The million dollar question seems to be something like, “How do we keep students committed to Jesus into adulthood?” This is one of the main questions I have been wrestling with during my tenure as a youth pastor. And depending on the season, I end up somewhere swinging between it all being on Jesus or all being on me. It is true that Jesus is the author and perfector of our faith and as shepherds we are called by god to build up or students in their faith. At the end of the day, it is both. I plant, you water, I plant, you water, and God causes there to be growth and life. This is a mysterious partnership.
Archives For church
A few years ago I had a misunderstanding with a student. But the difficult truth is that there wasn’t a misunderstanding at all. We had a silly gimmick to attempt to get more kids to come to youth group. For a month, every time a student came to youth group they got their name added to a raffle. For every friend they brought, they got to add their name twice to the raffle. At the end of the month we would draw a name and the winner would win a prize. A dramatic and costly prize. One of my seventh grade boys took this challenge to heart, igniting every competitive fiber of his being.
This last week Jefferson Bethke blew up the Internet with this compelling spoken word entitled, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.” If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.
A number of people shared this video with me and I have now watched it several times. Every time I watch it, I am compelled by Jefferson’s passion and talent. It is obvious that he has been radically transformed by the living power of the living Christ. His authenticity, transparency, and creativity have drawn me in. The truth is that I would be honored to know Jeffuhson and be encouraged by his faith.
It is a crime to bank on behavior modification:
I am totally with Jefferson and his angst towards religion, and I too mourn the awful things that have been done throughout history in the name of religion. It is an offense to the gospel of Jesus when we take the free gift of salvation and turn it into some shallow form of behavior modification. Jefferson is preaching to the choir along with Jesus himself when he compares these religious leaders and Pharisees to white-washed tombs.
It is a crime when we take the power and mystery of atonement, salvation, and grace and use them as wedges and sledgehammers to crush people, or even worse, to grow in our own power and prestige. It is obvious that Jefferson, and I am sure to just about anyone else who has ever interacted with a religious person and has been wronged or hurt by someone’s misguided approach to faith and understanding of the Christian life.
But if we are not careful, we can slip into a knee-jerk response of placing all of our own angst and disagreement with or hurt over the actions of a few individuals and put them on “the church.”
Lets not be so quick to blow up the church:
I know Jeffuhson makes it clear that he is not judging, but that is exactly what he is doing. I actually believe that we do need to do some judging and that some of Jefferson’s judgments are right and needed. While Jeffuhson claims to not judge and says that he is for the church, the overwhelming tone in his piece is a crushing indictment of the very thing he claims to love; because, like it or not, popular or not, religion IS the church. The church is made up of sinful and broken people who are all on a journey towards Christ. And these sinful and broken people who have gathered through history have done amazing things!
It is so easy to blame wars, judgmentalism, bigotry, and hypocrisy on the church. And for every one example you can give, there are hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of examples of Christians, religious people, who have: started schools and universities, opened hospitals, cared for leper colonies and AIDS communities, donated billions of dollars to thousands of charities, lobbied Congress, rescued women and children from sex trafficking, adopted unwanted kids, adopted special needs kids, provided community for the marginalized in society, abolished slavery, fought for women’s rights, cared for neighbors in need, donated food and clothing and time to people and organizations, etc. I could go on and on.
The point is that it has been religious people throughout history that have done most of society’s good deeds.
Most educational institutions, hospitals, non-profits, and charities were started and funded by religious people. It has been Christians throughout history as well right now, in my actual church, who have done and are doing some pretty amazing things. And it is the stories of these religious people, the stories of the church, that need to be celebrated and lifted up. It is a cheep shot to simply rail on religion in an effort for more street cred.
We are all in process:
And that is the point that Jefferson makes clear in his spoken word: he is on a journey. At one point he was a part of the religious community, but only in a shallow and surface way. He was addicted to porn and living a double life. But as the grace of Jesus rocked his world, he became more and more passionate to follow Jesus with his entire heart.
I totally remember when the light turned on for me. All of a sudden, I was the only real Christian in the room. All my Sunday school teachers, my parents, their peers … they were all obviously missing it, because I had finally found it. Of course, I know now that this was such an immature view of things. We are all in process, and all moving closer to Christ at our own unique pace. It would actually be more helpful to open my own ears and close my mouth and listen to the amazing faith stories of those boring church people who seem to be just sitting in the pew next to me. You will be rocked to hear the stories of pain and suffering, joy and victory that Jesus has walked people through.
