Posts Tagged ‘faith’

This blog continues the discussion on why the young are leaving the Church.

Have ever heard this only partly ironic joke: Don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls/boys who do?  While the phrasing is archaic, the spirit of the statement continues in evangelical culture.  It might be better said today as “Watch out for those video games, movies, music, internet chat rooms and Pokemon.”

demon_with_child

How stupid can you look?

Reason number one why young people leave is that the church seems overprotective.  As the Barna research reports expands:

A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

I can still remember fear-based tactics to encourage a kind of ghetto, tribal, thinking under the guise of spiritual purity or holiness.  Most of the readers can probably know this too.  See if any of these statements sound familiar:

  • Colleges encourage hedonism and secularism.
  • It’s not acceptable to watch movies with nudity, foul-language, violence etc in it.
  • Harry Potter encourages witchcraft.
  • Martial Arts and Yoga worship demons.
  • Halloween is a pagan holiday.
  • Good Christians only listen to Christian music.
  • Is that a “Christian” video game, movie, book, school, person etc?

Most of these look rather reactionary, strange, and often just plain stupid.  It seems very odd to me that a movie or videogame ought to be denounced for sex and violence, but yet we are still expected to read passages like this in the Bible:

 Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give us your counsel; what shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. -2 Samuel 16:20-22 NRSV

I want to be clear with the irony here.  An overprotective church says that sexual content or violence is something Christians shouldn’t watch or see.   However, it’s okay to read a story were a prince usurps his father’s kingdom through sexual exhibitionism.  This is only one example of how the overprotective impulse would have us stop reading the Bible.

Little needs to be said here about Harry Potter, Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, or a host of other forms of entertainment that children and teens have enjoyed.  Harry Potter was actually infused with Christian symbolism.  Pokemon and Magic the Gathering never turned children into little satanists.

But what about movies and television?  Don’t these influence teenagers and young adults?  Shouldn’t we be worried about our Christian witness when watching a film that has a premarital sex, gay people, occult activity, and curse words?  A good Christian could never watch Dexter or Game of the Thrones for sake of these sins in those shows, or so it is said.

I actually do think that movies, television, and video-games influence behavior and even personality.  Yet this kind of mentality concentrates on incidental superficialities, rather than evaluating a work of fiction as a work of fiction.  In other words, an overprotective church complains about some presence of “sin” in a story, but fails to evaluate its role  in the story.

Let’s use Game of Thrones as an example.  Throughout season one, when see Daenerys Targaryen develop as a person.  At the first, she is little more than a pawn (and property) in her brother’s ambitious schemes.  At the end, we see her grow into a self-made monarch-to-be, the mother of dragons, and is also naked.  “Also naked” is the superficiality that an overprotective church fixates on.  There is no discussion about character arcs, themes, or anything else that a work of fiction should be evaluated by.  Someone is naked, and it is therefore “not Christian.”

Doing entertainment differently

Let’s be clear: young people are going to encounter the world outside of the Christian ghetto.  Attempting to censor what they read, watch, play or listen to out of fear will server only to make them resentful.  An overprotective church does the Gospel no service.  It only makes people appear awkward.

The solution to this is two fold.

For the first part, I am indebted to Glenn Peoples over at Beretta Online.  I recommend everyone simply listen to this podcast.  In it, he argues that we should not filter our entertainment between “Christian” and “everything else that is evil.”  If we are to evaluate a song, a film or a video game we ought stop asking “is it Christian?” and instead ask “is it good?”  Plenty of good things came outside of Christian ghetto.  Plenty of things inside the Christian ghetto represent a lousy form of Christianity.  What do I mean by this?  Listen to the podcast.  His accent is really cool.

The second part is this.  When we do evaluate a work of art we should not be counting how many sins it represents.  Rather, we should dig into its substance and evaluate the work of art as a work of art.  In the case of works of fiction, we need to be discussing characters arcs, genres, three acts just to start.  If we’re listening to music, we should be talking about musical arrangements, lyrical quality, vocal talent and so forth.  If we’re playing a video game, we’ll talk about game mechanics, plot development, and other things that make a game fun.

For all of these things, I count myself lucky to be in Southern California.  For all my gripes about “touchy feely west coast Evangelicalism,” it is wonderful to be surrounded by artists, musicians, actors and other Christian creatives who understand their faith well enough to interact well with the creative world.

So go out and watch something sinful tonight.  Read a book where someone does witchcraft.  Get yourself some funny shaped dice and slay a few dragons.  Listen to a rap lyrics was bad language.  Play a videogame where you shoot nazis.

When you’re done, ask yourself “was it good”?

I don’t think God is going to condemn you for your entertainment.

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Young people leave the Christianity they were raised with.

Now that is hardly a headline.  Every young person who was raised a Christian has either seen this happen or gone through it themselves.  It is a shared cultural experience.  It happens despite the efforts of many youth and college pastors.

