Where we go Wrong (Part 1)

crochety-old-mr-gruff-tiger-lilly-jan-28“Watch out for them. They will corrupt your mind. They have no sense of morality or accountability. They do whatever they want and most of what they do is evil and an abomination to God.”

This is the message I heard from the authority figures in my life as I was growing up. Being atheist immediately placed a person in the same category as paedophiles, wife-beaters, and mass murderers. They were depicted as angry, mean and downright unfriendly. (The leaflet shown above is just one of the many I have seen that were used to teach us that atheists are evil, mean, uneducated, corrupting and immoral influences and we should avoid them at any cost.)

So imagine my surprise to find out that non-belief doesn’t make you a Grinch, or even put you on the Most Wanted list! The fact that someone such as this could be friendly? Really? But they don’t have Jesus in their heart. They don’t read the Bible. They wouldn’t know how to be nice. Right?

How wrong I was.

Not only do they embrace such mantras as “Live better. Help often. Wonder more,*” but they give blood, volunteer at the soup kitchen, drive for Meals-on-wheels, run charities, volunteer for humanitarian causes and care deeply about many of the same things I care about. Some of them I have the privilege as counting as good friends and valued associates.

That’s probably why I was drawn to The Friendly Atheist website and then podcast by Hemant Mehta. Hemant started this venture after selling his soul on eBay and then writing a blog and a book about it. He has no problem having conversations with Christians and non-believers alike and learning from anyone with something of value to say. I find his method intriguing and insights compelling.

Reading his book I Sold My Soul on eBay, I was struck by someone who was open-minded and willing to admit that he didn’t know it all. He put that which he didn’t believe existed, his soul, up for sale and not only took bids on it, but agreed that, for every $10 raised, he would visit one religious service. The winning bidder, John Henson, compiled a list of all the churches he wanted Hemant to visit and then asked that he write blog posts about these churches and what he learned about Christianity through his interaction with these people of faith.

These blog posts became the book.

He experienced some crazy stuff, was amazed by other committed and caring folk (I guess we aren’t the only ones who pigeonhole whole groups of people), and was able to examine Christian worship from a purely objective point of view.

He admitted that many things the Church in general has gotten right, though he tends to qualify this by emphasising that his sample set was a small proportion of Christianity as a whole, and mostly focused around the Midwest U.S.

He also sees a whole lot that we have gotten wrong, including the idea that all atheists are sad, angry and have experienced a God-centred trauma at some point in their20130221-105105 life (which is essentially the theme of the insensitive, ignorant and grossly inaccurate screenplay of the movie God is Not Dead.)

The truth is, we as professing Christians (at least a fair percentage of us) are also angry, mean-spirited, immoral and hateful people. Our tradition has us believing in a god who throws people who have never been given a chance to repent into a place where they will be roasted forever, who commanded horrific acts of genocide, even presiding over the intentional elimination of every man, woman, child and creature on the planet at one point in what many believe to be ‘history.’ I intentionally use the word ‘god’ because this god is small, tribal, angry, and manipulative. The God I believe that is shown in Jesus is a God of love, peace, joy, inclusion and acceptance. This is a God whose character I cannot reconcile with the god of the Hebrew patriarchs. In this, and many other areas, I must admit that I, too, don’t have all the answers.

So I defer to kindness, peace, hope, love–all traits that good-hearted people of both atheist and theist positions embrace. I choose to live in harmony with my non-believing brothers and sisters. I choose not to have an agenda of persuasion whenever I am with them. I (and I think God is with me on this because, as you know from my previous posts, God thinks like me) would rather see a kind atheist than a mean Christian. 

_________

* The mantra of a growing popular humanist movement, The Sunday Assembly, that replaces the church service with an uplifting secular meeting, held on Sundays.

