The Evangelical Free District Superintendent for the Eastern District Eddie Cole writes a solid article for Christianity Today. The article is about sharing the Gospel with those who are young who do not think of death. This post looks at some of the issues in the modern evangelical church when it comes to death. After all I have attended three funerals in the time span of about a month.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. “
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:56 NIV
***Thanks to HUG for the correcting me. Cru’s evangelism pamphlet is called the 4 Spiritual Laws, not Three Spiritual Laws. I was involved with Cru for 6 years. Made a mistake but I appreciate the catch. I made the change below. Thanks HUG!***
Differing views on death
On March 22, 2017 I was at my desk at work when my sister called me. Her voice was heavy and she was deeply troubled. The doctor treating my Mom in the hospital told my family that he didn’t think she would recover. My sister had to pass on that news to me. I was stunned and nervous. I had been the cheerleader for the family in notes, cards, phone calls, texts and so much more. I was so disturbed that I left work early that day and I sat in the car for about an hour alone processing what the doctor said. Despite that I still had hope that my Mom would come around. But I made plans to travel back to Fresno, California from Washington, D.C. to support the family for the fourth time.
When my plane landed in Denver as it was taxing I scanned social media to see what was out there. I saw Carolyn McCully’s behavior on Twitter which I noted and put aside to write about. As I processed through my social media in reading other events, I then noticed Eddie Cole’s article in Christianity Today. For those unaware Eddie Cole is the Eastern District Superintendent of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA); I wrote an open letter to Eddie Cole which you can read here. In addition Eddie has worked hard along with the EFCA in trying to resolve the situation at Steve Estes Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania.
Eddie Cole wrote an article for Ed Stetzer’s blog called “Sharing the Gospel with People Who Aren’t Thinking about Death or Eternity.” Its a good article about why young people do not think of death and how to speak to them about the subject. I have a number of thoughts that I want to share. My comments below are going to be in red. Then there are a few points that I want to explore in more detail below.
“That could’ve been me.”
We hate to be selfish and think about ourselves at a time like this, but we can’t help it when someone we know who is close to our own age dies. Death is unavoidable, and when it hits close to home, we can’t help but briefly wonder, What if?
The truth is, however, Americans are thinking about death and what happens afterwards less and less frequently, and this is especially true among young adults.
According to a somewhat dated (but likely still accurate) study done between 2006 and 2008 by Lifeway Research and reported on in Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them, 55% of young adults either never think about death or if they do, it’s only once a year. It’s just not on the radar for them.
For the unchurched who are young I believe that this is a reflection on our society and culture. We as a culture do not handle the topic of death and dying well. Its like aging, many parts of our culture struggle with the topic of aging. Many who are unchurched find the topic of death difficult and keep it at a distance. Down below I would like to reflect on how many evangelicals struggle with the topic of death. But culturally many young people outside the faith have no reason to think about death. Its a time of their life that it is just not on their radar. When it comes up its normally due to a tragedy such as a person tragically killed by a drunk driver or someone losing a battle with an illness such as leukemia. So that is to give you some background as to why I believe the unchurched react to this issue.
Should this make a difference in how we try to share the gospel today?
There are several implications, but one thing is certain: many of us probably need to rethink our approach to evangelism because we are likely talking to people who don’t think about heaven and aren’t fearful of hell.
Factually, death is as present and inescapable as it ever has been, but it’s also an irrelevant topic to many, so we ought to approach it wisely. This at least implies to us that asking spiritually diagnostic questions about the eternal state of someone’s soul within the first 15 minutes of a conversation may not be the best idea.
