the cultural church. take 2.

Assignment for class: Write an iconoclasm treatise on something you want to change in the church.

Idea: Steal the title and first sentence of an old blog post and build on that foundation.

Product: See below.

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body.  The place where contrite sinners used to come on their knees has become a trendy self-help workshop.  The place where Christians used to surrender all other loyalties is decorated with sentiments of nationalism and materialism.  The place where people used to find community has become a resource for expanding their own self-centered networks.  Gifts have become budgets and shepherds have become CEOs.  The church has become a corporation.

When a heart is replaced by an agenda and the Spirit quenched by “the way we’ve always done it,” when the counter-cultural call of our faith is replaced by a formula that mimics society a little too closely, the church has become nothing more than a lifeless structure.  The structure appears well made and carefully crafted, but it is hollow and in danger of collapsing.  At first glance, everything appears to be in place.  We have the programs, the technology, the board of directors, and a healthy bottom line.  But somewhere in all of this religious programming, one vital component is missing: God.

Throughout history, God has been an advocate for the poor, the needy, the desperate, and the ostracized.  People turn to Him at their lowest point when there is nothing else to depend on.  Yet, conversely, when we feel secure apart from God, we see no need for Him in our lives.  This is why Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Could it be that in our zeal to do right, we have stored up a sort of legalistic wealth that keeps us from hungering and thirsting for righteousness?  Could it be that in our careful structures and organization, we have come to a point where going through the motions of our religion no longer requires the fuel of the Spirit?

In Revelation, Jesus instructed John to write to the church in Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).  Could that describe many of our modern American churches?  When the religious program is carried out week after week; when tradition, rather than the living, active revelation of God, defines our faith; when people leave unchanged time and time again; is there life in the church?  Or has our heart ceased to beat inside our perfectly-structured ribcage?

In the dawn of the church, it was an underground movement persecuted for its counter-cultural values.  But we American Christians, complacent in our first-world status, have fallen in love with our culture and modeled our faith after it.  We seek power, wealth, and affluence, advertising ourselves and exploiting others to be the best of the best.  Have we not employed this same mindset in our churches?  We advertise our selling points as better suited for the population’s needs than the church down the street.  Needing to keep up our image, we hire dynamic speakers with Ph.D.s and professional worship leaders and showy youth pastors.  Inside this web of key church leaders, we create power structures and assume everything can be solved with a formula.  The pastor is above the worship leader because he has a Ph.D.  The worship leader is above the secretary because he is more visible to the public eye.  This particularly stood out to me when we drew our home church’s structure of authority on the whiteboards in class.  There were carefully drawn little “technical” lines and “realistic” lines and squiggly political maneuvers, but there was little room for God in any of those equations.

The church has failed to distinguish itself from the world.  We have become so consumed by our own businesslike strategies that we hardly know what it means to be a community of people that follows Christ.  As such, we have lost our witness to the world.  We do not model the freedom Christ offers.  Instead, we market ourselves as insurance against hell and invite people to join our legalistic hamster wheel of Christian production and consumerism, keeping up with the latest and greatest evangelistic strategies and architectural styles.  I have to wonder, if Jesus were to come into the typical American church, would He come in with whips and overturn the tables?

Jesus never called anyone to comfortable discipleship.  He called them to radical discipleship.  It is time for us to stop settling for security and go outside our comfort zone to follow Jesus.  There are times when it will be difficult and painful.  There will be times when we are afraid.  True discipleship is not easy, but it is worth every mile you walk, every dollar you spend and tear you shed, every piece of your heart you give away.  True discipleship is the adventure of a lifetime.  Perhaps it is time we rethink the way we “do church.”  What if it were less about the building and the budget and the bottom line, and more about a group of disciples coming together to encourage and challenge one another to make a difference?  What if it were less about the structure and more about the meaning?  What if it were less about business and more about community?  What if…what if it were less about us and more about Christ?

