When you read broadly in the religious world today you begin to identify certain trends. Some of these trends are ostensibly about the direction the church is moving. Some of these trends are about what the trendy authors think the church is moving. I think it could be argued that the church is not moving at all, that its own lethargy and inertia is what is killing it. But that is a point for people far more schooled in trends within the church to figure out. I just read what they write.
However, I have identified one facet, or quirk, or “trend” if that is what you want to call it, that I find both significant and troubling at the same time. That trend has two opposite, and actually totally conflicting components.
The first is this: one group of analysts points out that the church has, over the past 50 years or so (if not much longer) become entirely consumeristic. We have identified a “target” audience, tailored a message to reach that audience, created an atmosphere that would attract that audience and put everything into motion in order to please that audience. So, we have whiz-bang youth ministries, tremendous toddler teachers, mothers day outs, senior Tuesdays – a ministry for every “niche” group there is from the bassinet all the way to the retirement home. The problem with this compartmentalization is that it cheapens the gospel. The church was never intended to be a shopping mall or a cafeteria, where you could walk down an aisle and say, “Well, I’ll take a helping of Tuesday morning moms day out, a side of young married’s class, two or three helpings of Super Teen night, and, while we’re at it, how about a helping of mind-bending worship service for dessert!” When a church fails to meet each and every demand from each and every socio-economic group in their “church,” the offended party simply goes shopping for a “church” that offers something to meet their perceived “needs.”
The second, and diametrically opposed component is this: another group of analysts have noticed that an increasing number of people, mostly young, are leaving the church and have proposed any number of “fixes” to get them to either stay, or to come back. Those fixes include making the worship experience more “experiential” – meaning more theatrics, more video, more “sensory” type experiences, as well as adding more “experiential” type activities so that a generation that has been raised with high definition TVs and complicated computer games will not be “bored” with an “old-timey” worship service.
Did you see the contradiction here? On the one hand we have become too consumeristic, we have bowed the knee to King Choice, we have completely given up on making the demands of discipleship plain, and on the other hand we need to create an entirely new set of consumeristic options in order to repair the leaky back doors on our church buildings.
Sometimes I wonder if these analysts even read what each other are writing. But it is enough to give the rest of us whiplash.
Personally, I am “all in” with the first group. As I look back on my teenage years I realize how the church bent over backwards to make sure I was a happy, contented, and active teen in the youth group. We had retreats and lock-ins and pizza parties and ski trips and I don’t know what else – and we even had a fairly large dose of teaching and service opportunities. But I really do not remember ever having a serious discussion of what discipleship was all about, and what it might ultimately cost me. Everything that was done was done with me and my age group as the main concern. In my most humble and beyond question correct opinion, that approach has failed miserably and we are reaping the fruit of the failure of that experiment.
And so, when I read or hear some 20 or early 30 something speak or write that the way to reverse the current exodus in the teen to young married age group is to bend even further toward the consumeristic side of the aisle I get pretty churlish. We have done everything under the sun to make people happy, to “meet their needs” to make the worship service “meaningful” (whatever that could possibly mean) and what has happened? More and more young people are leaving because every time we work to reach the bar, they just raise the bar a little higher. Instead of one screen with a simple PowerPoint presentation, we need three screens with multiple images and “surround sound” audio. We need incense so that we can have an olfactory experience. We need bells – literally, we need bells – to help our ears tingle. We need a blue-light special on aisle six. One song leader is just so twentieth century. Now we need a Praise Team to lead us so that our worship will be exciting and vibrant and, well, so today.
I say hogwash and balderdash. What we need to do is to return to a sane, healthy and challenging theology that exalts God as the creator and returns us to the position of created being. We need to return to the image of the book of Revelation where Christ is an awe-inspiring manifestation of strength and power instead of our best buddy. The church grew when it realized that God was God and not the local super-mall manager.
I look at the young people who are chasing their tails and I wonder what will happen when they turn 40 or 45 and observe that their children and grandchildren examine all their “perfect solutions” to the church and simply sniff and walk away. At some point (hopefully) these twenty-somethings will come to realize that the mere externals of what they are attempting to change means not one little bit if the internal commitment to Jesus and His church is not there. The fact is we have been trying to find the “perfect solution” for over a generation now and the answer is pretty clear – if you try to market the church, someone is always going to have a flashier preacher, a better sound system, a louder praise band, a flashier video projector. Trying to “out consumer” the king of this world is simply not going to work.