This means that despite the grandiose so-cal mega churches, the inspiring baptisms, and the stories of conversions you hear on Sundays, faith is not passed from one generation to the next.  If there is any church that lasts, it is probably perpetually a church “first generation” Christians.  In sum, Evangelicalism is great at marketing, but terrible at retention.  Somehow, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind.

Why is the younger generation leaving?  Barna research group noted six reasons why young people leave:

1. Churches are over protective.

2. Teens and Twenty somethings experience of Christianity is shallow.

3. Churches come across as antagonistic towards science.

4. Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

6. The Church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

One of the most important points of the article is this one:

David Kinnaman, who is the coauthor of the book unChristian, explained that “the problem of young adults dropping out of church life is particularly urgent because most churches work best for ‘traditional’ young adults – those whose life journeys and life questions are normal and conventional. But most young adults no longer follow the typical path of leaving home, getting an education, finding a job, getting married and having kids—all before the age of 30. These life events are being delayed, reordered, and sometimes pushed completely off the radar among today’s young adults.

I am sure that many people reading this blog can relate to these six points.  I also know that many (myself included) can relate to the “non-traditional” lifestyle.

Many of these problems stem from, in my opinion, the mistakes and oversights of Christianity in the United States going back at least fifty years.  So these six points need to be put in a bit historical context.

But we’ve all beaten the problems to death by now haven’t we?

The real turn that we need to make is not discussing problems, but discussing solutions.  That is what the next few blogs will be about.  We need to talk about what Christianity would look like if it had some depth in it.  We need to really get down to the issue on this science thing.  We need to discard some excessive protectiveness for the young.  We need an entirely new sexual ethic.

We need to do some things different.

Over the next few weeks, every Monday, I will post short blogs on each of these issues.  My hope is to generate discussion on solutions.  I hope that everyone will contribute in comments.

As final caveat, I realize that many of the things that people suggest will be dismissed or not taken seriously.  Some things suggested will even look like “compromising with the world” or “being soft on sin” or a myriad of other complaints.  This perspective remains important.  Nonetheless, if we want different results we will have to reconsider what we are doing.

Hateful preachers are like cassette tapes. Why do people still listen to them?

A few years ago, I criticized Pastor Mark Driscoll’s angry, self-righteous, antics. At the time, I had only read praises of his popularity, and thought I was one of the few critics. Turns out I am far from alone. The entire zeitgeist of Christian blogs is starting to turn on this guy. Examples include Rachel Held Evans and sojouners magazine. Free speech and the internet topple tyrants: whether they rule Middle Eastern countries or Seattle area churches.

Is it over the top to call Driscoll a tyrant?

You can judge it for yourself if you read the story of “Andrew” in part one and part two. Please read through it in its entirety, but here’s the skinny if your in a rush. A young guy named Andrew attended Mars Hill. He became engaged to one of the elder’s daughters, but then fell into sexual sin with another girl. He confessed to his fiance, his small group leader, and others of his own volition. The reaction was not positive. They demanded that he sign and agree to a contract, in which he would have to share -in detail- his sins and was forbidden to date. Andrew felt that this was both invasive, creepy, and voyeuristic. He decided to leave Mars Hill. When he announced this, a letter was circulated to the Mars Hill community, detailing his “lack” of repentance. It detailed instructions on how members of Mars Hill were to treat him. According to Matthew 18:17.

Here is the verse:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But he does not listen to you take one or two more with you so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every face may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. -Matthew 18:15-18 NASB

Now, Driscoll thinks that last verse means that you should shun someone from your community and publicly shame them. I ask you though, how did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors?

What makes the Driscoll method of church discipline so horrid is not that it is a bit cult like, but that Andrew was doing the right thing. No, not that he cheated on his fiance and lied about, but that he actually had the courage to come out and confess it. So is this how confession is supposed to work? That we should muster courage to confess, and then become chastised for it?

I’ve already discussed what I think confession could look like for evangelical protestants and why it directs us to what people already want their churches to be. Here though, is the Book of Common Prayer. The church leader responds to someone like Andrew with this statement:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinnerrs who truly repent and believe in him of his great mercy forgive you all your offense; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, if a Lutheran minister says something like this after a prayer of public confession:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us and for the sake of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of his dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, fogives us all our sins. As a Minister of the Church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare unto you who do truly repent and believe in him, the entire forgiveness of all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

In both cases, the reference to “authority” is an allusion to Matthew 18:18 (“whatever you bind on earth…”). Leaders, ministers, and lay people are given an “authority.” We are given the authority to represent Christ to penitent sinners like Andrew. How should we represent him?

