Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Abdullah: An Introduction to Receptive Ecumenism

I remember how cold it was, the mountain air biting at our faces as we waited for transportation. At least I wasn’t alone. Less than a year into my Peace Corps experience in rural Morocco I had received the blessing (by the grace of God) of a true friend.

Mohamed was a bright and principled young man from humble beginnings – Moroccan, Berber, Muslim. He studied law at the local university, though he had little chance of actually finding a job after graduation. In Morocco either you had money and could buy your way into extending that privilege or you didn’t, translating into a hard life of sustenance and survival (education notwithstanding).  Despite his family’s struggles, Mohamed was always positive, even playful, a trait that warmed my heart on cold days like these.

It all happened in a moment. A small group of teenage boys began to laugh and point. Mohamed and I turned to see the object of their amusement. I will never, for the rest of my life, forget what I saw.

It was Abdullah.

A living portrait of abject poverty, Abdullah’s hair was matted and unkept, his skin darkened and scabbed from constant exposure, his teeth rotten and abscessed. His pants were stained and tattered. A broken sandal flopped loosely on one foot, swollen and black. The other foot was bare, trudging through the fresh snow, tender and red. And in a final measure of unfathomable despair, Abdullah wore no shirt, no coat, his sunken torso exposed to the wind and the cold.

Frozen with shock, in what seemed like an eternity, I stood, slack-jawed and dumb. And while I did nothing, while the adolescents mocked, I witnessed one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. Mohamed, without meditation or delay, sprang up, walked directly toward Abdullah, removed his jacket, placed it around Abdullah’s shoulders, whispered gently into his ear, and guided him down the road.

I have reflected on that story for over 15 years and I can barely hold back the tears now.  It would have been enough if the story ended there. But the most amazing part is that Mohamed didn’t own another jacket. After giving his coat away in a moment of uncalculated compassion, Mohamed went the rest of the winter without a coat.

This event changed me. It challenged me. It haunted me. 

It was like the Jesus that I was reading about in Scripture was right there, alive and well, in the life of one who did not even acknowledge his divinity. It gave me my first undeniable encounter of the hidden Christ, disguised in “the other.” It forever dismantled my simplistic caricatures that assumed (somehow) that God only works in Christians, and perhaps more pointedly, in Christians like me.

I believe that this event marks the beginning of a journey that I continue to travel today – a road recently described as “receptive ecumenism.”[1] By opening my heart to “the other” I can see what I can learn. With humility and self-criticism, I can acknowledge my own shortcomings (and that of my religious tradition) without losing my unique identity as a Catholic, as a Christian, as a human being. I can, with the full authority of the Church, “reject nothing of what is true and holy in [the other]” while maintaining my unique confidence in Jesus Christ.[2]

“I was naked and you gave me clothing,” Jesus said.[3] Lord, open my eyes to see you where I least expect it. Lord, open my heart to love you in the broken and downtrodden. Lord, open my mouth that I might proclaim your goodness wherever it is found. Amen.

[1] See Paul D. Murray, ed., Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008).
[2] Nostra aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), 2.
[3] Mt 25:36.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reformational Catholicism

“Are you Catholic or Christian?” It’s one of those questions that grate on my conscience like nails on a chalkboard. I know what they’re getting at. What they mean to say is, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” But what if those classic dividing lines aren’t so clear anymore? Particularly in light of such ecumenical advances as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, many in the Church are suggesting that Luther’s protests are over.[1]

At a recent conference on “The Future of Protestantism,” Peter Leithart cast a bold and provocative vision: “The Reformation isn’t over. But Protestantism is, or should be. . . It’s time to envision a new way of being.”[2] Leithart, a committed Presbyterian pastor and theologian who holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, isn’t conceding all Protestant protests – he still rejects papal claims, demands that all tradition must be judged by Scripture, doesn’t venerate the Host or ask for the intersession of Mary – but he is suggesting a "new way of being heirs of the Reformation", both embracing and reforming the entire body of Christ. What does he call this new way?

Reformational Catholicism.

So what’s the difference between classical Protestants and Reformational Catholics? Let’s look at some of the key features (according to Leithart):

Differences vs. Common Ground
·      Classical Protestants are primarily defined by their rejection of Catholic claims and practices. “Protestantism is a negative theology,” Leithart says. “A Protestant is a not-Catholic.” They focus on historical differences such as purgatory, devotion to Mary, the veneration of the Eucharist, intercession of the saints, and the authority of the Pope.
·      Reformational Catholics are largely defined by their celebration of common ground with the Roman Catholic Church – the creedal formulations of the early church, the Scriptures, the Trinity, the centrality of Jesus Christ (Solus Christus), salvation by grace alone (sola gratis) and the urgent priority of evangelization.

Continuity vs. Reform
·      Classical Protestants focus on outdated Roman Catholic claims about changelessness and rigid stability.
·      Reformational Catholics understand that Catholicism is constantly reforming – Ecclesia semper reformanda – “The Church is always to be reformed.” Without changing its essential foundations, the Church (and the gospel it proclaims), must necessarily change in form and expression to engage the constantly changing contexts of culture and history. In order to remain the same, the Church must constantly change.

