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Dissertation Synopsis

After about twelve months of intensely researching, writing, and editing, the readers’ draft of my dissertation went out to my committee last week. In an attempt to explain the prolonged silence here, I’ll post up the primary approach the project and then make a few points. My goal is to use much of this research and discussion to continue promoting dialogue here as well as apt fodder for scholarly articles and other works.

The dissertation’s initial title is The Quest for the Historical Church: The Development and Dismissal of Free Church Ecclesiology From Pentecost Through the Second Century.

dissertationMy goal in working on this area is to discuss, via a multi-disciplinary approach, the nature of autonomy of the earliest Christian communities in the first two centuries. As I have been working through some discussions, as well as being part of a larger professional network in my church work, there appears to be a growing gap of literature that accurately engages the realities of the church in this period and also attempts to understand the influences on its hierarchical structure and leadership composition. Since I am a thorough-going Baptist in my ecclesiology, I am keenly interested in whether the earliest churches reflected any kind of early episcopal structures or were they congregational.

My thesis surrounded several key questions: If the apostolic intention was to create one, uniform system of ecclesiology, what happened to that system in light of the rise of the Bishop of Rome? Was this the intended system of the Apostles, or is another ecclesiological form intended? How are we to understand the diversity of forms and offices within the New Testament documents? How did the heretical teachers and false prophets within early Christianity influence the development of authority in the early Church and churches? Is a monarchial episcopacy the ecclesiological form sought by the Apostles?

Ultimately, my research has led to a number of points, not the least of which is abandonment of these kinds of categories for understanding how the churches functioned in this period. One of the primary points of the dissertation was initially evaluating the landscape of New Testament ecclesiology and demonstrating how four distinct ecclesiologies emerge among the earliest Christian communities. These four are: Pauline, Lucan, Johannine, and Matthean. Now, there are likely more sub-ecclesiologies present, and perhaps even some that aren’t mentioned in the documents of the first Christians. However, by establishing this pluriformity of ecclesial forms we start off by acknowledging that there was quite a bit of diversity at the outset of the earliest Christian communities.

Along these lines, I also evaluated apostolic authority, since that is often suggested to be one of the ways that episcopal systems mimic their use of autocracy. Through this step the conclusion is that apostolic authority is rather limited and, particularly in the Pauline usage, often given deference to the freedom of the individual. Of course external influences seem to have impacted early Christianity, just as they do today, and as it relates to the concepts of autonomy and federation between churches Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman voluntary associations were also considered.

long bookThe final step was evaluating the documents of the Apostolic Fathers, most specific the Didache1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, along with other works (Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, etc.), for their ecclesiological content. Then the works of the Second Century Apologists were also surveyed, though Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria were the primary writers to be evaluated.

In the end, I think there is a quite a good case to be made for establishing autonomy, that is the independence of the local Christian communities, as the initial nature of ecclesial relationships within early Christianity. These first communities had no means of establishing external hierarchy, no examples of overwhelming compulsion to the influence of an external leader, and do not appear to make much of other communities, even those existing within the same cities. There is some federated cooperation within these communities, but they are, by and large, isolated from each other and any notion of external influence in their structure and operations.

Now that this project is initially submitted I’m dutifully working on reinforcing some argumentation with professorial critiques in mind as well as tightening up the language. There is much to say about all of this, and hopefully in the coming months I’ll be able to work out bits and pieces on this blog.

I’d love to engage with some feedback on the ideas presented, though this is mightily limited from the 302-page dissertation.

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A Few Notes on Charismatic Authority in the Early Church

One of the rising issues in scholarship concerning the character and trajectory of authority in the earliest Christian communities that is central to understanding the relationships between the ecclesial structures of these communities (i.e. churches) comes out of the work of Rudolph Sohm and Max Weber concerning charisma.

WeberBefore getting too far into this, we need to make an important distinction that this charismatic authority isn’t the same thing as what happens in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches today. Though there is some relation, there are quite a gulf in understanding.

