Tag: culture

Sermon After Charleston: How To Let The World Know There is a God

Emanuel AME Church is the oldest AME church in the south and the second oldest in the world.
Emanuel AME Church is the oldest AME church in the south and the second oldest in the world.

Today, June 21, 2015, our church stood silently while the names of those killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this past week were read. As the names were read, the pipe organ chimed for each person whose life was cut short during a Bible study in a church where they should have been safe.

The sermon I preached this morning was about David and Goliath, taken from 1 Samuel 17. But, I lamented the fascination we have with violence, and called us to a new day of hope because as David said, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s…” 1 Samuel 17:47 NIV.

Here’s the podcast of that message about how, even in the midst of tragedy, the families of those killed showed the world there is a God.

The Steve Jobs Phenomenon

Watching the news reports of those mourning the death of Steve Jobs, it struck me that for the first time in my experience people are genuinely saddened at the death of a business leader, rather than a rock star, a member of the royal family, or a politician.

Did Henry Ford’s death garner similar expressions of grief?  Or Alexander Graham Bell’s?  Or even Albert Einstein’s?  I don’t think so.  The closest experiences I can remember are the deaths of John Lennon (rock star), Princess Diana (royal), and the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert (politicians).

What is there about Steve Jobs’ death that creates this kind of public ritual of mourning where thousands leave flowers and candles in front of Apple stores around the globe?  Simply, Steve Jobs changed the way we live our lives.

Recently Debbie and I cleaned out our entire collection of CDs, and actually threw them away.  Granted, our CD collection was modest by most standards, but we actually threw away CDs we had paid good money for a few months or even years ago.  Why?  Because all our CDs, and all our new music is on her iPhone and my iPod Touch.  And on her iMac and my macbook, too.

We now have two Apple computers, an iPhone, an iPod Touch (we still have an old iPod Nano with the click wheel), and now we have Apple TV which replaced our cable connection.

In short, Steve Jobs made how we get our media, where we keep our media, and how we access our media more important to us than the media itself.  I pick up the free iTunes cards at Starbucks each week.  I’ll download the songs, which I may never listen to again if I don’t like them, just because I can.  My 32G iPod Touch is not close to being maxed out, and so right now what I put on my iPod isn’t as important as the fact that it’s on my iPod.

Whether we realize this right now or not, this is a revolution in media.  When I was in high school, I bought a lot of records, then a lot of 8-tracks in college, and then a lot of cassette tapes, and finally a lot of CDs.  I can’t remember when I bought my last CD, which says something about why record stores went out of business.

I must admit I have an Android phone — the new Samsung Galaxy S II — which is very similar to the iPhone 4S just released, except only better in some categories.  That might seem like a contradiction to what I am saying, but actually it proves my point.

Watch the 2007 MacWorld presentation when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.  Apple presentations are available now as video podcasts on iTunes.  Everyone interested in business, innovation, product design, or effective presentation techniques ought to watch that first iPhone presentation.  Jobs’ performance is right on target as he introduces the product which changed the mobile phone industry, and led to the eventual creation of Android by Google.

In 2007 all smart phones had physical keyboards.  In 2011, the best smartphones have touch keypads.  And on, and on.  Android exists because the iPhone was invented.  Period.  Now the Apple experience is available on non-Apple products. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery after all.

I have owned computers since 1981 when I bought a KayPro, before IBM came out with their Personal Computer, for ever after known as the PC.  I have owned an Apple IIc (which didn’t work very well), Gateways, Dells, Toshibas, and even a Radio Shack brand, but nothing beats my satisfaction with my macbook which I bought in 2009.

But, now because of Steve Jobs, I would give up my macbook before I would give up my mobile phone.  Why?  Because Jobs was right.  The iPhone did become “my life in my pocket.”

My phone, and my iPod Touch, contain all my music; all my recent photos; all my contacts; all my email; directions to any place in the world; the internet; a camera; a video camera; all of the books I can find as ebooks; lots of apps for all kinds of things I want to do, know, or track; and, I’m sure a lot of other stuff that I can’t even think of now.  Oh, my Starbucks card is on there as a scanable barcode, too.

