Monthly Archives: May 2015
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
Publishing The Art of Being Broken (coming June 15th, 2015) has been a very different experience than publishing Worshipping Through John. It’s not even out yet and I’m seeing a huge difference. One of the biggest is in my level of attachment to it. WTJ is a devotional book. It’s relatively short, very linear, and wrapped around the simple and specific application of scripture. TAOBB took so much more out of me. It’s my experiences, my (hopefully inspired) thoughts, my prose. It’s felt intimidating to start putting out advance copies to reviewers that don’t have any stock in making me feel good about myself and wait for their unbiased reviews.
Each time that one comes in, posted to Goodreads or Amazon or a blog, I’m unhealthily fixated on the resulting opinion. It can be hard to separate criticism of the book from criticism of myself. It’s not that they’ve been bad. In fact, the worst review to come in is 3 stars out of 5. I still took that hard, but I’m also very aware that I’m finding myself looking at the 5 star reviews for personal affirmation, and that’s not healthy either. I think that a piece of it is that I feel like these reviews are saying whether the past year that I’ve put into this book has been worth it or a waste of time. Even though I say (and believe) that the early readers and editors that have benefited from it make it worth it on their own, and the way I’ve grown through the whole process has been worth it on it’s own, there’s still a piece of me that is looking for outside validation.
So there’s that.
Really, though, this has been a long-winded and roundabout way of saying that reviews are starting to come in. Hopefully as the book launches in mid-June, there will be a solid body of positive reviews and people will buy it and read it and grow closer to God and embrace their brokenness and give me money because of them. So far, it seems that if the reviewers are right, that could well happen.
One thing that’s been made clear already is that some people aren’t going to “get it,” and I need to be okay with that. One review called it “rambling” and questioned my application of scripture. Another, more positive, one said that they had a bit of trouble understanding it because it lacks thesis statements and conclusions to each chapter with application points. Both of those things might be true, depending on your perspective. The Art of Being Broken is intentionally written conversationally and anecdotally, partly because I’m a person that doesn’t really like being told what to do, but if you walk me to it, I can appreciate truth and I think other people are often like that, too. It’s not that it doesn’t have purpose or flow, but that it’s slightly non-linear and doesn’t have point by point application. Every person that reads it is going to pull something a little bit different, and hopefully non-heretical, out of it. They already have. I love to hear about that.
Pastor Floyd Johnson posted a review on his book review blog today that I wanted to share, both because he put an exceptional amount of thought into the review and because it makes the book sound exceptionally good. He says things like:
Even as I read, I found myself recommending the book as I borrowed illustrations included therein.
The book should be required collateral reading for the college or seminary course in pastoral counseling.
the book offers valuable insight into the broken souls we all bring to the cross.
So I wanted to give a link to it and say a public “thank you” for the work he put into the review. I appreciated what he shared of himself, and it gave me some good things to consider as I move toward the launch.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Default Christianity. At least I hope so. It’s been hanging on for so long it’s hard to believe that it can ever die. I want to be at the funeral just so I can take a good, hard look in the casket. Default Christianity showed up at a family reunion one day, ate the food, slept on the couch, and after a while everyone just assumed that it must be someone’s cousin that no one recognized. It showed up year after year until we believed that it was part of the family. It learned the family stories and picked up the family way of talking, but the truth is that it was never part of the family.
Recent news reports have been citing a Pew Research Study that says, among other things, that in America Atheism and Agnosticism are on the rise and Christianity is on the downturn to the tune of 8% over the past seven years. The percentage of people surveyed that identify themselves as Christian has fallen from ~79% to ~71%. “Christianity is in sharp decline,” they say. Christians see this and are running around with their hands in the air—here’s proof positive that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Atheists are rejoicing—people are coming to their senses. Christianity in the West is dying. They’re putting religion to death!
Is it, though? Those numbers are saying something very different to me.
I don’t believe that 8% drop represents the loss of a single point of Christianity. In fact, I think that the 71% is still an incredibly soft number. Look at it this way: If we’re walking around town, and seven out of ten people are actually committed Christians, our world looks pretty good. If seven out of ten people were Christian, I’d be incredibly excited. I’d also wonder what I was doing here as a pastor. Everything I preached would be preaching to the choir.
Honestly, though, I think it’s obvious to everyone that seven years ago, eight out of ten Americans were not Christian. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that seven out of ten Americans aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our churches are Christian. Christianity isn’t dying. If there’s a decline, it’s not anything new. What’s happening is that the number of people who say they’re Christians is declining, and that’s a very different thing. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing.