Repost: “Wannabe Cool” Christianity

I recently came across a piece in The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal by Brett McCracken entitled “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity.” It made for interesting reading insomuch as McCracken delved into the current American Evangelical scene which tends to go all out for the latest trends. The reasoning often used is that they need to attract the younger generations to church. But, as McCracken rightly asks, “What sort of Christianity are they being converted to?”

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes: “The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same. (Read the entire article here.)

I have long been a critic of the attractional model of doing Church [follow the link for an excellent post about the attractional vs missional models]. It seems to me that if our aim is to attract people into a church service [and thus into a relationship with God] by offering targeted programs, contemporary high-tech services, and barista coffee, those people are just as likely to walk out the door when a church down the road offers more ‘relevant’ programs, better worship bands, or better-tasting coffee.

What we need to keep in mind in all our church activities is the power of a real relationship, both with God and with each other. And I’m not just talking about saying that we have a relationship, but living that relationship every day.

And that, in its essence, is love. It’s what St Paul speaks of so highly when he writes a enormously-relevant verse in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love,  I’m nothing.  If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (1 Cor. 13:1-7, The Message)

So much as I’d love the chance to tweet my thoughts about the pastor’s sermon during the service, or hook up on Facebook with the middle-aged adults group, join YouTube’s battle of the church bands, or participate in “iChurch,” nothing–absolutely nothing–substitutes for genuine, loving relationships in the context of Christian community.

I don’t think I’m alone on this one.

The Right Thing To Do

Jon:

I came across this from Mark Miller this week and know it will inspire you. This is truly evidence that there is a better way.

Originally posted on Mark H. Miller's Blog:

One of the most apt questions that should guide and encourage the manner of life we live is this, “How is love best served?”

To that I add another: “What is the right thing to do?”

Believe me. That is not academic. In our new home situation the only water that pooled was in our back yard. We were lucky. Very lucky. Our thanks to the many family and friends who inquired.

But with that the right thing to do is to check with family and friends who may have been in harm’s way. I have learned one family from a former congregation was clobbered by the flooding waters in and through San Marcos. First agenda in the morning—tis pretty late tonight—is to contact them and see what can be done. And honestly. If they need someone to help clean out the muck and pooled water, I know where my…

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Ponder Anew: Dear Church . . .

  Jonathan wrote the following piece–no, not me, but someone around 20 years my junior who is struggling with the same church- and Chrustianity-related issues as I am. As I read this, I heard myself self saying “Yes” and “Amen” so many times (much to the annoyance of the amazing partner-in-crime-and-matrimony sitting across from me at the moment.)

I, like Jonathan, am tired of Jesusy entertainment, bait-and-switch tactics, church cafes, programs, gimmicks and the whole gamut of stuff we can find anywhere. 

I, like Jonathan, want church to be different, compelling, relational, contemplative, full of meaning and symbol, inclusive and embracing of all. As he writes in his blog’s bio, “I believe that as long as we operate the local church with a commercial, consumer, capitalist, seeker-sensitive mentality, it is doomed to be bloated, lukewarm, and largely irrelevant.” Preach it!

I thought of quoting bits from it but couldn’t decide which, so here it is in its entirety. Please do me and yourself a favour and check out the Ponder Anew blog (I LOVE that title, taken from the hymn Praise to the Lord the Almighty. The line says, “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do…” I believe that if we left what only God can do for God to do, we would see a acing things… but that’s another post for another time.)

So here it is.

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A lot’s been made over the millennial generation and their religious life. Why they go to church. Why they don’t go to church. What they want. What they hate.

I’m going to do something different here. I’m not going to cite Barna. I’m not going to quote Rachel Held Evans. I’m not going to link to any articles or blog posts.

I’m just going to tell you what’s true for me, and what I’ve seen to be true of others like me.

I am one of those rascally millennials, by the way. One of those enigmatic, paradoxical, media-dependent, coffee-drinking young people swept together under this millennial umbrella. Except coffee tears up my stomach, so I dropped that stuff.