Sohm, a Protestant German lawyer in the late 1800s, championed the notion in his two-volume Kirchenrecht that the earliest Christian communities centralized authority through the exercise of the charismatic office. For Sohm, the earliest communities operated in a kind of theocratic autonomy based around the charismatic exercise of the Holy Spirit’s influence and the churches grew tremendously. It was not until the integration of a legalist framework, or the law, that began structuring early churches that they began stepping away from the original intent of Spirit-led (not in the contemporary sense) leadership and into a more structured offices which led towards confinement in the earliest churches. When this happened, following the Apostolic era, the churches began moving away from their free nature and into ecclesiastical confinement around structured authority. The bureaucracy that arose was in contradiction to the original intent and approach of the Apostles. (I’ll be dealing with this issue heavily in my dissertation…so look for it…later in 2014.)

Max Weber is, perhaps, one of the most significant sociological figures in the early part of the 20th century. Weber built his concept of charismatic authority largely from Sohm, though with notable differences and other influences. Weber approached charismatic authority in early cultic communities by noting that some kind of supernatural or exceptional quality in an individual would build a group of followers in which that person would carry that message, cultic activity, out and eventually lead to institutionalization. (Yes, there is far more to be said here.)

It seems that in making these points, both Sohm and Weber, have rightly noted that in early communities (we can say cultic and Christian here) charismatic authority is the basis for much of their activities and practices. Since these communities lack the sophistication of hierarchal administration they default to using charisma as their primary collectivizing agent. For Christian communities in the immediate Apostolic era, the Spirit led authorization of leadership was a primary device they noted for how they proceeded to raise up and empower leadership. Since authority was seen to be first invested in Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and then transferred to the Apostles, it continues to be available to the followers of Jesus by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This means that the Spirit leads in many decisions about the nature and structure of the leadership in the earliest communities…including their relationship between themselves.

Now that we have documents such as the Didache available, which were not in widespread circulation during Sohm’s life, this does seem to reinforce the idea that towards the end of the Apostolic era (depending on your dating of the Didache) the false teachings of destructive prophets and self-appointed apostles necessitated more strict adherence to local community codes and offices. 

As the official office of Apostle ends (I’ll make this case soon) at the end of the first century, the routinization of clerical offices and liturgical observance in the earliest churches begins to shift towards both confinement of authority (for purification) and standardization of practices. As Clement of Rome and Ignatius present in their epistles at the turn of the second century, though autonomy continues (my postulation) between communities, standardization in office follows the form of the late Pauline ecclesiology reflected in the Pastoral epistles over the Jewish-Hellenist movement in the Petrine literature.

This means charismatic authority as a default modus operandi of the earliest communities (which were almost entirely based in house-church models) begins to shift towards ecclesial consolidation.

At the turn of the second century there is a movement away from charismatic authority and towards structured institutionalization. This changed the nature of the ecclesiological foundations for the earliest churches until the early part of the third century.

Of course, the larger challenge in the discussion of how charismatic authority in the earliest Christian communities develops centers around a few points:

– Were the Apostles charismatic agents or empowered followers of the agent, Jesus Christ?apostolic council

– If the intent of the original founders of the Church, developed since Pentecost, was to provide an autonomous confederation of communities, how did the exercise of authority (for instance the Jerusalem Council of Galatians 1-2) play out across the Mediterranean region?

– In terms of NT ecclesiology, (I do buy into pluriformity) why is there little to no references to hierarchal authority in the historical or epistolary literature of the NT?

– If charismatic authority in local communities was the initial basis for the administration of the ordinances, proclamation of the Gospel, and exercising of discipline, what caused the eventual confinement to a structured episcopal system?

– Finally, if the Apostolic era, as relayed in the NT literature, provides a picture, primarily, of autonomous churches being planted by an apostolic missionary force and then left to grow, how does this influence our current models of church planting, growth, and polity?

Of course these questions are serious and could, themselves, provide the basis for much research. Ultimately, my course is simply evaluating the autonomous nature of these confederated communities. A unique, and lengthy, task.

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Pastors and Sermon Research Help

While strolling through my Twitter timeline I noticed a discussion between Dr Anthony Bradley and Jared Wilson about pastoral sermon preparation and research firms that provide assistance. Dr Bradley’s take was that this is a bad idea and is a kind of corruption of the pastoral office. Here is Dr Bradley’s tweet. (As a note, I do respect Dr Bradley and his work on a great number of topics.)