I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our CHURCHES are Christian.
So what’s going on? Shocked, SHOCKED we are to find that gambling is going on here. The dirty little secret of American Christianity is being revealed: Many Christians aren’t Christian. The big numbers were great for making ourselves feel better, or giving weight to our political arguments, or the vague prestige of being the “dominant” religion, but deep down, I think we all knew they weren’t real. At least everyone that didn’t think that coming to church on Christmas Eve and—if pressed—saying that Christmas is about Jesus, and having neither of those things make a tangible impact on your life made you a Christian knew.
The truth is that much of that 79% were Christian by default. They weren’t anything else and they didn’t feel like they weren’t Christian, so they checked the box. It was like a more-true-than-not-true answer that cost them nothing. Their parents said they were Christian. Their neighbors said that they were Christian. Their politicians said they were Christian. They didn’t look any different, so they must be Christian.
They aren’t checking the box anymore, and that scares us.
Where some people once saw prestige and membership in a dominant club, they now see more prestige in being areligious. There’s not the same social pressure to be a “believer”. These are people that are going to jump on the popularity train whichever way it’s going. They’re not “Christian” anymore, but nothing has really changed. I don’t think they’re really atheist, either, just popularist.
Other people are just becoming more and more willing to actually define what they believe. They were default Christians because that was all there was for them. They either weren’t able because they didn’t see a viable alternative, or they hadn’t really thought through what they said they believed. When they dug in, they found that what they said they believed didn’t line up with what they lived out, or what they wanted to believe, and they said so.
I really believe that those are the 8% that have dropped. I also think we need to see at least another 20% go.
We shouldn’t be afraid when we see these numbers drop; we should be rejoicing. There’s three big reasons for this. The first is that, if we’re people of truth, we want to see the numbers reflect reality. Artificially inflated numbers should bother us. In fact, WE should be the first ones calling them out. The second is that, if the numbers keep going the direction they are, it means that the Church might soon be free to be the Church. Without being weighed down by vague cultural expectations, or people that want to be along for the ride without any of the cost, we can follow Christ. Cultural Christianity—Christianity by default—has been an anchor that keeps the church stagnant and uncommitted, even irrelevant.
The transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ isn’t going anywhere, nor are the people who have experienced that transformation. The third reason is wrapped up in that. When the numbers line up with reality, we can see clearly the multitudes who really need to know Christ. There are so many people—Default Christians—that we pass by on the streets and church picnics and ignore. We think they’re “saved” or whatever, in the group. We lament that they aren’t doing their part or that they aren’t living up to our expectations, but we never stop to consider that even though they check the box, they still have yet to know Jesus. These are the unreached people in our pews.
Maybe if they’re out of our pews we might be moved to reach them.
So let’s let Default Christianity die. It was nice while it lasted, and definitely convenient, but its time has passed. Over and over again, the Church has found that convenient Christianity has been cancerous. Maybe we should be looking at those numbers not as a sign of overall health and strength of our faith, but more like BMI. There is a point where the higher number is just showing fat.
I’ve seen a lot of posts coming through my feed about the “different women” that Christian men should avoid marrying for whatever reason. I want to add my own. It’s really just one, that I feel above all others, Christian men—any men—should avoid marrying.
1. “Valorous Vanessa”
This woman is funny and articulate. She is wise and loving and cares deeply for her children. She is a woman of deep faith, encouraging, and supportive. That may be sounding good. You may be thinking, “That’s describing the woman I want to marry.” She has one glaring problem, though… She’s my wife. You should not marry her. I already did. You can’t have her. I’m keeping her.
Happy mother’s day, Ness.