I get that religious people have done awful things, and especially powerful religious people have abused their influence. But in case you haven’t realized, the church, religion, and religious people are quickly losing their social influence and power. We need to be highlighting the overwhelming good news stories rather than continuing to crush what little influence the church still has.
One closing thought:
The caricature of what a self-righteous person is has undergone a transformation. The truth is that there is a reverse self-righteousness going on within this newer, hipper brand of Christianity. Many people seem to think that it is only the old skool religious people with their emphasis on personal holiness, abstaining from drinking and sex, while voting Republican and marching in pro-life rallies are the only people who can be self-righteous. I would like to encourage my Christian brothers and sisters who have pushed back from the traditional form of self-righteousness to wrestle with the fact they you may have simply traded one form of self-righteousness only to embrace a new form of self-righteousness centered on social justice, creation care, Tom’s Shoes, and voting Democrat. Self-righteousness is self-righteousness and I agree wholeheartedly that Jesus hates it.
We are on the same team! Let our words be seasoned with grace for one another, especially for those for whom we don’t know the entire story. If we are going to impact our world for Christ, then our life in faith has to be more about personal faith in Jesus. My faith is lived out in the context of “we.” Together, WE are the body of Christ, the church, the Christian religion. If we are going to share the go od news, feed the poor, extend grace, expand the kingdom of God, it is going to be done through the church!
May we have grace for one another, may we lift up and encourage the church with the amazing things religious people are doing, and may we love Jesus!
We have not done this right. Somehow the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, has become associated with bigotry and hate speech. Somewhere along the way, we seemed to have gotten lost. I wonder if there is another approach that allows us to hold on to our Evangelical values at the same time it makes space for the LGBT (lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender) community.
The Unforgivable Sin:
For anyone who has been around the church for a little bit, it becomes clear that there are certain sins that not acceptable. The reality is, it is only the sexual sins that are singled out as too horrible to be tolerated within the community. Promiscuity, pornography, infidelity, homosexuality, if any of these come to light, it is time to look for a new church.
What is communicated is that there are big sins, mostly sexual, that are dirty and unacceptable to work out in community, and all the other sins that are little and can be joked about. Because of this reality, the people in our congregations that struggle with sexual sin must conceal it and live in fear that they will be found out. Or, if they have had victory over it for at least 10 years, then they can give testimony. But to actively make space for people to wrestle through sexual brokenness is a lost art. Yet, it’s a necessary one the church must re-embrace if we are to truly be bearers of good news.
It is a shame that sexual sin is the unforgivable sin in the church. As we read through scripture, abuse of power and money are the sins that seem to be the biggest stumbling blocks toward a life in Christ. Imagine if some of our Christian brothers and sisters from Nigeria came and visited our worship gathering on a Sunday morning. I have a feeling they would experience shock and horror, appalled at our blatant sin. But our sin would not be sexual, it would be how we worship materialism and status.
We love holding other people’s feet to the fire when we talk about sinning. But most of us in church are too quick to turn a blind eye to sin that runs rampant within our congregations. Sure ,the big ones that would get us fired are kept below the radar, but I am talking about the ones we have made culturally acceptable: Materialism, Status, Busyness, Individualism, and Breaking the Sabbath. There is real sin running amuck in our churches and in our lives. And unless we deal with it, we will only experience a limited gospel with limited sanctification, and limited impact in the world around us.
A Lifelong Process of Sanctification:
Without throwing away sanctification, what if we embrace the fuller meaning of it? Sanctification is the process of becoming more and more like Christ. We think it means “once I become a Christian then I won’t swear or look at porn, and no longer be gay”. But the truth is I am so broken that I don’t think I will ever get to a place where my Nigerian brothers and sisters would not question my salvation. I am too immersed in this broken culture, and not even in tune with some of my brokenness.
Rather, what if we saw sanctification as simply becoming more and more like Christ? This is a process that continues until the day we die, not a process that gets put on hold when we can finally enjoy fellowship within a suburban church without feeling shame. The truth is, that bar is pretty low. If the bar instead is continual refinement toward a life in Christ, then we will recognize we are all in process, and in continual need of a Savior.