Steve Jobs changed the culture by changing the way we get, access, and use media of all sorts.  His creative genius, intuitive understanding of how we wanted to live, and his design sensibility combined to transform, not just a generation, but an entire culture.

No wonder we are saddened at his passing.

The Echo Chamber of Religion Leads To Extremism

The strange case of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ leader, ended today in Jeffs’s conviction for child rape.

We wonder how it is possible in the 21st century for hundreds of men and women to be deluded by Jeffs’ bizarre, perverted religious expression.  Jeffs and the FLDS are the extreme result of religion unmoderated by common decency and the wisdom of the greater culture.

Put differently, isolated individuals tend to believe what their leaders tell them.  Cut off from media and outside contact with non-FLDS acquaintances, the FLDS compound reinforced daily that the word of Warren Jeffs was the word of God.

The nation was riveted to news coverage when authorities raided the FLDS “Yearning For Zion” compound near Eldorado, Texas, in April, 2008.  The isolated FLDS women and girls drew comments for the homemade, plain-style dresses they wore.  But, the real oddity was that this break-away sect of the Mormon Church had refused to give up the practice of polygamy and child marriage.  Jeffs was their leader, and his word was regarded as divine by his followers.

The clincher in the case was an audio tape found in Jeffs’s possession when he was arrested as a fugitive. The tape reveals sexual encounters with three underage girls, which Jeffs characterized as “heavenly comfort” sessions .  The  earthly reality was that a jury found Jeffs guilty of sexual assault on these poor girls, ages 12-15 years.  The conviction carries a potential life sentence.

Of course, this is the activity of a cult, we tell ourselves.  But looking more closely, it isn’t hard to find examples of those who live in their own echo chambers, listening only to their own voices.  There are many sad examples of those who cut themselves off from the corrective conversation that engagement with others provides. And, examples come from both the right and the left of the religious spectrum.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he found himself embarrassed by the sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Wright’s fiery pulpit presence and his condemnation of America was understood by his parishioners within the context of his own church sanctuary.  But the sermon in which Wright called on God to “damn America” did not play well in the wider culture.   No explanation of the context, or the tradition of the church, or any other disclaimers mitigated the uproar over Wright’s sermon.  Obama eventually disavowed Wright, distancing himself from a pastor who was understood by his constituency but who was not ready for national media coverage.

Media experts tell us the internet enables us as never before to listen to media personalities who reinforce our own positions.  This “silo effect” insulates those who only watch Fox News or Keith Olbermann, for example,  from legitimate challenges to their ideology.

The same effect is present in the religious community.  The most strident opponents of other religions are usually those who listen only to their own voice.  Rev. Terry Jones, the vitriolic anti-Muslim pastor from Florida, represents the same extreme dressed up in evangelical garb.  Of course, Jones’s ministry is more like that of another cult figure, Tony Alamo, who also isolated his followers, compelling them to work long hours for no pay in order to enrich himself.

But the tendency to one-sidedness tempts all of us.  In his new book, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts, Douglas Noll, a lawyer-turned-peacemaker and international mediator, cites one of the primary reasons international peacemaking fails — opposing parties will not listen to each other’s stories.  Noll also adds “group identity,” with its “us-versus-them” mentality, to his list of peace impediments.  In other words, the failure to listen to each other, and to value one another as human beings prevents the resolution of many conflicts.

When religious leaders whip their constituents into a frenzy with exclusivist claims that “we have the truth and no one else does,” they do a grave disservice to the common good.  When we listen only to ourselves and those like us, we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters who might feel and think differently than we do.

To those who object that we must hold up the banner of truth, and keep ourselves apart from “others,” Jesus had a story to tell.

It was about a Jew who set out on a journey, got beaten up, robbed, and left for dead.  Those like him, devout religious leaders, passed him by.  But a man from Samaria, whose religious beliefs were anathema to the Jews, and who were engaged in a centuries-old feud with Jews, stopped to help the Jewish man.  He gave first aid, carried the man to the safety of an inn, paid for his lodging, and left money for the victim’s recovery.  In a rhetorical end to the story,  Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man who was beaten?”  The obvious answer was someone unlike him in faith and practice, someone despised  and reviled by the victim’s people, someone who should have had nothing to do with the victim.