In case you’re not familiar (which most people aren’t) with the situation, there are several sermon research firms out there that, for a fee, partner with a pastor (usually of a church that can afford such a fee) to provide research of illustrations, statistics, stories, and other background information for sermons. One of the primary groups that provides this service is Docent which has been around since the early part of this century. There are a couple of other firms also.

Over the past several years this kind of sermon development has come under fire from some theologians (though usually not practioneers) and other folks who observe a lot of what goes on in churches. In an earlier post, Carl Trueman made note of this trend when he pronounced: “One instinctively knows it is strange and feels it is wrong; but as with many such well-intentioned things, it can be hard to articulate precisely why.” Jared Wilson provided an excellent reply in his post over at The Gospel Coalition titled: “What Does Docent Research Do?” So, what should we think about these services?

Personally, I know of at least two dozen pastors who utilize this service. While in seminary, I was asked to lead a team for Docent. Though I turned them down, it was not for philosophical or theological reasons…I simply had too much going on, I still respect the service that Docent provides. Several of my friends in seminary did work for Docent and had a good experience with them. For the pastors I know who use Docent, or another sermon research group, they are usually rather happy with the process.

Essentially, and Jared summarizes this well from his own personal experience, this is a person or group of people who are given sermon topics, titles and Scriptural passages already developed by a preaching pastor. The task is to then provide some illustrations, stories, statistics, and other relevant sermon components to recommend to a pastor in their preparation for that sermon. As Jared, and others, point out, these research firms do not write the sermons for a pastor.

I’m not certain why some who are or aren’t actively involved in vocational church ministry would have a bone of contention with these groups. We all know plenty of theologians (I can start naming some them if we wish) who use the services of TAs and GAs to do research for them in preparing articles, books, and other scholarly materials. This seems to be the same kind of service.

The research firm doesn’t write the final sermon/paper but it does help with some of the research. Just like a theologian in their office.

From my own experience I’ve known pastors who had their sermons written by a staff member. In fact, I know of one very significant pastor who, in the past, would have his sermons written out, exegesis and all, by a faculty member of the seminary near their church. The pastor would rise up to the pulpit on Sundays and read off the sermon, its illustrations, and entire content…in a television ministry church.

That seems to be more of a problem than the work of a group like Docent.

So when I see other tweets like this one, it seems we’ve missed the point:

Bradley Tweet 3

For my take, so long as the pastor is developing the sermon wholly on their own, using their own exegesis, their own ideas, while also checking a document of possible illustrations, stories, statistics, and other relevant data, this is makes the sermon no less biblical nor any less honest.

What is a problem is when a pastor has their sermons written out by someone else completely, and they simply stand and deliver. This is not what sermon research firms do and it isn’t accurate to characterize them as agents of plagiarization. In fact, the kind of service they provide for a church is no different than the service provided by so many TAs and GAs for theologians and scholars in almost every discipline and academic field. For those who prepare these briefs for pastors, usually seminarians or junior associate ministers, this is a helpful discipline to inform them and educate them on their own sermon preparation. As these sermons are delivered under the grace of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and always pointing to the Cross of Jesus Christ, much Kingdom work is done in the hearts of those who need a closer connection with God.

More than a few churches employ in house research personnel, and one of the fastest growing trends is using a collaborative team (or creative team) to help with the overall presentation and planning of a sermon and sermon series.

Now if a pastor is downloading and preaching complete sermons without attribution, if they are opening to Spurgeon and reading, and if they are stealing first person illustrations from another pastor and applying them to own lives, these are problems worth confronting. However, I see no difference in these two acts.

So what do you think? What did I miss? Is this a proper comparison?

 

 

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Why the Languages are Important for a PhD

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been devoting myself to learning theological French in order to satisfy my second research language requirement prior to my comprehensive examinations.

There is often a push and pull in a PhD program about any number of the requirements. As I’ve seen in my evaluations of different programs before actually entering one, the requirements are often the same across the board. Particularly for those of us pursuing PhDs in a humanities subject (such as theology, history, etc) one of the requirements are two research languages. On my degree completion plan, I have the option of any of two of three research languages: German, French, and Latin.