I have an idea – let’s try teaching discipleship: self-sacrifice, dying to self so that others might see Christ, giving instead of getting, blessing instead of searching for endless ways to be blessed, worshipping the King of kings instead of the tyrant inside our selfish hearts.
Let’s work on being the church of Christ for a change. We have a far better story to proclaim than the garbage that Hollywood and Wall Street are producing. Why can’t we see that?
One thing I want everyone to know about this post – I am attacking myself, not others (at least explicitly). When I refer to others it is to illustrate my failings, not to heap scorn upon derision. This is a confession, not a broadside.
I have been struggling mightily with something over the past few weeks, months, and maybe even years. It has finally bubbled up to the point that I either have to deal with it or it will destroy me. Possibly it has already overcome me, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for quite a while.
But, political correctness is killing me. I don’t mean the kind of sloppy journalism or political hatchet jobs that continually assail me. I am talking about my own political correctness and how I seem utterly unable to confront or defeat it. For those of you who follow this blog regularly you might be surprised at that admission. There are times in my writings in which I become (or surrender to) my acerbic self. But, interestingly, that is part of the problem. This is my own little space of the cyber world in which everyone is invited but no one is forced to enter, or stay. If someone does not like what I write they ignore me. Thousands upon thousands assiduously do so on a regular basis. Knowing that, I steam and vent about subjects that are important to me, but obviously not too significant for others.
No, my issue with my own political correctness has to do with those with whom I am forced to deal on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. I fit the description that was leveled against the apostle Paul (although, to be fair, I believe he disavowed such an attack) that his letters were “weighty and powerful, but his physical appearance is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Cor. 10:10) I have visions of being a Great White Shark, and ultimately all I manage to portray is a spineless little jellyfish.
There are times in this world in which a person must stand up – speak up and say what needs to be said. Of course, it should go without saying that such statements need to be made in the spirit of love and correction, not hate and malediction. But still, you cannot read the gospels without seeing a Jesus that was both loving and welcoming as well as direct and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.
And so I struggle with the balance – and all too often I find myself swallowing my words, backing off of a confrontation that I think needs to be made, weakly surrendering to the pressure of the moment or of the possible consequences should my objection be objected to. I defer – and end up kicking myself for it. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – all had the spine to stand up and confront not only the minions of politics but also the minions of religion and all either paid a huge price or at least had the threat of paying a huge personal price.
I’m tired of my own cowardice, but I’m not sure how to overcome it without being churlish and vindictive.
I’ve just had it to my eyebrows with the skinny jeans, t-shirt and goatee wearing crowd lecturing me about how to fix the church when they have already written the church off as being unimportant. I’m sick to my stomach of authors criticizing spiritual leaders who have been loving and serving the church longer than these twenty-somethings have been alive. I recoil when I hear some academically trained yet theologically ignorant sycophant use some word like “missional” or “incarnational” as if by wielding such verbal weaponry they can slay their Quixotic opponent.
I stand mute when I hear a racist or homosexual loathing comment made in a Bible class, and I offer no word of censure when the same racist or homophobe stands a few minutes later to implore God’s blessings over the table of His Son’s memorial feast. I do not confront the obvious and blatant misrepresentation of Scripture that is done in manifest adoration of “the ancient paths.” When someone who leaves his Bible on the church pew so he won’t forget it next Sunday upbraids me because my hours of preparation and reading the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarship do not match his preconceived ideas, I say nothing. It might cause a scene. And causing a scene is the last thing a politically correct minister wants to do.
I swallow hard, and walk away. I do so because I think that it is better to maintain peace than to cause a disturbance. The times that I have tried to stand up have not ended well. My blood does flow hot, and all too often I let passion get the best of me. But the opposite has been that I say nothing. “Keep your mouth shut and be politically correct.”
I wish, just once, I could justifiably kick over a few money-changing tables and toss some thieving scoundrels out on their ears.
Sometimes being politically incorrect is exactly what God expects. His house is no less a place of prayer and of healing for the nations today than it was in the last week of Jesus’ life.
Maybe someday I will find the balance between personal disgust and zeal for God’s house. Maybe someday before I die I will manage to find my teeth.
I can always hope.
For preachers – no one ever conquered without rising to a challenge. Challenge your listeners, man, challenge!
For congregations – if your minister is telling you exactly what you want to hear and exactly what you have always heard, it is time to find another preacher. If you are not being challenged, you are not hearing the Word of God!