The Goal is Identity Formation, Not Sin Management:
Managing sin, striving to be acceptable in the culture of the church, is an awful goal. What if our ending point was having our identity fully wrapped up in Christ? Then the other things that shape my identity should start to fade, compared with who I am in Christ. No longer do I hold on to my rights as a heterosexual, a male, a white male, a father, a pastor, a home owner, etc. My identity is first in Christ, and that identity shapes everything else. As we begin to understand sanctification is really identity formation rather than sin management, we now have an opportunity to find common ground with our friends in the LGBT community.
All of us have a misconception about who we are. We all put our hope and identity in the wrong things. And depending on our backgrounds, the wounds we’ve experienced, our own rebellion, or the awful impact of others’ sin on our lives have all crushed us in a wide variety of ways. Some of those ways are easy to conceal, and some we wear on our sleeves for the whole world to see.
For the LGBT, it is not right that we ask them to become “acceptable” suburban church folk, period. We should not be asking them to give up who they are or who they think they are in order to consider Christ or be welcomed into our community. We must recognize that they are broken, just like we are broken, and we are all on a journey towards the cross of Christ. My worldview and baggage is uniquely mine and lived out in a way that unique to me. Some of the ways I’m broken might not even get addressed until pretty far down the road, or maybe never, this side of eternity. There is plenty that needs to be healed and redeemed in my own life, some which I am not even aware of yet. Maybe, just maybe, sexual identity doesn’t have to be the first order of business when we begin the sanctification process.
Let’s Take the Plank Out of Our Own Eye First:
Evangelical Christianity seems to have a special knack for calling out the sin of others long before they are willing to address their own. If Christian leaders were relentless at calling out the sins and brokenness of their own communities, then the Church might not be seen as so hypocritical.
I am in no way condoning sin or sinful behavior. I am simply asking the church to lean into Matthew 7:5 which says, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” We have some planks blocking our sight, so let’s deal with them, then we can be gracious to those around us who have specks which need grace and compassion to remove. As we reflect on our own planks we will quickly see that we are broken far more deeply then we realize and in desperate need of God’s grace. And it is in this posture that we can walk with others in their sin and brokenness.
A Gospel for the Broken:
Sin management has not worked. It hasn’t worked in the church, and it for sure has not worked in my own life. Sin management is what’s made our gospel too small. If we truly want to reach out to lost and broken people, then we need to be fellow sojourners with them. We can not forget that we too are broken people who have a messed-up view of ourselves and are in the process of being healed, becoming more and more conformed to the image and identity of Christ.
All who are broken, marginalized, discarded, and discounted, are invited to have seats of honor at the wedding feast of the Lamb. How awful it is when the church does not heed the warnings of Jesus in Matthew 23. “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.’” If we are not careful, sexual wholeness and purity becomes our version of heavy and cumbersome loads that we place of people. Maybe our job is to allow God to reveal the areas of sin that are to be wrestled with in the timing that is right for that person, and as God’s people we bear with one another as we together move towards sanctification.
The church has been given the sacred burden and honor to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ until He comes again. We must be willing to reexamine our view of the gospel. But in order to do that. Are we willing to examine our own hearts, our own lives, our own churches to see the enormous planks of brokenness in our own eyes? We pretend these planks aren’t there, but do others look on in horror? Maybe we can be a little more humble and recognize that we are all severely broken and all of us have a severe identity problem. The only solution, the only way for hope and healing is to surrender our lives, admit our brokenness, and trust that Jesus will heal us. This process of sanctification is never done and will look different for everyone.
This is a complex issue, one that needs a considerable amount of humility, grace, and thoughtfulness. As our world becomes more and more post-modern and post-Christian, the traditional views and values are becoming a minority opinion. We must think well through this topic as we walk alongside students and our neighbors so that we do not lose the opportunity to share the good news of salvation and grace that is found in Jesus Christ, who has exchanged our sin and brokenness and exchanged it for righteousness. We were once not a people, and now we are the people of God.
My hope and prayer is that the church will be, once again, the bearers of good news to all people everywhere. No matter where you start, where you are now, or even where you will end up on this side of eternity, if you are broken, in need of a healer, then Jesus is your Savior and we, the Church, are your people!
This post was recently featured on youthworker.com’s book review page.
There has been a lot of uproar about Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins. After watching the video, and reading a couple of blog posts, watching some news items and listening to the rumor mill, I figured it was time to read the book for myself and see what all the hub bub was all about.