Not too long ago there was a bit of a dust up about whether or not PhDs in New Testament needed to know Greek for their final examinations. It resulted in a good conversation around the blogosphere. Why a PhD in New Testament should be able to graduate without reading knowledge of Greek is a mystery to me. A PhD, more than any other degree in the university curriculum, should demonstrate mastery of a field of research. So, along those lines, I have no problem stating:

Research languages (i.e. foreign) are important and should continue to be required for those pursuing PhDs in humanities subjects.

Part of proper scholarship is the engagement with a broad array of thinkers and scholars. To best do this, being able to get outside of the box that one’s primary language creates allows access to some who will stretch a student/scholar’s abilities and thought processes. Even today, when we have more access to translated scholarship, there still remains a substantial body of literature outside the English language that should be engaged. Online translating tools, such as Google Translate, remain unreliable and often give incorrect translations of texts as they lack the ability to distinguish nuance.

In my own studies, in historical ecclesiology, I’ve encountered a number of works that meet this classification. For my dissertation, one of the key works that I am using is by a German scholar of the late 1800s, Rudolph Sohm. In writing Kirchenrecht, Sohm argues that the earliest churches had no ecclesiastical constitution but were ruled by a charisma (understood differently than the charismatics of today) which provided leadership for those who were seen as gifted by God. This is an essential point for my work on the role of local church autonomy in the early churches. However, Sohm’s work has never been translated into English. (A challenge I might take up…after my dissertation.)

Other examples abound.

Having competency in two research languages allows one to engage in this kind of broader research and fill out the views that would be other otherwise unavailable to the student.

Along these lines it is important to note this: a PhD isn’t a gimme degree.

Too many students believe that just because they pay tuition and submit assignment they deserve a degree. Our entire higher education system has become a secondary entitlement program where students demand degrees and passable grades for shoddy work.

Because a PhD is a rigorous degree it should also have requirements that are equally rigorous.

To be honest, over the past month I’ve been staying up until about 2 AM most mornings working on my French so I might pass a competency exam. This isn’t fun, but it is absolutely worth it. There are certainly other things I could be doing, but because I’m enrolled in a PhD program I have purposely set aside these things to pursue a higher calling. Languages are difficult and add an important step of rigor to a PhD.

PhDs are important degrees for those who desire the highest levels of intellectual engagement and academic accomplishment. If you cannot learn two research languages that might be a good indication that you aren’t cut out for a PhD. This likely will sound like a kind of elitist, and it certainly is. We should have no illusions that a PhD is as simple to achieve as an undergraduate degree. The language requirements of a PhD are an effective vetting mechanism to ensure that the highest qualified students (note, this is intellectual qualification not monetary) are obtaining these degrees.

Finally, the language requirements of a PhD provide an important tool for a lifetime of scholarship that awaits. Though I am not entirely convinced that Latin, German, and French should be the only research languages, this harkens of colonialism, a student should have the ability to add in an appropriate language. By having two research languages in their research tool chest, academics are prepared to provide quality research and engagement with works that have yet to be written.

Perhaps, in summation, the language requirements for a PhD are important for these three reasons:

  • The ability to engage in a broad discipline of research and scholarship
  • A reasonable vetting step for the most rigorous of academic degrees
  • Developing tools for a lifetime of scholarship

 

So what do you think? How have you engaged with research languages? Are there other reasons for requiring languages for a PhD?

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Aug 2013
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Education

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
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Review Round Up for Aslan’s “Zealot”

Well this week has had an interesting turn of events that began with the proliferation of clips from that ill-fated FoxNews interview of author and professor, Dr Reza Aslan about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Any book that is marketed as a popular treatment of technical scholarship, and that subsequently makes it to the top of Amazon’s sales list, needs to be taken seriously.

So here’s a briefly annotated list of some review links in certain categories:

Technical/Scholarly Reviews

In his Huffington Post review, Greg Carey gives a thorough review of Zealot that makes notes of its achievements while avoiding polarizing language. This does not mean Carey lacks criticism, but rather that his tone is measured.

