"The old hatreds shall someday pass; the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve."
Instead of promoting Christ, Christians often promote …
their spiritual practices
their specific type of baptism
their required form of communion
their style of sermon
their definition of salvation
their philosophy of evangelism
their form of ministry
their brand of worship
their interpretation of Revelation
their interpretation of the Bible
their favorite leadership model
their social customs
their laws, rules, and regulations
their political beliefs
their moral values
Imagine if Christians introduced people to their God instead of their religion.
The notion of America as a mostly white, mostly Christian country is rapidly becoming a fact for the history books.
“The U.S. religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is fundamentally reshaping American politics and culture,” said Dan Cox, research director for Public Religion Research Institute.
Last week, PRRI released the American Values Atlas, an interactive online tool that compiles data about Americans’ opinions, identities, and values. One of the biggest takeaways of this years’ study was that, for the first time ever, America is not a majority Protestant nation.
I have a confession to make. I have not always been very fair with the church, and for that I apologize.
In an effort to share my love and passion for my faith, I have picked and poked and criticized the church, and maybe that is a bit unfair. I have been a minister going on six years, and during that time, I have been the best and the worst that the church can offer.
I have a certain understanding of the way a church should operate, and when I do not see that being played out in the communities around me, it makes me upset: upset about the way God is presented, upset about the droves of people who will miss out on a life-changing relationship with God, and upset that I cannot change everything.
It's difficult for me as a young minister to slow down and be reflective in the face of impending decline and danger of closures for many of our congregations.
It's not easy being a minister today, and I guess it’s easier to take out my frustrations on the church instead looking for that 'silver lining.'
But I have a come to the conclusion that maybe all is not lost.
As an evangelical theologian and pastor, I want to say that ISIS is evil. Evil is a term we don’t normally hear in the media or politics, which is likely a good thing given our lack of public morality and civility these days. Indeed, judgementalism was condemned by Jesus, but is still often practiced by many churches — so humility is always called for. But it is still a responsibility of the faith community to name evil where it clearly exists in the world. And by any standards, the actions of ISIS are evil.
The latest report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq on “The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq,” catalogues the human rights atrocities committed by ISIS, making it abundantly clear that this group is evil. They include:
- attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure,
- executions and other targeted killings of civilians,
- abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and gender based violence perpetrated against women and children,
- slavery and trafficking of women and children,
- forced recruitment of children,
- destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance,
- wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms.
The report goes on to identify the targeting of ethnic and religious groups — such as Christians, Yazidis, Shi’ite Muslims, and many others —and subjecting them to “gross human rights abuses, in what appears as a deliberate policy aimed at destroying, suppressing or expelling these communities permanently from areas under their control.” The report describes the actions as possible “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”
In light of these sober findings, the faith community must remind the world that evil can be overcome, and that individuals involved in evil systems and practices can be redeemed. But how to overcome evil is a very complicated theological question, which requires much self-reflection. In trying to figure out how to overcome evil, it is often helpful to first decide how not to. Here is a good example of how not to respond to the reality of evil.
So it’s almost Valentine’s Day. Seemingly everywhere you look is a celebration of love and romance. There’s so much sweetness in the air (and on store shelves), it has almost the opposite effect.
Especially if you’re single. Valentine’s Day is often one of the most uncomfortable days of the year. It’s that one special day a year in which single people are painfully reminded that we may very well die alone and childless. Unfortunately, in our romance and sex-saturated culture, every day kind of reminds you of that.
The church hasn’t offered much by way of alternatives. In the evangelical church, there’s far too much “Jesus is my boyfriend” or “I’m dating Jesus”-type songs and teaching that it trivializes the kind of intimacy that can exist between God and humanity. And it silences the deeper pain of loneliness and disappointment that single adults — both gay and straight — can feel. Humans were made for relationship with God, but we were also made for relationships with each other.
There are a couple of issues at work here. On one hand, we’re fed so much junk about sex and romance and relationships from our culture that it becomes difficult to think any differently about love. When the highest, most celebrated form of love in our culture is erotic love and romance, the concept of spiritual intimacy with God seems unsatisfying and — let’s be real — also kind of icky. It feels like a consolation prize, something you say to make yourself feel better about being alone.
On the other hand, in the church, marriage almost becomes an idol. Christina Cleveland writes all kinds of amazing things about singleness in this essay, (so many I want to quote!) but this stands out:
“After interacting with the church, many singles start to wonder: Is there something wrong with me? Is God working in my life? Am I as valuable (to God, to the church) as married people? Does God love me as much as he loves married people? Does God have good things in store for me as a single person?”
There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, and there’s no such thing as perfect Christianity.
They don’t exist. One of the biggest lies Satan can tell you is that perfect spirituality can be achieved — it can’t.
There’s no perfect denomination.
There’s no perfect church.
There’s no perfect congregation size.
There’s no perfect style of worship.
There’s no perfect theology.
There’s no perfect children’s ministry curriculum.
There’s no perfect youth ministry philosophy.
There’s no perfect sermon formula.
There’s no perfect service sequence.