At first, this book made me really upset:
The book opens with the same story that is presented in the video, an art show to help communicate his series on peacemaking. After watching the video and after reading the chapter I realized that I was really angry and upset. What drove me crazy was not his theology, but the way that Bell paints the picture of his community being one of love, peace, art, and beauty while contrasting it with the knuckle dragging church folk who only that they are in the “in” group.
For the next four chapters, Bell continues to build up straw-man after straw-man to only destroy them with biting questions. Every anecdotal story is one where the traditional Christian is pictured as small minded and judgmental and contrasted to the superior enlightenment and love of Bell and his circle of thought. All the while, Bell continues to paint the traditional, orthodox views of atonement, judgment, and salvation as outdated and abusive.
It makes sense that this book has blown up the internet. There is now a solid and respected voice telling the world what it has wanted to hear for so long. Not that Christians are exclusive, but that Christians truly are shallow in their thinking, judgmental in their world view, and only care about themselves and not the values of “good” people like social justice, the environment, and the poor.
The anecdotal attacks are not fair:
After wrestling with my feelings for a couple of days, I realized why I was so angry. It wasn’t because a fellow Christian was questioning the theology of Hell. Anyone with a heart wrestles with this concept. What got me so upset was that this was a brother in Christ, a fellow Christian intentionally blowing up part of the body of Christ in an incredibly unfair way.
And the sad thing was that when Christians responded out of anger and fear, it only proves the point of the Bell book, which traditional Christianity is only for the narrow minded. But what really happened was that Bell threw down the gauntlet first. He was the one who comes of judgmental and arrogant fist. He paints it in beauty and art and love. But what he is really doing is lighting up the traditional church and their traditional theology. And when they respond, he gets to sit back and use the attacks to only further his point.
This is a great strategy to promote a book and to get sales. But this strategy continues to reinforce the cultural story that Christians are judgmental, close-minded, hypocrites.
A little grace for those who reacted:
Rob Bell is an incredibly intelligent and articulate person. He had the pleasure of spending years on this book with editors and friends to process his thoughts and makes sure he communicated accurately his point of view. Most people when they respond do so out of anger and frustration and end up saying stupid things. And several times in the first few chapters I wanted to do just that.
Heaven and hell was just the hook:
As I read, it became more and more clear as to what Bell was trying to communicate. Heaven and Hell are just his hook to paint a fresh picture of God’s love. He clearly communicates that he is not a universalist and clearly communicates that there is a heaven and hell after we die. But all this gets clouded by his mind numbing questions, which he doesn’t answer. I am impressed with the way that Bell himself artfully danced around the difficult answers to the questions of heaven, hell, sin and judgment. And with the skill of a great lawyer, he managed to walk the fence, giving enough evidence to the reader to have Bell agree with your view.
Like I said, these questions and these issues are really just the hook for the main thesis of this book, which is that Jesus is at work everywhere, even when we don’t realize it or name it. And his work is the redemption of all of creation motivated by love. We are invited into this love relationship with the father, and we can easily miss it. We can miss it if we are on the path of death and destruction, and we can miss it if we are on the narrow, self-righteous path. Both paths miss out on the father’s love.
The last half of the book is as brilliant as any that Bell has written. He is passionate and creative. The way he comments on 1 Corinthians 10 when Paul talks about how Jesus was present when Moses drew water from the rock and his retelling of the prodigal son story is amazing! By the time I had finished the book, I was greatly encouraged in my faith and in my understanding of God’s love toward me.
Can we stop blowing up the church to make our points better:
Rob Bell is an amazing communicator and he proves that again in this book. By using such a lighting rod as a hook might have caused more damage than good. I can totally understand the need to help Christians, especially traditional, fundamentalist ones, to understand the larger calling of Christ to be partners in redemption, we need this message. But to paint the church in such a negative light only adds unneeded fuel to the fire in a culture that already doesn’t respect the church and holds it in contempt.
The church, with all its diversity is the bride of Christ. We can not say to part of the body that it is of lesser value. Just like in human relationships, we can not make the church better by publicly mocking and rebuking them. If there is correction, which of course there is in the church, we must do that in a way that edifies the church and doesn’t divide it.
Unfortunately for me, this book goes into the pile with all the other emerging books that have tried to paint a more compelling and beautiful picture of Christianity at the expense of the church. To take the worst parts of the church, highlight them, and then define yourself against that is a disservice and is actually the easy way out. It is a much more difficult task to paint a beautiful picture of the redemptive story of Christianity, using the story itself. N.T. Wright does this magnificently in his book, Surprised by Hope.
