KOH2RVA: Day 348

Kendrick2I had lunch with my friend Kendrick Curry yesterday. Kendrick is pastor of the historic Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and when I call him “my friend” what I mean is that he and I get along easily and have a lot in common and have often agreed that we would surely be good friends if we ever had a chance to spend time together. So when I realized I was going to be in Washington during the lunch hour I called and asked if he could join me.

He said he could.

I met him at a place called CHOP’T in Chinatown where a hive of worker bees behind a long counter take your order and then collect and chop and toss the ingredients of your salad into a bowl with the kind of showmanship that makes you think there should be drum rolls and cymbal crashes after each move. There weren’t, but the place was packed, and so noisy that I’m still not sure what I ordered.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

Kendrick and I sat side-by-side at a narrow counter in the front window, looking out at the city of Washington walking past us on the 7th Street sidewalk as the bright, midday sun poured in. I dug into my salad and Kendrick dug into the conversation at a level most people wouldn’t attempt, “cutting to the chase” as they say, of what’s going on with the church in America today. In one way or another that’s what we talked about the rest of the hour, each of us adding our thoughts about what is most essential for the church’s survival and success.

“For me,” I said, “it comes down to Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’ve come to love him and trust him. And even if the Way he is should lead me to a locked door (though I don’t believe it will) I can’t imagine that I will ever regret following him.”

I told Kendrick about an article I’d read by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who said that “The conservative Christian view of Jesus in the New Testament is framed not around the person and work of Jesus, but around Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return in judgment on sin (the Book of Revelation). This explains the astonishing disinterest in his life and teachings.” I pointed out that the Apostle Paul refers to the earthly ministry of Jesus only once in his letters that I know of, when he talks about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. If you were in a church where most of the preaching came from the Epistles and not the Gospels, you might begin to believe that the life and teachings of Jesus weren’t all that important. You might focus only on the cross, and not the Kingdom.

But if you read the Gospels even casually you begin to see how important the Kingdom was to Jesus. He mentions it some 120 times in the Gospels—far more than anything else. He wants it to come, on earth as it is in heaven. He teaches his disciples to pray for that. He shows them how to work for that. It’s the reason we have spent most of the last year trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  I asked Kendrick, “If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus shouldn’t we care about the things he cares about? Shouldn’t we do what he tells us to do?”

“Maybe it’s time to re-boot Christianity,” Kendrick said in the end, and I smiled at the thought of pulling the plug on all that has been added to our faith through the centuries—all the rituals, doctrines, divisions, and denominations—waiting a few seconds, and then plugging it back in again:

And starting with Jesus.

KOH2RVA: Day 132

baseballThere’s snow on the ground in Richmond this morning. Not much, but enough to slow things down a little, and that’s hardly ever a bad thing.

It’s given me some time to think, and I’ve been thinking about some of the comments my friend (and First Baptist member) Eddie Stratton made on my blog yesterday. Eddie was talking about how the church in America today needs leadership—lots of it—and wondering how we’re going to get it if people aren’t called to lead. He was talking about the altar calls he used to hear as a boy, when pastors would sometimes ask if anyone was feeling called to the ministry, or to the mission field, or to some other version of “full-time Christian service.”

You don’t hear that much anymore.

But sometimes a pastor will do this: sometimes he will ask the entire church to join him on a year-long, every-member mission trip as if he assumed that every Christian is called to ministry, and that the best way to fulfill God’s mission in this world is not to have a few “professionals” doing ministry for us, but to have all of us doing ministry together.

Listen to what David Lose says:

We need to question the entire model of ministry where the pastor performs the faith each Sunday to the delight of an adoring and inspired audience. Rather, pastors need “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 3:12-13).

Lose is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he was talking about baseball, where the sport has come to depend on a few star players to get people to come to the stadiums or tune in on television, rather than depending on the kind of solid, reliable players who can get on base and help the team win games. He said it’s been like that for too long in the church, and we need to change the model in order to “win some games.”

I agree.

We can no longer expect people to come to church just because we have good preaching or good music. And we can no longer afford to let people who have given their lives to Christ sit on the pew and watch the “professionals” perform. If God’s mission is going to succeed it’s going to take all of us, working together, both inside and outside the church, and not only on Sunday morning.

Listen up, followers of Jesus: you have already been called into the ministry. I know there’s some snow on the ground this morning, and that might slow you down, but you can’t let it stop you. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, get to work, and remember:

This is not a spectator sport.

KOH2RVA: Day 97

Bowling ShoesIt may have been the article I posted back on Day 61 about bowling alleys that inspired me, but whatever it was, when my interfaith group started talking about how we could move beyond dialogue to friendship I suggested that we go bowling together.

Interfaith Bowling.

At first they thought I was joking. I sometimes do. But the more we talked about it the more it seemed that almost everybody was willing to throw a few gutterballs for the sake of friendship. And so we picked a time and place and agreed to show up at Sunset Lanes on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later.

When I got there Bill Sachs from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was waiting, his bowling shoes already laced up. I paid my money and got my shoes and a ball and was feeling pretty good until Ben and Karen Romer from Congregation Or Ami showed up, with their own custom-drilled balls and non-tacky bowling shoes.