I was born when a washed-up actor was in the White House. I was crushed the day slap bracelets were banned from my elementary school. I remember hiding in my room with my five-inch TV to watch Friends and Seinfeld and the Simpsons, and all the other shows I wasn’t allowed to see. I don’t remember what it’s like to not have a home computer. I can barely recall a time before cell phones. I’ve never left home without one.

I’ve always been in church. I’ve never left, though I’ve come close several times. I would have left in high school if I’d had the option, but in my house, attendance at my cool, hip, contemporary-worshiping, youth-group-glorifying, moralism-preaching, theology-eschewing McCongregation was a non-negotiable.

So I went. Through every repetition of “Shout to the Lord,” every True Love Waits commitment ceremony, every rapture-ready dispensationalist Bible study, every sermon series on how to make myself into a good, moral, well-behaved person so that I wouldn’t tick off God and bring condemnation to America.

But I was always a misfit. Always a skeptic. Always a doubter. Always an outsider.

Today, you’re my livelihood, and putting food on my table overcomes the gravitational pull of my mattress on a cold, rainy Sunday morning. Or a hot, dry one. Or any other one. But that pull is still there. It’s always been there. It’s never left.

The truth is, my relationship with you is still love-hate.

I love the theology, but I hate the expectations of pseudo piety.

Love the gospel, hate the patriotic moralism.

Love the Bible, hate the way it’s used.

Love Jesus, but hate what we’ve done with him.

Love worship, but hate Jesusy entertainment.

And those other kids I went to church with, I’ve come to find that many of them were misfits, skeptics, and doubters, too. Some of them still go, but more of them have left.

Some of them left because they had no desire to conform to an outdated cultural norm that demanded we keep up appearances by parking our butts in our regular Sunday pew.

They didn’t believe, and didn’t believe they needed to pretend that they did.

Others have left because they grew keen to the bait-and-switch tactics. They’ve left because they didn’t fit in, and couldn’t pretend anymore. They left because the Jesus preached from the pulpit didn’t look much like the Jesus of Nazareth. They left because all the bells and whistles and hooks and marketing rang hollow.

They left because they had been constantly catered to, constantly kept busy, but had never been taught how to be a part of the church.

The programs won’t bring them back.

The coffee won’t bring them back.

The show – the lights, fog machine, the contemporary worship that we think is essential –  nope, that won’t do it, either.

But here are a few things that might just work with some of us. They may seem crazy. They may contradict everything you’ve heard. But, as one of these millennials, this is what would work for me, and for a lot of the people I know who have left.

Don’t expect a “worship style” to do your dirty work. Contemporary worship hasn’t worked. The longer we extend the life of this failed experiment, the more we see the results.

In my experience, contemporary worship brings in three groups. Baby boomers who are still stuck in their rebellion against the establishment, parents who mistakenly think that contemporary worship is the only way for their kids to connect to the church, and small percentage of young adults who haven’t left the church and haven’t known anything besides contemporary worship.

In modeling worship after commercial entertainment, you’ve compromised your identity, and we’re still not coming back.

And even if we did, would there be any church left? Would there be anything beyond the frills, the lights, the performance, the affected vocals? Would we still see a cross? Would we still find our place among the saints who have come before? Would we find reminders of our life-long need of grace?

Or would we have been hooked by something altogether different? Would we merely find your answer key for the great mystery of faith?

Don’t give us entertainment, give us liturgy. We don’t want to be entertained in church, and frankly, the church’s attempt at entertainment is pathetic. Enough with the theatrics. Enough with the lights, the visuals, the booming audio, the fog machine, the giveaway gimmicks, the whole production. Follow that simple yet profound formula that’s worked for the entire history of the church. Entrance, proclamation, thanksgiving, sending out. Gathering, preaching, breaking bread, going forth in service. Give us a script to follow, give us songs to sing, give us the tradition of the church, give us Holy Scripture to read. Give us sacraments, not life groups, to grow and strengthen us.

