I had a friend awhile back “leave Christianity,” essentially the same way Ronald Regan left the democratic party. I must say that recently I’ve come to agree with this sentiment, I have not left church, the church has left me. In almost every aspect: the God I hear described in churches is not a god I want to serve, the purpose of church, interaction with non-church goers, interaction with other church goers, the egocentric versions of the gospel that leaves few if any reciprocating interests in individuals, the disconnect between thought and actions, the divorce of theology from reality. There are many who say that I have left the church, but I have not left the church the church has left me.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Evangelism seems to take one of three forms in the church today. A quick list would be: impersonal, blitz (blitzkrieg), and street witnessing. All three are very popular within the church today. Yet the first two have the highest support due to the easy and comfortableness of the activities. They are all undertaken with good motives yet the out come is questionable.
Impersonal witnessing is almost more for the Christians than for the non-believers. Billboards and bumper stickers are put up along freeways and slapped on cars with the hope that someone might see it and change their beliefs. As the church has moved to business models of operation this type of witnessing has become more popular. We place billboards, that have a cross on it and states “He died for you” and have a bible verse reference such as John 3:16 on it, along highways hoping that with the number of people that pass it daily a few will cry out to God. We assume that people know what the bible is, know the significance of the cross and know that they needed someone to die for them. We assume they care, understand and are open to new thoughts/beliefs. We assume that over exposing non-believers will leave them neutral or open to the scriptures and not harden them off. Often times this logic is supported with verses such as Isaiah 55:11 “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” However the outcome is as impersonal as the message itself. Bumper stickers are equally as effective. The ultimate goal of impersonal witnessing is the best product placement seen to date. Sometimes impersonal is taken under the guise of not allowing anyone an excuse to claim they never knew about Christ’s work. Yet the outcome of this type of witnessing are short cryptic messages or images that are bombarded upon viewers. The logic seems to be that putting stickers on our cars will create a more amiable mindset toward Christians and church. That coupled with the fact that Christians are rarely among the people that need the message of Christ long enough to let their life do the talking for them. Christ ate with the tax collectors and sinners, yet it’s easier, nicer and less messy for us if we put a sticker on our car and expect them to come to us.
Blitz (blitzkrieg) witnessing takes its name from the London blitz of World War II. The German planes would bombed London en masse then retreat back across the channel behind their lines for safety. In the same sense it is a common policy of church evangelism to inundate an area with people then, when the day or event is done, they’ll pull back to their normal areas of socializing to be untouched by where they just were evangelizing. A popular strategy in our local area is to send youth groups 10-12 hours south into Mexico for one week then pull back into town and share the stories of “God’s work” in Mexico. A more recent strategy, locally, is for three days a year (four months in between each day) to mobilize the entire church, multiple denominations, to do work in our town. This strategy is much improved over the other blitz strategy. However the result is similar, hundreds to thousands of Christians come out to inundate our local area then dissolve back into the scenery. Four months later another wave emerges very similar to cicadas. Very similar to impersonal witnessing this form is concerned with trying to only affect the Christian participants in a positive manner, or if there are negative reactions then they can be written off as persecution and told as war stories. We do not consider what assumptions we are making toward the receptors of our evangelism. We assume that random people interacting with an individual on a scheduled three days a year will change that individual’s life. We invade people’s worlds with no awareness of the cultural difference between them and us, with no awareness of our own cultural biases, and expect them to understand what we are doing and saying, expect to have street cred with them—because we got our hands dirty three times a year. There is a benefit to this method, it has helped show other suburbanites that the church is active and cares about their city, however these are not those whom the event is apparently aimed.
Street witnessing has the widest spectrum range of activities, from people holding signs, to yelling into bull horns, to handing out tracks on a street corner, to having a conversation, to knocking on doors. It can be a very personal style of evangelism. The more obnoxious forms have similar assumptions as the styles mentioned above so I will not address them in detail here. There is a wide range of how to become involved in a conversation with people some quite invasive, some quite “organic.” Door knocking can be quite invasive, even I’ve been known to tell door knockers to go away. This style is a delicate issue because it can be quite a natural and non-invasive to introduce people to Jesus. The people street witnessing that I have talked to are a common site near the bars in town. They have capitalized on the nights that these streets are the fullest. However while the streets are the fullest, they are typically full of people who are not concerned with anything but tonight and getting plastered. A common assumption in this is that Christians do not frequent, let alone go to bars. As one who used to frequent clubs, several awkward conversations ensued because the fact that Christian’s may attend parties or clubs was not considered. The bull-horn waivers often caused quite a scene when other Christian’s approach to encourage them or let them know that there were more then pure heathens out that night.
