A Dispatch from the Front Lines

Ian Oliver

I’m thinking of a scene in the 2009 film Agora – loosely based on struggles between Jews, Christians, and pagans in fourth-century Alexandria. It’s an awful and inaccurate film in many ways, but I’m a Patristics nerd, and we just don’t get very many big-budget movies about Late Antiquity. In the scene I’m thinking of, the high priest of Serapis and his lieutenant look down from the tower of the Serapeum as a gigantic crowd of Christians swarms the temple, and the lieutenant to the high priest says: “Since when were there so many Christians?”

On those relatively rare days when I feel a little low, working at Christian ministry at Yale, I imagine myself like that priest of the passing order, looking down from the tower of Battell Chapel, wondering: “Since when were there so many non-Christians?”

Dispensations Old and New

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I would’ve hated the old dispensation at Yale – a campus defined by white Protestant American male heterosexual privilege if ever there was one. Most of my friends and I wouldn’t have even been allowed through the gates. But on those days when I’m feeling a little whiney, a little put-upon (don’t we all feel a little bit that way, on occasion?), I can’t help but imagine a past gilded age of Christian unanimity when Christians didn’t have to explain themselves.

We’re in a different world today, though.

In 2012, before the fall semester began, I was asked to convene a group of incoming Yale Divinity students who didn’t fit – the “others” and the “nones.” As I told that group, I have watched demographic changes over the years, and they are not the outsiders. They are the future.

I believe I was invited to preach here in Marquand Chapel today because there is interest in a perspective on our religious future from a Christian working every day on Yale’s often very secular campus. In 25 years of chaplaincy, I’ve watched the number of cradle-Christians at my schools – those with two parents of one denomination and raised in that denomination – dwindle from hundreds, to a hundred, to a large handful.

Some people want to attribute this change to bad preaching, and, I must say, if that’s the case I’m probably personally responsible for a good part of the decline.

But those who look at the actual numbers say that the change was a perfectly predictable result of the creation of the world our founding mothers and fathers dreamed of – a post-traditional world where a Baptist could marry a Mormon, and a Jew could marry a Buddhist.

Add to this our constant mobility, and you get a lot of 18-year-olds with very mixed religions.

That Ship has Sailed

My many lifelong Presbyterian or Episcopalian students from days of old have been replaced by hundreds of sort of Episco-Presby-Pente-gationalists and hundreds of others who may have only grazed a religion or two along the way. Many others have been raised without any experience or knowledge of religion at all. I can spend all the time I like yearning for crowds of earnest Protestant youth, but that ship has sailed.

As I visit colleges from Georgia to Texas to Virginia, I see all the old labels breaking down. No matter what church leaders believe, Christian students are happily crossing the boundaries between evangelical, Catholic, black Baptist, and mainline without a care in the world. Though I was initially stern about this religious frivolity, I started to ask myself: “Well, who said you can’t do that?”

Looking down from my tower of nostalgia, I confess I am distracted by faces I recognize in the crowd of those who are blissfully mixing their religions. There’s that amazing gay student raised a Jehovah’s Witness who is wrestling with a Jesus he loves but a Jesus who is still implicated in the estrangement he feels from his family. There’s the evangelical student who was transfixed by a service trip to Central America but whose father now accuses him of being a Communist. There’s another – Catholic by background, captivated by Young Life in high school, and now converting to Judaism because of a relationship.

They don’t fit my old categories. Each one is almost an ethnography in him- or herself. They are creating their own identities in ways that sometimes worry me, but the freedom and joy in their journeys are unmistakable.

“I Make All Things New”

The old labels were comfortable – they sorted the world into manageable chunks. I do still have those grumpy days when I want to say: “You can’t just read about, say, the Mennonites, in a book and decide to be one.” There’s a whole culture there to be imbibed at the breast, an honored history, and at least several hundred hymns to be memorized.

But the one on the throne sings: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Charles Taylor has written in his magnum opus, A Secular Age, that sometime in the last couple of hundred years, we in the West crossed a line between a world in which it was presumed that you would be religious and a world in which it is presumed that you will not be.

Whatever the causes, and most of them were not theological, the exit door opened for folks who were never really sure why they were in church in the first place.

Whether it was the excesses of Christians in politics, the clergy sexual abuse crisis, or the alternative weekend option of youth soccer leagues, many people no longer feel it’s expected of them to go to church. Even some of my most devoted evangelical students have come back to tell me: “I just can’t go to church any more.”

For those of us from the old mainline Protestant establishment in America, this means that we are no longer in charge.


