John Mark Comer: Who Killed American Christianity?
John Mark Comer: I'm John Mark Comer and I choose truth over tribe.
Patrick Miller: Are you tired of tribalism?
Speaker 1: I think a lot of what the left supports is Satanic.
Speaker 2: The only time religious freedom is invoked, is in the name of bigotry and discrimination.
Patrick Miller: Are you exhausted by the culture war?
Speaker 5: If they don't like it here, they can leave.
Speaker 6: You could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.
Patrick Miller: Are you suspicious of those who say Jesus endorses their political party?
Speaker 3: Is it possible to be a good Christian and also be a member of the Republican Party? And the answer is absolutely not.
Speaker 4: From certainly a biblical standpoint, Christians could not vote Democratic.
Patrick Miller: We trust the Lamb; not the donkey or the elephant.
Patrick Miller: This is the podcast that's too liberal for conservatives, and too conservative for liberals.
Patrick Miller: I'm Patrick Miller.
Patrick Miller: And I'm Keith Simon. And we choose Truth over Tribe.
Patrick Miller: Do you? The other day, someone asked me if I wear all black all the time, because of John Mark Comer. And the answer is yes. In his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, he unpacks spiritual disciplines which are designed to cultivate a God- ward life. Now, many of these things are common; prayer, meditating on God's word, but many of them are ancient, and virtually forgotten by modern evangelicals. One of those is simplicity, and that's why I wear all black. It means I own far less clothing, I make far fewer decisions, I don't go on shopping sprees. There's not too many black tees out there to buy, they're all pretty much the same. And that helps me focus my attention on God; not how I look. Now, all of this might strike you as really strange, why am I talking about this? Why was he talking about that? But you have to understand that John Mark is living in the least religious city in the United States, Portland. He planted a church there, Bridgetown Church, which has reached a lot of people. And through his work as a pastor and now as a teacher and a writer for Practicing The Way. He's come to understand that, we as Christians, we have to get that our cultural moment is shaping us; and we have to be able to resist that, and have practices that resist it. And one of the ways we do that is by cultivating biblical disciplines. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you might know him, but just in case you don't, he lived during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. And he was one of the few Christians who actually resisted. He established an underground seminary, which practiced radical spiritual disciplines. He had a friend who was really critical of him, because he said, " All of that stuff is extreme, normal people can't do it." So, Bonhoeffer, he takes him down to a nearby river. He rows him across the river, walks him up a hill, and he shows him below them a huge number of Nazi troops, which are marching in formation and training. Bonhoeffer said to his friend, " There is no hope of resistance if they are disciplined while we are lax. We must follow Jesus with more passion than those soldiers follow Hitler." The same is true for us, in a different way, in our own secular world. We have to count the cost of following Jesus, and we have to resist the lies and the allure of secularism. Our enemies today aren't a military force or a political regime. What are they? One, John Mark's forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, he answers that question. In this interview, we explore the cultural tectonic shifts, which are making resistance to secularism and faithfulness to Jesus more challenging than ever before. We're going to hit the topics of what does evangelical mean in this current moment? And how do we think through the problem of celebrity culture and Christianity? We'll actually look at the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, if you've been tracking with that podcast. Here's the deal, these conversations are incredibly important. Christians need to be having them; and John Mark is one of the best guides out there. So let's hop in.
Patrick Miller: Thanks so much for being on the show today.
John Mark Comer: It's an absolute joy. I love the heart behind this podcast. Happy to contribute.
Patrick Miller: I'm just pumped to talk to you. I'm sure at some point in your writing, you talked about how you started following Jesus, but I think I missed it because I think I've read all your books and I don't know the story.
John Mark Comer: No, I don't think I have.
Patrick Miller: Oh, okay. I was so embarrassed to ask because like, inaudible" Didn't you read it in this book, you said you had now?"
John Mark Comer: No, I don't have a dramatic story... you tend to tell me-
Patrick Miller: Okay, let's just move on.
John Mark Comer: ... there'slike really dramatic. No, my parents were both first- generation followers of Jesus, came to faith in the Jesus Movement in California, in the 1960s,'70s. My dad crosstalk stories-
Patrick Miller: Okay, so like hippie Jesus.
John Mark Comer: No, they weren't hippie.
Patrick Miller: Not that? Okay.
John Mark Comer: My dad played in a rock band, but early Beatles rock band. Matching suits and started doing music for soundtracks, stuff like that, That late'60s, early'70s Beatles. And he was playing in a rock band in California and his girlfriend, full on, invited him to a Billy Graham crusade in the Bay Area. Went to the stadium just to be around the girl, sat in the back row, said he would never in a million years go for it. And then" Found myself walking down the aisle to receive Christ." Ended up playing drums at one of the first megachurches in America, in Los Gatos, California, Los Gatos Christian Church, which is where I grew up and ended up becoming a pastor there. And so I just grew up in that ethos. It's not dramatic, my parents long ago made a very firm decision to put parenting ahead of pastoring in their priority list, so was just very strong family of origin, and there's never been a time that I can remember where I was not following Jesus.
Patrick Miller: That's a story I think we all want for our own children, so I'll take no drama in lots of people's lives.
John Mark Comer: It's a little anti- climactic, sorry.
Patrick Miller: No, it's actually really interesting because your story is this weird-
John Mark Comer: Notice that you asked how I came to be then I told the story of how my dad came to faith, because that's more interesting.
Patrick Miller: That's exactly right, you totally bypassed it.
John Mark Comer: You get hippies, California, rock and roll, girlfriend. You got all the things. I got nothing.
Patrick Miller: Let me tell you my father's story. Well, it's fascinating because that has such an amalgam of different aspects of evangelicalism. You've got a Billy Graham crusade, one of the first mega churches.