Warning: ill-tempered rant immediately ahead.
Don’t lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him. Just a couple of examples -
In 1 Samuel 15 King Saul is given a specific command to destroy the people of Amalek. We recoil from the command because it sounds so genocidal. However, that was the command, and apparently King Saul understood it quite literally. So he marches off and almost completely and totally obeys the command. Then he lies to God about the “almost” part. “But I did obey the LORD!” Saul answered. (1 Sam. 15:20). Problem was, he did not. He had spared the king and the finest of the animals, ostensibly for sacrifice, but spared them none-the-less. In response Samuel said,
“Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD?”
Then Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as king, and that meant that Saul’s sons would be rejected as well. There would be no Saul dynasty.
You see, when you lie to God you really cannot fool him, and he takes a pretty dim view of the attempt.
Example #2 – in Acts 5 the author Luke interrupts his litany of events about church growth and all the good things that are happening in and through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit to relate a very sordid story. A married couple sells a piece of land and brings a portion of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. The only problem is that they lied to God about the amount of money they had received. God took a pretty dim view of the deception. First Ananias and then his wife Sapphira fell dead before the church. A harsh end for such a little transgression, we might say. It just goes to highlight the importance God places on our honesty.
Don’t ever lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him.
I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but there are a couple of lies that I keep hearing that are really beginning to bother me – bother me deeply and with increasing passion.
Lie #1 – “I want everyone to know that I really, really, really love the church, but…” The sentence can come in many different shades of “really” but though the form may change the content never does. What follows this supposed confession of love for the church is invariably a lengthy screed condemning the church and everyone who would defend the church. The church is hypocritical. The church is corrupt. The church is hopelessly out of date. The church needs to wake up and start doing things the way the author deems critical or it will simply cease to exist.
Pardon me for being blunt, Mr. or Mrs. church critic, but it is obvious that you really do not love the church. Your opening line is designed to get me to lower my defenses. “Oh, I should not judge Mr. or Mrs. Critic so harshly” my inner voice is supposed to lecture me, “see how much he or she loves the church.” Except that it is a bogus love, a false love, a poisonous love served up in a golden goblet.
To love the church means that you love something that is filled with humans and by that very definition itself means that it is imperfect – tainted with sin, broken and in need of Christ’s healing. Here is some news for you, Mr or Mrs. church critic – the church will never be perfect. It has never been perfect and it will not be perfect even after you get through lecturing it. It will not be perfect even if it followed every one of your perfect solutions. Until Jesus comes to claim his Bride the church will still have its blots and blemishes. That is why Paul prayed daily with tears and great anxiety. He knew that Christ has called his church to be pure, but he also knew that the people who made up each individual congregation were far from pure.
I find it personally repugnant that so many of the people who are ostensibly in love with the church (and yet who make a healthy living out of disciplining the church) have given up on the idea of serving a local congregation. Now that I have “shown my cards” so to speak maybe I should just go ahead and reveal how I really feel. But if Mr. or Mrs. church critic is not covered in the muck and mud of daily congregational ministry I just really do not care about what they have to say about fixing the church (or abandoning the church). And that is especially true of all these 20 somethings who have never been in a position to truly minister to a bent and broken local congregation and who are writing all those books and blogs and producing all the videos that carp and criticize the efforts of those who are spending their days and nights wallowing in the muck and mud of exhausting congregational ministry.
Hey, Mr. or Mrs. church critic – if you don’t smell like sheep then what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd mine? Or, to be more theologically correct, what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd God’s sheep?
And while I’m at it – how about a word to our schools who are preparing and sending these twenty-somethings out into the world to criticize something they have no experience in serving? How dare you claim to be producing servants of the Crucified One when the majority of your graduates have no intention of serving God’s people in a local congregation? How can you defend taking young men and women and filling their heads with the idea that the church is something to be studiously avoided? How can you claim that you study the opening chapters of virtually all of the apostle Paul’s letters (Galatians notably excepted) and at the same time suggest that serving a local congregation is somehow beneath the dignity of your esteemed graduates? Maybe you are trying to get them to go into congregational ministry and they simply refuse. Maybe. But if a majority of your graduates have no plans to enter congregational ministry does that not speak poorly of the emphasis you place upon the local congregation and its value in the Kingdom of God?
Don’t lie to God. Really – just don’t.