Week after week, season after season, year after year, let us participate in the drama of the gospel. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to produce intense emotional response. It’s a microcosmic, disciplined, anticipatory remembrance of who we were, who we are, and who we are to be. We need this. We need these heartfelt rituals in our lives to keep us returning to the fount of grace, to mark our way back home.

Be yourself, and you just might shake us out of our technology-induced, entertainment-craving slumber. Keep giving us Jesusy versions of mainstream entertainment, and there’s no hope. You can’t compete. You’ll lose every time.

Don’t target us. In doing so, the church has marketed and advertised itself into oblivion. We’re left with homogeneous congregations of approximately the same ages and backgrounds who are just there for what they can get out of the church. No wonder we’ve left. Just be the church. Use your regular old liturgy. Offer your regular old sacraments. Sing your regular old songs. Cast a wide net, and let whosoever will come. Trust me, we’re more likely to show up when we don’t feel like fish snapping up the bait.

Be inclusive. Tear down silos. Save us from ourselves. We don’t need more youth group lock-ins, more Sunday School options for each age group, more senior adult outings on beekeeping and genealogy. We need more of each other. We need to look into the faces of old and young, rich and poor, of different colors, races, and ethnic backgrounds, so we can learn to see Jesus in faces that don’t look like us. So we can remember that the kingdom is bigger than our safe, suburban bubble. That’s right, we need community, not based on age or economic status or skin color, but wrought with the hammering of nails on a wooden cross.

Our internet connectivity is just fine. The rest of our lives is a different story. We are hopelessly disconnected. Church, you can be a powerful remedy if you stop posing as a Fortune 500 company scheming to sell a product.

Welcome the toughest, deepest, grittiest, most desperate, most shocking questions.  We have lots of questions. More and more, what we see in the world doesn’t jive with what we grew up hearing from the pulpit. You have done more damage by requiring politeness, by refusing to engage, by brusquely rebuking honesty and vulnerability. You’re better than that, church. At least you should be. You should be a safe place for struggling, grappling, doubting.

Allow us to be real with each other, to avoid the temptation to gloss over the crap going on in the world with easy, tidy, Jesusy clichés‘. You’ve always taught us how the world is black and white, just like The Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy. But, and excuse us for noticing, the world is mostly gray, gray like Ricky Ricardo’s dinner jacket and Barney Fife’s nightstick. Let’s embrace that grayness together.

So no more three points and a take home. No more self-help. No more marriage and parenting advice. No more anger management pointers. We don’t need you to be our therapist, we need you to be our church. We need you to show us how to be the hands and feet of Christ, to struggle with us in making it more on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s not too late, church, but your tactics aren’t working.

It’s time for a new strategy.

It’s time to be uncool. To be radical. To be different.

It’s time to be yourself.

Your Friend,

Jonathan
 

Your Kids Will Probably Leave the Church

imageWarning: Your kids most likely will leave the church.

Why? Because, in our massive efforts to keep them through indoctrination, programs, entertainment and involvement, they cannot escape the fact that they are swimming n a fear-based system.

Who hasn’t heard a young person growing up in an Evangelical church say at some point, “If I was to ever leave the church, mum and dad would ______________”? It seems like the only two things worse than leaving the Church, in the Evangelical’s mind, are coming out as gay or getting an abortion. Truth is, parents are so afraid their kids will leave their family’s traditional spiritual home that they will do almost anything to prevent that from happening. Guilt. Threats. Investing huge amounts and time and money themselves into the Church. Making sure the Church hires the right and fires the wrong people.

Fear.

What if, after all this investment, they end up leaving anyway?

