Monday I spoke at the 25th anniversary of a church in the St. Louis area. I’ve known the leaders of this church for 30 years — since I was 19. Instead of flying, I decided to drive. Less stressful, with plenty of time to think on my Thinking Day. During the five and half hour drive I listened to a series of lectures on Early Christianity by Luke Timothy Johnson.

It got me to thinking.

During the 350 mile drive across Missouri I passed a lot of churches. Some were what I would describe as traditional churches. The architecture of these buildings was intended to communicate substance, history and tradition. But I knew that many of these churches lacked what I would call spiritual vigor. Some would call them “dead,” but I think that’s a bit too pejorative and judgmental (lacking in spiritual vigor seems fair enough).

I saw other churches that I suspected had something approaching spiritual vigor, or at least they had had some within a generation of two. But their architecture also communicated something, though probably unintended. Their architecture spoke of being in a hurry, of doing something as quick, cheap and inexpensive as possible. I don’t say this in an overly critical manner, because I understand why they did it that way. Their history is largely my history. They found some life in the Spirit and ran with it. There was no time to go deep; they had to go fast, build in a hurry, and get it done quick.

(And now I’m no longer talking about architecture; about throwing up metal buildings as fast as possible — though that may be an apt metaphor).

I’m talking about those who found spiritual life, got excited about it (because spiritual life is so precious) and built their church — their worship, theology, practice, and witness — as fast as possible. But in their genuine enthusiasm and new found joy, they didn’t dig deep, they didn’t put down any roots into ancient soil, they didn’t mine any timeless treasures. And now I wonder if they can endure more than a generation or two. I really wonder.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus spoke of those who receive the word of the kingdom and initially respond with joy and enthusiasm because they are shallow and lack deep roots. But over the course of time their shallowness and lack of depth becomes their undoing and they fail to bear any lasting fruit.

A phrase that has been in my mind lately is rooted and relevant. We need to be both — rooted in the historic traditions of the church and relevant in the way we communicate our message to contemporary culture.

As a baby-boomer and a spiritual child of the 1970’s Jesus Movement, I grew up with an almost pathological aversion to anything traditional. Tradition was anathema. An unequivocal enemy of the life of God. Fortunately I have grown beyond this juvenile way of thinking, or more precisely, this juvenile way of not thinking.

I’m aware there is plenty of criticism for dead tradition to be found in the Bible — in fact, the first sermon I ever preached as a long-haired, anti-traditional, sixteen year old Jesus freak was from the Isaiah 29:13.

This people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote

But it’s not so simple as “tradition bad, non-tradition good.” For one thing, today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition, and furthermore the Apostle Paul was known to make positive appeals to tradition. (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6)

Along with relevance (which is extraordinarily faddish), we need some rootedness. We need the counsel of the early Councils and the credibility of the ancient Creeds. We need the Councils and Creeds to help us stay orthodox and true to the faith, lest our craving for novelty give us nothing more than novel heresies. And if you are prone to poo-poo the ancient church councils, just remember it’s these councils that gave you your Bible.

But now I’ve stayed a bit from what I really want to think about.

I saw traditional churches lacking in life.
I saw lively churches lacking in tradition.
Can the lively churches embrace a little tradition?
Can the relevant churches become a little more rooted?
I hope so. Because if not, I don’t think they will last more than a generation or two.

I have spoken at the 20th or 25th anniversary of quite a few churches in recent years, but I have to tell you that most of the churches that were founded during the heyday of the Charismatic movement have long since folded. The shallowness that was part of their initial enthusiasm turned out to be their undoing.

So as I drove past a multitude of Missouri churches while Luke Timothy Johnson lectured me on Early Christianity, I had this thought go through my mind…

We have to go deeper.

We have to think deeper, live deeper, be deeper.

We live in a shallow society. We live in a throw-away culture. We need a Christianity that is not portrayed as a novel experiment, but fully connected with a two thousand year history. We need pastors who are both conversant in 21st century trends and technologies and in the theology of Luther, Augustine and Irenaeus.

Bono and Barth. Hillsong United and the Council of Nicea.

But it’s not just learning history or historical theology.

We need to be deeper humans. In the midst of our surface level, drive-though, shallow society we need to slow down and relate to other people as the deep, complex mystery that they are. We need to quit giving simplistic answers to complex problems. We need to grapple with the depth of humanity’s dysfunction, but in full conviction that in the depth of the cross there is found healing and wholeness. We need a deeper approach to our Christianity, to our worship, to our praying, to our reading, to the arts, to our problem solving, to being human.

Shallow Christianity has had its day and its fading fast.

We need to go deeper.

These were the thoughts I was thinking when I arrived at the hotel where I would be staying. After I got into my room, I checked my email and found that my friend Steve Parsons, a singer-songwriter and ministry leader in the UK (and one of the best lyricists I know) had sent me a poem. It’s entitled (get this!)…DEEPER.

(I love it when stuff like this happens.)

With Steve’s permission I want to share this poem with you. Read it thoughtfully and slowly. Then read it again.

by Steve Parsons

We have to go Deeper
Deeper than the trendy song
Deeper than some feel good rhetoric
Deeper than a song, a sermon, you’re gone

We walk across the town square on a mission
To a coffee shop for a fashionable bevy
But miss the history, the mystery of this place
I state my case

We have to go Deeper
Deeper than another moment missed
Deeper than a ‘useful’ relationship
Deeper than another backside kissed

There’s a smell of temporary in the air
Nothing made to last or made to matter
Convenient and quick is what we’re after
Human disaster

We have to go Deeper
Deeper than a face that fits the bill
Deeper than a suitable impression
Deeper cause we found that looks can kill

We discuss the crunch that’s come to end the party
We pass the hungry beggar on the street
A worry fuelled walk cause we’ve got much to lose
Still we do have shoes

We have to go Deeper
Deeper to a different kind of sharing
Deeper to a love that shouts aloud
Deeper till we find a way of caring

We argue over every jot and tittle
Like our opinion is the one that really matters
Humility is a tough old pie to swallow
Easier to stay hollow

We have to go Deeper
Deeper than semantic arguments
Deeper than the way we’ve always done it
Deeper than our sentimental bents

And we think we have this whole thing figured
Everything in it’s box neat and tidy
But there’s a teacher knocking at the door
Wants to show us more

We have to go Deeper
Deeper to a different kind of learning
Deeper to a different kind of knowing
Deeper cause I sense the Spirit calling

And it doesn’t look impressive on the surface
‘Why aren’t you stretching wider, higher, man?’
But I’ve given up on all the endless striving
I’ve started diving

We have to go Deeper
Deeper where the truth is found
Deeper where we walk with God
Deeper where you dare not make a sound


Good stuff, Steve! Thank you for sharing.

C’mon folks, let’s go deeper! Live deeper! Be deeper!



About the picture at the beginning of the blog:

I took this picture of of a painted Byzantine cross at the excavation site of Beth Shean in Israel. Beth Shean was a Gentile city mentioned in passing a couple of times in the Bible. It’s name means “House of the Serpent.” In the fourth century the gospel came to Beth Shean and the Cross was planted in the House of the Serpant.


The cross was part of an ancient baptistry. The painting is untreated. After 16 centuries the colors are still that vibrant.

And after 20 centuries the Cross is still that vibrant!

Here’s a picture of my son, Caleb, and his wife Ashlie, standing in front of the Beth Shean baptistry.