{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Jesus vs. Religion

This is a video that’s been made viral over the past week or so. According to YouTube, it has well over 2 million hits now. Jefferson Bethke does a wonderfully creative job of articulating the differences between Jesus and following a religion. And I admit that the first time I watched this, I was inspired and wanted to respond with a resounding, “Amen!” But it was on a second look of the video, guided also by an early critique I found, that I realized just how much might be wrong with this.

A Good Conversation Piece–Not a Piece of Theology

Also, my second glance at this leads me to want to dissect it theologically and outline all of the “bad theology” used here. It’s important to remember that this is a poem and not a scholarly work of theology published and peer-reviewed. Is there bad theology present in this? Yes, lots. But it’s a poem so we have to be aware of the type of work we’re dealing with here before we criticize it. You could argue that what he calls, “religion,” could easily mean, “Sunday Christian,” or “Christian hypocrisy.” It’s because of this that I think this can serve as a good starting place for conversations on what it means to be a Christian.

We have to be careful how much of this we regard as a theological statement and how much we use to begin an all-important conversation on what it means to be a Christians. Listen closely and you’ll hear Bethke say he “believes in the church.” So before we hear all of this and assume we should be inspired to simply throw out religion in favor of an individualized approach to following Jesus, just be clear that Bethke seems to be promoting a protest of bad religion–not all religion–whether he even wants to admit it or not.

Was Jesus Really Against Religion?

The simple answer to this is, no. Jesus was a good Jew raised by good Jews. Go back through the gospel accounts and you’ll find Jesus at the Temple, sometime blasting religious leaders, but always at specific times. Luke 2:39-52 tells the story of Jesus at the Temple at the age of 12. Note that it begins by saying that Mary and Joseph had followed the law following the birth of Jesus. It immediately shifts into a mention that it was their custom to go to the Temple of the Passover festival. Later passages locate some of Jesus’ best encounters at the Temple during specific festival times. Why is this important? Jesus was raised a good Jew whose parents followed religious law and observed religious rituals. No matter how much he blasted religious leaders, he did so out of devotion to the law and observances. Nowhere in the gospels does it say that Jesus wanted to end religion altogether–no matter how compelling Bethke’s poetic turn of the phrase, “It is finished,” might be. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or religion, he came to fulfill and fully embody it (Matthew 5:17). It may be cool to say that Jesus was anti-religion and anti-institution but we have to remember a couple of points about the biblical text (the only insight we have into who Jesus was): 1) Jesus came against the Pharisees often. Not because they were the symbol of religion, but because they were the symbol of bad religion–a religion consumed with works and self-righteousness and not grace, love and humility; and 2) The gospel accounts were written for religious, Christian communities who wrestled with this idea of what it meant to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus.

More About Being an American Christian than a Follower of Jesus

In the end I think this is an artistic portrayal of the tensions we face as American Christians. The culture as a whole has lost trust in institutions. No one trusts Congress, the government as a whole or the Church. I’d waste a ton of space going into the many good reasons for this mistrust so let’s just agree there are plenty of reasons. And yet somehow we have to reconcile the fact that we want to be Christian and not a part of the negative side of institutionalized religion. So we just resonate with the individualized approach to faith that says “I can be a follower of Jesus and I don’t need the Church to do that.” Sadly that’s more expressive of an American sense of vague spirituality than it is of Christianity.

This push for “following Jesus but not the church” wants to shake the shackles of religion in order to “truly follow Jesus.” But truly following Jesus requires we live a certain way and be held accountable to that. Has the church gotten this standard right over these past 2000 years–largely yes and largely no. It’s always a mixed bag of good when you look at it from that angle. But the spirit of this Americanized spiritual view of Jesus seems to desire more “freedom” and fewer “restrictions.” We just need to own the fact that this so-called “freedom without rules” is not Christian at all–it’s American.

I’m not entirely opposed to this wonderful work with words. Bethke turns some amazing phrases about church being an “ocean of grace.” I love his descriptions of an inclusive church. I just hope those who watch this video will see that the only way this is possible is for good people who see that grace as integral to their faith not to leave the Church in search of something they’ll never find. We need those people to live in, engage, and renew the Church as we know it. 