Then there’s this from the fundamentalist organisation Answers in Genesis:

“In the first scientific study of its kind, the “Beemer Report” reveals startling facts discovered through 20,000 phone calls and detailed surveys of a thousand 20–29 year olds who used to attend evangelical churches on a regular basis, but have since left it behind.
“The results are shocking:
“Those who faithfully attend Sunday School are more likely to leave the church than those who do not. Those who regularly attend Sunday School are more likely to believe that the Bible is less true. Those who regularly attend Sunday School are actually more likely to defend that abortion and gay marriage should be legal. Those who regularly attend Sunday School are actually more likely to defend premarital sex.”

(First reaction: “Hallelujah! These kids are turning away from a close-minded, unChristian dogma and thinking for themselves. They’re probably feeling rather free without all that baggage.” Second reaction: “We need more well-balanced, inclusive and Christ-following churches where the youth are encouraged to question, allowed to doubt and freed to be who they were created to be.”)

The lesson here is that church attendance and force-feeding kids the doctrines and values of an institution on a regular basis has no bearing on their continuance in that tradition. Simply put, It. Doesn’t. Work.

In his book Why Our Children Will be Atheists, Albert Williams shows how the story of the world is evolving and so its understanding of God. He shows how primitive cultures held to many deities which, over time and in one particular people group, became belief in one God above all, and then one and only one God. From this came the scriptures, codes of practice and creeds. The institutional Church then followed, reformed, broke apart, migrated to new areas of influence, and then started on a deconstruction process as people learned more, reasoned more and realised the old traditions and superstitions didn’t hold up to rational thought. Williams’ view is that, within one or two generations, the Church as an institution will be obsolete.

I disagree with his findings in the end because I believe that the Church will always hold some relevance in our world, but only as it seeks to exemplify the love and grace of Christ. Churches that operate out of a place of fear, condemnation and legislated morality will be relegated to history.

With this in mind, perhaps we should be looking at the probability/inevitability of our children leaving the church and, instead of trying frantically to develop a sense of dependence on an institution, we should be instilling in them those values and that strength of character they will need in life–in church or out.

(And don’t trust that the Church will transmit these values because, apart from the few exceptional more progressive examples, churches tend to do what keeps them in business.)

In essence, stop fearing what may happen and plan for what will happen. Your kids will grow up. They will leave home. They will find meaningful work in their community. They will find their own way. They will still be your children but your relationship will change as they become independent and self-reliant individuals.  You will no longer be responsible for their decisions and possibly won’t have much influence in their choice of direction.

They may leave your cherished place of worship and, no matter what you may hear from others, THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

You are not responsible to ensure your church’s doors stay open after you’re gone. Nor are your children.

So step back from manipulating their spirituality, controlling their church involvement, guilting them into showing up and warming a seat on Sunday, and, instead, listen to them. Love them. Speak hope and strength into their life. Encourage their giftedness. Allow them to make independent decisions. Give advice when they ask (and they will ask), but don’t be meddlesome. Let them dream their dreams and let them know it’s OK if these dreams don’t fit into your ideal plan (or your church’s ideal plan) for their life. Pray for them. Stop worrying and trust that God will take care of them.

God can and will take care of them, better than you realise, whether they are in or out of the church.

And they will be OK because they will be secure in themselves and in who you brought them up to be.

Faith

IMG_1448I was asked recently to share what my faith journey looked like.

I’ll admit: it is a journey, and it certainly involves faith. That said, it’s often difficult for me to articulate. Faith is not black and white (or as I heard one say, “It isn’t binary.”) It looks different for you than it may for me.

It may also include uncertainty, doubt, fear, struggle, deconstruction and reconstruction, and many seasons of growth and change.

It may or may not be tied to a church experience. It may or may not have clearly defined boundaries, milestones, turning points, commitments, or life-changing decisions.

Regardless of what it looks like, it involves questions, hope, and trust that what is promised will come to be, both in this life and in the next. I think the writer of the following reflection also understand it this way.