There’s no perfect leadership structure.
There’s no perfect interpretation of the Bible.
There’s no perfect strategy for evangelism.
Unfortunately, the idea of attaining perfect faith is perpetuated throughout Christendom. If you only attend this church more, pray more, tithe more, forgive more, sacrifice more, and ultimately do this or that just a little bit more — then you will attain blissful happiness, perfect harmony, divine communion with God, and a happily ever after eternity.
Meet the “Post-Seculars” — the one in five Americans who no one seems to have noticed before in endless rounds of debates pitting science vs. religion.
They’re more strongly religious than most “Traditionals” (43 percent of Americans) and more scientifically knowledgeable than “Moderns” (36 percent) who stand on science alone, according to two sociologists’ findings in a new study.
“We were surprised to find this pretty big group (21 percent) who are pretty knowledgeable and appreciative about science and technology but who are also very religious and who reject certain scientific theories,” said Timothy O’Brien, co-author of the research study, released Jan. 29 in the American Sociological Review.
Put another way, there’s a sizable chunk of Americans out there who are both religious and scientifically minded but who break with both packs when faith and science collide.
Reading religion surveys can seem like confronting the Tower of Babel: stacked questions, confusing terms, unscientific methodology.
It gets even crazier when results are contradictory. How does that happen?
Some surveys lean like the Tower of Pisa
The Pledge of Allegiance is a perfect example.
There’s almost always a flap over how many Americans do — or don’t — want the words “under God” kicked out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Indeed, on Nov. 19 a court in Monmouth, N.J., will hear the case of the American Humanist Association battling the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District to have schools edit out mention of God.
The humanists claim 34 percent of Americans agree with their view. But, wait. What about a survey conducted earlier this year by LifeWay Research, a Christian research agency? It found that only 8 percent would cut God from the Pledge.
Why four times the difference? Look to the poll language.
LifeWay asked: “Should the words ‘under God’ be removed from or remain in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America?” That’s a straight-up question with no preface.
The humanists’ survey, however, began with a bit of pointed Pledge history — before getting to the (loaded) question:
“For its first 62 years, the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase ‘under God.’ During the Cold War, in 1954, the phrase ‘one nation, indivisible … ‘ was changed to read ‘one nation, under God, indivisible … ‘. Some people feel this phrase in our national pledge should focus on unity rather than religion.
I see it on nearly every church sign, every church mailing; on the inside fold of every bulletin:
All Are Welcome!
Worship at 9 a.m. Sunday, All Are Welcome!
Potluck Dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, All Are Welcome!
Vacation Bible School 9 a.m. Monday - Friday, All Are Welcome!
As the pastor of a Lutheran congregation outside Chicago, I find myself tagging it on — almost thoughtlessly — to our invitation cards and mailings as well.
It's almost an auto-signature for churches today: “All Are Welcome!”
And the impulse is a good one. For centuries the church has been exclusive rather than inclusive, despite Jesus' desire to the contrary. We have excluded women, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, senior citizens, singles, 20-somethings — at times the church has been downright discriminatory.
A friend of mine once told me he was desperate to find a church where he could not only worship but perhaps join the choir and get involved with music ministry. He brought his friend, another professional musician, to check out area churches. They found one they liked and were surprised when the minister asked them into his office. Ascertaining that they were both, indeed, gay, the minister said: "Well, you can attend. But just sit in the back row."
Thanks be to God, my friend didn't give up his search or lose his faith. He has since found an affirming congregation and leads incredible music there.
But too many of us have these stories: The congregation that saw single folks as irrelevant. The congregation that scorned Spanish-speaking immigrants. The place that found people with special needs disruptive.
Fortunately, many churches became aware of the way they had been contradicting the primary, freeing message of the Gospel: that all may be one in Christ Jesus, and that there is no longer Gentile or Jew, man or woman, black or white, slave or free, gay or straight, rich or poor ... (from Galatians 3:28).
As a needed corrective to become inclusive rather than exclusive, churches have hit upon a simple formula. It goes something like this: "Let's add ‘ALL ARE WELCOME’ to everything we publish. Let's make WELCOME the center of what we do."
Faith is a journey, a Pilgrim’s Progress filled with mistakes, learning, humble interactions, and life-changing events. Here are a few things I would do differently if I could go back and start over:
1. I wouldn't worry about having the right answers.
There’s a misconception that the Bible is the Ultimate Answer Book and Christianity is a divine encyclopedia presenting the solutions to life’s biggest questions. In reality, the Christian faith is about a relationship with Christ instead of an academic collection of right or wrong doctrines.
Rather than wasting time, energy, and resources on superficial theological issues — I would focus more of getting to know Jesus. Never let a desire for “being right” obstruct your love for Christ.
More Americans today say religion’s influence is losing ground just when they want it to play a stronger role in public life and politics.
A new Pew Research Center survey finds 72 percent of Americans say religion’s influence is declining in society — the highest percentage since Pew began measuring the trend in 2001, when only 52 percent held that view.
“Most people (overwhelmingly Christians) view this as a bad thing,” said Greg Smith, associate director of Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project. “That unhappiness may be behind their desire for more religion and politics.”