Bringing Advent Closer to Home…

Have you ever noticed how much of the Christmas season is defined by the feeling of being rushed? We’ve coined the term “christmas rush” to describe the pace of the season. It all seems to be a rush; a race to get somewhere as fast as we can. The sad part is, when we declare it to be Christmas before the actual day gets here, it makes December 25th sort of a let down. By the time it comes, we’re already celebrated out and ready for the songs, decorations and festivities to be over and done with. It’s a bit ironic, but that’s reality for most of us.

I want to admit that I’m traditionally more of a “Christmas rusher” during this season than I like. But this year it’s a bit different. Advent has taken on a new meaning for me–it’s been brought closer to home than I’ve ever experienced before and I now have a new appreciation for the season. You see, my wife and I are 7 months into the pregnancy of our very first child! This event, even in its lead-up, has begun to reshape me as a person. And it’s offered me a chance to celebrate Advent, the season of expectant waiting, in a way that I never thought was possible.

Advent Means Waiting and Mystery

Nine months can feel like an eternity sometimes. Sure, there are days when it seems like you blink and you’re 7 months in. But there are also days when you think that special day will never come. Advent is a season marked by waiting. It’s a season that calls for us to stop what we’re doing and wait for something new and life-changing. The beauty of it is, we can’t rush the day of birth here anymore than we can rush Christmas Day along. It will get here in due time–in God’s time.

My wife and I are opting to be surprised on the gender of our baby. So this only amplifies the season of waiting because this “thing” she’s carrying around is wrapped in a deep mystery. God only knows the “innermost parts” of what’s being “knit together” in the womb of my wife (Psalm 139:13 CEB). The journey of faith, like the journey of Advent and the journey of childbirth, is wrapped in a deep mystery. We have to resist the temptation of buying all of the commodified ways of gaining certainty in our journeys. Faith is rooted in a trust that grows in the rich soil of mystery.

[Note: I know there are those who will advocate very passionately that finding out the gender of the baby in advance never spoiled a surprise and was a great experience. But just go with me on this for the sake of the analogy]

Advent Means Expectation and Journey

Advent is a season marked by journey and expectation. In a similar way, childbirth is a season marked by journey and expectation. As each doctor’s visit comes and goes we complete legs of the journey. We can go online and see progress of our pregnancy through pictures of what our baby should look like in size and shape. All of this is part of a journey that will culminate in a miracle.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves: childbirth (like the Advent journey to Bethlehem) comes with many risks and dangers. I always thought life was precious but I have a new appreciation for that idea. Anything could go wrong at any moment. That’s why the journey of childbirth is a risky one. And when a child is born, it is nothing short of a gift of grace–a miracle that words cannot contain. We no more control this gift than we do the mystery of life itself. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “we have to recover our ability to pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a world we do not control” (Hannah’s Child p. 237) Advent and childbirth are journeys that help us do just that.

Advent Means Complexity in Life

The great complexity about our faith is that it’s often a lot bigger than we acknowledge it to be. Too often we treat faith as a simplistic rendering of the world. The church becomes a club of persons gathered who believe like me and subscribe to the same brand of spirituality that I do. In this climate, Advent becomes a quaint observance of lighting candles in between declaring the Christ child to already be here through the carols we sing and the sermons we offer about peace and love in the hustle and bustle of the shopping season.

If Advent is to truly be characteristic of who we are called to be as Christians, then it has to become a season that celebrates the complexities of the unknown. We mark this season by acknowledging that we don’t have all of the answers for the journey ahead. We celebrate the season by naming the darkness that is present in life, those seasons where answers aren’t available, and we look to the light of God that comes as a gift to our darkness. And in doing so, we truly celebrate and appreciate the gift of the newborn baby found in the manger.

Part of the excitement of being expecting parents is learning to embrace the complexity of anticipating life’s inevitable tectonic shift that comes with a new baby. It means learning to live in the “in-between” time–the promise has been made and the journey has begun but it’s not yet fulfilled. And it also means being okay with not knowing all of the ways you’ll parent a new baby, prepare for organization, or even which brand of diapers you’ll use. There’s time for all of that and it’s okay to not know every detail before God’s time has arrived.