These three methods are blind stabs in the dark and are not incarnational methods. What does it say that Christians must leave their personal lives to be around those that need Christ? We “need” programs and groups to reach out to others. Our lives do not speak for themselves or if they do then we are so isolated that no one notices or asks questions. We prefer anonymity either by isolation (street witnessing) or by mass effect or by stickers and billboards.
In our little corner of the world, the “gospel” (good news) message is the same. You’re bad, you need a “savior,” there’s this cool guy named Jesus and you should say this “prayer”……rinse and repeat. Our one focus is “saving souls from hell” in the largest group size as possible. In some reformed circles there is almost a “drug dog” mentality, we don’t know where or who the “elect” are but dammit we’re going to find them. Then once their found, they’re on their own because we need to find the next soul in need of realizing they’re “elect.” It is quite an obsessive compulsion. We’ve stopped treating people as humans, maybe we’ve forgotten what it is to be human, and have started treating them as collector trinkets. We are not interested in their lives, stories, or spiritual welfare, instead all we’re interested in is if they can check of the “said the sinner’s prayer” box or not. We’ve disconnected the gospel from the rest of life. Salvation has become a prayer at a single point of life with no repercussions on the rest of the way we live. At one local church the gospel has been boiled down to feeling better about yourself, “you’re accepted just the way you are, now go live like an accepted person.” Needless to say, this is quite popular with Christians, who are interested in sustaining their way of life. The injustices at work in and around people’s lives is barely a footnote that is glossed over in our pursuit of their soul and systematic injustices that affect their daily lives are not even recognized because that would require more time and every minute more people die. Our ultimate message to those around us is “become like us” and you too can live a comfortable life knowing that you have eternal fire insurance. We have no answer for evil and injustice; rarely do we even try to combat such forces. But rather we have resigned ourselves to hunkering down waiting for the “rapture” content to fiddle while the world around us burns. The world around us needs hope; needs to be shown that Christianity is more than a mind trick, more than an intellectual pursuit and that we actually are aware of the world around us and working for the kingdom. We have forgotten the physical needs of humans in our spiritual philanthropistic endeavors.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
With the Supreme Court reviewing gay marriage there has been a many discussions about the “redefinition of marriage.” The Christians are scared that allowing homosexual marriage to occur will degrade our society more so than the civil unions that already exist. The homosexual rights side wants the tax benefits that the government affords only to those that are “married.” To listen to the Christians one would believe that this political “redefinition of marriage” would change everything that we know about marriage, that everyone would then need to change their whole perspective on the word marriage, when what is really at state is a governmental shift of definition and monetary/tax benefit. With Civil Unions already in existence with little notice from religious groups, how is allowing them the term married any worse? There is not a difference before God; there is only a difference to the government. There is not a difference to our society except less tax money to the government. Are the tax benefits really that important to Christians that they wish to exclude others? I do not believe that to be the case, so why is there such an uproar? Why are Christians so concerned with how the government defines marriage? The lifestyle, a defined union already exist and will not be altered by this decision, so why do we care about how much taxes and what benefits others get? Are we really that sensitive over a word?
Monday, March 11, 2013
Yesterday I sat in a round-table discussion talking about truth, the divine and spirituality. On the way home we passed the regional superchurch (not technically a mega church but larger than a large church), there are 6 superchurches in our town. People were exiting the lecture hall of this particular institution and it caused me to think again of what is church? The discussion I was involved in was not markedly Christian, there was no pastor, no leader, no band, and no benediction as we know it in Christianity, there was only a desire for truth. On the flip side I’ve been apart of the masses that sit and here the lecture, sing the songs, and politely chat after the 90 minutes have passed. I’ve also been apart of the small congregation the looks, believes, and acts differently than the rest of the churches in town. I’ve sang hymns and worship songs, I’ve witnessed healings and signs, I’ve heard stoic and passionate preaching, I’ve been apart of intimate and casual congregations and at the end of the day I’m content to sit and talk to my fellow man about his experiences in the world, about his subjective truths. And as I watch the masses being corralled and split off (to the appropriate groups so their version of the sermon will be relevant to them) like a herd of cattle I have to ask myself, have we really grasped the ministry of Jesus? As I talk to Christians the overwhelming “advice” is to get back into church, to stay plugged in somewhere, to settle down to a home church. In essence these people would tell Albert Einstein to stay in math class because life will be more difficult if you don’t jump through the hoops. Why have we become so afraid of messy situations, we’ve stream-lined our church services, we have pastors for every area of life except discipleship (youth pastor, young married pastor, seniors pastor, pastor of finance, etc). Christians don’t want to be challenged (except by the guy up front every Sunday), don’t want to be in awkward or uncomfortable situations, situations that they must admit that they don’t know how to act or what to say, they don’t want to be outnumbered by non-christians but they feel ok outnumbering non-chritians; all of these scenarios we’ve addressed in the new style of church, the style that tells you to love your neighbor but where there is no one you recognize in at least 20 people. How is this church? Where do we get this concept from? How is this the norm in out society?