John Mark Comer: Which is very much a part of my story, getting saved into the evangelical mega church movement, but at the same time spending my whole life in the Bay Area and then Portland, Oregon on the West Coast, these super secular and sophisticated and progressive cultural contexts and navigating those two things. And to cut a long story short, jettisoning the evangelical framework while still holding to Christian orthodoxy, historic Christian orthodoxy. I'm very much an Orthodox Christian. I'm not a progressive, but I don't know that I'm a conservative either.
Patrick Miller: Well, that's what we always say, we're a little too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals. And I'm curious, you said you jettisoned evangelicals. Do you mean that you jettison the political baggage of evangelicalism or do you mean something more by that?
John Mark Comer: No, I think, I mean more. Again, these are non- biblical words, so you have to define them. And so I think my evolution was, grew up evangelical, then for a long time, I would not identify as evangelical, I would not self identify that way, because of all the cultural baggage. I think if you're a millennial, gosh, it's hard to have any good connotations behind that word at all. But if other people would call me that, I would not correct them because to say, " I'm not evangelical," for a time there, was to say, " I am a progressive." And I'm not. But then I think with the election of president Trump or somewhere around that time, it just shifted farther, and it became a full on political word. With that election, I remember that stat that went around, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. When you actually looked at the data, 80 something percent of that 80% was not at all a part of a church, never attended church, ever. And you're like, " Okay, so whatever that white evangelical is, is very different than the majority of white evangelical church that I grew up in," because I grew up in a church is very different. So now I don't have any loyalty to the label, it's not biblical. I think it's become a political pariah, but even at a theological, if you rewind to the glory days of evangelicalism, let's say William Wilberforce to John Stott, and that height of that movement both are heroes of mine. But still the only agreed upon definition I know of evangelicalism is Bebbington Quadrilateral. I said that right? Help me off the cuff. Remember it was crosstalk-
Patrick Miller: It's conversionism-
John Mark Comer: Yeah, personal conversion crosstalk Christoformity, emphasis on the cross, and justification by grace through faith, that view of atonement.
Patrick Miller: Activism.
John Mark Comer: Social activism, yep. And then what's the fourth one?
Patrick Miller: See, look at us struggling here.
John Mark Comer: Evangelism maybe? Evangelism I think.
Patrick Miller: There's the evangelism and it's biblical centrism.
John Mark Comer: Yes, inerrancy biblical authority. Yes. I remember reading that and thinking, " Oh, I'm not an evangelical," because-
Patrick Miller: Okay, which one?
John Mark Comer: Not because I don't really agree with those things. More because if you were to ask me to summarize what's come to be called Christianity in four things, those are probably not the four things I would pick.
Patrick Miller: Okay. Pick your four things.
John Mark Comer: Oh, I don't know. I'm not smart enough to even attempt that project.
Patrick Miller: There's not a John Mark Quadrilateral?
John Mark Comer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Can we do that?
Patrick Miller: All right. Those are three things.
John Mark Comer: inaudible.
Patrick Miller: We can go with that. No, it's interesting because if you trace where even your story starts with your dad, going to a Billy Graham crusade till today where you have people voting for Donald Trump who call themselves evangelicals, and don't go to church. They have no real walk with Jesus in their life seemingly, there's a big cultural shift that's happened. There was a recent Barna survey that found that 22% of millennial Christians have left their walk with Jesus. And there's another 30% that still identify as Christian, but are no longer connected to a faith community. Now they're 38% that still attend church at least once a month, but lack the core beliefs and practices of an intentional engaged disciple. And then the last one-
John Mark Comer: 8%? That's what you're coming for, right?
Patrick Miller: Yeah.
John Mark Comer: Keep it coming.
Patrick Miller: No, yeah. So you got that final 8% that are what they call, Barna calls resilient disciples, resilient followers of Jesus, who... these are people who would express trust in Jesus's sacrificial death for their sins, the resurrection for the restoration, they express a desire to transform society through their faith, and they attend church regularly. They have practices and they're wise, but what's remarkable is that it is such a tiny inaudible, we're talking about 22% have left their faith and under 10% have a resilient faith, so I'm just curious.
John Mark Comer: Am I right about this? That's not 8% of millennials. That's 8% of millennials who grew up in the church. Am I correct?
Patrick Miller: Yes. That's correct. That's correct. 8% in general.
John Mark Comer: Correct. Yes.
Patrick Miller: It's a tiny fraction. So what's...
John Mark Comer: And resilient disciples, these aren't saints and martyrs. These are just serious Christians.
Patrick Miller: The church qualification was at least once a month.
John Mark Comer: Yeah, exactly, which is not exactly martyrdom because that's not to critique it, It's wonderful. I'm just saying 8% of millennials that grew up in church are serious followers of Jesus. That's the data. And it's pretty similar actually really interesting across... They did 26 nations, and that number is pretty similar, even in nations that are farther down the secularization trend like Australia or-
Patrick Miller: How interesting.
John Mark Comer: ...or England or Germany. Yeah. They still come up with about as that similar number of 8%.
Patrick Miller: Now, is it different with non Western countries?
John Mark Comer: Yes. It's higher actually. So some of the highest rates of resilient disciples would be in Singapore, Kenya, parts of Southeast Asia, and Africa, and South America.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. It's fascinating. So most of our audience is American. So maybe we can talk about America specifically, but what do you think is happening in America? Why are so few millennials falling into this category of resilient disciples?