Waiting Beyond Advent

I’m especially reminded that there are those in my life and in this world who wait for light amid their darkness beyond Christmas Day. Life doesn’t get fixed in neat little package wrapped in a nice bow. Waiting can seem like an eternity and darkness can seem to snuff out any life that’s left. We will still be waiting for our baby to arrive once Christmas has passed. And I’m keenly aware that the season of waiting and watching doesn’t end for everyone.

This is why we should take time out of our celebrations this weekend to pray for someone who is hurting this season. It’s easy to become consumed with our own celebrations and journeys that end, but there are those who continue to journey, often silently, through hard times. Call someone who’s hurting this weekend and tell them you’re thinking about them. Write someone a note or send them an e-mail telling them that they’re on your heart this weekend. Don’t let the end of your journey consume every bit of your time and energy.

The waiting and watching of Advent makes for a very complex season. The doctors visits, childcare books, instructions for putting a crib together, gift registries, etc. all make for childbirth to be a season of complexities as well. But the joy of both comes in the fact that because when God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, born as an innocent baby and laid in a dirty manger, we can learn how to recognize how extraordinary the ordinary is. Being Christian means being baptized into citizenship in a new age. This means the everyday events of our life–celebrating the Advent liturgy at church or welcoming a new baby into the world– are not only possible, but they’re pretty extraordinary!

 

It’s Not That Easy Being Green: The Church’s Quest for Relevance

 

 

Relevance. It’s a word you seem to hear more and more in church circles and leadership training seminars. The mainline church has been in decline for over 50 years and, many argue this can at least be partially attributed to the fact that, by and large, the Church can’t seem to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. If we can’t speak the language of a changing world, there’s no way we can ever hope to have a viable presence in said world.

It’s no secret that one of the biggest signs of this lack of relevance shows up in the lack of persons between ages of 25-35 on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard many make passionate and well-founded arguments that “you have to understand young people if you want them to come to church.” “This generation will take or leave the church.” “They aren’t like their parents or grandparents.”

Now besides the fact that such statements are vastly over-simplified and do not reflect any sort of consensus among younger adults (or their parents and grandparents for that matter), there is something to be said for the fact that a gulf between the church and society in America at large that is becoming more and more evident with every study of worship attendance and membership that comes out.

As a member of this elusive demographic, I would like to explore this idea of relevance in the hopes that I might at least spark a hearty discussion in the process.

Generation of Target Consumers

Somewhere around the mid-1970s or so a revolution in advertising happened. You see, ads are always run at particular times of day on particular channels during particular shows in order to target particular people. Around the early to mid 70s toy companies decided to shake things up by advertising straight to children. Whereas they always centered ads around parents and tried to attract parents into buying particular toys, these companies took to Saturday morning television (prime-time for kids) and centered their ads right at kids so they could then beg their parents for whatever the latest and greatest toy was that morning.

What does this mean for the church’s quest for relevance?

For starters, if you’re centering this quest for relevance around that elusive 25-35 year old demographic, you need to understand that we’re the first generation ever that will be advertised to from the cradle to the grave. Therefore, any quest for relevance that is anchored in advertising will very easily become white noise to a young adult. The church doesn’t need to try to be “hip” or “cool” in order to attract young adults. Frankly, the church isn’t very good at that stuff.

Secondly, the style of worship your church offers has much less of an “attractional” element than you might think. So many churches think, “if we just offered that rock band style of music young folks will knock our doors down.” That isn’t true. Very rarely do young post-grads ever search out the nearest church with the biggest rock concert to offer on a Sunday morning. Young adults will, however, ask a trusted friend or a co-worker about the church they attend. And this church could come in any shape, size or style–just so long as someone they know and trust is there to welcome them.

Relevance or Authenticity?

You see, if the church really wants to speak to younger adults, rather than striving to be “relevant” why don’t we just be authentic. Honesty goes a lot further than folks give it credit. If you don’t believe me just look at a big chunk of Ron Paul’s supporters–younger adults longing for a politician who will be honest and not speak from talking points. And the church ought to try that for once–speaking from the heart instead of a script of doctrinal talking points.  