Such a paradigm change would require some drastic and uncomfortable changes in the way we have typically thought of church.  For some of us, maybe the answer would be to abandon the corporation altogether and begin again in homes.  For others, it may be prayer and fasting as we cast a new vision for our trajectory as the church and seek guidance from the Spirit.  We need to take a good hard look at ourselves in a mirror and see if we look like the world, or if we look like Jesus.  If we resemble any structure or ideal other than Jesus – if our identity is found in something other than a simple, undecorated gospel — are we really Christians at all?

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That One Time I Didn’t Go to Church

Today marks a somewhat strange and surprising milestone in my life. This is the first Sunday ever that I have not been sick, and still voluntarily decided not to go to church.  Because truthfully, today is one of those days where instead of being “led in worship”, I really needed to find it on my own. I didn’t feel like celebrating this morning; I felt like being quiet.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve just been a little “off” the past couple of weeks.  One thing that’s tricky about being a Bible major is making sure you don’t forget the purpose behind what you’re doing.  It had been a while since I’d read my Bible just to read it.  And because I’ve been in frantic finals week mode, I knew that going to church this morning would make me feel resentful.  Turn in paper, get an A.  Go to church, get an A.  It would be somewhere else I had to go, something else I had to do, to punch the ol’ time card and say that I went.  Plus, a good friend was in town this weekend, and we’d made plans to get lunch together.  To be able to do that, I would have to go to early service.  And since most of the people I know go to second service, would there really be all that much community?  No.  I would sit there alone and not be able to muster up the energy to sing after 6 hours of sleep.

After the hustle and bustle and stress and frustration and confusion of the last couple of weeks, I really just needed to be alone with God to refuel.  And honestly, it was the best thing I could have done.

Instead of getting up at 7, I slept until 9.  And here’s what I did.

First, I spent a few minutes journaling and praying.  Then I listened to Fire Fall Down by Hillsong United and Give Me Faith by Elevation Worship.  And then I got on youtube and watched Lifehouse’s Everything skit and cried.  Feel free to take a couple of minutes to watch it yourself, if you haven’t.

The end of the skit reminded me of a Scripture in Colossians about God making a public spectacle of the powers of darkness, but I took a little journey through the Bible to get there.  First, I read the crucifixion account in Luke through the lens of the skit, which made me approach it in a whole new way.  That led me to Psalm 22, and then I went to Colossians where the verse was, and ended up reading the whole book.  There was a lot that really stood out to me today, but two passages in particular:

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” –Colossians 1:22-23.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.  He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.  And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” –Colossians 2:13-15.

The contrast of these two verses really stood out to me.  Christ made me holy, without blemish, and free from accusation.  But he made the powers of darkness disarmed, humiliated, and defeated.

I feel like I’ve been in super defensive mode lately, but what am I fighting?  I am not my enemy.  Other people are not my enemy.  Finals are not my enemy.  The real enemy has already been vanquished, and God finds me beautiful and perfect.  And that’s what I found worth celebrating today, in my pajamas, in my bed, without any grand instrumental worship or a message from a famous guest speaker.  Just me and God, and a quiet reminder of what this is all about.

No Agenda. Just Relationship.

A guy plans an elaborate proposal for the girl of his dreams. He spends a fortune on a beautiful ring, buys her a dozen roses and takes her out to a nice restaurant. He has spent hours making this super cute scrapbook of their whole relationship together.  When she turns the last page, there is a small scrap of paper that reads, “Will you marry me?” He smiles a hesitant smile as he gets down on one knee and opens the little box, faithfully declaring to love her for the rest of his life no matter what happens.

Unless, of course, she says no.

Because she does.

And he returns the ring and burns the scrapbook and they never talk to each other again.

The relationship ended because there was nowhere else for it to go.

Relationships end when a goal is not met.  If a girl likes a guy and then realizes he’s not interested, she stops talking to him and cuts him off altogether.  What’s up with that?  If she really liked him, you’d think she would enjoy talking to him whether or not they were together.  But too often it seems like relationships have to be “going somewhere” for us to invest time in them.