John Mark Comer: That's really the question of secularization, which is like a murder mystery. I think it's like Murder on the Orient Express where who killed Christian faith in America? Everybody. Not killed it, it's still alive, but who's responsible for secularism? Gosh, where do you even start? You got Darwin, you got the corruption of the church has played a massive role, you got Hollywood, you got Foucalt, and the French post- modernist, you got Freud, you have wealth, you have post- World War II, economic boom, you have suburbia, you have the pill, you have the sexual revolution. There's so many different... If the murder mystery thing, I don't know what to say. I know this, that the great hope of the global church right now is young people of color around the world. And that the church is exploding in Nigeria, and Kenya, and China, and Singapore, and more and more Malaysia and Brazil. So I know that's a great hope of the future, but I do think part of what's happened in America just to speak to what your podcast is about, is the politicization of everything. Lesslie Newbigin, I would imagine, I don't know, are you a fan, critic? I don't know what you think.
Patrick Miller: I'm a Lesslie Newbigin fan.
John Mark Comer: Myself too. So for those listening, he's a fun story. So Lesslie Newbigin, I couldn't be crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: You're already blowing a lot of people's minds because his name's Lesslie, and so they thought we were talking about a woman. They were like, "He?" Can you share a little bit about who he is for the audience?
John Mark Comer: He's British. He's British, it's like he could be named Shannon or Lesslie or whatever.
Patrick Miller: That's exactly right.
John Mark Comer: So, I could not quote from memory his birthdate and stuff, but he was a young Brit who became a missionary to India. I want to say he left England in the 1920s, don't quote me there. But sometime before World War II, was in India for decades, was used of God in an extraordinary way, came back, and gosh, don't quote me, but I think in his sixties. And legendary story, he and his wife packed all of their belongings in two suitcases, and took a bus home to England from India. So he's that kind of a guy-
Patrick Miller: They can make a Netflix movie out of that today.
John Mark Comer: He's brilliant, intellectual, and legit Jesus guy, follower of Jesus. So anyway, he came back in the sixties and seventies, and had this fresh set of eyes to see the impact of World War II on England, in particular and the West in general. And just how it accelerated secularization, and his basic take was, " Listen, England is just as non- Christian as India where I just spent the last 30 years. But yet we think about how to do church, and gospel evangelism, and evangelical language totally different in India or the developing world, than we do back home in England or America." And so he was the father in my mind of the missional movement, and learning to think intelligently about culture. He's very intelligent, very good writer, and his prediction, or I think it was a prophecy really, was that as America and the West secularized, that religion would not go away, that instead it would be transferred over on to politics. And he warned of the rise of what he calls the political religions. And we are living through the fulfillment of that prophecy on the right and on the left. One of the great challenges to me as a pastor, and again, I'm in Portland, our church is majority millennials, so those stereotypes bear up to data points of research. But meaning it's just overwhelmingly left here, but I grew up in cultures that were more right. And the great challenge as a pastor is that people's loyalty and allegiance seems to be to their political ideology of choice over the teachings of Jesus, the writings of the New Testament, and the historic Orthodox way of Christ. And it's a great challenge. So I think whenever the church plays chaplain to political ideology, there's a right version of this that we're very familiar with right now, and there's a left version of this that we're also very familiar with right now. It radically compromises the church's witness, and it turns people off to the beauty of Christ, and the beauty of the gospel. And I think that compromise... That's not the only culprit, but I think in the lineup of the suspects for who damaged the widespread Christian faith in America, I think that's a key part of it.
Patrick Miller: I think you're spot on. Bringing it back to people's personal experiences. And I talk to Christians today. Everybody I talk to feels embattled right now, whether they're on the right or they're on the left, they feel this deep sense of being embattled. Something has changed. I would say, even in the last four years, and obviously we've had a pandemic, so there's things that are happening outside of people's control. But it seemed like 15 years ago, you might meet individual Christians who felt embattled in a culture warrior type way, but they weren't necessarily the norm. You know plenty of Christians who didn't think that way. And these days it seems like it's most Christians I meet, they feel this deep sense of embattlement culturally. Why do you think we feel that way? Where's this feeling of, we're under fire, we're in the middle of a war, coming from?
John Mark Comer: I would say three things. One is the culture wars have ramped up to a frenetic pitch. And so the war between right and left, we all feel. And part of that is because people no longer get their identity from a religious identity or a familial identity. And so now identity is based for the most part in politics and in identity politics, so their race and gender and such. And that just creates this warring tribe against tribe, tribe coalition against a different tribal coalition. And so I think if your perception is, " It feels like we're living in a cultural war." That's accurate. Sociologists argue that this is the most divided our nation has been since the Civil War. Second reason I would say is the digital moment we're in amplifies that tension to the nth degree. So I always have this experience where I'm like, " If I never read the news, and I never went on social media, what would my view of America be?" Probably pretty great. But if you've traveled... A lot of times the utopianism on the left is just... I feel like nostalgia on the right and utopianism on the left is just exhausting. I'm like, " Have you people never traveled or read a history book?" If I didn't have the news, if I didn't have social media, it's great. It's summer right now. It's beautiful outside. I'm free. I can walk around. I can get a hamburger or whatever, but-
Patrick Miller: Hamburger, the true watermark of freedom.
John Mark Comer: True watermark of greatness, life is good, all right? We have access to hamburgers, but then you pick up your phone, or you read the news, or you go online and it's, " Everything's horrible. And this is the end of Western civilization, and the climate, everything's going to literally burn up. And our species is going to die off, and trees are going to inherit the earth." And all this stuff, because as much has been said about this, but the way Silicon valley engineered so many of these tools and apps, they're literally designed to magnify outrage, polarization, fear, paranoia, tribal thinking, catastrophizing. It's a business strategy, because our brain, and evolutionary psychologists would say, is wired to scan the horizon for threat. So the more threats you can put out there... It doesn't mean that climate change isn't a real problem, but you read the news, and you think like, " Five years from now, it's going to be Blade Runner, and we're not going to be able to breathe outside. And we're all going to die off. And human beings will be gone in 60 years." I'm reading the Overstory right now which won the Pulitzer prize, brilliant writing. But that's the view like, " You trees just have to hold on, because humans are all going to kill each other off in the next couple of decades." That's maybe a little bit extreme, maybe. So I'm not saying climate change isn't a problem. I'm saying the level that it's at. So that's the second reason I just think is the digital echo chamber of outrage, fear, paranoia.