Andrew confessed his sin. He confessed because the Holy Spirit convicted him. There was no “finding out” and no coercion. He confessed it to the person most hurt by it. He went further confessed it to leaders. Mark Driscoll does not seem to think this enough “true repentance.” Forgiveness must be earned. Sign the fuckin’ contract, or we’ll shame you.

How would you do it?

I will admit, I have heard only a few confessions in my life. Many people reading this have probably heard more. I have never been involved in a addiction recovery group. I am completely ignorant of how church discipline is handled in charismatic circles. Neither am I a pastor or official leader. Of course, you don’t have to be to hear a confession. I’d like to know though, how would you react to Andrew? What is your church’s policy? How would your leaders react to some dark secret a member shared with them?

In closing, I am happy that Andrew had the courage to not only confess, but to leave a church that he felt abused by. That could not have been easy, since he is several states away from home and family. If he ever wants to, he could do what many evangelical diaspora do. He could check out a local Lutheran, Episcopalian, or otherwise “liberal” protestant church.

We’re a pretty fun bunch, actually.

By now, you have all already seen the “Love Jesus / Hate Religion” meme.   That video is exactly the kind of message I believed when I had been a Christian for about four years.  As I type this, I have been Christian for well over ten.  Please keep that in mind.  If you haven’t watch the video yet, please pull yourself out of the cave, and watch it now.

The video’s author,Jefferson Bethke, is sincere.  He wants all of us to see and understand something that he sees.   But what if we already see it?  What if Bethke, in his zeal, has missed a few things?

Now, the entire performance is a spoken word poem, which means terms can be little fluid.  Still, there is a very important question that has to come up here:

What is Religion?

I’ll share what Bethke says, and then offer my own definition.  No, we do not mean the same thing.  I have no problem being “religious.”

Religion according to Bethke’s poem.

Without picking out every section, I’ll comment on a few lines/stanzas.  Let’s start with the part I like.

Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean
It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken
Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin
Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him
See because when I was God’s enemy and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said I want, that, man
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see so much better than just following some rules

Bethke really wants people to understand how important Grace is.  He wants people to understand what Grace means to him and what grace means to everyone.  Yet, as someone who self identifies as “religious” I agree.  I get it.  I’ve been involved with Lutheranism for the last few years.  We’re so full of grace that I played drinking games with church friends.

Would it surprise Bethke to know I understand how tiresome the rules are?  That I too feel that they are foolish?  However, I learned those rules from people who preached like Bethke does.  People who told me that “it’s a relationship, not a religion.”  That probably doesn’t surprise many readers of this blog.  Those darken the doors of non-evangelical churches do so because we were tired of those rules.

Let’s look at another important line:

Why does it [religion] build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor

I attended a Lutheran Church in my hometown and I also attended a nice missionary church in Seoul South Korea.  We built churches.  That cost money.  It is little bit like pouring an expensive bottle perfume onto Jesus, even though it could’ve been sold and given to the poor.  (Check out John 12:3-5)

One church building was used to regularly house “families in housing transition.”  One of the families was a single mom and her five year hold daughter.  I spent most of the evening working on a coloring book with the child while the mom got much deserved evening of relaxation.

In Seoul, we were renovating our building.  We were also collecting money to pay rent for a woman in need due to medical emergencies.  Furthermore, we also held an event to collect donations for North Korean refugees.

Do church buildings fail to help us worship God?  Don’t Church building provide a means to serve the poor?

Here’s another verse.

Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man

One of my favorite sayings come from an early Christian Mystic: do the crops grow because the rain falls from heaven, or because the farmer tills the field?  I think all Christians, even religious people like myself, believe that God gets our attention first.  Our response, though, might still be considered “searching for God.”

Here though is the real kicker.  Read these next few lines:

What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion
What if I told you voting republican really wasn’t his mission

I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor

Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see

You can tell a lot about what people mean about a word by how they use it.  In these lines, Bethke tells us that religion is something Jesus doesn’t like, republicans probably do, and that it does bad things.  But what is “religion” itself?  Try this: re-read these stanzas, and mentally replace “religion” with the the phrase “bad thing” or “evil.”  Would the meaning of the stanzas change at all?

The word “religion” is an evangelical idiom, and is used like a curse word.  It is catch-all phrase to describe beliefs and practices that they don’t like -and indeed could be bad.  This can be anything from self-righteousness, to recited prayers, or in Bethke’s case, a self-accusation of hypocrisy.

Does everyone use “religion” that way?

Another definition of Religion

Here are a few of my own habits and beliefs.  You might share a few of these, and Bethke probably would too.

1. I believe in a specific, monothestic, God and accept a specific book as his revelation over all other books that allege divine inspiration.

2. I go to church about every Sunday.  I consider, at minimum, two other days of the year extra important.  These days are called “Easter” and “Christmas.”

3. I pray to the aforementioned God.  I often do this with other people who share my beliefs.

4. I believe that this God expects that I act in the world and has a purpose for not just people who worship him, but all of humanity.  In fact, my Church in Seoul was built specifically to introduce people to this God.

