Bearing Burdens: From Evangelism to Immigration Reform

Cinder brick laying, Lou Oates / Shutterstock.com

Cinder brick laying, Lou Oates / Shutterstock.com

I became interested in the politics of immigration in about the most innocent way possible for a student at a conservative Christian college — good ol’ fashioned evangelism. Working on an “impact team” with a local Columbian pastor, we had a few nights of evangelism in large apartment complex that was almost exclusively Honduran. On the first night, I struck up a conversation with a (very) drunk man sitting on a park bench named Carlos. Over the next few months our relationship grew, and we became close friends. Eventually, he had an experience with Christ that changed his life and we came brothers. As members of the same body, this now meant that his burdens were my burdens (Rom 12:15; Gal. 6:2). As Carlos was an undocumented immigrant living in the south, this means that it sure didn’t take long for my burden to become immigration reform

Months after our initial meeting, I looked down at my phone and saw that Carlos was calling—but as I picked it up, the voice on the other line didn’t sound anything like my friend. Instead of a loud and happy voice calling me gringo, the voice was strained, quiet, emotional. I tensed up at the sound of his quivering voice — recognizing immediately that something serious was wrong.

To the Dying Church: Do What You Came Here to Do

Stained glass window & crucifix, benztsai / Shutterstock.com

Stained glass window & crucifix, benztsai / Shutterstock.com

To the dying church,

I think I missed the moment. It was a pretty big moment, too. At least here in the United States, you were a force to be reckoned with until a few years ago. You helped form the fabric of our society. Pastors were well-respected people of authority. They built great big sanctuaries, and people wore respectable clothing on Sunday mornings. To be fair, you didn’t — and don’t now — always live up to the hype. Sometimes you hide your head in the ground when it’s time to stand up against racism and homophobia. You’re still not so sure about the equality of women. You sometimes sell out to political agendas.

But regardless of the good and the bad, the moment is now over, and you’re dying. Or that’s what they tell me. All that power and influence is fading away. It sounds like some churches are having trouble even keeping the lights on. I know I should mourn for you, but allow me a moment of self-pity here too. What, you thought it was all about you?

You see, I’ve been getting ready for a few years now. A bunch of us have. Some of us have grown up with you, and some of us have just met you recently, but we’re all lining up to serve you. Somehow we all have this nagging sense that we’re supposed to be with you in these days, so some of us went to seminary and some went to college to learn youth ministry. We went to conferences and gave up our evenings and weekends to church basements with committees and youth groups. We read books and studied Scripture and prayed and imagined the kingdom of God breaking into the world through you. They call us emerging leaders, and we had a lot of hopes for you.

To the Dying Church: Use Your Words

Small church, via CreationSwap.com

Small church, via CreationSwap.com

To the dying church,

The ongoing decline of American Christianity is well documented. A quick Google search of “mainline decline” provides statistics, commentary, and variously tried and discarded solutions related to the struggles of liberal protestantism in the United States. More recently, these trends are showing up in conservative Christian circles as well. The attention of the media, religious scholars, and cultural warriors has been captured by the rise of the “nones,” the “spiritual but not religious,” humanists, and evangelistic atheists.

It is clear who’s ascending and who’s falling. Organized religion is doomed. You, dying church, are in trouble.

I have seen your sickness up close. The congregation where I was baptized — once full on Sunday mornings — now barely hangs on. The church where I preached in college has long since closed its doors. My pastor friends spend their days worrying about shrinking worship attendance and a lack of financial resources for carrying out their ministry. Denominations pause from fighting and splitting just long enough to make budget cuts and lay off staff.

What can be done? What should be done? Is this a new reality that we simply must accept?

You Can’t Point a Person to Christ with a Gun

AR-15 front combat site, Artifexx / Shutterstock.com

AR-15 front combat site, Artifexx / Shutterstock.com

During the Crusades, conversion by the sword was a common practice. Today, it’s conversion by the bullet.