Lie #2 – “I really, truly, deeply, love Jesus – I just don’t love the church.” Everything I said about lie #1 applies to lie #2, except that lie #2 is more insidious. Who would ever think of challenging someone who really, really, truly and deeply loves Jesus, especially if they have the audacity to admit they do not love the church? Except, once again, that is an outright lie. You cannot love Jesus and at the same time dislike the church.
Here is a quick test – for whom did Jesus die? If you said “me” or “each person” you get half credit. Jesus did not die for individuals, to create an individual salvation, so that each person could imagine an individual heaven where he/she can individually worship God. Jesus died for the sins of all people collectively, in order to create a new community of those who believe in Him, and for the purpose of establishing a new and eternal kingdom where untold thousands from “every nation, tribe, language and people” are gathered together to live in perfect unity in worship to God. On earth that kingdom is called the church. If you do not love the church, if you dislike the church, if you do not want to have anything to do with the church, then by that very admission you no longer love the one who died to redeem that community for God. We in America have taken “individualism” to such an extreme that we have utterly corrupted the communal view of the Kingdom of God. I cannot think of a single passage of the New Testament that speaks of Jesus dying for an individual separate and apart from the community of other redeemed sinners. Perhaps one exists, but I would hasten to add that if such a passage exists it is written within the immediate context of the community of the saints. The inspired authors of our New Testament simply did not write to bless our American view of individual salvation.
I was going to say I wonder about how God feels about so many people lying about their relationship with Him. But, I really don’t have to wonder at all.
God takes a very dim view of folks who lie about Him. Just ask a deposed king and a couple of suddenly deceased land owners.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)
For preachers: Serve every day as if you will retire at your present congregation, and plan so that if today is your last day your ministry will flourish without you. Make your predecessor proud of you and your successor love you to death.
For congregations: Hire the best man you can find, and then give him the best financial package you can afford (even if it means “stepping out in faith”) – spoil him and his family, make sure they will never, ever want to leave your service.
The Christian world, Western edition, is all atwitter with the discussion of how to make the church relevant. From what I am to gather, the precipitating issue which started all of this discussion is the fact that young people are leaving the “church” in droves. Not by tens, or hundreds, it would appear. But apparently all across the religious spectrum from the most conservative Bible believing hell-fire-and-brimstone type churches to the most liberal mainline denominations, young people are voting with their feet in unprecedented numbers. The answer, as discussed in books and seminars and blogs and tweets, is to make the church “relevant.”
As I have mentioned many times previously, I am not the brightest bulb in the box, so please, if I am missing something here, please enlighten me. But just how exactly to you make ANYTHING “relevant?”
From my somewhat perplexed and even increasingly agitated viewpoint, something either IS relevant, or it is not, but there is virtually nothing a person can do to make something relevant.
Go ahead – I dare you. Make something that is absolutely irrelevant to your life relevant. Let’s say you hate a sport – say golf. Many people love the sport. Some tolerate it. Others despise it. Now, how are you going to make golf relevant to someone who hates it? Make them play 18 holes every day? Read them the rule book every night before they go to sleep? Put a video of “Golf’s 10 Greatest Moments” on their 72 inch TV screen? How, exactly, can you make something relevant by forcing it down someone’s throat? Or, by making it more sexy? Or by jazzing it up with a praise band or a dance team? Or by adding “non-traditional” songs? It just will not work, folks. You can put all the lipstick you want to on a pig and guess what – all you end up with is a very confused and possibly very angry pig.
Either the church is relevant to a person’s life or it is not. There is no way under God’s pure blue sky that we are ever going to make something that is irrelevant to become relevant. I am not trying to be obstinate, unkind, or uncharitable here. Provocative, for sure – I want to provoke some serious thought.
Just this week I have been reading Deuteronomy in my daily Bible reading. The past two days two verses have leapt out at me while I have been thinking about this subject. The first is Deut. 27:9, “Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, ‘Be silent, Israel, and listen! This day you have become the people of the LORD your God.’” Now, that verse might slip past me 9 out of 10 times I read it. But notice – this “day” to which Moses and the priests made mention was not the day the Israelites left Egypt, nor the day they received the law at Mt. Sinai. The “day” was the day they had the law read to them as they prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. In other words, the past was important for the Israelites and they were never to forget it, but what was relevant was the law in their immediate and given situation. But Moses and the priests did not make the law relevant – it simply was relevant.
