In his latest work, the journalist who wrote the book on grace wonders what happened to the church’s most defining quality.
An Interview with Phillip Yancey By Doug Bixby
“Why does the church stir up such negative feelings?” It’s a question Philip Yancey has been asking throughout his life as a journalist. Surveys by polling groups such as Barna and Gallup show a marked decline in how unbelievers view Christians. Twenty years ago a clear majority of people with no religious commitment still had a favorable impression of Christians, but that percentage has plummeted dramatically.
Yancey has written numerous books on prayer, faith, the church, and grace. He’s a fellow sojourner who encourages us to think, surrender, and serve in our relationships with God and each other. In his most recent book, Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? he describes his theological perspective on the church: “The church is, above all, a place to receive grace: it brings forgiven people together with the aim of equipping us to dispense grace to others” (p. 98).
Yet grace is vanishing from our lives, from the church, and from our world, Yancey writes. Many of us feel the effects of this shift toward what he calls a “post-Christian” society, which is why Vanishing Grace is essential for the church today. Recently Covenant pastor Doug Bixby asked Yancey why he thinks grace is vanishing and what he thinks we should do about it.
I want to begin our conversation by thanking you for this book. I believe you address critical issues for the church here. How does Vanishing Grace fit with your other books?
I’ve written some twenty-five books, and of them, What’s So Amazing about Grace? is the one that gets the most reader responses. Vanishing Grace is a kind of sequel, applying what I’ve learned about grace to the society around us. If grace is so amazing, then why does the church have a reputation for qualities almost the opposite of grace? We aren’t called to win a popularity contest, to be sure; yet we are called to communicate good news to a thirsty world. How can we do that better? The future of the church may depend on it.
Can you describe what you mean by “vanishing grace”?
I cite statistics in the book, but the best way to sense the problem is to conduct your own personal survey. Ask strangers, “When I say the word ‘Christian,’ what word first comes to mind?” I’ve done that, and the answers are truly sobering. God’s grace is surely not vanishing, but we Christians sometimes get in the way of that grace and the world doesn’t sense it.
Why do you think grace is vanishing?
In part you can blame the media, which tend to focus on extreme representatives of the faith—the “God hates fags” people, for instance. I also sense a spirit of fear among many in the church. As society moves in a different, more secular direction, we Christians can feel like an oppressed minority. In response we can lash out, or alternatively we can withdraw, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and shutting the gates against the rest of the world. Neither of these is a good option, at least as I read the New Testament.
In what area do you see this absence most distinctly—our lives, churches, or society?
It’s always risky to generalize, but if I had to choose I would say society. Churches and individual Christians are far less legalistic and intolerant now than when I was growing up. Step outside the church, however, and for many in the modern U.S., politics substitutes for religion. They see politics as the answer to questions of meaning, the arbiter of right and wrong, the solution to universal human problems. Yet politics is an adversary sport, which represents danger for Christians who enter that arena. You demean and defame your opponent; you make decisions based on attracting votes and campaign funds. Jesus has a different set of rules: “Love your enemies,” he said. “Pray for those who persecute you.” A faithful Christian may enter politics, and fight battles of justice, yet we should use different weapons, “the weapons of grace,” as Martin Luther King Jr. used to say.
What should Christians and churches start focusing on if we want to address this deficit of grace?
I did not want to write a scolding book on what we’re doing wrong. Instead, I deliberately sought examples of individuals and churches who are doing it right. They represent many different approaches. I would answer your question this way: We are not called to clean up society (consider how little attention Jesus and Paul gave to the errors of the Roman Empire). Rather, we are called to establish pioneer settlements of the kingdom, showing the world a different way of being human.
The early Christians did that so well. They adopted babies abandoned by Romans, stayed behind to nurse the victims of plagues, looked after the poor and hungry. After a while Romans sat up and paid attention, ultimately concluding the Christians’ way of life was better. While writing this book I came across this clear command in Hebrews 12:15, which became my motto: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” What a great goal for all of us.
You refer to the “aliveness” of some churches that you have visited. What is this “aliveness,” and how do you think churches can cultivate it?
During an experiment in which I visited all twenty-four churches in my hometown, I identified three characteristics that contribute to health. You don’t learn grace by hanging around people just like you. You learn it through diversity—relating to people who differ from you in age, race, cultural background, and gender. Yet a healthy church also needs a spirit of unity, that elusive quality that Jesus prayed for so urgently at the Last Supper. Perhaps most importantly, a healthy church needs a sense of mission, a commitment to spread abroad the good news to a needy world. Walking into a strange church, I could usually gauge aliveness by listening to the conversation in the lobby and reading the content of the bulletin board.