But I’m here today to say: We haven’t run out of wine, we’ve just run out of old wineskins to try to pour it in.

The good news is that the burden of trying to somehow square American culture with Christian faith has been lifted from our shoulders. We Christians no longer own America, and no longer have to twist our faith to accommodate its contradictions.

The good news is that there are lots – lots and lots – of people who respond with joy and relief to the Good News of the gospel. People who feel lost in an amoral society whose only true gods are money and entertainment.

The good news is – and this will get me in trouble, I know – there are lots of people who want to be Christian, but not so many for whom the fine points of Calvinism vs. Arminianism seem to matter. In my long-ago ordination exam, a beloved elder said to me: “Assume I know nothing about Christianity or Judaism, and then tell me in five minutes in language I can understand why you are a Christian.” That’s a magnificent question I’m still working on.

God’s Grace Is Enough

In Acts 20:22-32, St. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem, stopping at his churches along the route, sharing his uncertainties. He doesn’t know what will happen in Jerusalem, but he’s pretty sure it won’t go well. To the elders of the church in Ephesus, he says: I’m not sure what’s coming. But if my reception along the way is any indication – it’s probably accusations and trials and possibly prison. All I want to do is testify to the good news of God’s grace. If I can fulfill my ministry – none of the rest matters. Keep watch over the church, which the Holy Spirit put you in charge of. Shepherd the church, which was created in Christ’s blood. Yes, bad things will happen. You will be attacked. People in your own church will divide you. So, I commend you to God, and to the message of God’s grace, which will see you through.

Today, Christians are not persecuted in America. Losing our majority position in the culture is not persecution. We are leaving a world where our voice was the only one, and entering a world where our voice is but one among many.

But we do well to listen to Paul’s injunctions to the elders of Ephesus: We don’t know what will happen. We will certainly be misunderstood and misrepresented. But the message of God’s grace is enough.

There are those who will divide the church, who will point to this or that historical accretion and urge us to purify the gospel and so regain our lost place of privilege.

But people aren’t leaving the church because it’s not authentically Christian enough. They’re leaving because Christians have finally convinced them by our behavior that Christianity is irrelevant to their struggles.

The old wineskins are dear to us. We shouldn’t let go of them too easily. But what if the buildings, denominations, and beloved old ways of doing things were more about American culture of a particular time than they were about the gospel? As any pastor knows who has spent years in a parish, when you leave you have to let go of programs you gave your life to and trust that the Spirit will sustain what is right and good, and the rest will become blessed memories.

The Right Side of History

Voices will certainly rise that will urge us to adapt anew to the American culture of a new time – but that’s just making the same mistake all over again. A new, trendier, entrepreneurial version of worshipping Serapis is still on the wrong side of history. The gospel of Jesus Christ stands over against popular culture, always challenging the forms we construct to make Jesus fit our cultural assumptions. We must meet Jesus the stranger again, whose message of liberation is always outside our methods and plans.

In the movie Agora again, there is a scene where Davus, a slave, meets a Christian and asks him how he performed a miracle. The man takes him into the church and says: I will show you a miracle. He digs into the slave’s bag and finds loaves of bread. He puts the bread in the slave’s hands and says: Give it to them – pointing to the crowds of poor people in the church. The slave resists, saying: It is my master’s bread.

But the Christian presses him: Look at their faces, give it to them.

Slowly at first, but with increasing fervor, Davus presses the bread into the hands of the poor, who bless him and thank him in return. This is the miracle – a slave feeding the poor. We will not regain this Christianity, as Rachel Held Evans has written, by hiring a youth pastor who wears skinny jeans or by creating a church Instagram account.

“Since when are there so many Christians?” Since Christ said to the slaves and the poor – you are God’s beloved. Since the church put bread into the hands of slaves to give to the starving. By the conduct of our lives, by the depth of our communities, by our willingness to name the slaveries and delusions under which we and our neighbors suffer, by hard work and hard thinking – by these alone will we convince others that Christ still speaks and God still frees slaves.

Ian Oliver is Pastor of the University Church and Senior Associate Chaplain for Protestant Life at Yale University, where he is also advisor to the Disciples/UCC student group and a section facilitator for the introductory preaching course at YDS. He has also been chaplain at Bucknell University and Kodaikanal International School in India. This article is adapted from a sermon he gave at Marquand Chapel at YDS in October 2013. In a new book, College and University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century (Skylight Paths, 2013), edited by Lucy Forster-Smith, he contributed an essay called “In Coffin’s Pulpit: Re-envisioning Protestant Religious Culture.”