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We Need More Bart Campolos

“Even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.” – Charles Taylor

Is the contemporary North American church in decline? If you do a casual search of the Internet or glance the titles of Christian publications over the past year, you will find a number of topics related to the waning of the North American church, the low numbers of Millennials who have a religious affiliation, or identify with the church. According to a 2015 Pew survey, 36 percent of those born between 1990 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated. You may even hear someone say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t like the church.”

What is going on? You could argue that we are living in a secular age shaped by humanism more than Judeo-Christian values. Increasing numbers of Americans now discount the “implausible” claims such as the Virgin Birth or the resurrection of Jesus. Why are things shifting in our culture? Or, to use Charles Taylor’s words, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”

Recently, the New York Times ran a story on Bart Campolo. Bart, 48, is the son of Tony Campolo, one of the most influential evangelical Christians of the last 50 years. Bart had been successful in his own right, running inner-city missions in Philadelphia and Ohio and traveling as a guest speaker. Then he started having doubts about what he believed. He realized that he loved everything about Christian ministry except the Christianity. He is now a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. There he talks about leading a good life without God. And he is not alone. Secular humanist groups on college campuses are a growing trend.

The essence of Bart’s life, attitude, and “ministry” reflects a growing attitude I see all around me. In my own family, among my friends, and with people who are a part of my church and community, I hear, “I’m not sure if I need God to get on with my life” or “I’m not sure if God is really good.” I can easily see how people can get there. And,.I can see how I could get there too.

While it would be easy to quickly dismiss Bart Campolo and call him an apostate, maybe it would be better if we stopped and let his story get our attention, to use it as a wakeup call. I think there are a lot of Barts out there.

In response to this article in particular and the state of the North American church in general, a pastor friend of mine reflected: “This is why it is critical that communities committed to the basic fundamentals of orthodoxy get out of reaction-mode, unleash some assertive creativity and innovation in the spirit of the Spirit….become less politically aligned, more socially engaged and experiment with new ways to present the faith and live it out together.”

Yes! But, in his work, Bart Campolo is using everything he learned and developed while he was in Christian ministry. In fact, the Secular Humanist associations on college campuses basically try to copy Cru (Campus Crusade) and Intervarsity (both of which, in some sways, copied the early work of the YMCA). So, while I agree with my friend, I think something else needs to happen. For one, I believe we need something supernatural to occur, while being innovative (like another Great Awakening?), because there is more going on behind the scenes than we realize. I also believe we may need to go back to some much older ways of doing things.

One of the main things Bart Campolo is doing with young adults is being available. As Mark Oppenheimer says, “Perhaps these young adults are looking for a humanist community, but surely many of them just need a grown-up who isn’t grading them, isn’t interviewing them and wants to listen. ‘I don’t know these kids well,’ he [Campolo] says. ‘This is just what happens when you are available.’”

In my experience, for years churches have put pressure on their pastors to run successful programs. Some good has occurred in those programs. However, what do the leaders spend most of their time doing? If we are not available to love people, but instead are about building an institution then what? Today, people are tired of the church institution or get tired of the church entertaining them, and (to again return to Oppenheimer), “many of them just need a grown-up who isn’t grading them, isn’t interviewing them and wants to listen.”

My brother, Perry Glanzer,  is a professor at Baylor who regularly interviews candidates for his PhD program. On this issue he says, “I’ve encountered some of these students [who are a part of Secular Humanist associations] in my interviews, and it seems many of the groups talk more about what they’re against (which is not a very strong way to build a long-term group). I find it interesting that Campolo is trying to talk about the good life in secular form (e.g., friendship). I think that’s at least helpful for these students, although ultimately I think friendship needs something transcendent to really establish it.”

We need to teach and grab hold of the basic fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy and be innovative in how we do that. Maybe this means talking less about what we are against. It is these fundamentals that have eternal value and give life a healthy foundation. But perhaps we in the church need to work more at building relational bridges and being available. Investing in relationships is hard work and it can be risky. But eventually people (both young and old) will find themselves wanting to talk to someone who can offer them hope and love. Someone who can point them to Jesus–not just a theoretical Jesus, but a personal One–One who is willing to hold out His nail-pierced hands and let them touch Him and experience healing. When they are ready, who are they going to talk to? Who will stick by them even when they have doubts?

Bryan Glanzer received his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and has been involved in church leadership for 30 years.  He currently works with the Christian Eye Network.

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