Or what about being somebody’s friend so you can “fix” them and lead them to Christ? Then one day you approach the topic of faith, they turn you down, there’s nowhere else for the friendship to go, and they realize that they were only part of an agenda for you. What good does any of that do?

As human beings, we want to control everything.  We have our little secret agendas for the way we want things to work out, and we try to manipulate relationships into the outcome we want.

I propose that we forsake agendas and create relationships simply for the sake of relationship — simply to love another person and give of ourselves. Let go of the expectations, stop trying to control the outcome, and just see where it naturally leads.

Be intentional about forming relationships with broken people that may not end in them accepting Christ. I’ve heard the quote that Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to make converts, he told them to make disciples.  And that’s a totally different process.  It requires that we invest in people whether or not we see a return. Those sorts of relationships don’t end once you get a person baptized, feel great about yourself, and forget about them.

Even within the realm of your love life, don’t fixate on one person and exhaust yourself trying to “make it work.” Create relationships for the sake of relationship, because you truly care about another person more than you care about yourself and how it will benefit you.

Live fully and love everyone. No agenda, just relationship.

the cultural church

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body. We have allowed society to shape us, rather than the Potter. If Jesus were to walk into the typical American church, I have to wonder how he would feel seeing His body tattooed with our own sentiments of nationalism and materialism. I have to wonder if he would come in with whips and overturn the tables.  I have to wonder…would we even let Him in?

This is heavy stuff, guys.

In the book Exploring Ecclesiology, Harper and Metzger talk about the three levels of individualism that have influenced the church.

First, we focus on the single unit of me, myself, and I. What do I want? What will make me happy? What will I get out of worship? This self-centered attitude takes God out of the equation altogether and leaves us with the Convenience church of Self, with its denominational counterpart just down the road for church shoppers who prefer an off-brand.

Second, we focus on the nuclear family, seeing the church as a composite group made up of distinct family units. This destroys any sense of real community in the church and provides no place for those without families. Jesus deliberately made the point that His disciples were His true family, but we have lost that vital sense of belonging in the church.

Third and finally, we focus on our own local churches as separate and distinct from the universal body of Christ. Someone made a very thought-provoking comment in class the other day about how churches try to set themselves apart from “other churches” and use their differences as a selling point. This is typical of the American free market economy (“Compare to Tylenol brand!”) and should never characterize the Church. As I once wrote in another blog post, “Jesus erased cultural, economic, and gender distinctions, and fabricating divisions seems to be a pretty poor way to repay His sacrifice to bring us to unity…Jesus Himself said, ‘If a house is divided against itself, that house will not stand’ (Mark 3:25).”

Well, we’re divided. And it doesn’t look like we’re standing too well, either.

When did it become about us? Christianity has lost its saltiness to a mushy blend of moralistic therapeutic deism. And when salt loses its saltiness….

Look at what’s happening. Don’t look through the rose-colored glasses of cultural perversion; we’ve been blinded long enough. Grasp the big picture of what Jesus intended the church to be. If you haven’t read The Mission of God’s People by Christopher Wright, I highly recommend it. It really opened my eyes to where we need to be…and how far away we’ve gotten.

The church is in desperate need of reformation. What are we going to do about it?

A word of caution: a new denomination won’t solve it. Seeking to separate and distinguish yourself from the church only creates more division. The concept of “No religion, just a relationship” is saturated with individualism. Religion IS relationship — with God and with the church.

We’ve been called out and set apart, to be in the world but not of it. To leave behind anything that hinders. To destroy any part of ourselves that does not look like Christ.

We need to start living like it.

Published in: on October 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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The New Restoration?

Maybe just because I’m a Bible major (now legit with a pair of Chacos which I just purchased today and which were undoubtedly an automatic ticket upgrade for heaven), I am fascinated with the study of how religion changes.