Growing numbers want their politicians to pray in public and for their clergy to endorse candidates from the pulpit. And nearly half of Americans say business owners with religious objections to gay marriage should to be able to refuse wedding-related services to same-sex couples.
There are three ways to look at the findings, released Sept. 22:
It was the beauty on the outside that drew me away.
Before social justice became trendy among evangelicals, people of all denominations, faiths, and philosophies had already been steadily working in the trenches without fanfare, caring for the least of these with a quiet strength.
Through seminary, I learned to grapple with justice being at the heart of the Christian Gospel — dignity, equality, and right to life for all — I marched out into the real world with zeal and vigor to champion the rights of the oppressed in the name of Jesus. However, I discovered the people who were doing this work often had no identification with Christianity, that those outside of church were behaving more Christian-ly than some inside.
I admired Nicholas Kristof, a self proclaimed nonreligious reporter, who tirelessly sheds light on humanitarian concerns.
I adored Malala, a Muslim, who stood up to the Taliban to bravely demand a right to education for girls.
I reflected on the justice heroes of recent history, people like Gandhi and countless other humanitarian workers who don’t claim the Christian faith for their own.
It disoriented me because for so long I believed it was only through Christ that one can walk in righteous paths; that without the Truth (which had been so narrowly summed up for me in John 3:16), everything was meaningless. I didn’t have an interpretive lens to categorize beauty that existed outside of the vessel I was told contained the only beauty to be found: the evangelical Christian church.
I was privileged to attend the ordination of a friend recently. For the first time, Michelle got to say the blessing over the bread, to break the bread and to give it to all of us with her hands.
Many tears, much joy.
As she handed me a small piece of the bigger loaf, I was reminded of how we, like the communion bread, are in the hands of others for so much of our lives. And how religion can be a thing of so much good or so much pain, depending upon whose hands it is in.
In the right hands, it’s a pathway to the divine. In the wrong hands …
It’s important that we always differentiate between religion and God. The two are distinct. God is always much bigger than any and all of our religions.
I went to the mecca of evangelicalism for college — beautiful campus in the suburbs of Chicago, where I received a scholarship from none other than the Pope of Evangelicalism, Billy Graham, for my work in street evangelism. As in, speaking to random strangers on the street in order to convert them to Christianity. Post graduation, I became a missionary, the Protestant equivalent of achieving sainthood.
I look back on that girl on fire and marvel at her earnest faith. If I could, I would reach back and massage the tense knots out of her high-strung shoulders, weary from carrying the weight of her neighbors’ eternal destinies. I would wistfully explain to her that the first person she tried to witness to, that gentle, drunken, homeless woman named Kathy, needed more than my rehearsed Roman Road to salvation. Then I would break the Temporal Prime Directive and reveal to her that one day she would become more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing.
The truth is, I’m just better at being evangelized. It’s probably how I was so easily converted at the tender age of 12. The young Christian is expected to learn how to share their testimony: their story of how God changes your life. By the time I was in my twenties, I had given my testimony a bajillion times.
But my own story often bored me.
If Christians stopped bickering about church, presenting sex as a first-order concern, telling other people how to lead their lives, and lending our name to minor-league politicians, what would we have to say?
We need to figure that out, because we are wearing out our welcome as tax-avoiding, sex-obsessed moral scolds and amateur politicians.
In fact, I think we are getting tired of ourselves. Who wants to devote life and loyalty to a religion that debates trifles and bullies the outsider?
So what would we say and do? No one thing, of course, because we are an extraordinarily diverse assembly of believers. But I think there are a few common words we would say.
The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence.
There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight.
“If, as Christians, we believe that peace is rooted in Christ, then how we build that peace within us, in one way, is through the disciplines of solitude and silence; through spending time with God. Solitude is not necessarily extremely easy process, because it will bring to the fore all sorts of things that are within us. We will get to know ourselves in a fuller way. In solitude, where you know that God is with you, you can just be with God, and there is no need for a mask. Also, your humility might grow because you will see yourself as you really are — in a way that needs to be healed and transformed.”
We’re headed home from Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of artists, activists, musicians, and theologians, in Hot Springs, N.C. It was hot, rainy, and messy. My suitcase smells like my fifth grade gym locker.
I can’t wait to go back next year.
The speakers are remarkable; many of them are walking the talk they’re offering, which is an unfortunately rare phenomenon. The music is fresh and exciting, the art is created before your eyes, and there is an energy of hopeful expectation that renews your soul, flushing out the broken-down-ness of daily life.
But the most important part of the whole four-day event lies in the unexpected moments. Sometimes I would walk along the main dirt road in the middle of the grounds, lined with tables, tents, and makeshift gathering spaces, until I saw something interesting going on and just joined in.
In one moment you’re debating the theological implications of the American food-industrial complex. Half an hour later, you’re laughing with new friends in the beer tent. And then, just when the sun sets and you’re sure you lack the fortitude to go one any more, the music on the main stage cranks up and the very earth beneath you vibrates.