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Richard J. Mouw: We're all in missionary situations now

Recent studies confirm that Protestant values are no longer embedded in the culture, says the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. And that has profound implications for how we understand the church and its ministries.

November 20, 2012

A recent Pew study showing that America is no longer a majority-Protestant nation was not a surprise but is nevertheless a wake-up call for the church today, said Richard Mouw.

"We're all in missionary situations now," said Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. "Protestant values and biblical lore are no longer embedded in the culture. That has profound implications for how we understand the church and how we configure its life and ministries."

Perhaps the greatest challenge involves the church's teaching ministries and the need to instruct people in the basics of Christianity, he said.

"People know more about superheroes than they do about Adam or Jesus," he said.

Mouw joined the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1985 and has served as its president since 1993. Before that he was a professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

He was at Duke Divinity School as a featured lecturer at the 2012 Convocation & Pastors' School and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently found that Protestants are no longer a majority in America. What do you make of that?

It is a wake-up call. We sort of knew that was happening, but now we've got hard numbers that we have to face. More than half of our fellow citizens do not subscribe to anything like the religious convictions that we share.

We knew there was a lot of biblical illiteracy and that people aren't well trained in religion, but now we're finding that it's even more basic than that. We can't assume a fund of common knowledge. That's a big thing.

Like many, I have been influenced by Lesslie Newbigin, who left the British Isles as a missionary to India, and then he comes back home after a couple of decades and says, "I thought I was sent by a Christian culture to a pagan culture, but I've come back to a culture that is as pagan."

We're all in missionary situations now. Protestant values and biblical lore are no longer embedded in the culture. That has profound implications for how we understand the church and how we configure its life and ministries.

That has new challenges for preaching, but especially for catechesis, the teaching ministries of the church. We have to instruct people in the basics of Christianity.

People know more about superheroes than they do about Adam or Jesus, and we need to make sure that the fundamental content of the Christian religion is taught and that we build upon that for instruction and broader patterns of discipleship. It's a complex catechetical task that we face in the church today.

Q: You've said before that the church is often too inwardly focused and should be more concerned about issues out in the world and the broader flourishing of human beings. Tell us about that.

I think there is a danger for us to want to maintain systems. We've seen in leadership studies that there is a certain kind of leadership that is willing to make little adjustments here and there in order to preserve the status quo, and there are other kinds of leadership that look at broader patterns and how institutions need to change.

The standard example is Kodak. As long as they saw their mission as selling material to make hard-format photographic images rather than images in other forms, they were failing.

The church too has that tendency at times to preserve the status quo: "Well, that doesn't fit the rules" or, "We can't do that, because it isn't the way our traditions have defined things."

But some new kinds of churches are saying if we're going to be a vital community of disciples, then we have to think in new ways about worship, our space -- the nature and mission of the church. Some of the most successful are those that empower people for ministry beyond the walls of the church, out in the larger culture.

I often use as an example a devout Christian woman who evaluates scripts for Walt Disney Studios. She sees that as Christian service -- trying to find scripts that promote human flourishing and human health rather than those that degrade and that speak to our baser instincts.

So the question is, what does the church need to be in order to inspire and encourage and equip her for that kind of ministry?

Are there ways in which we as Christians can really reflect on what genuine human flourishing means?

Think of all the things out there: classrooms, stadiums, theaters, playgrounds. Are there ways in which we can think about social media? People are processing information and establishing relationships in different ways, and how can we do that in ways that promote human flourishing, in a way that honors God's creating purposes for human beings?

When a person is designing a stadium, how does he think about what promotes community, what creates barriers between people, those kinds of questions?

Even eating together -- a very fundamental human activity -- is formative for human character. Can a stadium encourage people to enjoy food together rather than simply get their hot dogs and eat their shelled peanuts without paying attention to anybody else?

Q: So how can the church help people ask those kinds of questions and equip them to play that kind of role?

The question is, what does it mean to help? It doesn't mean that a pastor has to be an expert on architecture, but one thing is just to say to an architect in the congregation, "I'd like to mention you some Sunday, and I'd like to ask your fellow parishioners to pray for you. What are some ways they could pray for you?"

In a sense, that person is being sent out as an agent of that congregation.

I go to a large Presbyterian congregation that's very close to Hollywood, and over half the people in our congregation have some kind of role in Hollywood -- running the cameras and the sound systems and the script production -- all kinds of things. One Sunday our pastor asked people who work in the entertainment industry to raise their hands, and about half the congregation did.

Then he asked the rest of us to place a hand on these people and to pray for them, that God would give them guidance and strength and courage to serve the kinds of principles and concerns that our God glorifies. There were some Hollywood people there who were brought to tears by that.