Patrick Miller: There's an inching author, Jeff Bilbro. He wrote a book about how we should think about news theologically. And he talked about the process in England-
John Mark Comer: Wow.
Patrick Miller: ...how they would make roads, where we get our word tarmac from, is they take rocks, and they would crunch them down into tiny little bits. And then they would pile them on top of each other to create a road, it's called macadamizing a road. And he talks about how reading headlines constantly, having this constant stuff just firing at you left and right, it macadamizes your brain. It breaks your brain down into headline lanes. And as a result, it makes it easy for people who were propagandists, people who want power to just run right over the top of you, because you're not thinking-
John Mark Comer: Interesting.
Patrick Miller: ...long enough thoughts to actually engage with what they're saying. You're just caught up in the culture wars-
John Mark Comer: crosstalk system.
Patrick Miller: Absolutely. You're in that Olympics inaudible. You're afraid. You're terrified. But you were going to say a third thing.
John Mark Comer: Some of the most intelligent, but yet calm and joyful people I know have switched to a weekly news periodical like The Economist.
Patrick Miller: Oh, interesting.
John Mark Comer: Once a week, they'll sit down for two hours and read the news, and then they don't read any daily headlines at all.
Patrick Miller: Oh, I just read Twitter-
John Mark Comer: crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: ...for two hours every day. It really helps me and my loss of Jesus.
John Mark Comer: Exactly. That's great. Twitter, Facebook, however, it's just an accurate view of the world that calms your nervous system, and makes you just delight in the goodness of your life before God. And really just fills you with love for other people.
Patrick Miller: All of those things. That's why I do it every day. It keeps me level.
John Mark Comer: It makes us feel like it's not us versus them. We're just all in this together. So I'd say first reason is culture wars. Second is the digital amplification of the culture wars. And the third, which is what the bulk of my book is speaking to is in secularization, we no longer have what ancient Christians called, the three enemies of the soul, the world, the flesh, and the devil to fight against. And ironically, when you erase the ancient Christian category, and you think of the devil as a pre- modern myth from a pre- scientific age that foolish superstitious people used to believe in like talking snakes and all that nonsense crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: All the snakes are in my garden.
John Mark Comer: ...ha ha ha. Exactly. Don't you speak parseltongue? Isn't that what speaking in tongues is? Whatever.
Patrick Miller: It's what I always think of. This just shows what... Who I am. I remember the first time I read that, I had read Harry Potter first, and I'm like, " Oh, it's like parseltongue.
John Mark Comer: Exactly.
Patrick Miller: This is Voldemort,
John Mark Comer: Harry Potter-
Patrick Miller: He's right here in Genesis 3.
John Mark Comer: crosstalk is the skeptical generation on a literal interpretation of Genesis, but same with the flesh in a Freudian culture where everything's just about sensuality, and feeling good in the moment. Body- based pleasure is the new virtue. And then where the world is not even a category, once you erase those categories or just pass them off as from the dustbin of ancient Christian history, ironically, you're not left with a world without struggle, you still feel this struggle deep in your soul. But instead of fighting against the world, the flesh, and the devil, you end up fighting against Republicans, or Democrats, or this tribal group against that tribal group, or this economic problem, or that economic problem, or your career, or your coworker, or your boss or whatever. And this is where Paul's language is more provocative than ever before, " Our fight is not against flesh and blood." And what happens is when you don't believe in demons, you end up demonizing other people or entire groups of people. If you don't believe in an animating dark energy behind systemic evil, you end up thinking that politics and education will solve all of the world's problems. And then guess what? Politics and education don't solve all the world's problems. And so you have an entire generation that is freaking out on Twitter. I think those are three layers, I would say culture wars, digital amplification of culture wars, and then the misnaming of the struggle we all feel in our soul from the historic world, the flesh and the devil to a secular, " Man, our problems is just we need the right killer app, the right technology, science, the right person in office, the right political wealth redistribution, and then we're good." And it keeps not being good. It keeps not working. Utopia keeps not arriving.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. In your book, you mentioned three different ways that the ground is shifting underneath us, I think you called them tectonic shifts. You talked about the move from majority to minority. I'm curious, can you expand on that? What do you mean when you say that we've made a move as Christians from majority to minority?
John Mark Comer: Yeah. I'm just talking about the shifts as far as the church's place in American or Western culture that in some sense, date back to Voltaire and the American French revolution. So it's not like it's a new thing it's been happening for hundreds of years, but for a long time, these shifts were more located for elites. They didn't have pop culture really till the sixties, I would say. So if you're somebody like me, I'm born in 1980, even I have this different experience to being a Christian as a child than now. When I was a kid, Christians were weird. We were the people that don't have premarital sex, and we go to church on Sunday instead of camping or what. We were weird. And this was back when Christians used to go to church every week, but now we're bad. We now have the moral low ground crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: That's the second thing you talked about the shift-
John Mark Comer: We're a danger-
Patrick Miller: ...from honor to shame.