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
It surprises me how often people in church will hear messages about forgiveness, grace, and mercy and it will not affect their lives. Messages rail against the Pharisees and their legalistic lines in the sand to define who’s in and who’s out, and in our own lives we don’t talk, fellowship, or associate with certain people because their “not christian.” We claim to be Christian but our lives are not defined by grace, forgiveness, love, kindness, but rather by a black and white world view, condensation, and brow beating. We’re known by what we don’t believe and not by what believe. We are known by our actions but our actions are negative, voting against abortion, voting against gay marriage, not going to parties/bars, not cussing, by not doing things instead of doing things. We’ve turned the social aspect of the gospel into social conservatism, trying to keep it how we define moral. There is no activity that subverts social empire; there is not any movement that ignores society’s actions that is acts proactively toward new creation. We have lost ourselves in the forest of society, and have resigned ourselves to playing by their rules. We are trying to survive by treading water instead of swimming toward shore. We do not realize that Christ is subjecting all things to himself, including entropy, chaos, and disillusion. We have come to believe that we cannot change the world and have resigned ourselves to merely “saving souls” from the world. This is a self-defeating mentality. We are Christ’s body and our calling is to act in the reality that the resurrection inaugurated the new creation. A new creation that involves loving our neighbor like ourselves: feeding those in need, giving to him who asks, acting for justice for those around us (both situational and institutional), creating beauty where chaos and ugliness are the norm, forgiving those who wrong us (letting them know that they are forgiven), going out of our way to help those around us. It is time we get out of this defeated, unimaginative mentality that we cannot change things around us. Jesus is reigning and we are given the strength and wisdom to act in such a way that helps to bring his reign to bear on earth. We pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” yet our lives demonstrate that we expect this to be fulfilled only when Christ returns, forgetting that we are his body, his stewards, his “hands and feet” on earth. Many of us don’t believe (we say we do, but our lives and mentality betray us) in miracles happening today, yet when we pray the Lord’s Prayer (partially quoted above) we are essentially asking him to do the miracles that we don’t believe happen today. Much of our in action is due to a humility that is under a false pretense. We have confused boldness for pride, cowardice for humility, but above all we do not want to responsibility that comes with acting as Christ in the world today. We do not want people looking at us, we want to live our lives unnoticed, in quiet oblivion. Much like the third servant we have buried our talent and will be expecting the Master to be happy with us. Its time to stop shirking this responsibility, Christ has called us to live for Him, to be small Christs to those around us, to help inaugurate his new creation in this world. Its time to start acting as Christ and not the Pharisees biding their time till the Messiah comes in the way we expect him to. Why are we so backwards at continuing Christ’s work in the world?
Saturday, December 1, 2012
This blog, along with all following blogs, is not meant to be a pointless critique aimed at dissuading people or Christians from regular attendance of church nor is it meant to discourage. But rather it is an honest look at the church. I cannot nor will not say this is an objective look at church; I am an orthodox Christian that regularly attends multiple brands of Christianity which negates pure objectivity. However in my travels through Christianity I have noticed many oddities, many of which we don’t seem to notice. There seems to be two general types of people that I run into at church, the first is the most prevalent. The first type is the person who goes to church for their experience, they don’t know, nor do they want to know, particulars. If particulars are brought up they will either deflect immediately (I don’t want to be challenged, I will always want to be a “baby” Christian) or they will travel down a road with which they are well familiar (relating most subjects to a single topic with which they are infatuated, relating all conversations to Calvinism/armenianism, the rapture, etc). The second is, sadly, the person who realizes the blind spots of the Christian culture and leaves, walking away because the issues are bigger than themselves. Through this blog I am not wishing to create more people that fit into the latter perspective. I hope that this will create people who are not oblivious to the problems in the church and who will enter into discussion about them as well as work toward solving the issues that seem to be inherent to the church culture as a whole.
The movement away
Lately there has been a movement away from churches in the town. Even more traditional church goers have been increasingly unsatisfied. Much discussion has happened about what can be done about the growing frustration. Yet no satisfactory resolution has been found.
