I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
As a pastor, I sometimes have trouble in “the ministry” because I don’t look like a pastor. There’s something in my demeanour that doesn’t scream “pastoral”. Despite being 32, people often place me at 24 and treat me younger. I blame my complete inability to grow decent facial hair. Also, my hair is kind of green right now, but that doesn’t count because it was dyed for a youth retreat last weekend. I lack a certain gravitas and probably always will. Such is my lot in life. I get some cred as a youth pastor though, and have been told that I’d fit in well leading one of those young churches… maybe a university church. I might be able to play it off in a specialized role at a mega-church. Young people would like me.
As a youth pastor, I’ve been concerned with young people. I work with them, I love them, and to some extent, I love their culture. I spend time focusing on how to relate to them, how to relate God to them, and how to get them to relate to God. As someone who’s still pretty young myself, I also have my own young person preferences and desires for worship. Sometimes that means I look at the way things are being done on Sunday morning and say “that’s not cool,” with the assumption that we need to make things cool, so that young people will come. Maybe that’s the music. Maybe it’s the volume. Maybe it’s the appearance of the stage (sorry, “platform,” I was recently crapped on by a church member for calling it a “stage.” [Also, I just said “crapped on,” which isn’t very pastoral]). Maybe it’s how the message is communicated. It’s been drilled into me, and into most of the evangelical church world, that “young people are the future of the church,” and if we don’t get them, the church is going to die. So now, many churches are doing their best to make our sanctuaries look like this:
I like that. It’s cool. It inspires me. I want to be on that stage. I want to be in that crowd. I can also pretty much guarantee that there is more green hair in that crowd than grey. This is what church looks like to this generation, and you’d better get on board, because this generation has to be reached for the Lord. We look at most of the “big” churches that show up in church media circles, and we see this as a functional model, because they’re growing. Younger people are flooding through the front doors and experiencing God in new and fresh ways.
Unfortunately, it seems that older people are quietly finding the back door.
There are times when I love watching YouTube videos of Hillsong live recordings, or Elevation Worship, or a giant event that Chris Tomlin is leading. But once I get past how awesome it looks to have so many hands raised to the sky, and so many people moved to tears by God’s grace and glory, it starts to bother me that the camera tends to linger on the same few middle aged people. Maybe it keeps returning to the one grandparent in the crowd. It pans over a thousand 20-somethings and rests on the exception to give the impression that this is for everyone – or at least everyone who can “get with what God is doing now.”
I’ve heard people (to be honest, I’ve been people) who have almost rejoiced at older people leaving the church, because it gave more freedom to do something new. We’ve embraced the immortal words of Barney Stinson: “New is ALWAYS better.” We feel the need to leave behind the old so that we can reach out to the new. It’s more important for us to reach the new than minister to the old because… because. Because new is always better. Maybe because the old are “already saved” and getting people “saved” is the end all and be all of our purpose, so once they’re “saved” we can forget about them and go save someone else. Why aren’t we worried about “saving” anyone over 50? And is anyone other than me concerned that in 20 years, we’ll be the ones shown the back door?
Yeah, I’m a young looking 32, but I’m ageing. The things that I like and the things that I liked when growing up aren’t the things that capture the imagination of the newest breed. My pop-culture references are taking work to stay relevant. Quoting Friends is met with blank stares. Some of the kids I work with have never even heard of Friends! So observe, and tremble. We have our vision of what church should look like, and in the future we cool ones are going to be fighting just as hard for our archaic modes of worship as those we mock today. Culture is changing so fast that we can’t even conceive of what that’s going to look like.
In the mean-time, we’re losing the idea that church is for everyone. We’re losing the idea that the family of God and the Body of Christ includes people that don’t like what we like. Maybe we’ve already lost it… hey, I’ve been on the other side of the equation (and reacted against it) at a church that refused to make any accommodation at all for the preferences of a new generation. It’s like churches are being forced to make a decision about which generation they are going to minister to (or to be so bland and middle-of-the-road that people will just head off to one of their preference-specific congregations anyway), and so one church loses the vigour, passion, and energy of the young, and another misses out on the wisdom and experience of the old.