Either/Or vs. Both/And
·      Classical Protestants don’t regard Catholics as Christians.
·      Reformational Catholics acknowledge Catholics as brothers and sisters and strive to proclaim the overwhelming unity of the faith shared by Protestant and Catholic traditions.

Individual vs. Communal
·      Classical Protestants emphasize individual salvation and the Church as an instrument to that end.
·      Reformational Catholics understand salvation as an inherently social and communal process and understand the Church as a constitutive element of redemptive history.

Heroes and Heroines
·      Classical Protestants champion Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli. If any church history is acknowledged before the Reformation, it is largely for the purpose of highlighting Catholic folly or justifying contemporary Protestant views as extant fact.
·      Reformational Catholics warmly receive the history of the entire Church – from Jesus to John Paul II, from Basil to Bonhoeffer.  “A Reformational Catholic knows some of his ancestors were deeply flawed but won’t delete them from the family tree,” Leithart states.[3]

Institutional Church vs. Spiritual Church
·      Classical Protestants are wary of the concrete, structural and public dimensions of Church (often decrying the “post-Constantinian fall”).
·      Reformational Catholics recognize the fallenness of institution but also maintain the necessity of public witness for the Church’s mission to proclaim Christ to all peoples.

Biblical Interpretation: Private vs. Corporate
·      Classical Protestants revel in historical-critical methodologies while placing the interpretive center of gravity on individual interpretation.
·      Reformational Catholics celebrate the rich treasure of biblical interpretation through the ages, honoring what G.K. Chesterton referred to as “the democracy of the dead”.[4]

Liturgy and the Sacraments: Yeah or Nay
·      Classical Protestants are suspect or even hostile to liturgical rites and sacramental forms. A sacrament is only a catalyst for memory.
·      Reformational Catholics embrace the physical, sensate world as a natural (although not exclusive) avenue by which God’s presence is revealed to us. A sacrament is a special occasion for experiencing God’s saving presence.

The jury is still out on whether Leithart’s dialectics will find traction in the wider Church. I certainly know that there are more than two camps here and I'm not versed enough in the phenomenon to make a judgment myself. But the concept of Reformational Catholicism seems to tip its hat to the growing frustration with intra-ecclesial squabbles and the dawning intuition that in order to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, his body (the “whole Christ” as Augustine used to put it) needs to do it together.[5]

[1] See my February 21, 2014 post, “History is Made (And I’m Speechless),” at:
[2] See R.R. Reno’s article, “The Future of Catholicism,” at:
[3] Peter Leithart, “The End of Protestantism,” First Things (November 8, 2013) accessed May 21, 2014 at:
[4] In his classic text, Orthodoxy, Chesterton quipped, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes – our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
[5] Emile Mersch, The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1938/2011).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I Have A Dream

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of freedom, equality and racial reconciliation. In 1979, Pope John Paul II quietly voiced his dream of the “new evangelization,” that the Catholic Church would build a civilization of love through a new ardor, new methods and new expressions of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.[1] And in our time, right here in our midst, Pope Francis has captured the world by his dream for the lowly, the lost, and the people of God sworn to serve them.

Many have called Pope Francis’ breathtaking exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), his “I have a dream” speech. In it he shares his dream of a servant church, overflowing with the joy that comes from authentic encounters with Jesus. “I dream,” he says:
  • . . . of an evangelizing community that gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives. . . of evangelizers that take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. (24)
  • . . . of a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets. (49)
  • . . . of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world. (27)
In 1970, Jim Rayburn, in his final message to Young Life staff, communicated “the big dream” – that every teenager of every class, every color, and every ethnic group around the world would know the truth about Jesus Christ and have the opportunity to make their own choice about Him. In his farewell “I have a dream” speech, Rayburn called “a group of people, bound together in the single-minded purpose that there’s no price too high to pay to see to it that young people have a chance to know the Savior.”[2]

The big dream of Young Life remains the same today. Our dream is that every kid, everywhere would have the opportunity to know Jesus Christ and follow Him. It’s not just what Young Life is about, “that’s all that Young Life’s about,” as our founder would say. Today Young Life staff and volunteers are reaching 1.4 million kids around the world, and our “Reaching a World Of Kids” initiative plans to reach 2 million kids by 2016.[3]

Young Life and the Catholic Church. It could not be any clearer to me that our hearts beat with the same passion.[4] “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences,” Pope Francis says, “it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ.”[5] Jim Rayburn spoke with the same mind 50 years ago saying:

There are millions of them in our own nation, and they are waiting for somebody to care about them enough to take the time and trouble to pour out compassion on them, to prove their friendship, to bridge this tragic and terrible gap that exists in our culture between teenagers and adults – to emulate the example of Jesus Christ.”[6]

The time is now to bring the dreams together. It's time to realize that we are one people, called by the one Savior, bound by the same single-minded dream. It's time to seize the audacious dreams of Young Life and the Catholic Church to reach a world of kids with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this era when roughly 5.6 billion people on our planet are estranged from a friendship with Christ, the time for dreaming big dreams is upon us.
“When we dream alone, we only dream.
When we dream together, reality begins.”
~Brazilian Proverb

Are you ready to dream together? Then take my hand and let the new reality begin.