If you want your church to be relevant, then it won’t happen with slick ads or flashing lights and loud music. It won’t happen only in the form of a preacher who wears t-shirts and blue jeans and who sits on a stool to preach on Sunday mornings. It won’t be a part of any sort of manufactured and packaged effort that hopes to make your church somehow “attractional.” You don’t boast about “being real” either–you just are real and don’t make a big deal about it.

If you really want to be relevant or real for younger adults, then why don’t you do some truth telling about yourself and the world we live in? The world is a complicated and messy place and, frankly, it can be hard to stomach simplistic theology that tries to make God and the meaning of life into a 2+2=4 formula.

Why don’t you ask us what our passions are? Why don’t you sit down and listen to our dreams? Our fears? Rather than imposing some set of assumed “needs” you see younger adults having, why don’t you just ask? Remember that when, as a church, you attempt to “meet the needs” of younger adults without listening and learning you often just project your own needs upon folks you don’t even know. Just know that when you do listen and learn and love you have to be ready for some truth-telling in return. If the offer of Christ is to come in the form of love, then it can’t have an agenda. These young adults may not come to your church right away. They may drift in and out depending on where life is taking them–and that’s okay.

If you want to speak to the issue young adults face, be relevant if you will, then try being bold about who you are as a church. Talk about issues that matter beyond the walls of your church and leave room for questioning. Let us bring our black, hispanic or even gay friends to church because, after all, many of us simply see them as friends who don’t need a special pass to be allowed into worship. Talk about relationships in ways that aren’t trite and simplistic. Our lives are complicated and we need help navigating the rough waters of relationships without having a judgmental wave try to knock us off course. In all of this, don’t try to be everything to everyone and just try being authentically who you are.

When you do worship, dare to sing big beautiful songs about God and the world and not the pithy little anthems that only tells the story of my faith or my salvation. There’s a big world out there and we need the language of faith that recognizes we aren’t actually the center of that world. These songs can be sung with both pipe organs and electric guitars. Heck, many of us might even like it if you occasionally mixed a good banjo in with your guitars. And when you finish singing these big beautiful songs, dare to send us out into the world like we might actually be able to make a difference. God’s grace is big and mysterious but we need to know that it’s with us nonetheless, even when we don’t totally understand it. Oh and please, please, please do the sacraments often. Don’t rid the church space of mystery and iconography. I’ll let you in on a little secret–mystery is actually one of the biggest reasons many younger adults attend church (even if it is sporadically).

As a wise frog once taught us, “it’s not easy being green”–but it is beautiful. Rather than wasting a lot of time and energy trying to be relevant, why not just dare to be the church. And know that you’ll have to ease some of us along and teach us a new language. But if you’re faithful to that language, not sacrificing it for the sake of “relevance” or growth, you might be surprised who shows us ready to hear an actual word from the Lord on a Sunday. They might even decide to put that word into action the other six days of the week as well. If you don’t believe me, just go down to your local coffee shop or happy hour bar and just ask a young adult yourself. Tell the truth, be authentic, and don’t worry if it makes you look a little green. “Authentically green” is a good color for the church.

Church Members and Disciples Are NOT the Same…And That’s Okay

This past week I attended the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville. TN. It was a wonderful experience that not only stretched my understanding of discipleship but also allowed me to integrate into a community of leaders who share my convictions about the importance of discipleship as a focal point of revitalization in the church.

In considering my take-aways from the week, I found myself coming back again and again to an exchange that we had on Friday morning.  Somewhere late that morning we took a few minutes to talk about what we learned over the course of the first day and a half or so. Dr. David Lowes Watson stood and shared some words that have stuck with me for the past few days. He said, “Congregations are a place where grace is already at work and where people may not have been called to be disciples…YET.” And it occured to me, everything I’ve been taught recently in my local area has been taught with the intent to build congregations. But instead of saying we’re building congregations, we call it “making disciples.”

What if being a church member and being a disciple are NOT one in the same? And what if our local churches can house BOTH church members AND disciples?

I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not opposed to building the local church. There are organizational needs that must be met if the church is to survive.  Strengthening the local church means we can offer more effective pastoral care. It also means we can proclaim the gospel week in and week out as the essential practice of evangelism (future post to come on that thought).