I’ve become more and more convinced that the root of this evil is the idea that Sunday morning is for saving people, and that the attraction of the church should be the attraction of worshipping God. We’ve come to expect Sunday morning to be the primary point of contact between people and God. We want a place that people will be drawn to with excitement. We want a place where people will want to be because what is offered there is what they want to see. We want it to say “see, God is for you.”
And God is for you. But God’s also for him. And her. And the crying infant in the back. And the toddler rolling out into the aisle to chase their Hot Wheels car. And the embarrassed mother reigning them in, who should’t be embarrassed because God loves the fact that her kid is growing up in church surrounded by people that he is for. Like the 40-something woman in the other row that’s having trouble worshipping because she secretly envies the embarrassed mother because she can have children. Or the guy in his 50s that is completely tone-deaf and can’t keep rhythm to save his life. And his mother and father who taught him to love God with his whole mind and not his voice. And the elder with the walker that can’t decide whether to turn up his hearing aid to hear the music or turn it off so he can’t.
Sunday morning is about coming together as the family of God and the body of Christ, and joining together to worship and grow. And that’s hard. It’s so much harder than breaking off into little (or large) homogeneous groups worshipping in our own superior ways. And we panic, because coming together as the whole messy old and young body probably isn’t overly attractive to the world.
Man, I’ve gone on for a while here… I’m going to wrap it up soon, I promise. I don’t want to end it on this complaint, though, I want to talk about the solution. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wanting to hear it. By now you’ve forgotten that I’ve got weird hair, and my baby-face doesn’t matter on the other side of a wall of text. TL;DR has no meaning for you. Well done.
So here’s my solution: Forget about saving people. Churches should not be in the business of saving people. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be saved at church. I’m not saying that the Gospel shouldn’t be preached. I’m saying that that’s not the primary purpose of Sunday morning. The primary purpose of Sunday morning should be to equip us to be like Jesus. You know why people flocked to Jesus? Because he was like Jesus. You know who else can be like Jesus? Us. The Bible says so. Do you think a church with a congregation full of people like Jesus would do anything but grow? Who cares what the stage looks like. Who cares what the music is or what volume it’s played at. People would come.
People would come because we would be living lives of love that reached out to the people around us rather than insulating ourselves from them. People would come because we’re living holy lives – a holiness not focused merely on preserving ourselves from corruption but instead focused on setting ourselves apart for God – living as the people God made us to be, for the purpose he made us to have. People would come because they’d want what we have. People would come because they want to be like Jesus too.
We wouldn’t have to worry about front doors or back doors on our churches, because doors wouldn’t hold us.
I know… easier said than done. I know I’m not nearly as good at doing it as I am writing it.
What do you think?
It’s been a long time. Lots of stuff going on. Seems like the kind of stuff people would blog about. I’m not a good blogger, though… I don’t have deep roots in liveJournal. This isn’t a chronicle of my life, but a place to ponder the questions and formulate answers. Oh, one thing that should be mentioned (while I’m talking about me, and before I get to the point), is that a few months ago I started a new job as the Assistant Pastor (focusing on Worship and Youth Ministry) at Cornerstone Wesleyan Church. Therefore, it should be said that nothing I write here, have written in the past, or will write in the future necessarily represents the views of that or any other church. So don’t get mad at them.
But here it is… there’s this thing that’s been floating the net. It’s VIRAL (that’s a good thing, now). This guy named Jefferson Bethke posted a poetry slam about why Jesus and Religion are opposed… why he likes one and hates the other. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people are facepalming because they don’t see him ACTUALLY drawing a dichotomy between Jesus and Religion. The vast majority of people are completely indifferent, but no one on either pole believes that.
If you haven’t seen it yet, this is it:
Because of the people I have relationships with, I can’t get away from it. Or the responses to it. My various feeds are inundated with links to that video, or blogs supporting the video, or blogs disputing the video, or blogs and videos deriding the video. Lots of opinions; many of them insightful, many of them insipid. Some of them get hot at Bethke for bashing the church. Some of them get hot at Bethke for pushing Jesus. A couple of responses caught my eye and got passed along on my profile. One was from the Gospel Coalition [a gang of Biblical superheroes that seek to save the world in the name of orthodoxy as they know it… as you might guess, I find myself on opposite sides of many lines from them, but they had this one pretty together], and a video that a friend of mine found and posted showing a Roman Catholic (not catholic; that means everybody, but that’s not a rant for right now).