*   *   *   *   *

“I shall not die, but live, and tell of the Lord’s great deeds.” – Psalm 118: 17

When my mother was dying, some of my siblings and in-laws kept whispering to her that Jesus was waiting to welcome her, that people she loved would be there too, that she could let go without fear. At one point in this litany of reassurance, she woke up, looked right at us, and said in a strong voice, clear as a bell, “Are you sure?”

Immediately everybody said, “Yes, we’re sure!” Even I said so—I who have struggled for years with what ‘life after death’ might rationally mean.

“We’re sure,” I said. I’m sure.

Immediately under my breath I threatened God: “Did you hear that? I just told her it’s true. It had better be. It had better be, do you hear me? I gave her my word.”

Some people claim to know. They’ve seen soft lights, green meadows, felt God’s embrace. If you find that comforting, I’m glad. But none of it is certain. We have only promises and poetry, longing and love, need and hope. The rest is silence.

All the same, if my mother had asked me a thousand times whether it was true about Jesus and loved ones and God’s embrace, a thousand times I would have said yes. And after each yes I would have threatened God, “It had better be.” And after each menacing prayer, silence would be the reply.

That’s hard. It just is.

There’s a reason they call it ‘faith.’

— Mary Luti, from StillSpeaking

How can it be?

lauren-how-can-it-beThere’s a song that has been going around Christian circles recently called How Can It Be* sung by (a relatively unknown) Lauren Daigle. You can view the YouTube clip here. This type of song is disturbing because it contains some truth but, apart from what I personally consider to be a harmful theology of penal substitutionary atonement (for further information read the excellent articles found here and here), it also contains a dangerous undercurrent of downright negativity and falsehood about who we are in God’s sight. Here’s the first verse:

I am guilty Ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become These hands are dirty I dare not lift them up to the Holy one

“I am guilty.” “I am ashamed.” “My hands are dirty.” “I dare not lift them to the holy one.” Who told you this? If we read the New Testament, we see that we have been reconciled to God, declared righteous, called “holy” and “beloved of God,” and urged to lift up holy hands in prayer. This is dangerous because it tells us and our families, our children, that they are intrinsically dirty, shameful, not desirable to God, unloved, and that they dare not approach God. Now, obviously, the songwriters continue by showing how Jesus steps into this gulf between who we are and what God demands, and this is the primary message of a penal system where God demands his son die to appease his own wrath against humanity. It also relies heavily on legal language and views human salvation as an transaction between Jesus and God and between God and individual humans.

You plead my cause You right my wrongs You break my chains You overcome You gave Your life To give me mine You say that I am free How can it be How can it be

And then verse two:

I’ve been hiding Afraid I’ve let you down, inside I doubt That You could love me But in Your eyes there’s only grace now

Do we want to feed our souls with such a fear-based, guilt-inducing message? “I’m afraid. I’ve been hiding. I don’t know how you could love such a person as myself. But there’s grace in your eyes now. Earlier? Maybe not so. But now, there’s grace.” The repeating chorus echoes that phrase “How can it be?” Incredulous that such a wretch (or “worm” in the words of another old hymn) as I should be able to lift my head to the Holy God. This is not a song that speaks of love, our endearment to God, a thriving relationship or being the beloved ones of the Divine.

That said, the real reason this song–and songs like it–arte so dangerous is that music has a way of binding itself into our mind and affecting our soul. It can change the course of a life. It can reinforce good thoughts or drive home a despairing view of life that adds to the already-burdensome load we carry. We don’t need the added weight of shame, guilt, and despair. We need music that will lift our spirits, deliver truth of who we are into our hearts, and declare the universal and eternal love of God. Unfortunately, How Can It Be is not that kind of music. Songs like this really need to be left as (possible) artful expressions, but not repeated and rehearsed and made part of our life.

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* Publishing: © 2014 Sony ATV Timber Publishing (SESAC) / Sony ATV Timber Publishing & Open Hands Music (SESAC) / Ponies Riding Shotgun (ASCAP Writer(s): Words and Music by Paul Mabury, Jason Ingram and Jeff Johnson