5. Certain rituals are very important to me.  “Baptism” is one, another is this thing called “the Lord’s Supper.”

6. While I have never done a Youtube video, I have a blog that often refers to this God, his followers, the authoritative book, and other the history connected with these three things.

Now what word would you use to describe me?  Would you say that I practice a religion?  Even if you do not agree, you have to admit that most people outside of the evangelical world think that the phrase “religion” applies pretty well here.

That then, is why I have no problem owning the term “religious” or “religion.”  I am a religious person.  So is Bethke.  So are you if you share a few of those beliefs/habits.  Why should religion imply ‘bad’?  Couldn’t the above list be morally neutral?

Now, some people might ask why bother harping on this?  Religion might be a curse word, but what is the big deal?  To some extent there isn’t a problem.  There is no need to begrudge Bethke on his differing usage of the term.  He is perfectly sincere in his beliefs and has even responded in a very fair and considerate manner to the criticisms of his poem.  Despite that there are two problems, one smaller and a another larger.

There is a problem with communication.  The Evangelical world wants to reach people outside of it.  I suspect then, that they might consider how their audience understands this word.  Many people know what Evangelicals mean, but I think others might be confused.  Can you imagine someone joining an Evangelical church because “it’s a relationship, not a religion” but then feeling tricked when they are expected to get baptized?

The more serious problem is one of association.  Evangelicals are not the only people who use ‘religion’ like a curse word.  The New Age, synergistists use it often too.  You’ve seen these people on Opera.  They call themselves “spirituality experts” and are quick to explain that all human spirituality is fundamentally the same.  According to them, god isn’t really Incarnate in Jesus, or Triune, or active as the Holy Spirit.  Those are rather subjective expressions of a spiritual whatever.  The spirituality experts often ask “Are you spiritual or are you religious?”

Why shouldn’t Christians say that we are both spiritual and religious?  As Christians we have a long tradition of mysticism, prayer, and devotion like any other faith.  We also have pretty clear cut, creedal, and religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible with New Age synergism.  The spirituality experts might call this short sighted, but I say that it is rude and superficial to lump all religions together.

I don’t feel that a “I got Jesus, not religion” attitude is as very strong when talking with people who keep trying to redefine Jesus for you.  Why not take ownership of the word religion, so that we can disassociate ourselves from the new agers?  They may accuse of us of never getting in touch with god, but we own them no justifications or explanations.

One final thought.

My friends who studied youth ministry have also studied developmental pyschology.  According to them, adolescence is often marked by radically disjunctive, black or white, thinking.  There is not always an appreciation for the grey in between.

Watch the video one last time, will you?

Mark Galli at Christianity Today has posted a nice article on the need for “Chaplain” rather “Catalytic” pastors in the church. He cited a study on church growth which praised the Catalytic pastors for their charisma and bringing in new converts. Chaplains are not so good, because they focus on “healing souls” and do not grow a church numerically.

If you feel this is backwards, then you will enjoy the article.

It has been years since I spent time with future youth ministers and pastors (many are just regular ‘pastors’ now), but I remember there was an old saying among evangelicals: “I’d rather have a small ‘on fire for God’ church, than a large lukewarm one.” What people meant by that is that they did not want to be involved in a church that measured everything in numbers.

The mega-churches love big. Whatever gets more people in the door, is the right thing to do. This is why Easter Sunday is “leveraged” to get more members. What if the demand for “growth” overshadows a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ? Also, Isn’t a little weird for a leader of a megachurch to use words like “advertise” and “promote”? Mega-churches are primarily concerned about numbers. The pastors act like the ad-men.

What happens when churches grow? Most people think that it is a good thing, but it has dark side. Mega-churches over step their bounds as they get more attention at a national level. Why should a handful of “catalytic” leaders in Colorado Springs, Orange County, and Seattle speak for rest of us? Besides, when churches get that big, you have to wonder what really drives that growth. A professional advertiser says “millions of satisfied customers [so the product is good].” A catalyst pastor says, “Our church has thousands of members [so God is with us].” Is it the Holy Spirit that drives the growth, or a clever leader who has created a self-perpetuating system of social proof?

The ministers and pastors I appreciate the most aren’t catalyst pastors. Most of them lead small to mid-size churches and are fairly anonymous outside their congregations. Their typical duties are not leading a great new sermon series under a spotlight. Rather, you’ll find them officiating a baptism, or delivering a mercifully short, yet effective, sermon to remind Christians how to best be Christians. They likewise want to connect people to Jesus Christ, but do not see explosive numerical growth as a necessity. These are the chaplain pastors that seem to be getting poor reputation. Yet I find it much easier to work with -and trust- these anonymous pastors than any mega-church poster child.

What kind of pastor do you trust the most?