Eddie Cole has a lot of wisdom in what he writes above. It is long overdue that the evangelical church stop and re-visit how they do evangelism. When I was a student leader in Campus Crusade for Christ the evangelism efforts which consisted of the Four Spiritual Laws cheapened the Gospel deeply I believe. They broke it down too much and I believe that approach to evangelism is part of the reason why many evangelicals will not reach many outside the church. Either they will struggle with intellectual hard questions related to theistic evolution, the problem of evil, or other topics. Or when it comes to individuals like atheists they will be stuck on a person’s language or other behavior. That is why many evangelicals will not be able to engage or befriend someone who can be abrasive. You can read more about this in “Why Evangelical Christians will be Unable to Reach Atheists with the Gospel.“ I would like to write more about what I am going to say next in detail below, but the sad reality is that many parts of the evangelical church today are devoid of love. It is absent and the world knows and sees it and that is why many parts of the world struggle in regards to respecting or engaging evangelicals.
Asking people if they know where they will spend eternity and why they believe what they do is as important as the topic of death itself and Christians should help people think about this.
However, as a rule for daily life in America today, pastors and leaders ought to spend more time helping the people we lead to do evangelism in such a way that they can meet others where they are without feeling the need to get to the set a diagnostic questions too quickly.
Reading about this is a refreshing change in modern evangelicalism. The sad reality is that many evangelicals walk away from ministry opportunities all the time. That creates a lot of problems and issues. From what Andrew White of Redeemer Arlington did in my story to many other situations. If they are not quick and immediate results many evangelicals feel flustered. Would many Christian churches have the patience or skill to be able to let someone who is a skeptic attend and ask questions for a number of years? Would an atheist be allowed to hang out in a church for a decade or more if he was just curious and asking questions? Would they have the patience to engage that person? By getting rid of the need to ask a set of diagnostic questions the foundation is being laid for something far deeper, richer and healthier. I view it as a win/win situation. While there are many reasons why I believe this, the best reason is that it takes the stress and pressure and remove it from the situation.
An Egyptian woman who lived in Brooklyn changed my approach to evangelism. She told me and some other pastors how she opened up her life and home to help Arabic-speaking (mostly Muslim) women adapt to America. She talked with these ladies about immigration, food, schools, etc. They invariably asked why she opened up her life and home like she did. When they asked, she shared with them the gospel. She told me, “I love them until they ask me, “Why?”
Questions about death and eternity were answered because the way she helped her neighbors live. Doing evangelism that defeats death and leads to eternal life should start with the consistent witness of selfless love in day-to-day life.
Eddie Cole’s article which I enjoyed talked about reaching the un-churched. I would like to use the rest of this post to talk about issues in modern evangelicalism with death and dying. This has been a cold, hard winter for me as I have attended three funerals in about a month time frame. I went from one of the largest funerals I ever attended in Fresno, California of someone who I played football with, to a cousin who didn’t have much family or friends here in the Washington, D.C. area. Actually her service was brief and consisted of me and a social worker. Then tragically I had to help plan, and put together the funeral for my Mom in early April. So as I am walking this valley of grief I would like to spend some time just reflecting on my experience in evangelicalism and the challenges that death and dying pose to the evangelical church.
Segregation of Youth from Adults Has Created Problems
I would suggest that the many problems that exist in evangelicalism that deal with death are self manufactured in some ways. For example the following reason I would propose is why young evangelicals do not think much about death and dying. One of the fads that took evangelicalism is by creating young venues for worship. What that often meant is segregating the young from the old and creating different services for the young and the old. This has been harmful for the modern church as it has split many churches in the end. But here has been one of the biggest consequences of segregation of services; death has been removed from the young so that they do not think about it or find themselves dealing with the topic. By segregating the young and the old the young are also denied the opportunity to worship and get to know older people who are dealing with the topic of death and dying. The loss of a spouse for 45 years; the loss of a life long sibling or more are things that happen when people push into their 70’s and older. What also is lost is opportunities to teach about topics such as pain and suffering and having faith in difficult circumstances. I do not think when the modern worship wave led to these issues that it was an intention to segregate people. But honestly I don’t think a lot of time has been spent contemplating what could come about. But this issue is deeply revealed when you consider evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism in context. In the Catholic church they read the names of those who have died each week at mass. So the issue is brought into life of many people who attend and you are reminded of your mortality. For many young evangelicals death is a topic that is out of mind and often out of sight due to how the church functions.