Q: What is the future of Christian education for church leaders? How do we go about equipping clergy with scripturally based pastoral imagination?

I don't think the answer is for the sermon to become a lecture on public policy, health care, taxation, whatever. But it could be to say that thinking about those things is very important for the Christian community, and after the service have an hour where maybe a Republican and a Democrat or somebody who deals with taxation share their views of how Christianity guides them.

Not "my policy versus your policy" but "what is it as a Christian that I think about when I think about taxation?" Is it something in the Bible? Is it Romans 13? What is it?

And have a dialogue, so that we go away knowing that the church is saying it's a good thing for us collectively to think about before we go into the voting booth. Or maybe have somebody at Disney or somebody in a hedge fund talk about their work and how they struggle with being a Christian, so that it becomes a part of the consciousness of the church.

When I was a kid, the pastor typically would pray for the elderly or for women in childbirth but seldom for, say, single people who were struggling with loneliness or women who were depressed after childbirth or people who were having struggles with their teenage kids -- or for the teenage kids.

One of the most inspiring things that I experienced as a kid was when I attended a Billy Graham meeting in Madison Square Garden in 1957. It was youth night, and Billy Graham said, "You young people out there, the issues that you worry about and you think about are as important as the issues that any adult thinks about."

I'd never heard anybody say that in a religious setting before. That was very encouraging to me. I've always loved Billy Graham. I felt like all he had to do was say that, and I thought, "Here's a guy who understands."

I think the hedge fund operator and the person at Disney would like to know that the church at least understands and wants them to carry their faith over into work, even if it's a very difficult and complex thing to do.

Q: What should seminaries be doing to prepare the kind of pastors who can do what you're talking about and can help foster flourishing communities?

Seminaries ought to at least know what the questions are.

Say a psychologist reading Galatians sees that stuff about "if somebody falls into sin, this is the way you should deal with that" or "the sins of the flesh are like this, and the fruits of the Spirit are like this." In seminary, you need to acknowledge that these are important questions, and I think some of that gets done, but what would you do if you were a counselor?

Or suppose you were working in the film business or writing a script for a situation comedy. What would be the kinds of things that studying the Torah would do for you as you think about those kinds of questions?

Those issues have to be there for us. One of the complaints that I've often gotten is that seminary education really doesn't address, not just questions of church life, but also other questions, say the questions that seminarians face as husbands and wives going through difficult times, or the study of culture.

Rob Bell taught a preaching course at Fuller in a doctor of ministry program and assigned the material ahead of time. He assigned books for the students to read, but he also assigned two hours of watching Ellen DeGeneres do stand-up comedy.

When the pastors got there, they said, "Why did you make us do that?"

He asked them, "What did people laugh at? Why did they laugh? What kind of pauses? Was she reading from a script? If she had to do that again the next day, would it be pretty much the same, even though it doesn't sound like she memorized it?"

Then he told them, "She can hold the attention of people for well over a half-hour. If you want to hold the attention of people, you had better be studying Ellen DeGeneres."

That's a very good exercise, to look at a sitcom and ask, what does this tell us about the world that we're going to be preaching and pastoring in? How is it shaping a new generation? What are the sorts of things that we need to keep in mind if they've been watching "Big Bang Theory"?

Why does this attract people of your generation? What is it? There has to be more of that sort of cultural sensitivity.

Q: You said in your lecture earlier today that church is a "beholding community." What do you mean?

Well, I think more and more I'm enamored with the visual -- how we see things. I like the idea of a worldview but also just seeing things.

When I was a little kid, the Sunday school song that we sang and were taught to sing -- "Be Careful, Little Eyes, What You See" -- I always thought of that as a kind of negative, pietistic thing. But the more I've thought about it, the more it seems to me it's saying, "For the Father up above is looking down in love," and we should be seeing things as God sees them, at least within our capacity as human beings -- seeing things through the eyes of Jesus.

And there are these wonderful places in the Gospel where it says, "and Jesus looked at the person" or "Jesus saw that person," and it's not about eye contact or something as trivial as that, but it's about what's at the center of God's vision is often on the margins of ours, and what's on the margins of God's vision is often our center and those kinds of things. And so I'm convinced that there's a kind of seeing that goes beyond surfaces.

I did this conference on civility recently and quoted Thérèse of Lisieux, who was in a convent. She loved Jesus and she would constantly write about Jesus and to Jesus in her diaries as a young nun.

And at one point she says "There's this nun. I can't stand her but I decided to look at her the way Jesus looks at her, and I realize that he created her and every artist wants other people to appreciate his work of art, and I decided to look at her as a work of divine art."

What would the artist want us to see? To me that's a wonderful kind of little guideline of seeing things, getting beyond surfaces and trying to see things through the eyes of the Creator and the Savior.