I should have known right then.

Imad Damaj and his son, Bilal, from the Islamic Center of Virginia showed up a little later. Several in our group had to cancel, and so we ended up with just the six of us—two Christians, two Jews, and two Muslims. We bowled three games, and talked and laughed and cheered each other on, but when we added up the totals at the end it was clear:

The Jews killed us.

I know that doesn’t sound very “politically correct,” but it’s true. Karen Romer, the rabbi’s wife, is a personal trainer and a regular bowler, and she was bowling strikes or spares in almost every frame. She had a high game of 188, which was so much higher than my own high game I won’t embarrass myself by telling you the number.

But apart from all that friendly competition, interfaith bowling “worked” in the sense that it brought us closer together. It helped us see each other as human at a different level than when we’re all dressed professionally, sitting in a conference room, talking about our work and how important it is.

It’s hard to be pretentious when you’re wearing bowling shoes.

Why is interfaith friendship so important? Because religious pluralism is a fact of life in America these days. We can no longer pretend that we are a “Christian nation.” It leaves us with a choice: when we learn that our new neighbors are Muslim we can either hunker down and hide behind our neatly trimmed hedges or go over and invite them to tea.

If the Kingdom of heaven is ever going to come to Richmond, Virginia, it’s going to come by extending an open hand, not by raising a clenched fist.

And that applies to everybody.

The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity

This is an article from the Wall Street Journal by Brett McCracken, shared with me by Robert Dilday who found it on John Chandler’s blog.  It’s been passed around a little, but only because it’s a provocative article that makes us think hard about the future of Christianity.  I won’t ask you to enjoy it, but maybe we can all learn something from it.  —Jim

‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.

As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn’t megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.

Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”-a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it-to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”-remains.

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular-and arguably most unseemly-methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like “Sex God” (by Rob Bell) and “Real Sex” (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called yourgreatsexlife.com to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (IveScrewedUp.com), and had a web series called MyNakedPastor.com, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church-who posts Q&A videos online, from services where he answers questions from people in church, on topics such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse.”

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes:”The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched-and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

Mr. McCracken’s book, “Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide” (Baker Books) was published this month.

Catechism Christianity

When I was a boy, growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I used to study a pink paperback children’s catechism that was full of questions and answers about God, the church, and the Christian faith.  Here are some examples:

Q1: Who made you?
A1: God.

Q2: What else did God make?
A2: God made all things.

Q3: Why did God make you and all things?
A3: For his own glory.

Q4: How can you glorify God?
A4: By loving him and doing what he commands.

Q5: Why are you to glorify God?
A5: Because he made me and takes care of me.

Q6: Is there more than one true God?
A6: No. There is only one true God.

Q7: In how many Persons does this one God exist?
A7: In three Persons.

Q8: Name these three Persons.
A8: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I would study these questions through the week and review them on Sunday mornings, so that when my Sunday school teacher asked, “Who made you?” I would be ready with the answer.  And let me just say: it’s a very satisfying thing to know the answer to such a big question.  I can’t remember that I ever graduated to the grownup version (the Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1674), but imagine how satisfied I would have been to know the answers to these questions:

Q1: What is the chief end of man?
A1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.

Q2: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
A2: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.

Q3: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A3: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Q4: What is God?
A4: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

Q5: Are there more Gods than one?
A5: There is but one only, the living and true God.

Q6: How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A6: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

There are 107 questions and answers altogether, and in some churches they still give a Bible to the person who can answer every question in one sitting.  I think it’s a wonderful way to teach the basics of Christian theology, and I’m not the only one.  Baptist versions of the catechism have been produced through the years that are very similar to the Presbyterian version except (as you might expect) for the section on baptism.

But there is this danger: the danger of thinking that theology can be reduced to a number of questions and answers, and that once you know the answers your theological education is complete.  

I knew a man who graduated from seminary pleased with having stored his knowledge in what he called “logic-tight compartments” (which I was only able to imagine as Tupperware containers inside his head, no disrespect intended).  Have a theological question?  No problem.  He could give you an answer.  He could give you THE answer.  The problem came when you asked him why that was the answer.  He would look at you as if you had asked him why 2 + 2 = 4.

But there is such a thing as thinking theologically, of wondering why things are the way they are.  There is a kind of intellectual curiosity that drives people to know more, and I think that’s a good thing.  Anselm, one of the early church fathers, said that theology is “faith seeking understanding.”  He didn’t make any promises that we would find understanding but he seemed to think that the seeking itself was a good thing: it kept people’s minds turned toward God and the ways of God; it kept them searching the pages of Scripture, looking for the answers to their questions; it kept them engaged with their teachers and peers, asking, “Why are things the way they are?”  People like that might actually grow in their faith, and not just keep the tops on their Tupperware containers.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you”? (Luke 11:9).  Don’t you think he would encourage our faith to seek understanding?  Didn’t he say that eternal life is getting to “know the only true God” and Jesus Christ, whom he sent? (John 17:3).  How do you do that if you stop asking, seeking, and knocking?  How do you do that if you lock the answers up in logic-tight compartments, and fold your arms across your chest, and refuse to wonder why?

Those Hateful, Judgmental, Hypocritical Christians

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?