I love being outraged. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. I know that I’m right in feeling that way, because the entire internet agrees with me. If you haven’t tried it, you should. Trust me. Being outraged is all the rage. Anyone can do it. All you have to do is find something in your Facebook feed that one of your friends is offended over and jump on the endorphin train. You don’t even have to read past the headline, just head straight to the comments, fire up the ALL-CAPS and go to town, because—
1. Being Outraged Gives a Wonderful Sense of Community
You’re about to join a team! Everyone loves being on a team, especially if it looks like it’s going to be the winning team. It can even be fun being on a losing team if you get to feel like a misunderstood martyr, though, so you don’t have to be picky. Go with your gut—that way, you know that the other people on your team are like you and you aren’t alone. There’s an epidemic of aloneness in the world, and social media outrage is one of the best ways to fight that. You have something in common. You’re doing things with people, and that’s like having friends! Not only that, but, win or lose, you and your friends are the best people, because—
2. Being Outraged Proves Your Moral Superiority
You’re better than two whole kinds of people! Not only are you better than the idiots that support the thing you’re outraged about, you’re WAY better than the apathetic wretches who let such an outrageous thing slide! If you’re outraged, clearly you have a much more finely tuned sense of right and wrong than they do, and you are amazingly passionate about it. Your all-encompassing outrage means that can feel confident in your superior morality—any insignificant things that might be wrong in your life pale in comparison to this injustice anyway. If you’ve been wondering if you’re a good person, comfortable with your first world problems in your comfortable chair, outrage is your new best friend! Even if nothing else comes of your cause of the week—
3. Being Outraged Lets You Feel Like You’re Doing Something
You’ve done your part by raising awareness of the issue! Really, the biggest problems in the world come because no one knows about them. Sure, you’re not going to be the one to leave the house and physically do something, and you’re probably not going to spend your coffee money fighting it, but if you Like and Share and type enough, someone else probably will, and that’s basically the same thing as doing it yourself. I mean, if someone else does something because you told them about it, you should really get the credit. Who has time to leave the keyboard when there are so many WRONG people that need to be corrected anyway. They don’t know what they’re talking about. You do. And you’re going to make sure they know it, because—
4. Being Outraged Frees You From Challenging Your Preconceptions
You are the proud owner of THE TRUTH! Attacks on THE TRUTH must be crushed with extreme prejudice, and you and your team are going to do it. You don’t have to care what stupid people think; what’s important is that they know they’re wrong. If you’re yelling loud enough, they’ll change their mind. What they have to say isn’t important anyway. You’re far too mad to listen to that drivel. If you start to feel yourself waver, remember that if they were good people, if they were smart people, they’d be on your team. Your team says so. The last thing you want is for your brain to be infected with their inane stupidity. You’re OUTRAGED! And you wouldn’t waste your time being outraged about something that you weren’t certain about. If they’re starting to make sense, go on the attack because—
5. Being Outraged Cuts Off Any Possibility of Real Interaction
You don’t want to deal with ignorant people anyway! Balanced opinions and perspectives are a waste of time. No one listens to those. Going straight to full-on outrage saves you from having to work through the pesky issue for yourself. What’s really important is knowing your talking points. Once you have those, you just have to repeat them over and over again until everyone else capitulates. If there’s no one there to capitulate, even better! You and your team can run through your talking points for practice in case there ever is. Listening to other people say the same things that you already believe is spectacularly comforting. Look how smart and wise and learned you are! If they the other side can’t see that, they’ve just proven your point.
So, as you can see, I’ve conclusively proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that netrage is the best thing ever, and you’re an inbred piece of filth if you don’t think so too! What’s your favorite thing about being outraged on the internet?
*The above post is satire, for crying out loud. I also tagged it as satire in the satire category. I will be outraged if you don’t get that.
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a debate that was happening in schools and bars and social media move into governments and courts. Right now, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments about whether or not individual states should have a right to legislate whether they will allow same-sex couples to get married, or whether it should be a federally protected right. You may have heard about it. Some people have opinions. Many of them are loud.
The popular perception is that Christians want to keep the world firmly ensconced in an idealized version of the 1950s by keeping all the marriage for themselves, while people with functioning brains want to be nice to people. The other (somewhat less popular) popular perception is that Christians want to save the world from a toboggan ride to hell, while sweaty heathens want to steal marriage so that they can have sex with everything and not pay taxes. The unpopular perception is that even within the Christian community, there’s a pretty sharp split between those in support and those against, and they might be even angrier with each other than the rest of the internet is.