John Mark Comer: Yes. So I named three kinds of shifts in the book. The majority of the minority, meaning the bulk of the population used to be quasi Christian, now we're down to... We don't have firm numbers, each city would be very different. But the Barna study again, 8% of millennials that grew up in church and that's nationwide. So millennials in a city like Portland in general, I don't know what that number would be, I would imagine under 1%. Somebody said yesterday, he was actually preaching at a church, had this great line, he's like, " Jesus said, we have to leave the 99 to go after the one, but in Portland you have to leave the one to go after the 99." Portland Pew Research found that we're the least religious city in America. So I maybe an extreme example of that. But majority of the minority, we're now this tiny... If you're at an office party in 1950, probably over half of those people would have at some level identified as Christian or Catholic or whatever. Now, if you're an office party with a hundred people, maybe you're the only person there who's a follower of Jesus. Second would be, yeah, from the center to the fringe. Christians used to be at the center of culture making in DC, in the arts, in entertainment, in science. I'm reading Dominion right now by Tom Holland. And basically, all elite intellectuals were Christians for 1500 years for the most part. And Voltaire and a couple others broke this mold, and it was just shattering. Scientists, everybody was a Christian at some level, and now we're... People want nothing to do with faith in the public square, Christianity is fine if it's a private therapeutic thing that you keep to yourself, and you don't bother the rest of us with, but don't talk about it, don't vote for it, don't whatever. Just keep it to yourself off to the side. And then yes, the third shift would be from a widespread tolerance to a rising hostility. From, " Christians are weird." To, " Christians are bad." Where now in particular, human sexuality and gender, we have the moral low ground in a lot of people's opinion, which means that the perception is Christians are a threat to equality, human dignity, freedom, as it's been, I think redefined, but all that stuff. Those three shifts, it's a lot to handle emotionally. That's really disorienting, whether you're my age, and you grew up, and you remember a time when it wasn't like this as much. Or unless if you were in a smoky teachers' lounge at Harvard or something, then maybe it felt that way, but not on Twitter and everything. And even if you grew up in it, it's just a hard place emotionally to find yourself. But it's nothing new, Christians have been here many times down through church history and they've found ways to thrive.
Patrick Miller: I do think to some degree, it is new at least to Americans and living memory. I was reading recently that in the 1930s to 1940s, about 43 to 49% of Americans attended church regularly, and by 1960 that had spiked to 69%. So the vast majority of Americans are attending church. And now we're going to the point where at least among millennials, you're looking at somewhere in that again, 10 percent- ish range of people who are regularly attending church in our generation. crosstalk.
John Mark Comer: ... from70 to 10% in one generation or two, depending on how you count. Was that Rodney Stark's book. What are you referring to?
Patrick Miller: I've been reading so much on this. I can't even cite my sources anymore.
John Mark Comer: No, no, it's okay. Well, there's this random book, I'm not recommending it, it's a very dry read. But academic book called The Churching of America by the sociologist, Rodney Stark. And he just does the sociological history of the church in America. It's very dry, but it blows up a lot of popular misconceptions. And one of the points that he makes that's actually really encouraging is that the most post- Christian America ever was, was at its founding. So he paints a picture of early America as-
Patrick Miller: Interesting.
John Mark Comer: ...hyper- secular, immoral, slavery is the norm, serious Christians are few and scandalous, and often tarred and tortured alive by the revolutionary army because they won't go to war against Rome, because they believe it's unbiblical. I'm sorry, no, England because they think it's crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: What do you really think about England?
John Mark Comer: Based on the early church, not going to war against Rome. And then argues that peak Christianization of America was 19... I think'62, I want to say is the year. And he goes off things exactly like the church attendance. So we don't realize... He basically argues America didn't become more of a quote Christian nation till the second great awakening when Christianity became more normative, but we're coming off the zenith, the 1950s, sixties. It was like the highest it ever was and then to crash back down. But it's actually encouraging, because if it happened once, it can happen again.
Patrick Miller: Absolutely. Yeah.
John Mark Comer: Because the narrative is that for the last 500 years, or at least a couple hundred years since Darwin, the West has just been getting less and less Christian, and more and more secular. But actually that hypothesis doesn't really stand up to a rigorous actual research project. And it's more highs and lows, and ups and downs, more like a wave. And so the thought was, " Man, if America was more post- Christian than it is now at its founding, could we have another great renewal movement? Could there be a sweeping move of God?" I don't know.
Patrick Miller: That would obviously be the thing that we're praying for and hoping for. We'll get back to my interview with John Mark in just one minute. If you're anything like me, these kinds of conversations make you self- reflective, you ask, " Maybe I've become tribal." If that's you, we can help you self evaluate, go to choosetruthovertribe. com and take our assessment. It'll help you figure out how tribal you are. It only takes 60 seconds. And it will help you see, not just if you're tribal, but what's the way that you're tribal, and how do you compare to other Americans? The link is in the show notes. Back to this idea of tectonic shifts, because when you were describing these tectonic shifts that were happening to Christians, I was reading it, and I thought, " I have not heard anyone crystallize this so well, it's exactly what I'm experiencing. It's what I've seen happen, in particular over the last five years, but it's been happening for a while." And I couldn't help, but think about, in 1994, I was reading about one of the biggest earthquakes that hit Los Angeles, which you might remember, I guess, since you were in the relative area, but it was talking about how people responded in these wildly different ways. Some people start running to churches, because they don't think they're going to fall down, other people are hiding under tables, some people try to ignore it, other people froze in place. And I just started thinking as these shifts are happening beneath our feet, what are the responses that you're seeing people have? Let's start with some of the unhealthy responses that Christians are having to some of these changes.