But meeting these needs by growing the church cannot be disguised as forming disciples–those are two separate activities.

Consider for a moment the assumption that small groups are essential in the life of the church. Most church leaders I know would agree with this statement, if for no other reason than most churches that are growing quickly have put this element into their DNA as a congregation. It’s good to be a part of a small group for many reasons. We can meet and get to know new people. We can participate in a study that enhances our knowledge and understanding of Scripture. We can even enjoy life-giving fellowship through small groups. But we have to be honest that not all small groups necessarily form disciples.

As Wesleyans we’re reminded that our movement began as one of small groups meeting outside of the worship hour in the church. But these small group had specific requirements and expectations. They were NOT necessarily small groups as we might define them today. These groups were orgainzed around a particular order of life that persons were committed to living out. They met regularly for accountability and the assurance that they had the support of a community in living this alternative lifestyle. Small groups were never meant to be used as a means to build up a congregation. Instead they were seen as a specific calling to greater depth within the life of the congregation. And often, these class meetings were gateways into the congregation. Essentially the “new order of living” served as an existential foundation for the acts of worship and giving within the life of the congregation.

I suppose one of the most crucial points I took away from this conference is that people are not disciples when they join our church. They are not disciples when they volunteer for a committees or to support activities. And this doesn’t make them any less a memeber of the local church. Being a disciple is a calling that is different than one to come and experience the grace of God. Instead, it’s one to come and “carry a cross…” dying to self that one might live in Christ. Being a disciple means we seek to order our lives in a community in such a way that we look different even in the corporate worship setting on Sunday mornings.

It’s the job of pastoral leaders to find creative ways to empower lay people to lead these groups. Pastors need to energize a lay movement that would seek to form other lay people in the ways of Christ beyond simply observing the rites of ritual and enjoying the fellowship. We need congregations, yes. But we also need covenant groups within our congregations to ensure that people who are called to be disciples will have a place of nurture, growth and accountability they can turn to. And we have to be serious about the fact that being a disciples means we dare to live differently than the status quo we observe in our affluent American churches.

Adding new church members is very important to the vitality of our organization. It’s a worthy task that we should not take lightly. But please, let’s call it what it is and stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that “making disciples” and making church members are one in the same. Church members are disciples who live in the midst of grace awaiting a call to come and die to the way they’ve always lived their lives. But they are NOT the same as disciples…and that’s okay.

[UPDATE: Here's a follow-up piece that I hope will clarify my thoughts even more]

Evangelism as Narrative

In the first post in this series on evangelism, I wrote about the temptation to view evangelism as an exercise of relational power. What could begin as a legitimate mission of spreading the gospel can quickly run amuck when we choose to carry this mission out by means of manipulation, superiority, and inflexibility in terms of how we view “the church” and “the world.” I argue that much of this is due to a misguided priority we place on protecting the institutional church at all costs.

In the second post in this series, I argue that the way we view the idea of Radical Hospitality can serve as an example of our practice of evangelism from a posture of power and superiority. This practice of existing as the church is a fundamental testimony of the God who calls and welcomes us together. When it is used as a means of attractional evangelism, however, it becomes nothing more than a polite ploy to bring people into our church buildings.

In moving toward my own understanding of evangelism in a contemporary society, I want to begin by defining the practice evangelism in terms of narrative.

If we are to have any hope of redefining the practice of evangelism in a contemporary society, we have to begin by understanding what exactly evangelism is in light of the overall life of the church. To do this, we must talk in terms of narrative, or story, both for us as individuals as well as the church and even creation as a whole.

For any activity or practice to be understood, or explained, it must be considered within its appropriate context. As Bryan Stone points out, “narrative is an intrinsically historical genre that embodies the unity of a life across time and points toward some end, or telos” (Stone 2007:39) Therefore, we can argue that to become a Christian is to join a story and to allow that story to begin to narrate our lives. In other words, conversion is the process whereby I grow to understand my personal story in light of the gospel story–past, present, and future. It is the reorienting of our lives as we gradually exchange our story as we’ve always understood it for a new story, born out of the light of the love and grace of God.

I emphasize the term process because more times than not we not converted in a single moment or event, but we are instead gradually changed–transformed if you will–into something new over time and through practice.