The second verse is Deut. 32:47, “For they [the words Moses was giving the Israelites] are not meaningless words to you but they are your life, and by them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Notice that. The words of the law are not meaningless. They are life. We look at the Levitical law as dry as day old toast, meaningless and beyond comprehension. To the “people of God” however, they constituted life.
I have to confess – I am really befuddled here. It just seems to me that if a man went through the Palestinian countryside saying, “I am the Son of God” and if he was able to defend that claim with Old Testament prophecy and the immediate power of God, and if that same man was crucified and three days later was resurrected out of a cold and sealed tomb, then what that man and his immediate followers said to me are relevant. I do not make them relevant. I have the choice to accept their relevance, or to reject their relevance and thereby declare them to be irrelevant for my life, but in neither case am I materially affecting the reality of the relevance of the Son of God or of his disciple’s teachings.
What this all boils down to is that when someone writes a column or a book or gives a speech and says in effect, “Young people will return to the church when we make it relevant” they have placed an impossible requirement on the church. We cannot crawl inside some 20-something-year-olds head and flip a switch and suddenly “make” the church relevant.
If Jesus and his sacrifice are relevant to any person’s life, then the church will be relevant. If the church is irrelevant – what does that say about the person’s devotion to Jesus and to his mission to create the “people of God?”
I am in no way suggesting that every congregation that bears the name of Jesus is relevant. Many congregations died years ago, it is just that no one has told them yet. Many others are in the final gasps of life. If you doubt me, just consider the seven letters to the seven congregations of the church in the book of Revelation. Seven churches were addressed, but it is clear that each was dealt with on an individual basis. Laodicea was lethargic, but that had no bearing on the relevance of the church. Sardis was in effect dead, but that had no impact on the relevance of the church universal. Philadelphia was perking along pretty good, but that did not mean it was more relevant than Laodicea or Sardis. There is a HUGE distinction between a dead or dying congregation and an irrelevant church.
So, call me a cynic or an old fuddy-dud or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte if you wish. I am simply not buying the snake oil that is being peddled by so many in so many different ways today. The church is the most relevant community in the world. We will never be able to make it more relevant, or even make it relevant to begin with. We can make a congregation more useful, more inviting, more caring, more evangelistic, more benevolent, more knowledgable, more grace oriented, more worshipful, more inclusive, more inter-generational, – and maybe a dozen other things. But relevant?
C’mon theologians, preachers and bloggers, let’s use a better word!
I have noticed something as the road behind me gets longer and the road in front of me gets measurably shorter: some people seem to age so much better than others. It has been my pleasure to know some of the sweetest, kindest, most gentle “seniors” on the face of the earth. And I have known some of the most bitter, hateful old crows that you can possibly imagine. What is interesting about some (although not all) of the bitter, hateful group is that people who have known them for many years cannot understand the change that has supposedly changed the person. “Old weird John was such a nice person” they often say. “I just can’t imagine what has come over him to make him this way.”
I have another theory. Based on my now half-century plus experience in watching people age, and doing a fair amount of it myself, I am convinced that the “change” is not so surprising at all. There has been a change, to be sure, but the change is not in attitude or personality. What has changed is the person’s ability to mask that attitude or personality.
First, the legal disclaimer: I know there are sudden changes in a person’s health that affect temperament. Strokes, illness and other issues cause sudden changes that are easily explained and, although painful, can be excused. Other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease can slowly change a person’s mental status. I am not talking about these physical or mental diseases or crises.
The change I am talking about is the gradual decline in someone’s ability, or even willingness, to hold offending attitudes and behaviors in check. A younger man or woman may have to hold his or her tongue in order to maintain a job, or keep a privileged position in society. As they age they either no longer fear losing the job or the position, or they may feel that they are immune from criticism, so little by little more of their true feelings and attitudes creep out. Before long someone that was once known as a kind and gentle spirit becomes a raving racist or other hate-monger. Those who thought they knew them cannot understand what happened, but the reality is the person was always a racist or hate-monger. As a younger person with much more to lose they simply had the will power and strength to keep their feelings to themselves. Who really knows what lies hidden behind our carefully constructed social facades?
Okay, segue to the the point of this post. Many people (primarily religious conservatives) are in full panic mode about what has “happened” to the good “Christian” nation of the United States of America. Certain laws are passed or certain freedoms are granted and, at least on one level, it would appear that Chicken Little is correct – the moral sky is falling. But I want to ask another question, perhaps just for the purpose of discussion -
Have we as Americans really changed, or are we simply becoming what we have always been?
