Ron Sider was a large influence in my life, especially as a twentysomething seminarian. His seminal book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1978) changed my viewpoint and helped make me a lifelong advocate for the poor. He even influenced our intentional community’s vision to devote ourselves to caring for the hungry.
In seminary I wrote a paper that compared his book to Vernard Eller’s The Simple Life: The Christian Stance Toward Possessions (1973), in which I found myself more committed to Eller’s premise than Sider’s more-evangelical stance. But Sider continued to influence me theologically and relationally, as I ended up in his first denomination and in his home town. Meeting him for the first time was a thrill.
In honor of his good, long life I thought I should republish a book review I wrote with Jonny Rashid in 2017 for a Brethren in Christ publication. It demonstrates how he kept fresh and engaged for over sixty years in the cause of keeping the American church, in particular, accountable for our social action. Rest in peace good teacher and partner.
Book Review: The future of our faith: An intergenerational conversation on critical issues facing the church.
By Ronald J. Sider and Ben Lowe. Brazos Press. 2016
Reviewed by Rod White and Jonny Rashid
Ambitious people flock together
Ron Sider and Ben Lowe demonstrate their admirable ambition for the life of the church throughout The future of our faith: An intergenerational conversation on critical issues facing the church — the latest of the more than thirty books Sider has published. When some of us read it, we may feel pale in comparison as they marshal their experiences, drop names, and demonstrate their points with great acumen. Ron, especially, has amassed a wealth of knowledge and connections during his stimulating intellectual, ecumenical and literary life. He’s had quite a journey out of a little BIC church in southern Ontario! The Future of Our Faith is an extravagant title but don’t let it intimidate you. It is really about two caring people who are brilliant enough to deserve attention as they demonstrate the kind of dialogue that might stem the American church’s swift decline as it meets the next generation.
We share similar convictions about the next generation of the church and the dialogue that holds it together in love.
When I (Rod) was asked to write this review, I immediately thought it would be good to write it with Jonny. The book is trying to bridge differences between young and old, new and seasoned, and is interested in bridging the divides that societal labels reinforce. Ron appreciates the multicultural Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, where we live. Ben’s church, the Wheaton Chinese Church, is consciously working at a multicultural oneness. Jonny and I also represent the ambition, the age difference and the discipline of connecting people in the love of Jesus who might normally be at odds..
This book gravitates toward getting involved in the bigger issues on which both men have been concentrating. Both men mainly address their concerns through parachurch organizations, which are mostly driven by their personal energy. Jonny and I have been concentrating on the same issues in our community context, relying on our mutuality to take us where we need to go. I think we are the church they are looking for when they keep pointing out how lost the evangelical church has been since it first started hearing from Ron in the 1970’s.
These are their concerns, in brief
Ron Sider is concerned about evangelism surviving as millennials embrace social action more than biblical principles, truth in the postmodern era, the foundation for marriage where it is deteriorating, and having a gracious debate on homosexuality. Ben Lowe is concerned about having lifestyles that reflect faith, good political engagement, reconciling divisions in the church, and caring for creation.
There is little disagreement between them. Ron sounds like an engaging and aware 70-something who is going to die trying to make a difference. Ben sounds like an orthodox, been-burned 30-something who likes to push the boundaries of his background in order to do good.
Jonny and I do not disagree with each other much either, if at all. We agree to agree. But our agreement is forged in the fires of dialogue, which is mostly missing in the church, The BIC Church has spent a decade eradicating meaningful dialogue from their General and Regional Conferences (which are now more accurately labeled “assemblies”) as well as in general principle and practice. If this book has any wisdom to share, it is that such a move is the exact wrong direction for the future of our faith.
Jonny and I decided we could best serve you if we modeled the structure of the book and each chose a teaching to share and then responded to what the other said.
Rod’s thoughts on a big assumption
I do not think there is much wrong with this book. It might be a bit hard to read for people less aware of evangelical organizations; the authors are steeped in the subculture and in evangelical academia. But they are good writers who break it down well. They want to talk about key issues and they succeed in doing that.
What I will say has to do with their assumptions. They note an intergenerational tension in the family of God over what it means to be faithful today, and how we need to find a better way to sort these things out. This is true. But the problem might be that evangelicals (and church people in general) can’t stop talking about themselves. This book assumes people can talk to each other in the church about the intergenerational tension when one generation is quickly exiting the building.
