Calling All Daniels (and Esthers)

Coming of age in an age that needs spiritual heroes

by John Seel


Young people need role models.

Young people look for examples of faith in the halls of power. Instead, divorce, scandal, and hypocrisy seem to be headlining the pages of both People and Christianity Today. It's enough to make the skeptical cynical.

In his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church… And Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman describes young people as falling into three groups: nomads, prodigals, and exiles. I would add Daniels to this list to make four groups.

Close to 60 percent of young people who attend church as teens drop out after high school; 50 percent of young adults in American no longer identify as Christians; 15 percent consider themselves as having "no religion"; and 33 percent never go to church or synagogue. Close to three-fourths of "religious nones" grew up in the church.

The church itself is the leading variable for why young people are leaving the church. Church youth groups have become a vaccine against ongoing belief. As Kenda Dean writes in Almost Christian: What The Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, "American young people are theoretically fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: We're responsible." Let's look at these four groups more closely.

Nomads have walked away from church, but still consider themselves Christians. For them, faith has become a highly individualistic and private experience. Their public beef is largely with the institutional church. They react negatively to the judgmental black and white thinking that characterizes their parents and their parents' churches. They particularly resist the common alignment of conservative Christianity with right-wing politics. Their response is to maintain faith but to abandon the church and para-church organizations. They opt out.

The idea that a vibrant faith can be maintained apart from church participation is theologically untenable and psychologically improbable. In today's cultural context, faith cannot be long maintained apart from the community of faith. Lone-ranger Christians over time become functional atheists.

But these children need to be applauded for maintaining some nominal relationship to the faith of their parents. Most feel trapped as few have meaningful onramps to a more vibrant faith that is cast in a more human frame. Over time many become prodigals.

Prodigals are those who, like their New Testament namesake, have metaphorically left their father's home and gone to a far country to sow their wild oats. These are young people who no longer describe themselves as Christians. This group has grown in the past twenty years as the public stigma against describing oneself as an unbeliever or atheist has declined. What once would have put one's career and public standing at risk is now considered hip, edgy, and cool, thanks to the likes of Bill Maher and Greg Graffin, lead singer of the rock group, Bad Religion.

Today the cultural stigma meter has done a one-eighty. Now the public risk is on those who adhere to orthodox Christian belief and practice their faith in public. And this rising stigma against Christians has created the third category: exiles.

Exiles are those who are still invested in their faith and church, but increasingly feel torn between their faith and the world they live in. Anyone who has close non-believing friends will almost inevitably fall into this category if they maintain consistent Christian practice.

The fact that the church is silent on how to navigate these tensions and doubts only makes their struggles more acute. How do they relate to their LGBTQ friends? How do they deal with an absence of biblical sex education? How do they date without assuming the assumptions of the hook-up scene? How do they deal with the assumptions about the "good life" as portrayed in Hollywood films and in television advertising? How do they deal with their parents' politics, which leaves them cold? How do they deal with police abuse? How do they deal with the high-profile hypocrisy of Christian leaders? How do they deal with the increasing sense of irrelevance of the church and Christian belief?

Some may want to keep their heads buried in the sand, but many find this impossible—so the tensions fester. These sensitive young people readily acknowledge that all belief in the contemporary world is contested. They may immerse themselves in books on apologetics to try to shore up their doubts, but over time they realize that their innocence has been permanently lost. They can never go back to unquestioned belief or naïve piety. Doubt seen as a lack of faith rather than a characteristic of faith undermines the plausibility of their residual faith. They can and do play the Christian game of the pious Sunday-morning smile, but there is a knot in their stomachs that won't go away, a "splinter in their minds," to quote Morpheus from The Matrix. The tension gnaws at them.

The evangelical church has not been very helpful to these exiles. Some adopt isolationist insulation from these tensions, burrowing themselves in the evangelical subculture or in the 24/7 mega-church existence. They go on pretending that Sherwood Pictures makes compelling films. Some may go so far as to double down on their beliefs as a way of overcoming the tensions. But even then their raised voices are evidence of a growing crack in their spiritual foundation.

Others seek to reduce the tensions selectively, maintaining faith and church attendance, but capitulating or softening their stance on all the hot-button social issues. With a little shopping one can always find a church that believes exactly as one does. Tension averted.

But what if tension is what we should expect and embrace? What if to be in the world but not of it requires tension?

But what if tension is what we should expect and embrace? What if to be in the world but not of it requires tension? Where do we find exemplars of those who remain orthodox in belief but aggressively empathetic to their non-believing friends? Where do we find examples of those who live on the knife-edge of tension?

In a world of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Scott Harrison, Daniel might not be the first name to come to mind. Daniel was a literal exile, having been exchanged with other members of the Jewish nobility as a tribute from Jehoiakim, King of Judah, to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon in 597 BC. This was the moment Daniel was called up to the show—to serve in the king's court of the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. A Daniel Wiki page might suggest seven characteristics of his life that are an example to all other modern-day exiles.