John Mark Comer: Gosh, that's a great analogy as somebody that grew up in... The quake that I remember was the 1989 quake, which one of the largest ones in recorded history. I lived a mile from the fault line, that's where Candlestick Park, Bay Bridge collapse, all that stuff. So I remember that. I have this vivid memory, I was nine years old. And I remember the earthquake, I remember sleeping with my family for three days in the living room, because of the aftershocks, and broken glass windows, breaking in our house, the whole city blocks destroyed by where we lived. That's a great... I think word picture. I don't know, this is off the cuff, I think for sure, there's two, co- existent unhealthy responses that I see right now. One, is what we've been talking about. People go to either political extreme, the right or the left, obviously. Statistically the stereotype, the younger you are, the more likely you are to go left, the older you are, the more likely you are to go right. Although some argue that shifting with Gen Z, that there's already a rebellion against the totalitarian utopianism and digital Marxism of the internet. Some argue that Gen Z actually could end up becoming really conservative. So that's interesting to see if that happens again. Again, progressives don't think that, because the progressive narrative is, everybody's going to catch up to your intelligence, but it turns out there are other intelligent people that disagree with you, and that's hard to fathom if you're a progressive. So that's one clear example where people are just attempting to update their Christian faith, to sit comfortably with the world as it is now, on the left or the right. Again, my experience is mostly a left version of this, but I'm very aware the problem is just as huge on the right. And that is just devastating, it's sad. The way of Jesus... If your discipleship to Jesus, doesn't have resistance and contrast built into the culture around you, it will evaporate and disappear. And so, what's the point of being a Christian, if, for example, in the progressive world where I live, the badge of honor for progressive Christian is, you can pass as a pagan. That's like, " Oh cool, you're a Christian? But I never would have known. And you're so open, and tolerant, and pagan, and you're into the other things. Awesome." That's like a badge of honor. But at that point you're like, " Well, why become a Christian?" This is Larry Hurtado, the historian of early church Christianity that basically says, tries to answer, why would millions of people become followers of Jesus when they knew it was going to get them killed? It was a persecuted religious movement for 300 years. And he just talks about, how it was precisely Christianity's difference and distinctiveness to the culture that made it so attractive and appealing, not its relevance or relatability. And that's what I think people on the left and the right don't realize. And so that's a very unhealthy response that I tragically see all of the time, people just assimilating into the right or the left, and adapting their Christianity, which tends to be like a stopover on the way to post- Christian, whether it's on the left or the right. The other ironically co- existent unhealthy response that we don't see as much, because it doesn't involve really nasty comments on Instagram, or mean tweets, or protests, or banners, or slogans is just like what ancient Christians called the Noonday Demon, this Acedia, they called it. Just this lassitude and just mind numbing yourself on Netflix, and just disappearing into consumerism or video games or marijuana, or business with soccer practice, or just having this tepid faith that just tunes out. And, man, I don't know. " How is Christianity going to survive the Western secular apocalypse?" " I don't know. Let's watch Walking Dead on Netflix or whatever." Or, " Hey, let's go crosstalk."
Patrick Miller: Have you watched Tiger King?
John Mark Comer: I don't know. Let's just pour more wine, and let's have some chips and guac. And it's this... Just like, " I'm overwhelmed. Let me just disappear into entertainment and distraction." And really what I think we're trying to do is numb the pain, I think. Whatever your cultural narcotic of choices, whether it's a literal narcotic, or alcohol, or Netflix, or social media or work, or even church, narcotics serve a powerful function. They help us deal with pain, and they can be really helpful for acute pain. I take ibuprofen when I stub my knee, I don't just pray, I take medicine. But they're not helpful when they have a root problem that you need to do surgery and fix, because then it's just making a bad problem worse. So I think those equal opposite, the outrage, political left or right response, or the opposite of outrage, the Noonday Demon that just getting lost, and those are probably the most common things that I see right now.
Patrick Miller: You're making me think of Martin Luther. He talked about how humanity is like a drunk man that falls off a horse, tries to get back on, and falls off the other side. And it does seem that's what happens to us so often.
John Mark Comer: That is so good.
Patrick Miller: He was fine.
John Mark Comer: I want to hate Luther because I so disagree with a ton of his theology. But he's just... He was absolutely brilliant.
Patrick Miller: He was brilliantly funny.
John Mark Comer: I don't care what you think of him, you have to agree, he was funny and he was wicked smart.
Patrick Miller: How do we avoid that risk of falling off either side of this horse? What's the path forward for followers of Jesus who want to say, " You know what? I want to on the one hand, care about society, and what's happening in our culture, in our world. I want to care about justice and injustice. And at the same time, I want to care about spiritual practices, and my individual walk with Jesus." How do we merge all these things together?
John Mark Comer: Well, gosh, I don't know if this is the answer you want from me, but...
Patrick Miller: Go for it. Read your book.
John Mark Comer: Buy my book crosstalk. And I outlined my 30 day plan to... No, I think the future is ancient, so I think we're living in an analogous time to the fourth and fifth century, the decline of the Roman empire, heresy abounds in the church. The church's leaders have been corrupted by power on both sides of the culture war. The culture as a whole is decadent and falling into a slow decline. And I think our response must be somewhat similar to the serious Christians of the third, and the fourth, and the fifth century, which is where you have the Desert Fathers and Mothers. You have monasticism, you have new religious movements, you have a new devotion to prayer. You have what they called, the White Martyrs and the Green Martyrs where people were no longer being martyred for their faith, because the way of Jesus had been legalized. Now the opposite problem was compromise and complicity in the empire. And so they developed what they call the Green Martyrs, people that would go off into the forest of Ireland and just pray. They would die to a normal life, to devote their life to prayer. The White Martyrs, which were basically early missionaries that would get in these random Celtic boats, and let the winds carry them, which I would never do, it's not even in my theological paradigm at all, but God used them in great ways.