Every few decades, a new generation seeks to establish its own stake in the ground, to seek the truth for itself, to begin a new movement of faith. You see, while the Church is a perfect concept, it is made up of imperfect people. Every new movement, every new denomination, is begun with sincere intentions, but as with everything else in this broken world, decay is inevitable. Motives are forgotten, and we cling to traditions instead. Culture changes. People change. The movement, once so aligned with the truth, begins to shift from the original pattern….

Until up springs a generation of bold young leaders who realize that a change has to be made. It’s time to overturn the corrupted ideal and return to the beginning, throwing out traditions and trying again to find the pure, uncluttered truth. The previous generation sees what’s happening and attributes it to youth’s impulsiveness and self-centered desire for something new and exciting. But I, having grown up in the traditional church of Christ and now on the edge of what I believe is a new restoration, see both sides and understand what the younger leaders are trying to do. We really do want to return to what we see in the Bible. At least, I know I do.

The Christian Chronicle recently published a fascinating article about this paradigm shift, which you can read here. The Restoration of the 1800’s was a movement to return to simple New Testament Christianity which resulted in the churches of Christ. Now, large numbers of young adults are moving away from the title church of Christ and gravitating towards a nondenominational church community. While many church of Christ adherents are alarmed, thinking that they are losing followers, others have a different view of what’s happening. The article quotes Alan Henderson, chairman of the Bible dept. at Greater Atlanta Christian School (affiliated with the churches of Christ): “Churches of Christ should be at the forefront of welcoming this trend toward non-denominational following of Jesus. After all, isn’t that what we have worked for — and prayed for — for generations?”

There’s your basic introduction to what’s going on. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that “nondenominational” has practically become a label and denomination of its own, and a few generations from now I’m sure there will be another movement to fix what’s become broken yet again. But I see a lot of cool things happening within this new restoration that I think today’s young adults are getting right.

When my parents were growing up, they heard a lot of “hell fire and damnation” sermons with an emphasis on works and the narrow path. Then there was a shift toward grace and love — “You can’t do anything bad enough to keep you out of heaven!” But now, this new generation seems to be trying to strike a balance. This generation isn’t separating the OT God and the NT God. They’re realizing that God is love and justice. He is grace and intolerance. He loves us the way we are…but He loves us too much to leave us the way we are.

This has created a slew of new Christian buzz-words and popular phrases that I’ve noticed. We’re not on the dreamy, romantic side of love anymore. Here’s an intense, passionate, tough love. A few years ago, one of the hottest songs was “How He Loves.” Now the one playing on the Christian radio stations is the Newsboys latest, “Let heaven roar and fire fall, come shake the ground with the sound of revival.” I’ve noticed at Sanctuary (an instrumental worship night actually held at a church of Christ) the language that the worship leader uses when he prays — words like “Crash.” “Invade.” “Destroy.”

Did I say “new” words? Actually, it reminds me of something John Donne wrote back in the 17th century. “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” What John Donne wrote was actually pretty shocking for his time as well. After all, there’s really nothing new under the sun, is there?

Bestselling books like Radical and Crazy Love point to another defining characteristic of this generation’s religion: we want to be different. We want to overturn society, we want to be loud, we want to change things. We’re not ashamed of our faith. We don’t want to stay in our church building. We’re passionate about social justice in the name of Jesus, and we’re desperate for revival, for revolution. We have a big faith, and we want to move the mountains. We’re not satisfied with traditions. We’re reaching for something more.

This desire to go beyond tradition, however, leads to the controversial slogan, “No religion, just a relationship”, and Jeff Bethke’s viral video “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus.” If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it below:

This video caused a lot of controversy over the definition of religion. Technically, religion is something one “believes in and devotedly follows.” From context, though, it’s pretty easy to figure out that religion means something different to this generation. Being in youth ministry and following the latest Christian trends, I’m pretty on top of the context. Religion has become a negative term describing something like legalistic hypocrisy or Pharisaical self-righteousness. This generation hates, hates, hates hypocrisy, and more than anything else, we want to be authentic. Even in Jeff’s description of his video he says, “[This is] a poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion…at its core Jesus’ gospel…is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification.”