The grand old lady that we call “America” is now well over 200 years old. Her bones are getting creaky, her skin a little saggy; she still has quite a bit of spit and vinegar in her, but she certainly is not what she used to be. And, just as a human changes with age, so has she. And, I am wondering (actually, I’m not just wondering, I really think this) if the biggest change is not that she is losing her morality, but if in fact the immorality that she has always managed to hide is now managing to come to the surface. It is not that we have suddenly discovered immorality. It’s just that the prim and proper young woman just doesn’t give a hoot anymore who she offends, so she is just going to let everyone know what she really feels.
Stop and think about it for a while. At what point have Americans not been greedy – even to the point of covetousness? You might need to ask a descendant of an African slave or a Native American Indian before you casually answer that question. But we did not call it greed or covetousness, we called it “Manifest Destiny.” Or at what point in the past 200 years have Americans not been transfixed with sex? I remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school, and if I am not mistaken, Nathaniel Hawthorn was not a contemporary of Hugh Hefner. Concerned about America’s decline into the drug culture? How well did our little experiment with Prohibition work out? You see, there is not a single one of the 10 Commandments that I find more willfully violated today than it was 200 years ago. What I do see is that 200 years ago we were just far better at keeping our systemic spiritual rebellion hidden. Or, if it did happen to come out in the open, we just did a better job at re-naming it so that it was politically acceptable.
Today, Americans have lost their will power or their strength (or both) to keep those sins hidden. We prefer our covetousness to be blatant. We want our sexual promiscuity to be front and center. Our kids don’t respect their parents, so why should they respect school officials? Parents of little league football players physically assault game officials, so what is the problem with shooting up a theater full of movie watchers? If my body is my own then who are you to legislate anything that I want to do with it? How dare you tell me what I can or cannot ingest, or inhale! I am an American, born and raised in the land of the free and the home of the uninhibited.
The United States of America may be changing, but I do not think that it is changing in the way that many people think it is changing. I think we are simply becoming what we have always been. The change is that we simply don’t care anymore if anyone knows that we are a grumpy, mean, miserable person. We’ve been that way for 200 years, and we are just tired of hiding it.
The question this change raises for the church of Jesus Christ is stark: Are we going to “go along with the crowd” so as not to upset the masses and make them think that their behavior is wrong, or are we going to stand up, risk everything, and proclaim to a bent and broken world that it is bent and broken?
The future is here folks. It’s not going to get better after the next election or the one after that, or the one after that. America’s true colors are now currency green, Playboy pink, anger red and conscienceless black.
If we do not work on changing the soul of America, changing her President or a Supreme Court Justice is simply not going to make any difference. But that spiritual change will not happen as long as we refuse to admit that we have a problem to begin with.
Everyone repeat after me … “Hello group, I’m an American, and I’m a sinner…”
A word of warning here. Hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool, wrap the Bible in the American flag, “America first and always” patriots are not going to like this post. If you have an open mind you may want to continue reading. You may still disagree with me, but that is okay. You may even prove me wrong. But you have to listen to my argument before you totally discount what I have to say.
There is a considerable amount of angst these days in conservative Christian circles about what has happened to the American culture. So many culprits have been blamed – the wicked Supreme Court for their decisions regarding school prayer and abortion, the homosexual lobby and their efforts to destroy the sanctity of marriage, the communists and their godless society, the evolutionists and their godless education – and that list does not begin to be comprehensive. I have a more fundamental reason that the American culture is what it is today – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. If you are going to explain the problem, you have to get to the source of the problem. The seeds of our cultural problems were planted when we were planted. It has just taken 200 years for the plant to mature and for the buds to fully blossom.
If you were to identify the one, single defining concept of our American system, what word or phrase would you use? To me the answer is crystal clear: individualism. Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are built primarily upon the concept that the individual has priority over all else. The Bill of Rights protects the rights of the individual first, and the community or the society only in a secondary or derivative manner. For over 200 years the decisions that have been handed down by the Supreme Court (and are therefore precedent setting decisions) have been focused on protecting the rights and privileges of the individual. As the nation has aged those rights and privileges have been expanded, but the concept, the precedent, goes back to the framing of the Constitution itself. Our judicial system is a hyper-developed example of this individualism. We cherish the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and we go to great lengths to provide a defense for the accused and an impartial jury system to safeguard the rights of the individual (at least in theory…our practice has been somewhat less than sterling).