One way we have to understand evangelism in terms of narrative is to address how we see ourselves in light of the larger story of history and creation. We must ask ourselves whether the church merely a collection of individuals who happen to be sojourning at the same time and in the same place, or is the church something larger? I would argue for the latter. In order to further the process of conversion, we must shift away from our modern notion that the individual is at the center of creation and social order and see ourselves in light of the much larger story of history and creation.

In the end, we have to ultimately view our narrative in terms of where it will end. The telos of any narrative plays the guiding role of how the story ends. As Christians, we believe the telos, or ending, of the story of creation is salvation: humanity and creation fully restored; God’s shalom. It is quite literally the kingdom of God being revealed on earth.

Salvation is understood as both a present and future possibility. It is a future possibility because we recall that time will end with the culmination of “a new heaven and a new earth”–one where God has triumphed over tears, pain, sorrow, weeping, and death (read Revelation 21:1-6). It is the end, or telos, that narrates where we are headed.

But salvation is also very present in our current time. It’s what happens when love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimate unity triumph in a world that would offer a different trajectory of its story. Salvation offered by God to the world is not a set of ideas that people then are able to deem as credible or incredible. Salvation in this life is quite literally a community that finds its life source in its being shared together, and with the world, and into which people are invited to be welcomed and incorporated by the Holy Spirit. It’s a visible expression of life as it was meant to be from the beginning of creation–shared together in union with all people and creation. The church is made capable of witnessing to God’s salvation only when it becomes a witness itself. In this, the story of salvation becomes the message expressed and made visible to the entire world; one that goes well beyond programs, cliches, “attractional” emphases.

Next Post: Evangelism Beyond “Conservative” and “Liberal” Approaches

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering Faith…On Aisle #7

My column from the Macon Telegraph, Aug. 7 2011: http://www.macon.com/2011/08/06/1656130/renewing-our-faith-every-day.html

 

[This is under what I submitted as the original title. You'll notice from the link they changed it to a more bland title for publication]

Recently, I was walking through the grocery store minding my own business and doing a little shopping. I turned to go down an aisle at Kroger when I encountered an energetic young boy running up and down the aisle, getting all worked up about the plethora of goodies on this particular aisle. For him it was like entering a magical world where all of his candy-coated wishes were right at his fingertips. He couldn’t contain his excitement any longer and was led to run and dance for joy.

I am a married man in my late 20s with no children. So you can imagine my gut reaction when I encountered this joyous scene, already in progress.

I looked at the boy as he ran by and I looked back at his father, who was weary from chasing him around. I chuckled and made some offhanded joke about the wonder of a child’s energy and how they should bottle and sell it.

He laughed and then he made a very profound statement.

“At least he’s healthy and happy enough to run all over the place. I try to thank God even for the crazy days like today.”

Wow! I left that aisle a different person than I had entered it. You see, we can get so consumed with life that our faith becomes an afterthought. Who has time to search for those grand moments of faith, high atop mountains where serenity and inspiration meet to refresh and make us new people? That sort of stuff isn’t meant for “real people.”

But what if faith was not as tricky as we sometimes make it out to be? What if we didn’t have to go to such extremes to search out and find opportunities to experience our faith? What if all we needed were the eyes to see those opportunities fall into our lap on a daily basis?

Everyday life can be full of a surplus of encounters with God. Faith isn’t meant to be something we compartmentalize into our “spiritual life.” Instead, it is the lens we use to see the everyday and even mundane routines of life. It’s what helps us notice the beauty of a summer morning, in spite of the stress of “yet another Monday morning.” It’s what puts into perspective the importance of friends and family even when these same people are the source of much of the tension in our lives. It’s what helps us laugh and be thankful for the odd ways children find joy in life — even if that joy is expressed in the middle of Kroger for the whole world to see.

Faith is most often the hidden moments of everyday life, when the mundane meets the sacred, that we discover a God who can’t wait to reach out and be with us. It’s when we’re able to slip up and see these moments amid the clutter of our lives, in all of their eccentric beauty, that we can be overcome with the joy of the presence of God.

I hope you find joy this next week beyond your wildest imagination. And if you do, you have my permission to run and dance around Kroger for the whole world to see.

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