If we are going to make inroads in our context for the gospel, it must start and end with love. Bell is right that love does win. When our sisters and brothers are missing it, we must correct them in love. We will be much for effective when we see that the church is wide and diverse, just like Bell said. So we can be gracious with each other as each community works out the gospel faithfully in their context, the way that God has directed them. And may we all be open for correction as we collectively work for the redemption of all of creation for all of eternity.
“May you experience this vast,
expansive, infinite, indestructible love
that has been yours all along.
May you discover that this love is as wide
as the sky and as small as the cracks in
your heart no one else knows about.
And may you know
deep in your bones,
that love wins.” -Rob Bell
sometimes i feel like a sell out to my generation for being employed by an institutional church. what make it even worse, is that i a huge believer in the institutional church’s central roll in the kingdom of god. you see the proper position for someone form my socio-economic position is to be upset and bitter toward the institutional church. there are never ending articles, books, and songs all written with this underlying angst. and although it comes off as deep and even prophetic, on a deeper level it more and more sounds like the rants of an angry teenager.
part of the developmental process in adolescents is to separate themselves from their parents and develop their own identity. and when teenagers rebel and push back and think they know more than their parents, everyone smiles and remembers when they thought they knew more than their parents and trust that this is part of the normal process of individuation.
in a similar way, adolescents need to push back from the church and stir things up as they develop their own faith and own way of connecting to jesus. in a similar way, the institutional church is the parent and the “emerging” generation are the rebelious teens. the childhood faith that was passed down to them doesn’t seem to fit in the complex world we live in. and the church is actually constricting their development, not empowering it. and many are left feeling like john in the song, “jesus and john,” by lisa gungor. this faith of bible memorization and salvation from hell is a lie and hopefully jesus will have mercy on the church for missing it so hard.
the conclusion of many in the “emerging” generation is that the institutional church is the main obstacle for genuine faith in jesus. and thankfully, it is when wealthy, suburban, white kids go off to college, they come into the light and realize all of the errors of the church. it is from this position of enlightenment that many begin to separate themselves from the rules and authority of the church and settle in to a vague trust in the grace of jesus.
just like there is a need for adolescents to push back from their parents to develop their own identity, it is normal and right for older adolescents to push back form the institutional church and figure out a faith that is their own as well. but what is unique is that the rebellion and questioning is celebrated as depth and maturity. this celebration make it next to impossible to come back to the institutional church.
as someone who works with children and students in the church i recognize that simple bible stories and behavior based faith doesn’t cut it. but there has to be some recognition that every stage in our developmental process means that we can wrestle with different levels of our faith. the faith for little john who memorized scripture is an important step in the faith development of an elementary student. but i have noticed that after 5th grade parents and students are tired and busy and begin to disengage from the church.
if there isn’t intentional spiritual and intellectual development during middle and high school, students get their worlds rocked in college. all of a sudden they find out that their 5th grade faith is no match to the anti-christian and for sure anti-church world view found on a college campus. but the christian faith is not a 5th grade faith. it is this deep and amazing faith that leaves the smartest theologians and philosophers feeling like they are only scratching the surface. their are historians, archeologists, and scientists who continue to discover things that affirm the christian faith instead of discredit it. this is the faith we need to bring to the table, a faith that is deep enough to handle the complexities of the world and some of the darker chapters in church history.
of course the church has its problems and its warts. because we are humans there is going to be brokenness and hyprocricy. but those problems and warts are dramatically inflated. i have had food poising several times from chinese food. but i recognize that it is because i happen to eat at a dirty restaurant. the problem was this specific restaurant not chinese food in general. and it seems like we have all had similar experiences. we have all eaten rotten food, seen bad movies, and bought lousy cars. yet we all still eat chinese food, go to the movies, and drive cars.
the institutional church is amazing. for 2000 years it is the church that has equipped the saints, sent missionaries, wrestled with doctrine and have marked out a pretty amazing path for us today. it is prideful and ignorant to throw out the hard work of faithful saints for generations because of a few isolated examples of broken people behaving in broken ways.
the picture painted by middle class, urban, white christians in their 20‘s and 30‘s is an important picture, but it is just a small perspective on the kingdom of god. let us dive into the church and rub shoulders with christians from all generations and socio-economic levels, from other cultures and ethnicities, and learn from each other so that in this broad community we can paint a bold picture of the kingdom of god.