The string around the tree

I was born in 1946 – one year after Torrey Johnson, Billy Graham, and Chuck Templeton met and formed Youth For Christ. For years I heard the stories of how Chuck was in fact the better preacher, and everyone expected him to “turn the world around.” Later, he became a metaphor.

Known as the “gold-dust twins,” Billy and Chuck traveled and preached together to large crowds of teenagers until 1948. It was then that Chuck decided he wanted more theological training and tried unsuccessfully to recruit Billy to go with him to Princeton Theological Seminary.

Meanwhile, Billy Graham wrestled through his own spiritual crisis and concluded that, even though he could not answer some of the questions Chuck was raising, he would “accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” One year later, in the 1949 Los Angeles crusade, Billy Graham spoke to 350,000 people and was catapulted into national prominence. Planned for three weeks, the event was extended to eight.

On the other side of the country, Chuck Templeton decided he could not believe and several years later publicly declared himself an agnostic. He drifted from that point on for the balance of his life and died at 86 in 2001. Days before he died, he was asked, “What do you think of Jesus?” His reply was, “I … miss … him!”

Growing up in the 50s, we were often told by our elders about Chuck’s decision and his leaving the faith after doubting his beliefs and attending what was considered by our people a liberal seminary. While there was some merit to those warnings, I think the effect was more likely a discouragement of growth than confirming genuine belief. Any hint of moving away from traditional theological assumptions was met with a reminder of what happened to Chuck Templeton when he went to Princeton.

Why am I telling this story?

It’s partly as a caution that we can sometimes suppress healthy growth by overreacting to our kids having different values in their giving. For at least the last 100 years, the emphasis in evangelical giving has been “finish the task” and the completion of the “Great Commission.” If your adult children are listening to and reading Shane Claiborne, Kristin Du Mez, Tish Harrison Warren, Wendell Berry, Mako Fujimura, or being influenced by phrases like “common grace” or “common good,” then they are going to be seeing legitimate evangelical giving as being far broader than church planting, Scripture translation, and personal evangelism.

Ask your adult children about trust-based philanthropy, which is not only about giving unrestricted grants but is concerned as much with the redistribution of power, advancing equity between funders and grantees and building mutually accountable relationships.

More changes are coming. 

It would be easy to say to yourself and them, “Remember what happened to Chuck Templeton” or some variation of that. There is a sea change going on in evangelical giving and it does not mean the next generation has “gone liberal” or stopped believing. It means we have an unprecedented opportunity to have a conversation about our own assumptions that is, I think, unprecedented. 

In fact, these are just the kinds of conversations The Gathering encourages at our annual conference and in family meetings. They are easily avoided until we are suddenly surprised by how different our assumptions are about the use of our gifts. We have so much to learn from each other.

My father grew up in an extremely fundamentalist home as the son of a Baptist pastor in Nashville. To his credit, instead of holding the example of Chuck Templeton over my head when we had differences, he told me how he managed to remain orthodox but not inflexible.

“I think of orthodoxy as a very large tree in the forest around which I have tied a string,” he said. “Holding on to the end of that string allows me to go down different paths and even sometimes find myself a pretty good distance from the tree. However, I know as long as I hold on to the end of that string I can find my way back to orthodoxy. Unfortunately, too many people head off without a string and get lost, or the string is really a chain and they never leave the safety of the tree.”

Yes, Chuck Templeton lost his hold on the string, and it will happen to others. However, just because the next generation’s priorities and interests are different from ours does not mean they have dropped the string and are lost. We might choose to use differences as a reason to search the Scriptures together and find a way to hang on together.

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