Patrick Miller: So I've got to get into a boat, go out into the ocean, and who knows?
John Mark Comer: With no oars and just see where God takes you. Seriously, we laugh, but that was their level of surrender to God, whether that was misguided theologically or not, that was their level of surrender. Gosh, that's admirable. So I think the future is ancient. It's simple. The world is complex. I don't mean that in an unsophisticated way, but it's simple in that... This is why so many people don't talk about it, because there's no way to make money off of this, or to popularize yourself with it. But it's following Jesus together in community, based on his life teachings, the New Testament. Dallas Willard, philosopher, University of Southern California and a hero of mine, I think he was like a modern day saint. I think if he had been Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, he would be in the running for canonization right now. And he has this provocative line that I disagreed with the first time I read it, but then I've had to think about it a lot since. He says, " There is no problem for which discipleship to Jesus is not the ultimate solution." And I'm sure lots of people are hearing that. And like me, your initial reaction is, " Yeah. No, that's easy for you as a white guy. You don't care about justice or dah, dah." And maybe you're interpret that as some private retreat into religious experience or something, but the longer I've sat with that, the more... Like a lot of Willard's things, I disagree at first, and then I come to realize it's brilliant and right. There is no problem either for our nation, whether it's issues of justice or equality, or for the church, whether it's issues of compromise or complicity, of the left or the right, or the abuse of power or the neglect of power. Or for our own life and our own self- defeating behavior, and lack of love, and egocentricity and fear- based lifestyle, and all the ways that we live that negate love. There is no problem for which discipleship to Jesus is not the ultimate answer. So I just think Jesus is the best thing that ever happened to human history. I think most of the best things in the world today are all the direct or indirect result of his life, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, and the community that he founded. And I think until his return, no community, no nation, no people, no person will ever live up to Jesus over the top compelling vision of life and the kingdom. But I think it's living in pursuit of that, where life has found.
Patrick Miller: I'm reflecting as you talk, it seems like evangelicalism or whatever we want to call it. It's absorbed so many different cultural ideas, whether it's how we think about power, and what the good life is, our cultural practices, how we live our lives. And makes me wonder if as difficult as this time is, the shifting that's happening, if it's really a purging fire and that God's going to use it to draw people to himself. And the part of a fire people don't like is the burning off, but I've experienced in my own life, there's parts of me that have to get burned off in this process. And so I think what you're saying is really profound, and it would be my prayer that people would look to Jesus and discipleship as the answer. Have you been listening to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Mike Cosper's podcast with Christianity Today?
John Mark Comer: Oh my gosh, yeah. I am not a serial podcast listener. I don't have much of a commute and so it's like, I don't even have great... And yes, I can't stop listening. I'm all caught up.
Patrick Miller: Me too. I think it's one of the best podcasts of this year. There's a few that I've got on my favorite list, but they've done a spectacular job. And one of the things that he traces is the development or the lineage of celebrity pastors. And see, I was just talking about evangelicalism has absorbed a lot of culture. And I think one of the things we absorbed was this celebrity obsession, and Mark Driscoll is very much so in line with the celebrity pastor model. And it's what enabled a lot of his abuses to be covered up and hidden and all that. I'm curious, obviously over the last few years, you've gone through a personal shift where you have a lot more name recognition. I'm sure some people would call you, even though you're not pastoring anymore a celebrity pastor. How have you thought about that in your own life? Do you fear about celebrity causing irrevocable life damage? How are you resisting that change for yourself?
John Mark Comer: First off, it's sobering and yes, I've given a lot of thought to it. And I'm not sure that I have clean, neat answers that don't involve a healthy dose of the fear of God. I do think we have to distinguish between celebrity that's the result of projection, and celebrity that's the result of promotion. So there's a kind of celebrity that we project onto our heroes. So Dallas Willard, the farthest thing from a Christian celebrity, you can imagine, I never got the chance to meet him. If I did, I'm sure I would have been a little trembly in my nervous system, and wanted to take a picture with him. I remember I had got to have breakfast years ago, with N. T. Wright, and I just was fanboy to the nth degree. And that was all projection. That was... He was wonderful, and down to earth, and had breakfast with some random guy on a tour he was on. So there's that kind. And then there's the celebrity, that's the result of promotion, where you have intentionally designed a digital marketing apparatus, or in [Marcel's 00:44:11] case, a very visible marketing apparatus in your church, around the promotion of your life, your brand, your image, your books, your work, your ministry, whatever. And that is just anathema. And honestly, I just more and more think that pastors should just not be famous. It's hard to imagine. Part of me says like, " Just none of us should ever put anything on the internet, and should go the opposite direction." The other part of me thinks about Tim Keller who's a household name in much of the West. Is he a celebrity? I don't know. It's the farthest thing from his personality. Nobody had ever really heard of him outside of New York till he was in his fifties or later. And I am extraordinarily grateful. I'm not even reformed. And I've just still so benefited from his life, his writings, his work. I think of Dallas Willard, I think of N. T. Wright. Some of these voices, I think of Ruth Haley Barton, and then all, of course, the ancients and the mystics that I've been reading for so many years down through church history. My life would be impoverished if I did not have access to them, and not just the dead ones, the living ones help us navigate our cultural moment. There's so many ancients I love and they're beautiful, but they're not going to help me figure out how to deal with the culture war between left and right, and the rise of the internet, and social media. And so to have some living saints in training, sages in training. So that's where... I don't know. I'd love to hear you speak to that actually, because I think it's an open question in my mind. I'm not famous by any stretch of the imagination. A number of people have read my book and so on and so forth. And I have developed... It's a moving target, but my way of being in the world that intentionally mitigates against all of that, and grounds me in relationship, in people, in real life, in a church, and a local community, in serving. And so I have this stuff that I'm doing, but I'm learning as I go. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Patrick Miller: Well, I don't know that I have a lot of profound thoughts on this. I'm not a celebrity, nor am I the son of a celebrity, but I can imagine it's an incredible challenge. And like you just said, I personally don't want you to stop writing books because I've benefited personally, but I'm sure it is a temptation. And this sounds weird. I think one of the potential beauties of the internet is that it has a democratizing power. And so one thing that can happen on the internet is that you get people who speak to niches, they're able to connect with a particular person, and they're not a celebrity, because they don't have a ton of people following them. They've connected with that group of people who they can really shepherd and care for and love. And that's been one of my prayers for the internet is that we would see almost the mega pastor thing die all of a sudden, where you're talking to them, " Have you read this book?" " No, I've never even heard of that guy." " Awesome. But have you read my guy? Oh yeah, my guy's..." " Yeah, right." I would love to see that universe develop and happen. I don't think we'll ever leave behind those few people who are mega names that everybody knows about. But I do wonder if there's a future in Christianity for fewer celebrities and more voices coming to the table in a really healthy way.