You seem to be suggesting that grace is vanishing in part because of our lack of graciousness to others. Can you talk about that?
John says that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” The church has focused a great deal on the truth side of that equation: witness the thousands of denominations, the creeds, the church councils, even wars fought over theological distinctions. I simply ask that the church engage more vigorously on the grace side. Peter, Paul, and Jesus all said quite clearly that love is the most important command, the heart of what we should be communicating to the world. Again, conduct your own private survey and please write me if someone mentions “love” as the first word that comes to mind when you ask about Christians. Jesus described love as the telling mark of the Christian—“by this shall all know you are my disciples.” And in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul said that no matter what else we do, if love is missing, we’ve failed the gospel.
One of my daughter’s friends recently tweeted that “Christianity is dangerous” after seeing that a transgendered person from a conservative Christian family took her life. What is the best strategy for reaching people who have grown increasingly more hostile toward Christianity and antagonistic toward the church?
I cringe just a bit at the words “strategy for reaching.” As pastor and theologian Tim Keller says, even the phrase “friendship evangelism” implies a kind of marketing strategy. Why not simply view a person as a potential friend, as someone in need of love?
I know what you’re saying though. When someone has been wounded by the church, you want to help heal that wound. My advice is to show love and restraint, pray, and look for what I call “hinge moments” when hidden thirst may come to the surface. Marriage, the birth of a baby, the intensive-care ward of a hospital, a wayward child or other family crisis—all of these summon up questions that only find their resolution in spiritual answers. Think of Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. She kept bringing up issues of doctrine and division; he homed in on the true need—her deep, unquenched spiritual thirst.
I’d also add that it’s OK to admit that the church makes serious errors. Sometimes people attack me for writing negatively about the fundamentalist church I grew up in—yet I get far more letters from people who trust me with their own stories of wounds because I’ve exposed mine. The church exists because we acknowledge we have failed, continue to fail, and need God’s forgiveness and transforming power.
The church has made a lot of mistakes throughout history, yet you point out that Christians do a lot of good within our world. How can we celebrate the good things Christians are doing without ignoring where we have let people and our world down?
I avoid getting into a balance-sheet approach to the faith: let’s see, do Christian contributions to medicine, education, and science outweigh the Crusades and the wars of religion?
I recently returned from South Korea, though, where I spent an afternoon at a cemetery that holds the remains of 145 foreign missionaries. I went up and down the rows, reading of those who gave their lives fighting the brutal Japanese colonial regime, advancing the education of women, translating the Bible, and building clinics and schools and orphanages. Jesus used small images to describe the kingdom: a sprinkling of salt on meat, a bit of yeast that causes the whole loaf to rise, the smallest seed in the garden that grows into a great bush in which the birds of the air come to rest. The secular West perches in that bush—enjoying the fruits of education, science, freedom, democracy, human rights—even while dismissing the faith that caused it to grow. Other parts of the world, though, know the difference. Compare what I found in South Korea to conditions just thirty miles away, in its cousin nation to the north. I know no starker contrast on earth.
My parents live in Newtown, Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook School shootings took place on December 14, 2012. You were invited to come alongside this community in their darkest hour. Can you describe the experience?
When a pastor friend of mine called me, I knew I had to go to Sandy Hook. At first I was intimidated. What could I possibly say to bring comfort to parents who kissed their six- and seven-year-old children goodbye before putting them on a school bus, only to return later that day to identify their bloody bodies in a morgue?
At the time I happened to be reading a series of books by the New Atheists for an article I was working on—folks like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. The New Atheists describe a universe of blind, pitiless indifference. I found just the opposite in Newtown, a community drenched in sorrow and remorse, with parents distraught over losing precious children whom they loved. I started watching the news coverage, noting that even staunchly secular outlets like The New York Times turn to priests, pastors, and rabbis at a time of national crisis. The gospel does have something to say to those in pain.
Any final thoughts?
We can say that God is on the side of the one suffering, something so obvious in the way Jesus treated every person experiencing pain and tragedy. God, too, lost a son. We are a resurrection faith with the promise that God is more upset over the evil and suffering in this world than we are, and promises to set it right someday.
About the Author
Doug Bixby is a pastor of Evangelical Covenant Church in Attleboro, Massachusetts. His interview with Philip Yancey was inspired by Yancey’s book, vanishing Grace. Doug is the author of two books and liked to coach soccer and basketball.