For the traditionalist, the angst lies in what is being taught. The fluffy self-help message of the large church does not fulfill and the stern teachings of the conservative churches, about how to live or what to believe, do not bring life to their spirits. New churches have sprung up promising new and different messages but they end up being the same present wrapped in different packaging. Often times the traditionalist must resign their attendance of church to, “We don’t gain much from the message but we like the people/community.” Given enough time this practice tends to lead one of two directions. First the attendee must feed themselves and dig into scripture on their own. This is not a bad thing, however, it leads to splintering of individuals away from each other. Each person sees a particular emphasis in scripture and is drawn to that awareness. Since the sermons and fellowship of church are not centered on that individual’s study or thoughts or perceptions, they become a secret Lone Ranger. But if they are outspoken in their opinions then they will try to convince others to join them in their thoughts. Many times the individual begins to alienate themselves from the main group of the church because of the congregation’s avoidance of the limited and “deep” topics of conversation caused by such Lone Rangers. This issue is often compounded by politicized leadership that will listen and console the parishioner yet not act to help the situation in any means beyond that. The second direction this could lead to is the downplaying of the importance of good teaching. If teaching is not emphasized and an individual is not motivated to study on their own then a common response is to continue to downplay and ignore the teaching. This leads to fellowship becoming the only hub for church. Both of these are not helpful for the individual. However, if there is a family involved the children often carry these scenarios further than the parents: total focus on socializing or harmfully breaking of fellowship due to “bad theology.” Often times when a traditionalist is unsatisfied by their current church, they will switch addictions. This is to say that if they were attending a Freewill Baptist church, then they will switch to a Reformed church. The proverbial pendulum swings the opposite direction, landing the individual in the same place only a different side. The other most common scenario is the further seclusion of a group. When a group is not satisfied with the direction of the church, believing it to be going in a liberal direction, they will splinter off and start a smaller group that “holds true” to scripture. This cycle typically continues until it is only an isolated few are holding to scripture. In doing this the isolated few have made themselves untouchable. There is a suspicion of the larger church body and other Christians who don’t line up with the few.
Even the reliable, nontraditional church goer is typically on a 3-5 year church rotation, where the individual will stay at a church for 3 to 5 years then switch churches. This seems to be especially true for young adults and young marrieds who do not have children yet. The reasons for switching vary: we have more friends at the other church, the teaching is better over there, the other pastor is funnier, there are more girls in the other congregation, etc. Here the individual is more concerned with what they gain from the church experience. There is a more evident self interest in this model. Investment within a community is also less. The sermons within this style of church, due to the complexity and rotation of the congregation, are often based on the basic tenants of the Christian faith or more simply helpful christianesque advice for a good life. Frequently the sermons can be boiled down to “5 self-improvement tips.” Strict doctrine is avoided in all but the neo-reformed styles. Some pastors wishing to shed this characteristic will preach a “tough” sermon or sermon series consisting of “if you’re not reading your bibles everyday you should check yourself” or “you need to be sharing your faith.” The points that the hammer is dropped on are typically social protocol with the pastor tightening the reigns ever so slightly. In this model those who get involved in the community then decide to leave are often told that they are walking away from their gifts or that they had great potential for leadership. These words of “encouragement” seem to only come at the end of their tenure. With rare occasion the individual is smothered with verbal affirmations but even then they have hardly any physical backing. This leads to the burn-out that is common among the church’s younger adults. Rarely does a young adult find a community that will support them in the way they need. This obviously leads to a chicken or the egg debate (which is not for this blog) of whether the community expects the burn-out and exodus so does not commit to the young adult or newly arrived leader, or if the lack of communal support is evidence of a community of believers that are too busy with their own lives and ambitions to support the individual. Either way the result is the same. The problem may lie in thrusting young people into group leadership roles before they have the self awareness to be honest with their peers or their elders with where they are at. Often times within the church there is at least a subconscious if not a conscious censorship about subjects to be taught on or roles to be played. This can lead to outburst of honesty from the individual that must jump through these invisible hoops. These outbursts, though not common, are considered to be a shock and awe technique that few take seriously or at least seriously for much time. This then leads to even more frustration in the leader. The result is vast turnover in leadership that has a passion for youth or individuals. Often times the only successful long term leaders or pastors are the ones who are focused more on their programs and their stance within the church or their paycheck than the more complicated needs of the people that they are serving. Overall the church experience begins with enthrallment then is followed by tolerance then by frustration, and finally a new enthrallment opens up at another church and the cycle begins again.