A growing trend in evangelism among some more conservative churches is to promise people a gun in exchange for attendance.

Some more prominent examples from the past few weeks: In Kentucky, several churches are hosting “Second Amendment Celebrations,” which feature a steak-and-potatoes dinner followed by a conversion sermon preached by a former pastor, outdoor TV host, and gun enthusiast. Attendees are promised the chance to win a firearm in exchange for showing up and staying to the end of the event. In New York, one church is planning to end its Sunday worship service with a raffle for a free AR-15 to honor “hunters and gun owners who have been so viciously attacked by the anti-Christian socialist media and antichristian socialist politicians the last few years.”

The organizers of these events claim they’re an effective way to bring people to Christ. By uniting gun culture with Christianity, they’re reaching out to an unchurched population to lead them to salvation.

Radical Ruptures and Rhetorical Questions

Shattered dancer image, markos86 / Shutterstock.com

Shattered dancer image, markos86 / Shutterstock.com

For me, action had become a way to look good and gain respect — but it obscured the more important inner work. It anesthetized the throbbing nerves of my aching interiority. And I needed it because my insides were bleeding so bad and hurting so raw from so many years of neglect that if I allowed myself to get off the action pill, it might just all catch up with me. An addiction to avoidance sanctioned by the church. Radical ruptures, indeed.

What I have asked myself in the days since those passionate experiences have left deafness and dryness in their wake is about the hard work of the Kingdom that has nothing to do with revolutionary activism. What about the work that is only done in the privacy of the human heart? Where are the voices encouraging people that they indeed can hear God speak within them — and that that is the Voice for which they ought to be straining? In all my followings, I rarely encountered a Christian leader who dared to enact Augustine's famous words and turn the Truth loose, trusting that it will defend itself.

Christmas Needs a New Tagline

Does Christmas need a new tagline? Invisible Studio/Shutterstock

And so it begins: “The Reason for the Season.”The bumper stickers and fridge magnets are flooding my mail box and being slapped into my hands kindly by ushers. Church signs from all denominations proclaim: “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!”The phrase has become ubiquitous.

But for me, it’s like nails-on-chalkboard. Indeed, he is the reason. Though we should probably draw our camera back for the wider view on the reason: God’s love (for he so loved the world … well, you know the rest). It is not the accuracy of the slogan that makes me cringe (because it is accurate), but rather, because it’s fluff. It is the religious equivalent to sappy pop music.

“Let’s keep Christ in Christmas!”

“Jesus: the gift that keeps on giving!”

Given the magnitude of Christ’s birth, are these slogans the best we can do?  

'Like If You Love Jesus!' The Gospel According to Facebook

'Like' illustration, Gonzalo Aragon / Shutterstock.com

'Like' illustration, Gonzalo Aragon / Shutterstock.com

Facebook, with its nearly 500 million users, connects us to the world around us and we are able to share everything from vacation pictures to memorial pages for those who have died. The site has moved past its original intent of social networking between friends; businesses, churches, civil groups, clubs, and even TV shows all have a presence on Facebook. Breaking news is reported, shared, liked and commented on, all within the confines of one website. The goal has moved from friendly conversations to specific advertisements and mass information around like issues, causes, and beliefs.

But what has Facebook done for Christianity? Has it helped or hurt the Gospel message? Recently I began to see more and more pictures shared that read “Like if you Love Jesus” or “Keep scrolling if you love the Devil, like if you love God.” These pictures call for Christians around the world to share their faith boldly and proudly on their Facebook page so that all who may grace it will know that they are a follower of Christ.

To be honest, I can’t stand them. 

Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor: The Surfer Boy and the Receptionist

The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

"And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:1, 16

Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young, 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Fla. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment, and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again, and began to set his life straight.

After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you?" 

When Doing the 'Christian Thing' Isn’t the Right Thing

Pedestrians passing by homeless person, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

Pedestrians passing by homeless person on the street, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campus, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy that gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.