So, what is the problem? Why is this concept inimical to the biblical view of mankind, and therefore to the Christian worldview? To answer that question we only have to go back to Genesis 2:8. God has created a perfect world. He has created everything that man needs to survive and to thrive. The creation of everything up to this point has been “very good.” But then God looks down at man and says, “It is not good that man should be alone.” So God created another being, this time a female, to make the male complete. In other words God created a marriage, a union of two souls. Then he commanded them to reproduce and therefore create a family. Many generations later God chose a family to become his chosen nation, and through that nation all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Ultimately, God sent his Son to redeem all nations and peoples and create one community, the church to be the final unity of all mankind. From Genesis to Revelation we see the emphasis that God has placed on plurality, union, community, sharing, the idea of “one with another.” The focus for God is community, the individual only has significance as a part of that community. Once removed from that community the individual ceases to be important. In the United States the process is exactly reversed. The individual is the ultimate; the community only has significance as a collection of individuals. If the individual does not care for his or her community, he or she simply leaves to find another, or creates another, or lives in isolation. The individual, not the community, is primary.
This has profound implications for the church. What is the root cause for denominationalism? What is the root cause of all the splintering and division within denominations? What is the root cause of all the splintering and divisions within single congregations within the divided denominations? The answer to each of these questions is “individualism.” In America I am not bound by the decisions and structures of the community, I am free to decide and define my own choices. If I do not like your definition of Christianity, or if I do not like the decisions of the elders or the board of trustees, or if I do not agree with the choices for the interior decorating, I simply go across the street or across town and find something more to my liking. Or, maybe I just leave organized communities of faith altogether and start my own personal brand of worship. That way at least I know that I am pleasing 100% of the congregation 100% of the time. In American churches the individual is the ultimate source of power, and the community only exists to support his or her individual decisions.
And that, dear reader, is why Americanism and the pure, biblical form of Christianity will never be compatible. In order for the two to exist one or the other must be modified. Either the individualism of the founding documents of America must be modified to fit the biblical pattern for God’s will, or the church must be modified to fit the American concept of individualism. It is my firm conviction that we have elected to modify the church to fit our Constitution.
There can be no true community, no “one-for-another” as long as the prevailing attitude is that of pleasing the individual. There can be no church discipline if an individual is free to simply change membership from congregation to congregation, or from denomination to denomination, or free simply to walk away from the church altogether. To expand the argument, there really can be no ultimate form of morality if I am free as an individual to make my own moral choices.
Like it or not, Americans in the 21st century are waking up to the reality of what the founding fathers created in the 18th century. Our chickens have come home to roost. If we take a hard, “literalist” view of the Constitution then we cannot outlaw homosexual marriage or deny homosexual “partners” equal benefits to heterosexual couples. The real angst that many Christians are experiencing stems from the fact that somewhere deep inside them they sense this paradox. They want to be good Americans, to defend and be loyal to the Constitution, all the while realizing that the very document that grants them the freedom to do and act as they wish also guarantees the rights of those with whom they disagree to do and act as they please. And therein lies the internal conflict. And therein lies a choice that Christians in the 21st century and beyond are going to have to make. Are we going to be more loyal to an 18th century, flawed human document or are we going to be loyal to the inspired Word of God?
As I see it the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, is profoundly counter-cultural to Americanism. Jesus’ call to discipleship is radically different that the call to American patriotism. In the past 20 – 30 years we have seen just how radical that difference can become. At one time, several generations ago, the difference may not have been as stark as it is now, and so the response of Christians may not have been so clear cut. However, those days are long gone. They will not come back. Christians in the 21st century need to learn to act like Christians in the 21st century. We need to face the culture that we have now, not the one we grew up with, nor the one we wish we had.
Dear Christian reader – are we going to follow the Constitution or Christ? I believe it is about time we made that decision.
I’ve learned a lot about alignments over the past few years. Mostly because I have a bad back, and I can tell even before I get out of bed if the day is going to be good or one long exercise in getting straight. I know every part of our body is important, but if you have a bad back there ain’t nothing that works right.
So, I was thinking the other day about alignments – how if things are in a straight line things just work so much better. Cars work better if the tires are in alignment. Guitars depend on correct alignment to sound right. Archers know that if the bow is warped the arrow will fly past it’s target. If you let one tiny little mirror get bumped in a telescope the whole thing turns into an expensive kid’s toy. There are many, many areas of life in which alignment is everything.