  1. Cosmopolitan: Daniel was no longer living in the Jewish ghetto. He moved to the center of cultural influence. For three years he was taught in the king's court the language and literature of the Babylonians. He is an exemplar of Jeremiah's admonition to people living in exile: "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jer. 29:7). Daniel's relationship to his new country was not adversarial; his new home became his new God-ordained missional platform. "On earth as it is in heaven." His kingdom was in heaven, but it was for the world. He was committed to making Babylon great, and he dedicated his life to this task.
  1. Conscious: But Daniel never lost sight of where or whose he was. He developed daily practices that reminded him of his distinctiveness from his surrounding culture. This started with refusing the royal food and wine, sticking instead with a vegan diet that proved to be healthier. He also had a conscious pattern of prayer—getting on his knees three times throughout the day. He did more that squeak in a 15-minute morning devotion. He partnered with God in all that he did.
  1. Conversational: He had an ongoing conversation with God that dealt with all the affairs of his public and professional life. There was no compartmentalization in Daniel's life—secular/sacred or faith/work—all was brought daily into a conversational relationship with his God. In this he exemplifies the kind of life that philosopher Dallas Willard calls us to: "We must come to the place where we comfortably think of God as a reality that is a part of our world. Until the church develops an understanding of the gospel that relates it more to this life than the next life, it will cause difficulties on both sides … I think the key issue here lies deeper than even matters of integration as we commonly discuss it. It is a matter of our understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ as one which breaks through the natural world and brings in the spiritual world and invites us as individuals to learn to live an eternal kind of life now." Daniel was an ambassador of heaven in the midst of Babylon.
  1. Companioned: Daniel was not a loner. He surrounded himself with three close friends whose professionalism, values, and calling matched his own. These four compatriots distinguished themselves. Almost more than any other choice we make, we reveal our heart's orientation by the close friends we choose. It is always "peer preference" before it is "peer pressure." In an alien world, Daniel had trusted companions who served as his accountability partners. We dare not think we can make it on our own. It was for this reason that C.S. Lewis claimed, "Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, 'sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.' I know I am very fortunate in that respect."
  1. Competent: We also see that Daniel and his friends excelled in their studies and professional work. "In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them 10 times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom" (Dan. 1:20). This is not commonly observed in contemporary Christians. They often lack the education, social graces, innovative creativity, or professional acumen of their non-believing peers.

Moreover, humans are typically social chameleons, slowly adapting to their social surroundings. Over time, the culture shock of living in a new place fades, and we become indistinguishable from our social setting—talking, dressing, and acting like those around us. There was no theological accommodation in Daniel, even though the pagan and occult practices of the Babylonians surrounded him. Rather than blend in, seeking to be "relevant," he worked to stand out. In fact, when his jealous coworkers were looking for ways to bring charges against him, "They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent." He was a man of unquestioned integrity in all aspects of his life. They were left with nothing to attack but his faith, as he was above reproach in all other aspects of his life. He embodied Paul's admonition, "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders: Make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversations be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Col. 4:5-6).

  1. Clear: Daniel was not a closeted Christian. It was widely known that Daniel was a follower of the "God of heaven." In a pluralistic and spiritually hostile environment, it is often easier to keep one's faith under wraps as a purely private matter. This was not the policy of Daniel or his female counterpart in the Persian court, Esther. Like Tim Tebow, Daniel was known equally for his faith and his humility. When Daniel revealed the substance and meaning of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, thereby sparing the lives of all the wise men of Babylon, he said, "As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than other living men, but so that you, O king, may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind" (Dan. 2:30). He did not use his spiritual insight as an opportunity for pride or fame but for service. And though he was given increasing honor and responsibility within the king's court, as is often the case for those living a public life of faith, his integrity was soon put to the ultimate test. His friends were thrown into a fiery furnace and Daniel into the lion's den. Faithfulness often leads to a decisive moment. It did for Daniel and it will for you and me.
  1. Committed: Daniel and his friends finally had to demonstrate with their lives that they were willing, whatever the cost, to put first God and his kingdom. "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well," Jesus said simply (Matt. 6:33). They would not bow down to idols or cease their habit of prayer, even when their lives were at stake. When push came to shove, God always came first. And while they counted on the reality of the supernatural presence of God, they did not presume on God in some sort of simplistic assumption that everything always works out easily for his followers. Their gospel was not a prosperity gospel. They were saved from death, but they did not presume that outcome.

Prior to facing the fiery furnace, his friends explain to Nebuchadnezzar, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of God you have set up" (Dan. 3:17). And in Daniel's case, no one knew how much would remain of Daniel after a night with the lions. In this case, Nebuchadnezzar prayed, "May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you." The outcome of faith can lead equally to remaining untouched by lions and being bitten in two, life or death, Corrie ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Hebrews 11:32-38). The common element in both outcomes is a faithful commitment to God that leaves the outcome to up to God.

We are no longer playing ball in the church league where casual adherence to Americanized Christianity will suffice. In today's world the stakes are high: the contestability of belief assumed, the professional risks to public faith real, the global instant scrutiny of personal hypocrisy afforded by the internet and Gawker omnipresent. Ours is a day that calls for Daniels and Esthers, special forces in kingdom service. This is the major league. We are being called up to the show.

Willard reminds us:

  • This is an age for spiritual heroes—a time for men and women to be heroic in faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger of the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low. Holiness and devotion must now come forth from the closet and the chapel to possess the street and the factory, the schoolroom and boardroom, the scientific laboratory and the governmental office. Instead of a select few making religion their life, with the power and inspiration realized through the spiritual disciplines, all of us can make our lives and vocations be "the house of God and the gate of heaven." It can—and must—happen. And it will happen. The living Christ will make it happen through us as we dwell with him in life appropriately disciplined in the spiritual Kingdom of God.

Many of us have children who are nomads, prodigals, or exiles. Our prayer is that they would become Daniels and Esthers in and through their callings and spheres of influence. But even more than our children, the task begins with you and me. There is nothing casual about faith today. The stakes are high and the inner reality of Jesus' presence in our lives must be self-evident. We have hope, because God is up to the task of transforming us into such men and women for our time.

John Seel is a cultural renewal consultant and former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation.

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