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Archive for August, 2009

The Unchristian Website

For those of you who would like to continue the discussion started by my last post, or want to know more about the ideas presented in the book Unchristian, there is a website hosted by authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Type in your e-mail address and you can download summaries of their research on how young Americans perceive Christianity, a conversation with Chuck Colson on the dangers of a faith based on conversion alone, and a group discussion in which three pastors talk about homosexuality and the church. Check it out at:

www.unchristian.com/fermi

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3d_unchristian_cover“Christianity has an image problem.”

That’s the first sentence in David Kinnaman’s book Unchristian: what a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters (Baker Books, 2007).

Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Research Group, and he bases that conclusion on interviews conducted with thousands of young people across the country.  He notes that their responses are not only neutral, but in many cases negative.  Their complaints against Christianity—and the Christians and churches that have shaped their views—is that it is:

1. Hypocritical.  Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes.  They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate.  Christians think the church is only a place for virtuous and morally pure people.

2. Too focused on getting converts.  Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them.  They feel like targets rather than people.  They question our motives when we try to help them “get saved,” despite the fact that many of them have already “tried” Jesus and experienced church before.

3. Antihomosexual.  Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians.  They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them. 

4. Sheltered.  Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality.  Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers.  We are not willing to deal with the grit and grime of people’s lives.

5. Too political.  Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues.  Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers.

6. Judgmental.  Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others.  They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people.  They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.

Kinnaman looks at each of these perceptions in depth over the next six chapters of his book, before concluding with a chapter on how we might make the move from unchristian to Christian: that is, how we might become more authentically Christian in order to change the perceptions of young people who think we are too political, hypocritical, sheltered, judgmental, conversion-happy, and antihomosexual. 

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the chapter on hypocrisy—just as an example—makes some good points.  Kinnaman says that, based on his research, there is shockingly little difference between the behavior of born-again Christians and everybody else.  And yet when you ask these Christians what their priorities are they say, “doing the right thing, being good, not sinning.”  I’m sure there are shining examples of virtue among us, but when we say that our priorities are doing the right thing, being good, and not sinning, and then do the wrong thing, behave badly, and sin freely—that’s hypocrisy. 

In what other ways might those young people be right about Christianity…and what will we do to change their perceptions?

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huge_90_451227Yesterday I preached on submission.

I’m sure there are churches where that’s not a controversial subject, where the pastor simply tells women they have to submit and they all nod their heads dutifully.  But Richmond’s First Baptist Church is not like that.  If you put us all on one pew you would find the full spectrum of theological views represented, from very conservative to not very conservative at all.   To preach on something like submission is to risk half the church getting up and walking out. 

But it’s in the Bible, and I’m a biblical preacher.  I wouldn’t want to ignore something like submission just because it’s controversial.  In fact I find that those kinds of subjects force me to study harder, to dig deeper, and when I did that with this subject I turned up some interesting results.

In the New International Version (the one in the pew racks at First Baptist Church), Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”  That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  And a lot of preachers preach it just that way.  But when I’m dealing with a controversial subject I want to get as close to the source as possible, and so I looked this one up in the Greek New Testament.  There Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives to their husbands as to the Lord.”  The word submit  isn’t even in that verse, it’s in the verse above—Ephesians 5:21—which says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” 

And here’s where it gets interesting:

In my Greek New Testament there is an English subtitle just before verse 21 that says, “Wives and Husbands.”  If the Greek were translated into English it would look like this:

Wives and Husbands
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ

In the New International Version that same subtitle comes just before verse 22, like this:

Wives and Husbands
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

In the NIV that verse about submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ comes above the subtitle, as if it were unrelated to a discussion of husbands and wives.  So, if I were only reading the NIV I might assume that the teaching on mutual submission belonged to the previous passage, that Christians in general should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ but when it comes to husbands and wives, wives should submit to their husbands.  I think a lot of people have made that assumption, and I can’t blame them for it.

But I can blame whoever decided that the subtitle—“Wives and Husbands”—should go below verse 21 instead of above it.  Look it up for yourself.  It’s not in the original manuscript.  It’s supposed to be a helpful way of identifying the subject matter that follows.  But whoever put that subtitle in the Greek New Testament thought it should go before verse 21 and whoever put it in the NIV thought it should go after it, and it makes a difference—an enormous difference—in how you understand the passage.  In one version you end up thinking that husbands and wives should submit to one another while in another version you end up thinking that only wives have to submit.

So I wonder: was it a group of men who made that decision?  Was the placement of that subtitle related in any way to the idea of “keeping women in their place”?  Where would the subtitle have gone if it had been a group of women making the decision?  And how much difference does it make who gets to decide?

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bhutani_refugee_usThe staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been on an in-town mission trip this week, doing our part to see that God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done “in Richmond as it is in Heaven.”  One of the ways we have approached that mission is by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39), and that’s why on Thursday most of the staff spent most of the day scrubbing down the walls and floors of Fox Elementary School right here in the Fan.  I had a previous commitment that day and wasn’t able to participate, but the staff let me know (over and over again) that I had missed the hardest work day of the week.  It didn’t go without notice, however.  The two custodians at Fox Elementary were extremely grateful, and acknowledged that there was no way they would have been ready for opening day without the help of First Baptist Church.  I hope that story will get around, and secure our reputation as “a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.” 