Anthony LeDonne’s review, however, is markedly different in tone and force. LeDonne is helpful in his completeness of noting how much Zealot lacks an actual historical basis for its purpose.

Peter Enns hasn’t added a review, so much as a couple of notes that are appropriate to continuing the conversation about Zealot.

Jim West provided a quick retort of seven of the core positions (I’ll save you some time: the answer is Bultmann) of the text and then later noted the challenge of this kind of marketing strategy. We’ll all be looking forward to his more in depth review which is surely forthcoming.

That’s about it for scholarly interaction in the theological blogosphere. If I’ve missed some, let me know, because I definitely want to include them.

Popular News/Media Reviews

There were a couple of reviews of Zealot from some pretty high profile publications. At first there were two quick review notes from the Publisher’s Weekly and the New Yorker. They are joined by longer reviews in The Los Angeles Review of Books. Each of these reviews (written by some with, it seems, limited backgrounds on the topic) talks about how well Aslan has written the book, points out the alarming points, and settles on recommending the text for both of these reasons. There isn’t really any scholarly interaction.

In a more engaged review at Salon.com, Laura Miller challenges the approach Aslan takes. Adam Kirsch, at The New Republicprovides a more detailed interaction with the text that also questions some of its method and conclusions.

Of course then we have the Amazon.com reviews…which are about as useful as a Southwest Airlines pilot in the international terminal.

Certainly there are more forthcoming interactions. I’ll be sure to update the post with them. Just one quick observation (or two):

I don’t know what the process is/was for a text like Zealot when it comes to submission. It is curious that the publisher submitted the text to some popular review sources and not, it appears, scholarly ones. If this perception is wrong, I apologize. However, if this is the case…why would they do this? Why not pick up the phone and call a couple historical Jesus scholars and ask them to look at it while the popular press is doing the same?

All of this seems to be leading to a point that I reflected on this morning that this has a parallel to Matthew 16:26 (cf. Mark 8:36.)

In the larger community Dr Aslan will enjoy a couple of weeks of press and publicity and likely a fat royalty check for some time. That might work for him and his publisher, but in scholarly circles (the circles that provide sustainable engagement and develop appropriate reputations) he’s pretty much done. If the book is, as we’re seeing, really this poorly researched he’s toast. We can’t imagine what will happen if significant scholars get a hold of this text (Wright, Ehrman, Hurtado, etc) and do a just treatment. Who is going to take Aslan seriously in six months, a year, ten years due to this book and subsequent follow ups that are equally as bad? How does he rehabilitate his reputation following this book? It will be difficult to say the least.

Just a quick hit. Please update me on some additional reviews as they are forthcoming.

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Are Millennials Returning to Liturgy?

Over the last several years, maybe even decade, we’ve seen discussions about whether young people are turning to more liturgical or high church traditions.

One of the first to broach this conversation was Robert Webber in his important text The Younger Evangelicals. Following this the rise of “Ancient-Future Worship” seemed to expand into many churches, and especially in the emerging/emergent type churches. (I’ve talked about this in a post called “Generational Divides.”)

Also, during the early part of last decade there were a number of notable departures of evangelicals to return to Roman Catholic roots or the embrace the Catholic communion anew. Most notably here was Dr Francis Beckwith during his tenure as the the President of the Evangelical Theological Society. As a result many books have been written on the subject of evangelicals returning to liturgical and high church roots such as: Evangelicals on the Canterburry TrailBeyond Smells and Bells The Accidental Anglican, and several others.

As a result, there has been an increasing growth in discussions about high church, liturgical forms in present day church movements. These discussions seem to arise about every other year and eventually flare out with little change having taken place. In light of the increasing dramatic declines in mainline and traditionally liturigcal denominations, this conversation has been harder to advance with substantial legitimacy (specifically in North America.)

Earlier this week another post, over at The Christian Pundit by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, stirred the pot again and brought up a good conversation. The central contention of the piece might best be seen as this statement:

Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves, despite growing up in low Protestant churches that told them about Jesus. It’s a trend that is growing, and it looks like it might go that way for a while: people who grew up in stereotypical, casual evangelicalism are running back past their parents’ church to something that looks like it was dug out of Europe a couple hundred years ago at least.