Many Evangelicals Struggle with the Issue of Death
In addition to the age segregation which I spoke about above, I think many evangelicals struggle with the issue of death itself. Part of the reason why is that many evangelical programs are geared to the young. Many parts of evangelicalism mirror society and as such youth is often made into idolatry within evangelicalism. Since much of the church is focused on the young, they are also caught up in issues that the young deal with. As a result they often do not focus on issues that older people deal with, and that includes death.
Plus death and dying is a hard topic and it seldom goes as planned as most people would like. One of the draw backs to evangelicalism is that it is often program focused and it has to be neat and orderly. Death and dying is not a neat and orderly process. I learned this in dealing with my Mom’s illness and eventual death. It was an emotional roller coaster ride as one day would be good, and the following day would be bad. I remember driving to the hospital wondering which kind of day it would be and hoping it would be a good day. The topic of death and dying is not for the faint of heart and yet we must face it as we are all going to deal with it; regardless as to where you stand in your journey. Christian or atheist we will all die one day.
Another draw back is that some parts of evangelicalism can be weird about death. While Paul states “death where is your sting?” for some Christians death can be almost celebrated to the point where people can not be allowed to grieve. The crossing from one world to the next can be difficult and traumatic as I have learned. But for some evangelicals what has been taught is that death almost has to be celebrated. Its almost like one has to deny their very humanity in the process. To grieve or to mourn express doubt which shows you lack faith in certain parts of evangelicalism. Another question I have is this….when some evangelicals celebrate death to an extreme as a person goes to heaven, does this make some evangelical Christians suicidal? Have some Christians committed suicide because they became so enamored with heaven that they wanted to get there sooner? I do not know as I am thinking aloud as I reflect on a couple of situations that I have heard over the years.
Love is Absent from Many Sectors of the Church Today
The most encouraging aspect from my point of view is how Eddie Cole closed out his article with the story of the Egyptian women who focused on love. Instead of evangelizing she approached people from the perspective of loving them as a person, and for who they are. I find it quite refreshing that such a story is being told. Instead of evangelizing people with the goal to convert them, what should happen is that people should be loved for who they are. And they should be loved regardless of where they go, and how things turn out. Many Christians have a form of love that is conditional. They love people as long as they convert, join their church, or like the celebrity pastor of the day. That in the end is not love, because true love has no strings attached.
I have to say that writing this blog has been an eye opener for me in so many ways. And I have seen this issue, the lack of love play out in the church in an often brutal way. As I write this I can recall a situation that illustrated the lack of love that exists today through writing this blog. Well over a year ago as I recall I got an email from an Acts 29 pastor. The email was cold, terse, hostile, and difficult. I have learned not to expect much from Acts 29 especially with the DNA of Mark Driscoll still active in the network. But then after getting that email from an Acts 29 pastors I got a couple of emails from atheists. The emails from the atheists were kind, loving, gentle, and warm. I remember just scratching my head as I contemplated the situation …those who didn’t believe in God had much more love and compassion than the pastor from the network which often boasts of “sound doctrine” and planting “healthy churches.” Its part of the reason why when given the chance I enjoy hanging around atheists and skeptics more than some evangelicals. But its situations like the one I just described which leads me to often ask, where is the love in the Christian church today? The lack of love has ramifications far beyond what most evangelicals consider. As many people outside the church are very much in tune, perceptive, and recognize the issue instantaneously. This is part of the reason why at this blog I write quite a bit about atheism and doubt. They are linked and its best to get the bigger picture when talking about evangelical Christianity. Leaving the bubble is often best and helps quite a bit. And this explains in part why I am at the edge of the movement personally. Again all of these are my thoughts and you are welcome to push back on anything that is said. Again I love you guys!