I don’t agree with the terminology just because it has created so much tension in the transition, but just know that this generation doesn’t hate the Church. They hate the decay that our imperfection has caused. And that’s why we’re moving back to what we see in the Bible, to the original pattern that we seem to have lost sight of. We just maybe haven’t come up with the best slogans. 🙂 We’re not perfect either, but we’re searching, and I’m excited to see what God is going to do with the passion of this generation.

Anyways, this is just my nerdy Bible major take on what’s going on, so I just wanted to share it with you all and try to bridge the gap a little so you can get an insider’s perspective.

Religion vs. Relationship

Written November 3, 2010.

If you’re looking for an intelligent 3-point essay with contractions cut out and clarification of “it”, this is not that essay. But a lot of imbalance issues have been plaguing me lately (hopefully I’ll get them all articulated and posted eventually), and tonight I was listening to Way FM and a Jason Gray song came on that made me think, “Okay, I can’t stand this anymore – I gotta get this out there.”

So… “No religion, just a relationship.” Where did this come from in the last few years? Sounds like a slogan straight from the era of peace, love, flowers, and doped-up hippies on weed. Yet I’m seeing it on bumper stickers and facebook profiles and hearing it from song lyrics and sermons as Christians everywhere rush to get on the bandwagon. It’s as if “religion” has become some sort of frumpy, un-cool thing that only monks do – and nobody wants to be a monk. “Relationship,” on the other hand – it’s exciting and vibrant, not boring or legalistic.

Dictionary.com defines religion as “something one believes in and follows devotedly.” There’s nothing about monks there. Yet for some reason, people are considering “religion” stale and out of date, believing it’s time to dispense with the intellectual and apologetic side of religion, emphasizing instead a dreamy and feel-good state of mind.

As Jason Gray’s song puts it: “All religion ever made of me was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet. [So we don’t want to be bound to Jesus? Is this an open relationship, friends with benefits type of thing?] It never set me free; it’s gotta be more like falling in love than something to believe in, more like losing my heart than giving my allegiance.” No allegiance? What is this no-strings-attached garbage? Maybe I dreamed up Jesus saying “Leave everything, take up your cross, and follow me.” Oh wait, I didn’t – here it is in Luke 9:23. If that’s not giving allegiance, I’m not sure what is.

Example number two: in the movie To Save a Life, Jake tells Chris, the youth pastor, that he’s not a religious person. Chris responds, “Neither am I.” Going strictly by definition here, if a youth pastor doesn’t “believe in” and “devotedly follow” Christ, we’ve got one heck of a problem.

I’m not hating; I’m sure Jason Gray means well, and I bought To Save a Life the day it came out because it’s an amazing movie with a powerful message. Don’t let my sarcasm from the soapbox make you think I don’t believe in having a relationship with God. Quite the contrary, over the past few months I have come to know God on a personal level more deeply than ever before, and I’m far from being a legalist. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes it’s good to let go of your intellect and worship God unrestrainedly with your heart and your emotions.

It’s not a terminology problem, folks. I wouldn’t even classify it as a mentality problem. No, what we have here is a balance problem. We’ve gotten tired of solemn, ritualistic religion. Trying to combat a lethargic church, we’ve played up the relationship aspect to make it more personal. That’s a good thing – but the pendulum has swung too far the other direction, and now we have too much of a good thing. We’ve cracked open the door for emotions to come in, but now, emboldened by the opening, a tidal wave of new-age philosophy is trying to rip the door off its hinges.

When this mentality seeps in, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Don’t settle for stuffy religion, but be on your guard against the false doctrine of a noncommittal, feelings-only relationship. Extremes on either side are unnecessary and unhealthy, as religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive; Christianity is a perfect blend of intellect and emotion. Stop the pendulum, find a balance, and stand your ground.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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