Philip Yancey: In Search of the Church’s “Vanishing Grace”

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Chris CarpenterDirector of Internet Programming/CBN.com – For nearly 40 years, author Philip Yancey has been challenging his readers to re-think their faith through an ever-changing lens. In his watershed bestselling book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Yancey captivated readers about the unmerited favor and love of God.

But in his latest offering, Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?, something is very different. In its 304 thought provoking pages, Yancey finds a church that is failing in its mission to dispense grace to a thirsty world. Further complicating matters, the public opinion of Christians has shifted dramatically.

I recently sat down with Yancey to discuss why Christians seems to be turning people off with their faith, the effect that technology is having on grace, and whether faith really matters in the post-modern culture in which we live.

 

To set the tone for our discussion, it is believed by many experts that the public influence of Christianity is dwindling. Why do you think the public opinion of Christians has declined so much over the years?

That’s what shocked me, actually, because I would have thought that the real hostility developed back when Jerry Falwell was at his height, the Moral Majority and all that, and it’s not true. I mentioned in Vanishing Grace, that in 1996, 85 percent of people who are outsiders to the faith with no religious commitment still viewed Christians favorably, and then 14 years later, in 2010, only 16 percent.

Something’s going on and it’s kind of like a perfect storm. The secular media tends to focus on the extremes. So if there’s one really hateful pastor, you know, like “God hates homosexuals” kind of people, they’re spokesman for all Christians, and the right wing politics that media sees on that, and they make every Christian look like they’re a flaming tea party, burn Washington down type people. So part of it is media, but I think also we’ve got a new generation coming along who were not raised in the church, and they believe the purpose of life is to fulfill all the desires that they feel.

 

In your book, you point out that there are three basic models of grace for Christians to dispense. What are they, and could you provide a couple of examples?

The three who are effective in communicating to a skeptical culture around this are pilgrim, activist and artist. Everybody is a pilgrim. I am, as a writer. I’m not an expert, I’m not a pastor, I’m not a theologian, I’m an ordinary pilgrim; and I think younger audiences especially, they’re looking for authentic honesty, vulnerability. So you look at the recovery movement, which is the most effective way in dealing with addictions, 12-step programs, what’s their secret? They don’t say this is what you should do, they say, I’m just one alcoholic talking to another and this is what I’ve learned, and that’s where we are. We’re pilgrims, we’re all subject to the same pressures, the same failures, the same temptations, but we’ve learned a higher power and we’ve met a higher power who can help us with those. Pilgrims are effective rather than somebody standing on a platform talking down to them; it just doesn’t work as well as it used to. Next is an activist. Activists are the people who actually do the work. Even if someone truly despises you, when you are out there digging wells in Africa, working against sexual trafficking, taking care of unwanted babies, they have to respect you. And then if you do it often, they’ll say, “Why do you care about these people?” And they’re more open to who you are in a different way, so that’s activists. And then there are the artists. Art does things a different way. Stories, they go behind the scenes, they kind of capture interest. For example, a book. With a book, you’re in control and it’s up to you whether you keep reading or not. And so art works on a different level, it’s less threatening and it kind of comes alongside. So I’ve found, in an increasingly hostile environment, those three styles are the styles that work best.

With all of the increased technology in our lives – iPhones, apps, tablets, and social media, what kind of an effect does that have on grace vanishing from our society? Is technology pushing it out?

I think it makes it much harder, because we start treating people as machines. As I travel around talking about grace, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you give me examples of when you really work to convey grace?” And the most impressive one I have heard was this shy woman from Toronto. She raised her hand and said, “Yeah, I feel God has called me to show grace to telethon marketers.” I said, “You mean all those people who call you right when you take your first bite of dinner, and then start talking and don’t let you say a word for 30 seconds?” And she said, “Yeah. All day long people curse at them, hang up on them.” And I said, “Yeah, people like me. ‘Leave me alone, I’m having dinner.’” And she said, “So, I listen to everything they say, and I almost never have purchased anything, but after they finish I say, ‘This must be a very hard job.’ And then I’ll say, ‘I believe in prayer. Is there something I can pray about in your life?’” And she said often they would just break down and cry, because all day long people are treating them like trash for interrupting their day. And she says, “You know, they’re just making minimum wage. It’s their job, and when somebody treats them like a human being, many times they’ll ask me to pray right then on the phone.” And that’s something I was really convicted when I heard that because I do the opposite.

There is a chapter in your book called, “Does Faith Matter?” Now, if there were ever three words to build a sermon around it would be these. Does faith matter in the post-modern culture in which we live? Please say yes.

I think it matters on three levels: one level is the individual, transformed lives. We all know stories. CBN broadcasts them all the time, people who were at the dregs, the bottom, on the verge of suicide, jumping off a bridge, prostitutes, sexual trafficking and drug addicts, and then when they meet Jesus, they’re transformed. It also matters on a community level. If you went to New Orleans this weekend, there would probably still be crews from churches in Houston and Dallas going to help long after the government has left, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And it matters on a national level, a whole society. I was in Sweden one time and I thought, man, this is a great place; it’s clean, it’s honest, people are friendly, they’re very high on their generosity list helping other countries, they’re cleaning the environment and all this stuff. I happened to be reading a book on the history of Europe on that trip and it said for more than 200 years, most prayers in Europe ended with a line, “Lord, save us from the Vikings, amen.” And I thought, what happened to change this society of war and killing, raping, armies into modern day Sweden? The Gospel happened, and it took a long time, it took a couple hundred years but it changed everything in that society. So does faith matter? Yes it does.

 

How can regular everyday folks dispense grace in their walk of life? What are some practical things that people can do?

One of the best things we can do is demonstrate to the world how God wants us to live. For example, marriages staying together is one of the greatest witnesses we can show the world, because so many people live in a broken world that comes out of broken families. Adopting foster kids, visiting those in jail. My church started a ministry for single mothers. They have a hard time getting their houses repaired. So these men volunteer and they go and repair your houses. There’s a lot going on that doesn’t generally get the secular media’s attention, for sure. But any one of us is challenged to show grace every day, because when I go to the grocery store, my first instinct is to get out of there as fast as possible and just treat that clerk like a machine. “Hurry up; I’m in an express line here.” Instead to treat them like a human being, it seems like you have more time than anybody else. You don’t, but to seem like you do. When you’re insulted, to not respond with anger, but instead reply with a soft answer. When wronged, forgive. It’s all in the Gospels.

 

As an author, what’s your greatest hope for Vanishing Grace? What would you like people to get out of the experience of reading this?

I present as many creative and practical ways for us to dispense grace as I can come up with. What I hope is that people will take that and multiply it by showing me things I never could have imagined and had never thought of. There’s a verse in Hebrews 12, it summarizes what I want to happen and in fact it’s the epigraph of the book, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” If that was the motto of the Church, not see to it that our society’s cleaned up, it’s not going to happen, not see to it that everybody gets converted, not going to happen. But we can see to it that no one misses the grace of God. There are enough Christians in this world that if we made that our daily goal it’s going to change the flavor of everything, the whole society.

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