Which then got me to thinking – do we have the church in alignment with God? That is such an elementary question, but one that I fear goes unasked let alone unanswered. It does not matter if we have one or two things about the church correct if we have half a dozen other things all wrong. If we are not in alignment with what God intends, we will never achieve what he wants us to achieve. Since the church is not growing (or is actually shrinking, depending on which metric you use) I am justified in asking the question – do we have our thoughts, our intentions, our goals, and our efforts in alignment with God?
Alignment number one – God wants mankind to be “in his image.” That is how he created us. That was not good enough for us, so we tried to make ourselves to be “like God.” I know I have railed against using foreign terms if English terms are just as good, but here is where Latin helps us out a little bit. I think most everyone can work through the terms here – God made us to be in the imago Dei. That is, he made us to be in his image. But we wanted to be sicut deus. That is, we wanted to be like God, knowing good and evil. So we traded the imago dei for the sicut deus and we have been out of alignment ever since. Jesus came to this earth to get us back into alignment – to show us how we can have the imago dei once again. That is, Jesus came to teach us how to be fully human. As long as we are trying to be like God we will fail to even be what God created us to be. We need to surrender our craving to be like God so that we can accept being made in the image of God. Once we get that alignment right, several others will fall into place. (I am indebted to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this insight. It clearly was above my pay grade to achieve this insight.)
Within the church are we teaching people how to be fully human? Are we stressing that Jesus, the very image of God himself (Col. 1:15) came to this earth to “redeem” us, that is to bring us back to our created relationship with God? Or are we, like those Pharisees that we love to beat up on, just trying to get people to see things the way we see things, that is, are we trying to be “like God” in the eyes of the world? There is a world of difference between living in the image of God and living like God. The one is a humble but glorious acceptance of what we have been given, the other is a rebellious declaration that we do not need God as long as we have our own intellect and strength.
I think that if the church (as a collective human being) simply tried to live as if it were made in the image of God instead of trying to be God it would be receive the blessings that God intended for it to have. Or, we can keep trying to “be like God” and we can go out and pick goat-head thorns for a living. Not much of a choice if you ask me.
Alignment number two – doctrine is important, but important only as it relates to proper behavior. In technical terms, orthodoxy is important, but only so far as it results in orthopraxy. In Jesus’ own day it was the Pharisees who were the guardians of orthodoxy. They had doctrine down to a fine point. They had all the “book, chapter and verse” citations they needed to accuse and condemn Jesus – especially in regard to ritualistic Sabbath keeping (see Ezekiel 20 especially). But they were utterly bereft in the proper application of that doctrine. Merely having the correct book, chapter and verse did not make their actions right. Jesus taught them what “sabbath keeping” was all about, and it was not what they had in mind. But Jesus’ teaching was in alignment with what God intended, and therefore we are to listen to Jesus and not the Pharisees.
I have written in other posts that I consider myself to be fairly conservative, and as such I must admit that this is one of my weaknesses. As a conservative I tend to look very suspiciously upon anything that looks, smells or feels like an aberration from the “tried and true.” I live by the motto, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The only problem is many times something is broken; but because I have figured out how to use a broken tool quite effectively, I do not realize it is broken. I have to force myself to reexamine my beliefs to determine whether I am holding onto something that is truly “in the image of God” or something that only resembles the truth and is in reality something that is “like God.”
I never want to give up on orthodoxy. I am firmly committed to the concept that God has revealed his will to us, and we must accept and obey that will. In that respect I reject the suggestions of many “moderates” or “progressives” who want to change the church to be more “postmodern” and more in tune with its surrounding culture. Once again, I believe those individuals are simply a modern day example of Adam and Eve in the garden. They want to be “like God,” making their own decisions and deciding what is good and evil instead of wanting to be in the “image of God” and letting God decide what is good and evil. But on the other hand I never want to be so “conservative” that I become “reactionary” and therefore reject the correctives of Jesus when it comes to straightening out my orthodoxy. I have to learn what the intent of the doctrine is so that I can correctly apply the correct doctrine. In terms of the gospel, I never want to become so fixated on proper sabbath keeping that I fail to offer healing and restitution to another human created “in the image of God.”
Whether the object is an automobile, a guitar or your own spine, it is critical for everything to be in proper alignment. Nowhere is that concept more true than in the Lord’s church. I think we need to go in for a check-up. We need to go in for the ultimate front-end alignment. Let us focus on becoming a people made in the image of God, and then we can focus on the proper application of doctrine.