This is that video:
Sooooooo…. if you’re still with me, that probably means you haven’t watched the stuff here or read the link. That takes too long. Anyway, the surprise is that everything above was just preamble anyway; getting you up to speed for this post.
I’ve got a friend that messaged me shortly after I posted the “Catholic Response,” asking me: “Aaron – you agree with the Catholic video? “without the catholic church”? You are wiser than me (seriously) so what’s with the catholic bragging? YOur thoughts?”
That’s humbling. Thanks, man. You’re a more humble, gifted, motivated, and determined person than I am.
I’ve got my share of beefs with the Romans, but most of the really bang-your-head-against-the-wall stuff – the history that gets the church slammed – has been addressed in the last half century or so. Most people that bash it are more fashionable than in the know. I think that video response had a lot of good points, and the GC one posted above as well. Within the Church, so much of what we argue about comes down to semantics. Don’t get me wrong, semantics are important. It’s about saying what we actually mean to say, and providing sharp clarity to our positions. We need to be careful about the words we use, because words are heavy, and putting them in the wrong place can crush an argument. In this case, the argument is framed as being Jesus vs. Religion. The problem is that what Bethke calls religion isn’t the definition of religion. Now people coming to the defence of religion as they understand it are actually talking about something different than he was. A lot of people are just saying the same thing with different words. That annoys me.
Here’s a couple of Bible nuggets for you:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
In the first, Jesus clearly tells the “religious people” [that Bethke said Jesus hated, he might be right about that] that they should be continuing their religious practices while ALSO acting out the prescriptions of their faith in their relationships. Micah 6:8 says that what God required of his people was to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. That humble walk is the spiritual discipline that some call “religion”. I’m bad at it, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s really easy to elevate one over the other, the religion and the relationship, because different people connect to it in different ways – finding one easier than the other – but Jesus held them both in high esteem. The problem he had was when people thought that putting on a façade of obedience to God, while ignoring so many of the ways that he commanded [read: made rules about] his people to relate to the rest of the world, was somehow okay. In the second quote, an early leader in the church clarifies a definition of religion for Christians. He points out that caring for people IS religion.
So in response to Bethke’s initial question, “I’d say you’re wrong. He specifically said that he didn’t come to abolish the law. Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, but to perfect it.”
I think my friend’s question had more to do with the laundry list of accomplishments that the video guy [he’s not famous enough to go find his name] credits to the Roman Catholic church, though. In a nutshell, some of it is right on. Some of it he’s crediting to the Roman Catholic church, but really should be “Christianity in general.” Some of it is pure ass-smoke. Without Catholics say goodbye to hospitals? That’s just dumb. Public education? Hardly an invention of the Catholic church. I think that what he’s trying to say, is that in the Western world, the Church has funded and supported these things to some extent throughout it’s history.
The flipside is that to some extent throughout it’s history, it hasn’t.
It’s really easy to get negative about the Church, about religion in general. We get known for our failures more than our successes; that’s a well-established fact. Another way of putting it was credited to an FBI official: “Our failures are public, but our successes are private.”
We feel bad about the crusades, about the inquisition, about the arguing, hypocrisy, financial and sexual abuse that the Church has rightly been charged with through it’s history. It’s worth noting, though, that the corrections to these things tend to come from the passionate religious within the Church, not from without. Still, ask an avowed athiest what he thinks of Christianity, this is what comes to mind. Catholic Dude’s right, though. The Church is the greatest force for Good in human history. It’s done more to feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and embrace the wounded, than any organization that anyone can name. Period. Yeah, there’s been bad, but to say that the bad has outweighed the good is to be ignorant of history, as well as what the Church is doing around the world right now.
The Church was called the Bride of Christ. How do you think Jesus feels when people talk smack about her? They’re gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do, bro.
Here’s the thing, though: Bethke never insults the Church intentionally. In fact, he says he believes in sin, loves the Church, and loves the Bible. What are people getting upset about, then? That’s religion.