I certainly appreciate the desire to engage this topic and I do find myself fascinated with liturgical and high church models for worship and church. Perhaps it is my upbringing in the first Catholic colony, but I have enjoyed reading and hearing from friends who are part of these movements.

However, I would challenge the extent to which this movement of young Christians is being made “in droves.”

As we’ve been seeing, there is a departure of young Christians from regular and trackable church attendance in their college or post-high school period. This data is troublesome but, in my opinion, should be understood as not a lack of faith across an entire generation but simply the challenges of regular and consistent church attendance in environments where these young adults on now on their own. I do believe there is credible information that many young adults return to their faith following college, though in different ways than the generations before them. Pew Research has clearly shown that church attendance patterns in Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are not comparable to previous generations.

In our own research and discussions, many of my peer group ministry leaders are seeing Millennials (including those in college or having finished college) stay connected with church, or reconnecting. What is attracting them back to church involvement is not, however, liturgical movements or high church ecclesiology.

Instead we are seeing a movement of Millennials who are involved with churches that are, primarily, large church (running over 1,000), have a progressive worship style, have a low church method, and are attractional in outreach. (Check out my post about “Reaching Twentysomethings.”)

This is a notoriously challenging topic because no reputable agency polls on these matters and when they do they rarely, if ever, ask specific questions about worship style, orientation, and tradition which Millennials (or anyone) might attend. However, when we see polling data that is done by appropriate agencies this appears to reinforce our top line conclusions.

As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research has noted when comparing worship trends from 1972 to 2010:

  • Mainline Protestant numbers dove from 24% to 6% and their worship attendance slid from more than 4% to less than 2%.
  • Young evangelicals rose in number, up from about 21% to 25%. But only about 9% attended church at least once a week in 2010, up from about 7.5% in 1972.

When one considers the annual list of the 100 fastest growing churches (based on percentage of growth) there are few, if any, purely liturgical communities represented as “fast growing.” If mainline liturgical churches were seeing this uptick, shouldn’t the list have grown to include them?

Still, there is an aspect of ad hoc rationalization being done. (On both sides.)

I will agree with this: that Millennials (and young Gen-Xers) are embracing a faith that is multi-faceted and they are open to worship experiences that are varied in style and the relation to liturgy.

This does not, however, translate to a massive shift of Millennials reengaging liturgical, high church traditions “in droves.” The data seems to suggest otherwise. Right now the largest movements of Millennial Christians are happening within specifically evangelical circles that embrace progressive methodology and free church ecclesiology. The Passion Movement, which we can look back into the late 1990s as the 268 Generation or One Day parts, is specifically centered around this methodology.

Where is the data backing up the point that Millennials are engaging liturgical, high church elements in such compelling numbers? Why have we not seen this movements being reported?

Perhaps it is because most liturgical, high church communities are relatively smaller (below 300…yes that is relatively smaller) and haven’t prepared adequate tracking mechanisms like the larger, big box attractional model churches. This is, perhaps, the reality.

Usually when we hear about Millennials embracing sacramental movements, such as pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgy, the stats presented are specious as they only survey committed Roman Catholics. Also, when the mainline denominations discuss these trends they do so from within their own perspectives. 

Millennials do desire to connect with God in worship, though on their own terms. They desire to connect in unique and varied ways, and are not opposed to multiple worship environments and styles to do this even in the same week. They also, desire control over their own participation and how much authority (or complete lack thereof) a spiritual leader might have over their lives.

So, what’s the bottom line:

Simply, I don’t see a massive shift in Christian Millennials turning to liturgical style worship and high church models of ecclesiology.

The Millennials that are involved with liturgical churches are a) highly engaged in spirituality but b) highly sporadic in their attendance patterns.

Finally, I still believe Millennials desire to have a meaningful spiritual journey, though it will look entirely different than other generations. This means that liturgical communities can grow, they just need to show how their teaching is relevant and meaningful to Millennials and motivate them to engage in authentic worship and community.

So, what do you think? What are you seeing? Is there better data out there? What are we missing here?

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