John Mark Comer: Yeah.
Patrick Miller: So we'll see.
John Mark Comer: That's beautiful.
Patrick Miller: We will see.
John Mark Comer: I think that question, I wish I had the... Here's the answer, I don't. But it's like, what's the Rilke line, the poet? " We must live the questions." And I think this tragedy is in most of the examples we would offer of a celebrity Christian pastor gone wrong, they were not living that question. They were intentionally building and pursuing, and building a ministry around the pursuit of that, often in some kind of a justification to reach more people, or to grow the church, or to whatever. And I don't know of a lot of examples, I'm sure they're out there of celebrity Christian pastor scandal fall where the person was attempting... Like Eugene Peterson was their model for ministry, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Dallas Willard, and they're just like, " How do I stay grounded? Should I be getting rid of social media entirely? How do I stay faithful to my church? Who is the authority over me? Who am I confessing sin to? Who has access to my finances? Who's helping me decide how I spend my time, with invitations, I say yes to?" I don't think those were the kinds of questions that were being asked. And so I don't have the answers, at least not yet, but I know those are the questions I want to be asking.
Patrick Miller: Well, those are good questions. I'm glad that you're asking them. And I hope that it sets a healthy model. Every generation is going to have its issues. But I do hope that millennials and maybe gen Z will have a little more sobriety about what it means to be a celebrity leader in the church.
John Mark Comer: I hope so.
Patrick Miller: We've seen so many people fall and that's sad in of itself. I think the thing that, that podcasts we're both listening to highlights though, is that it's not just them that fall, there are lives that become collateral damage in the process. It's awful.
John Mark Comer: Collateral damage, and it's touching on people's faith in God, the deepest part of who they are. So all I know is this, I'm doing a bunch of interviews right now because I have a book coming out. And then on October 21st, I am going on a year long sabbatical, half of it, I'll still be working, but nothing public. You won't hear or see anything from me at all for a year. And that might sink my writing career. And at this point I'm okay with that. I just want to try to be aground crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: I'm just jealous of you're even on a sabbatical. Yes. I won't ask you where you're going, so people won't go seeking after you.
John Mark Comer: Life goal.
Patrick Miller: It's one of those Irish caves, right? You're holing up in there.
John Mark Comer: That's right. Skellig Michael crosstalk.
Patrick Miller: No, again, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. And I'm glad that you are writing, and helping Christians walk in some of these practices. Your new book, Live No Lies, I haven't gotten to finish it all the way because I just got it a few days ago, but what I've read so far, which is a good chunk, I've really enjoyed. And I think again, you crystallized a lot of my experiences, and to press it even one step further, you talk about the world, the flesh and the devil. And those are things I think a lot of people hear in Christian culture, but we have these bizarre caricature versions of it. It's like, I'll put it this way. I once heard a little kid who said that he wanted to get a job at NASA, and his qualifications were Men in Black, and Guardians of the Galaxy. He'd watch these movies. And I think that's what we think about the devil. And we're like, " Yeah, I've watched the Exorcist and the Conjuring. I would say, I know a lot about this stuff." And I think you are offering one of the more mature takes I've read in recent memory of what it looks like to have the right enemies, and to understand them correctly, and not have these weird caricature version. So I would just encourage you if you're listening to this, to go check out that book, and make sure not to try to reach out to John Mark in a few months, because he's going to be gone. You won't be able to find him.
John Mark Comer: Reach out all you want, I will have no idea.
Patrick Miller: You just won't know. Thanks so much for being on the show.
John Mark Comer: It's an honor to come along. Peace to all that you are and all that you're doing.
Patrick Miller: Thanks for listening. If you found this podcast helpful, make sure to subscribe and leave a review.
Patrick Miller: And make sure it's at least five stars.
Patrick Miller: Stop. No. Just be honest. Reviews help other people find this.
Patrick Miller: Okay. Okay. At the very least you can share today's episode, maybe put it on your social, your favorite text chain.
Patrick Miller: And if you didn't like this episode, awesome. Tell us why you disagree on Twitter @ truthovertribe_. We might even share your thoughts in an upcoming newsletter.
This week, Patrick sits down with John Mark Comer to talk about Christianity in today's world. John Mark, author and pastor, shares his story of how he started following Jesus. Then you'll hear John Mark and Patrick dive right into topics such as the meaning of evangelical, especially in current times, and the problem with celebrity culture and Christianity. They also give insights into the cultural shifts challenging faithfulness to Jesus and how we can move forward. Tune in now!
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