I was back on Friday.  That’s when we went out to Colonial Apartments to visit with the refugees.  Jenny Minor (financial secretary) and I went together to visit a refugee from Nepal named Som and his sister Tulasa.  Som was an English teacher in Nepal and carried the conversation effortlessly, telling us about his adjustment to the American way of life.  It hasn’t been easy.  He spends nearly two hours each day riding the bus to his job at a fast food restaurant where he works five hours and then turns around to come home.  His sister Tulasa has not been able to find a job (even though she’s really good with children), and so the few dollars he earns are all they have in a household that also includes his mother.  She came in near the end of our visit and sat silently in a chair in the corner.  Tulasa sat on the daybed in the living room throughout our visit, smiling shyly and getting up only once to offer us sliced apples and glasses of soda.  Som is worried that if she doesn’t find a job soon they will lose their apartment.  Still, he is hopeful.  “I have big dreams,” he said, smiling as if he were letting us in on a secret.  “I want to be a filmmaker some day.”

Before leaving I asked for permission to say a prayer.  I explained that Jenny and I were Christians, that we believed in God and believed that God had power to do things we couldn’t do.  “Do you mind,” I said, “if we ask God to help you and your family?”  No, Som said.  He didn’t mind at all.  And so I said a prayer that included every member of the family, asking God to bless them with life and health and work, and when I finished they all seemed grateful.

Jesus told his followers to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19).  It’s one of the ways we are trying to bring heaven to earth at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  But how wonderful it is when the world comes to us, when we can sit in an apartment less than five miles from Monument and the Boulevard and make friends with people from Nepal, when we can offer prayers for them and ask God to bless them in every way. 

I missed the work day on Thursday and I’m sorry about that.  I would have loved to help out at Fox Elementary School.  But on Friday at Colonial Apartments I was doing some Great Commission work, and that’s why, for me,

It was the best day of the trip.

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richmond-vaI’m on a staff mission trip this week, right here in the City of Richmond. 

We had first talked about going to New Orleans, to assist in the endless, ongoing recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina, but then—because of the economy—we talked about going somewhere a little closer and more affordable, like West Virginia.  Finally we decided to stay right here in Richmond, believing there is plenty of mission work to be done in our own city. 

We were right about that.

This “mission trip” ties in perfectly with one of our regular rituals.  You may not know this, but at the close of each staff meeting we stand around the table, join hands, and say the Lord’s Prayer.  But when we get to that part that says, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” we say, “in Richmond, as it is in heaven.”  It’s what I’ve been saying to the staff from the beginning, that I believe Jesus was trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth and that he called some disciples to help him do that.  When they asked him to teach them to pray he said, “Pray that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  And so I see it as our role—as a church and as a staff—to help Jesus bring heaven to earth.  That’s why we pray at the end of our staff meetings, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond, as it is in heaven.”

This week we are putting hands to our prayers. 

Associate Pastor Steve Blanchard has organized the week so that we spend some time working at the church, some time working in the neighborhood, some time working in the poorer parts of the city, and some time working with refugees from the other side of the world.  It really is a “Jerusalem-Judea-Samaria-and-to-the-ends-of-the-earth” kind of experience.  So far it has involved a good bit of cleaning, painting, and heavy lifting, but it has also involved opportunities for the staff to work together in ways we rarely do. 

I’ve moved furniture with Ron Maxwell, one of our custodians; swept floors with Reinaldo Vega, who maintains our facilities; and run an errand with Vanessa Carter, one of our cooks.  The errand with Vanessa was especially enjoyable, not only because she is so much fun to be around, but because we were returning a piece of furniture that she and Doris (our other cook) had picked up by mistake.  They were cleaning out a storage unit, and got so carried away with the project they loaded a set of shelves from the unit next door.  It turns out those shelves belonged to a sculptor who was working in that unit, and who was none too happy when he found out someone had “stolen” his shelves.  So I offered to go along with Vanessa to take back the shelves and offer an apology. 

How often do I get to ride around Richmond in a pickup truck with Vanessa?  Not often.  She drove, and if you had seen the two of us you would have wondered what we were up to, with her driving and me talking (as usual) and gesturing with both hands as the shelves bounced around in the back of the truck.  We returned the shelves with apologies and had a chance to talk to the sculptor about his work—beautiful pieces made of plaster in various stages of completion, some of them drying on (you guessed it) shelves.  By the time we left he was laughing heartily and wishing us well and I got the feeling that even in that mission of apology, a little heaven had come to earth.

I’m glad we stayed in Richmond this week.  Even though we will miss out on some of the camaraderie that comes from riding hundreds of miles in a church van, eating bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, and sleeping on the floor in a church basement, we will focus our attention on the city God has given us as our year-round mission field, and by the end of the week we will have a better understanding of what it will take to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer.

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