Last summer, the Mennonite Review included a review of Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America. That book summarizes what Sider and Lowe are combatting. “Younger people today are simply less interested in religion. Looking at the numbers, Jones says the proportion of Americans who are white mainline Protestants and white evangelicals today is 32 percent, down from 51 percent in 1993. The reason for this change? More and more Americans are leaving organized religion, with 20 percent today considering themselves religiously unaffiliated. Many of the unaffiliated are young adults, who are less than half as likely as seniors to identify with a church. This rejection of organized religion by youth, Jones says, is a ‘major force of change in the religious landscape.’ Looking ahead, ‘there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon,’ he says. “By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as Protestants.”
We started working on this crisis of faith twenty years ago and most of our church members are millennials. It is not easy to evangelize among them when the vast majority of what is left of the evangelicals vote for the godless Trump who epitomizes what Lowe laments as faith without lifestyle. Plus Pence represents the narrow agenda of the religious right while climate change action is rolled back and minoritized people are targeted for police action. Sider and Lowe may be talking to a church that ceased to exist ten years ago.
I also do not find much issue with the text and I am grateful for Ron and Ben’s contribution. I think it will be good for those that need to read it. As I will say below, the assumptions are a little too vague and broad. I am unsure the audience of the text is listed specifically enough, and at times I think the strokes the authors paint with are too broad. But they definitely have their place, especially when considering popular (and vocal) evangelical audiences.
Jonny’s thoughts on priorities
As a 31-year-old pastor, it was quite an interesting experience Sider and Lowe speak to me about my priorities. As it turns out, Sider wasn’t far from the truth when he listed what my generation thinks is important, but I think one thing they may also find important is not being generalized. Across race, class, and regions, I think young Christians have a myriad of priorities. I think that the generalizations the authors made about millennials were particularly germane to a city-dwelling transplant in the Northeast U.S., but I do not think they would translate well to say, black people, suburban folks, or even millennials I know in the Midwest and the South. Since Jason Fileta wrote a sidebar in the text, I will note, that millennial Egyptian immigrants–like him and me–would likely “side” with Ron on many of his issues, and might actually need to learn something from Ben’s chapters.
Rod and I have had many robust discussions over the years in which I was on the side of the “older” generation and he the “younger.” The stereotypes (or “generalizations” to put it more mildly) simply have not been true in my experience. As it turns out, many millennials I know, are not interested in politics, race, or the environment; while many older folks I know are progressive on issues like gay marriage, are steeped in postmodernism, and are on the front lines of our political witness. Bifurcating the audience may cement them in their stereotyped places (or create more conflict between the groups).
As a millennial, the main thing that develops my faith is being taken seriously by my elders, especially in Circle of Hope. I was only 24 when I planted the church with fifty comrades six and a half years ago! When older leaders took me seriously, I took them seriously too. Our divisions, if any existed, were erased by working toward a common vision together.
But let me conclude by saying, I think this book does a service to the church by undoing many of the stereotypes unbelievers, from every generation, have about it. Like Rod noted already, the loudest Christians in our country are making it hard for us to prioritize issues like evangelism and truth, as well as debunk misunderstandings about how Christians see the environment and U.S. race relations.
Jonny points out what might be a flaw in the book’s premise and in evangelical thinking. The authors seem to be speaking mainly to their subculture but they make universal assertions. That being said, it is good to know that Ben Lowe, in particular, is working hard at bridging the divisions. He even ran for Congress as a pro-life Democrat! His book Doing Good Without Giving Up reminds us, as C. S. Lewis put it, we don’t get second things by placing them first; we get second things by keeping first things first. As Christians, we don’t just aim at change; we aim at faithfulness, and out of faithfulness comes fruitfulness. Ron Sider also has an impressive history of not giving up — even writing this book in his 70’s! Ben Lowe is similarly inspirational (as is Jonny Rashid!)
We are glad to share their conclusion
As they summarize their work, the authors share an inspiring conclusion we could all share. “We come from different contexts and perspectives, and often struggle to understand or relate to one another. Overcoming this involves intentionally reaching out, opening up, and being vulnerable. It takes humility, patience, and sacrificial love. It may often be hard, and sometimes we’ll get hurt. But it’s still both possible and worthwhile. We all have weaknesses, prejudices and blind spots, both as individuals and as generations, often it’s our differences that help draw these out into the light where we can deal with and grow from them….The reality is that what separates us is far less significant than what binds us together. Or rather, who binds us together.”