[1] Pope John Paul II first articulated his dream of the “new evangelization” in a little-known June 1979 address in Nowa Hutta, Poland. See Scott Hahn, Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), 21.
[2] Listen to Rayburn’s “The Big Dream” address at:
[3] Learn more about Young Life’s Reaching a World Of Kids (RWOK) initiative at:
[4] See my 2013 article, “Beating With One Heart: Young Life & the Catholic Church,” on Young Life’s staff resources or email me for a copy (
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 49.
[6] Kit Sublett (ed.), The Diaries of Jim Rayburn, Colorado Springs, CO: Morningstar Press, 2008, xviii.

Monday, May 12, 2014

You Lost Me

If the church has become a clearinghouse for programs and events, the question becomes, “What are we to do about it?” Many of you have asked, “So what do you propose?” Fair question. If I’m going to level a critique of the church and its pastoral practices, then I’d better be prepared to put some skin in the game.

It was probably no small coincidence that in preparing for my trip last week I threw David Kinnaman’s new book in my bag. Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Group, (as most of you well know) a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. He also co-authored the 2007 best-seller unChristian, a somber and intriguing examination of how “outsiders” view Christianity, a YL staple and a must-read for anyone interested in reaching the unreached.[1]

Kinnaman’s latest book explores the other side of the coin: What do “insiders” think about Christianity, those that were brought up in the Christian faith, those who, in increasing numbers, are leaving the church today?  The title borrows from the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of Christians surveyed:

You Lost Me.

·      59% of young adults raised Christian have completely “dropped out” of the church.[2]
·      There’s a 43% drop in church engagement between the teen and young adult years.[3]
·      While teenagers are some of the most religiously active Americans, twentysomethings are the least religiously active.[4]

Why? Well, that’s the million-dollar question. There’s not a single answer or even a set of nice-n-neat bullet points on the matter. As Barna researchers regularly reiterated, “every story matters,” and every story is different.

But there are some themes and they’re worth our reflection. Why are Christians leaving the church? Here’s a start:
  •        Easy platitudes, proof texting and formulaic slogans (the church is shallow)
  •        Defensive attitudes toward culture, innovation and “the other” (the church is entrenched, naval-gazing and fixated on differences)
  •        Faith in a silo, disconnected from the world around us and God’s personal call within us (the church is anti-science and dis-integrated from my vocation)
  •        No room for doubt and questions (the church is not a nurturing environment for the long journey through life’s deepest questions)

Christian young people feel stifled, ignored, dumbed-down, disintegrated and mass-produced. They’re caught in a mechanistic and over-programmed paradigm that treats them like a number and misses their story altogether. We’ve got a massive, well-documented dropout problem here and the church is struggling to respond.

So What’s the Answer?
The thing that’s interesting about the diagnosis (feel free to examine Barna’s research yourself if you like) is that the prescription is the same. I’m not one for simplistic answers but the “simplicity on the far side of complexity” is remarkably constant. The answer to the problem is RELATIONSHIP.

The relational element is so strong because relationship is central to disciple-making – and, as we’ve said, the dropout problem is, at its core, a disciple-making problem. . . God-centered relationships create faithful, mature disciples.[5]

For every symptom of the dropout problem, there is a relational antidote:
  • Our overprotective and exclusive tendencies must be mediated by relational engagement and participative discernment of “the other” in a diverse and ever-changing world.
  • Our shallow and simplistic slogans must be grounded in authentic encounters with Jesus Christ and transformative religious experience of the faithful community.
  • Our formulas must give way to the faithful pursuit of questions sought together with wise and caring adults.
  • Our mass-produced, one-size-fits-all approach must be remedied by personalized, attentive apprenticeship in the fine art of following Jesus.
“Disciples cannot be mass-produced.
Disciples are hand-made, one relationship at a time.”[6]

I will continue to unpack the pastoral implications of a fully relational and incarnational model of discipleship in future posts but I think Kinnaman is onto something. If there’s one thing that I’m convinced of about the future of the church it is the centrality of dedicated, intentional relationships between young Christians and their elders. It is spending time, and big chunks of it, with the next generation, passing down the faith like Jesus did, one relationship and one story at a time.

“The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans
and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel.”
~ Pope Francis

[1] See David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . And Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007). Their findings? Outsiders most readily viewed Christians as hypocritical, sheltered, antihomosexual, judgmental, too political and fixated on personal salvation.
[2] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church. . . And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 23.
[3] Ibid, 22.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 206.
[6] Ibid, 13.