. Secularization has eroded the supportive presence of Christian faith from the marketplace of ideas, privatization has created the expectation that all things spiritual should be kept in the private sphere like a favorite color, and pluralization reinforces the idea that all faiths are equally viable and true. Combined, these three processes have made whatever civil religion we might have left so benign it has become inconsequential.

3) Christian bookstores seem to be filled with books offering the latest formula to help reach disinterested Millennials. Some arguably say we need to soften the more radical edges of the gospel's demands. Others say we need to dig in more on doctrine. What is your perspective?

My knee-jerk reaction is to shout, "Dig in!" But let me nuance that a bit. I write in the book about the need for the proper "truth-grace" mix. Some churches err on the side of lots of truth, but little grace. That's legalism. On the other side are those who have lots of grace, but little truth. That's licentiousness. Jesus never watered anything down in terms of personal morality, tackling the most difficult and divisive issues. Yet those who heard him wanted nothing more than to spend time with him. They may have felt convicted, but never condemned. A lack of grace is not winsome, a lack of truth is not compelling. The message we proclaim must be both. So we should have all sixty-six of the books of the Bible in one hand, and an irenic spirit in the other.

A lack of grace is not winsome, a lack of truth is not compelling. The message we proclaim must be both. So we should have all sixty-six of the books of the Bible in one hand, and an irenic spirit in the other.

4) Are the "nones" a monolithic group with hardened thoughts on religious matters or are there ways churches can enter into conversations that could lead to gospel advance?

They are anything but monolithic—except in the fact that most are not atheists, and few are actually "seeking." But that doesn't mean they are closed to conversation. I lead a church that experiences over seventy percent of its growth from the unchurched, a large number of whom could be classified as "nones." So obviously, we are finding that there are ways to engage. If they have hardened thoughts, it is less with theology and more with characterization. They have very negative views of religion, and often, religious people. They are very turned off, for example, to their perception of religion's role in politics, what they would consider judgmental attitudes, and the appearance of financial greed among religious leaders. But if you can get past that, they are actually quite willing to hear an explanation of the Christian perspective on any and every issue. Particularly if you start out with their questions and concerns as a bridge to the Bible's perspective.

5) As pastors and church leaders survey the data on "nones," how would you counsel them to approach their ministries in this new era?

Too many churches are taking an Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world.

Well, the entire second half of the book delves into this question, but here's an overarching theme: I would suggest they move from an Acts 2 model to an Acts 17 model. By that I mean that in Acts 2, you had Peter addressing the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem. On a spiritual scale from one to ten, they were probably on an eight. They believed in God, the Old Testament Scriptures, heaven and hell, and a promised Messiah. That's a lot to begin with! And Peter fashioned his approach accordingly. Fast forward to Paul in Acts 17. On our imaginary scale, they were probably about a two. Paul didn't approach them as God-fearing Jews, but as the (at best) agnostics that they were. He had to start with creation and work his way forward. He understood that evangelism, for that group, would involve both process and event. Too many churches are taking an Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world.

Daniel Darling is vice-president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.

May 30, 2014

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments

Van PastorMan

June 07, 2014  6:11pm

I'd like to know what White is specifically talking about when he says some churches teach truth,but no grace. In my mind, if we teach the truth of the Scripture then we will have to teach grace. For grace is what we are saved by and not any works that we do. What I'd like to see is for Christians to become Proverbs Christians. By learning wisdom and living well perhaps our lives will shine for Jesus in a dark world. I believe these young people who are leaving the church and the Lord will pay a high price for being out of God's Will. The consequences of their sin will be heaped upon them. How will they return? Perhaps it's when they see true believers armed with Holy Spirit Wisdom from above, then they might rethink this Christianity they have left.

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Tim Aagard

June 07, 2014  6:07pm

"Christian bookstores seem to be filled with books offering the latest formula to help reach disinterested Millennials." Don't blame the Christian books stores. The typical pulpit lecturer does the same thing. They consider themselves so savvy, yet they are glued to systems of gathering people that are 1000+ years old. Being old is not the biggest problem. These are severely corrupted from what God asked for. So many specific and clear scriptures are nullified. There is not one second of what God says believers are to do with the warning to "not to forsake meeting". Wealthy American believers must consume 86% of their "giving" on average based on LJ's studies. 99.9% of paid teachers will not "fully train" even one of their 100 - 10,000 students to "be like them". Luke 6:40. Zero reproduction. What is God's incentive to bring the next generation into this corrupted system set in cement? Is it possible the only way for it to change is to die a slow death? Try truth & grace is savvy.

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Nate Woodward

May 31, 2014  11:55pm

The "grace without law = licentiousness" is essentially a circular definition; It's like saying "if there are no rules, then there are no rules!" The relevant question to the Nones is, "Why is licentiousness (license to do whatever) bad? Why not just say everybody can do what they want, live and let live?" The reason is that no moral standards means there's nothing wrong with the rich winning at the poor's expense, the strong controlling the weak, or people essentially making decisions from their appetites--and that's a cruel world. Law and Grace are a false dichotomy. In his grace, God helps us understand what will make his world truly flourish. In his grace, he forgives us when we harm it. In his grace, God transforms us. In his grace, he uses our transformation to transform the world. All grace isn't bad. But the absence of law (i.e. no moral code) is not all grace--it's hell.

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sheerah kahn

May 31, 2014  11:48am

So, to conclude to today's "nones" I am going to say this number hasn't changed at all over the last one hundred years, rather, people are being honest with themselves, and what they "Believe." The traditional denominations haven't really changed all that much in the last fifty years, and the culture, though more permissive in it's acceptance of personal choices of "expression" hasn't really changed as much either...the only real difference is that what was once quietly practiced in private is now out in the open. Thus, my conclusion is that we're finally getting to that place in our society where we can truthfully address the real issues of ourselves, our spirits, our souls,...our choices, and most of all, our relationship with G-d. And finally, with everything laid out in the open...be honest with each other. A great opportunity awaits us all here...just a question of whether we have the grace of Christ to address it, or close the doors.

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sheerah kahn

May 31, 2014  11:41am

But lacking, anywhere, was a knowledge of G-d...my own guess is that a conflation of the two is being made, moral and knowledge of G-d. For the record, the Pagan Romans were very moral, and just to add irony to that thought, viewed Christians as amoral, godless heathens, aka Atheists. So, if we therefore keep what these elderly christians define as moral as an indicative baseline of behavior, yet distinct from Knowledge of G-d I think we can conclude that there hasn't been a vast difference or change in numbers of Christians in America. Granted, population statistics from census indicates a majority of Americans consider themselves "Christian" BUT if we look at the numbers of how many actually go to church/believe...that number drops like a rock through fresh water. Same same with the past viewpoint...a lot people called themselves Christian, but the truth of it all is...they weren't. They were cultural christians...a very noticeable difference between the two.

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sheerah kahn

May 31, 2014  11:34am

"Too many churches are taking an Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world." I think this statement resonated with me as I think about the historical realities of both the Bible and my conversations with the elderly christians. With the bible, Y'shua was dealing with a culture already steeped in "knowledge" of G-d and the scriptures, albeit, a whole lot more codified. And then in my conversations with elderly christians they talk about the early 20th century where knowledge of G-d was common place, though specifics seemed to be lacking. Anyway, the elderly complaint when asked what changes they've noticed they ALL said the same thing, "I don't see much knowledge of God in the public sphere." I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, my studies and research reveal that what they talk about as "G-d in the public sphere" can be defined as a moral code of behavior. Girls dressed conservatively, Boys were respectful, women were chaste, and men were polite and civil.

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