In our town a hybrid form of church has begun to arise. The neo-reformed churches in town on the surface seem to be a mix of the traditional and the less traditional churches. The sermons here tend toward historical doctrine with grace as a liberally applied top dressing. Their draw is to Christians who are tired of the 3-5 year cycle and want a church who takes a stand, or to the Christian who has been burned by church or other christians. Their claim to fame is that they are a different kind of church, a disgruntled christians church. Though this sounds like the ultimate church, the ideology and the practice of these churches are worlds apart. The center claims of these churches are: to focus on doctrine applied with grace, to not be legalistic, to focus on reaching out to the local community, and planting churches. The reality of how this plays out is churches that are focused on reformation theology, more concerned with telling people how and what to think about God rather than helping them discover Jesus. Churches become legalistic against legalism which avails nothing but more legalism and judgmental spirits towards other “less evolved” churches or individuals. Involvement in the local communities and church planting is about as successful as their fight against legalism. Much like the dominant culture of the church, the missional segments of church end up emphasizing foreign missions then a tag-line is thrown on phrased something like “now we don’t have to go over seas, we can be on mission right here in our own town.” However like normal individuals looking to a leader, the people upfront are who will be imitated, which makes the plug for local missions about as successful as the Hindenburg. Neo-reformed churches fall into the trap of proof-texting to the same extent as the traditional churches, the non-traditional churches also proof-text however it is less noticeable because there are hardly any hard lines drawn from these proof-texts. The emphasis that enables proof-texting in the neo-reformed churches is the spoken wish to base everything in scripture, sola scriptura. This is a noble claim that yet again does not hold up under scrutiny. Much like the traditional churches, these churches strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. There is a refusal or an inability to see the forest for the trees. During a recent conversation with a pastor of a church in town, he was trying to push that Acts 2:42-47 was the purpose of church, as an organization, is supposed to be. When asked what I thought the purpose of church was, I responded with “reflecting God back to God.” His response was “where do you find that in scripture?” There is such a focus on what scripture says, mostly in “small and digestible” bites, that what it is saying cannot be seen. Often times the theology is unrecognized or is evolving as consequences or underlying assumptions are realized. Recently in a sermon the pastor verbalized that, while he “believes” the Holy spirit is active in the world today, practically he is a cessationist. This is a common problem among all forms of church, having what you think you believe and what you actually believe not line up. However, in churches where there is an emphasis on pseudo-intellectual pursuit, their inconsistencies become more glaringly obvious.
All forms of the church (the Holiness tradition churches are the exceptions) deal very little with the Holy spirit. The Traditionalist views the Spirit as the giver of wisdom through tradition. There is typically an exception clause given when dealing with the Spirit that He may “call” you to do something crazy, however, this even has limits. The limits may be on quantity or the size of the act. God may call you to give money to a beggar but only if that is not being reckless with your money. Or God may call you to live in the bad side of town but that is the exception not the rule, or more plainly, God may want you to live near poverty but you can’t tell me that God wants me to live around or near or especially in poverty. Another trait common to all forms is the expected socioeconomic standard to which God would have us hold. All three sets of churches are, oddly, filled with middle to upper class society. The root cause of this I will not address, however, the force which holds the status quo I would like to address. Primarily there is elitism with in the church, as mentioned prior, God would not have us live near or around poverty. Socioeconomics are tied to stewardship all too frequently, God wants us to be good stewards and as good stewards we must save money, buy a good house and good car. Beyond this we should also enjoy ourselves and treat ourselves to some privileges, unfortunately the privileges expand exponentially in respect to income. As we are being “good stewards” it is easier to live in good neighborhoods where thieves are not present, people near us share our respect of money, and it’s pretty. Within the church, a Christian should not do drugs, gamble, smoke, drink too frequently or be given to anything that could be taken as a vice no matter how recent the conversion. This thought, whether spoken or unspoken, conscious or subconscious, does damage to any new converts to the church. Given that a person of lower standard of living is drawn to church and converts, they are then pressured to become at least outwardly similar to the rest of the church they are attending. Every church has different standards so this could apply to vices, modesty, politics, etc. This thought also does damage to us, with respect to who we help out, an infamous local example is a ministry which helps the less fortunate with food. This ministry has now narrowed their support to the less fortunate who do not smoke. This is because smoking is not being a “good steward” with their resources so how can we trust them to be good stewards of our resources. There are many other examples but I limit myself. Overall this is a mindset that wants no affiliation with the poor, the outcast or the down-trodden yet has the audacity to expect to prosthelytize these communities.