My name is Aaron, and I’m a Christian moderate. That’s not an easy thing to be, especially when debates get heated. There’s a lot of hurt flying around on all sides, particularly from people who seem to think there’s only two of them. Once again, as a Christian moderate, I’m catching my fair share because—
1. Some people believe there’s no such thing
In Revelation 3:16, God says that, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” and a lot of people seem to think that means that if your theology doesn’t go to the logical extreme, you don’t care about God. They see moderate Christians as being wishy-washy or apathetic. They think that if you aren’t at one end of the spectrum or another, you just haven’t bothered to think through your faith. Most of the time, though, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most Christian moderates and moderate denominations place a very high priority on scripture and applying it passionately to life. The difference is that they see that application in the middle of the two extremes. I am a passionately hot and cold middle-ground believer, because that’s where I see the Bible leading. I have very strong opinions on it, and right now it leads to arguments because—
2. Liberals think that that you hate gay people
I can’t do the exegetical (critical interpretation of religious text) and hermeneutical (art and science that shapes biblical interpretation) back-flips that let them say that God is giving a thumbs-up to same-gender sexual relationships. I’ve dug in and tried, because I want to and it would be much easier for me to hold that position in so many ways, but I can’t. That conviction means that when I’m asked, I have to say that I believe that homosexual practice is sinful. I can’t endorse it because I don’t believe that the creator of sexuality endorses it. As a pastor, I can’t conduct a wedding of a same-sex couple. I also don’t believe that people should be forced to participate in the event under threat of losing their business, either, through everything from flowers to food to photography. If they believe that their participation amounts to support and/or endorsement of something they believe is wrong, they should have the right not to. This position has led to a lot of people on the internet being very angry with me. Despite that—
3. Conservatives think that you throw out the Bible
I believe that same-sex couples should receive equal treatment under secular law, and when I say that, conservative Christians seem to think I’m possessed by the devil. They see it as a betrayal as scripture and a governmental endorsement of sin. The problem is that they can’t separate the moral/religious implications from the legal/secular ones. They also can’t seem to see the way the argument demeans and belittles real people with real feelings who don’t share their beliefs. I’ll talk to Christians about God’s intent for human sexuality, but applying that to people who don’t believe in God is ridiculous. I can’t make a religious argument in a legal debate, and I don’t believe that the state has any compelling interest in discriminating against homosexuals. I’m honestly not sure that Christians have any place entering into the conversation and saying so. When I make that argument—
4. You realize that half the problem is that everyone is speaking different languages with the same words
Everyone looks at me like I have two heads. I feel like whenever I’m talking to someone about it, I’m arguing someone else’s position. I think that it would be a lot easier to come together on this if we could just replace the word marriage with the word sandwich. It’s probably descriptive enough, and is far enough outside the norm that people would actually have to think about what each other was saying rather than slapping their own interpretation on it. Using the word marriage means carrying very different assumptions into the conversation. When a Christian says marriage, they usually mean Holy Matrimony. Christianity is unique (to the best of my knowledge) among the major religions, as it views marriage as a sacramental union, through which God binds a man and a woman together in reflection of his relationship with humanity and not a civil process. When someone outside the church says marriage, they usually mean a legally formalized permanent romantic relationship between two people. Given that, it makes perfect sense that conservative Christians would be utterly confused when someone says that homosexuals can have a marriage and secularists would be baffled by anyone who says they can’t. Sometimes I feel like if everyone could understand that, we could all stop ALL CAPSing at each other, but—
5. You know that’s not the half that matters
It’s really less about faith than it is about fear. I get that. I’m afraid too. Not the way some conservatives seem to be—that everything will turn into a slippery slope that’s slippery because of all the sweaty, hedonistic sex people are having on it, and not in the way that liberals seem to be—that people will be ground beneath the pointy boot of conservative discrimination, but that people are going to come after me and the church I love. I’m afraid that I will be legally penalized for believing what I believe. More than that, though, it’s about pain. Pain and deprecation. On one side, you have people who passionately love God and love the Bible and people are telling them that they’re stupid and ignorant and bigoted—the God they love doesn’t exist and the Bible they love is a fabrication. Of course they’re going to come out with guns blazing. On the other side, you have people who believe their sexual identity is intrinsic to who they are and people are telling them that who they are is evil and they should be relegated to second-class citizenry. Very few people make the arguments in those extreme words, but those are the words that are heard. Most of the arguments on both sides have gone well beyond reason and into stupid, illogical, personal attack, and I’m not sure there’s any coming back from that.
Anyone who’s actually made it this far without jumping straight to the comment section might be wondering what my moderate position is. Here you go: To be honest, I think that the church has absolutely no business legally solemnizing any union, heterosexual or otherwise. Let us handle unions spiritually according to our own beliefs and let the government handle legal unions secularly. If someone wants both, they should do both. My moderate opinion is that same sex couples should absolutely be afforded the same rights under the law as opposite gender couples. Under God is a different story. Nothing the church says is going to change the one, and nothing the court says is going to change the other.
You’re free to disagree.