Conversation with others who are not like us, religiously or culturally, tempers our own tendency to isolation-induced arrogance.  Interfaith dialogue, racial reconciliation, tolerant conversations, and engaging with a diverse culture helps us see our common humanity, and serves the common good.

The global future: Chinese, pluralistic, young

Tom Friedman, author of The World is Flat and New York Times columnist, is big on China, but he’s not the only one.  The 21st century is being called the “China Century” as China’s economy is predicted to grow to three times the size of the US economy by 2040, only 30 years from now.  One book, When China Rules The World, foresees drastic cultural and political changes as China rises in world status.

What does this have to do with churches?  Just this — young people, including Chinese young people, are already exerting tremendous social pressure on the global culture.  Trends in China’s emerging generation are both reflecting and influencing  the world youth culture.  I track several emerging gen sites and blogs, and Chinese trends are appearing more often.

One site, enoVate, belongs to the company by the same name.  Headquartered in Shanghai, China, enoVate’s mission is “insights and creative solutions for China’s youth market.”  But look at their client page — Coca-Cola, Sprite, New Balance, Kraft, Unilever, Ticketmaster, and assorted other American and European corporations.  All of them are trying to expand their reach in the world’s largest youth market by understanding what makes Chinese youth tick.

A recent post on enoVate’s blog posed a provocative idea — ‘”I Want A Mixed-Race Baby”: Are Chinese Youth After a Mixed-Race Baby?’ The combination of Chinese features, augmented by those of another race, are seen as both exotic and desirable among Chinese youth.   The previously insular Chinese society has not only adopted the racial pluralism of the United States (we have a mixed race president now), but has given racial pluralism an uniquely Chinese twist, which is what China tends to do with any trend they adopt.

My point in this is not to build an airtight case for the rise of China, but to suggest that we tend to look only within ourselves and our own culture for insights into how to do church.  But there are other models that are taking a broader, more global view.  One example is Newsong church, with its international locations in California, India, London, Bangkok, Mexico City, and the other parts of the US, which has styled itself as a “third culture” church.  More churches will follow Newsong’s lead, and if you have traveled in Asia as I have, you recognize that China dominates the landscape.

With increasing global communication, world travel, and social networking, we need to pay attention to the trends driving China.  Because, to paraphrase Hollywood, these are coming soon to a community near you.

Breaking News: After I posted this article on Jan 20, the Jan 21 edition of the New York Times carried this headline and article — Foreign Languages Fade in Class – Except Chinese.  It appears that while other language subjects are declining, the teaching of Chinese in public and private schools is increasing, partially because China is paying the salaries of teachers to travel from China to teach in the US.  Remember when all Chinese wanted to learn English?  Interesting.

Are Angels The New Vampires?

Are angels the new vampires?

Anne Rice, the author who made vampires trendy in her Vampire Chronicles series, came back to the Christian faith in 1998.  Upon returning to the Roman Catholic Church, Rice published two books about the life of Christ. She has now turned her attention to the subject of angels.  Her new book, Angel Time, is the first in her Songs of the Seraphim series.

The question is — will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires?  Rice was the author who spawned a virtual vampire industry.  Stephenie Meyer’s  The Twilight Series is being made into movies, and one blogger came up with the 10 most popular vampire book series.  Lots of vampires and lots of readers who love vampire stories apparently.

Time will tell if Rice is able to turn angels into the next cultural trend, which would be interesting if it happened.  Rather than the Goth look some kids love, we might get the Archangel look which parents would love.  Halos would become popular, and wings would make a big comeback.  But, I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

But let’s say angels do become the new vampires, trend-wise that is.  What do you know about angels?  Rice sets her novel in a time-shifting milieu that finds a 21st century assassin transported back to the middle ages to defend Jews who are being persecuted.  She believes angels move, not in linear time, but in another kind of time reserved only for — you guessed it — angels.  Hence the title of the book, Angel Time.

But, back to my question — What do you know about angels?  Did you know that the evangelical take on angels is pretty thin compared to the Roman Catholic Church?  Did you know that a guy named Pseudo-Dionysius (called that because he wasn’t the real Dionysius apparently) said there were 9 ranks of angelic beings including Powers, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, Archangels, Cherubim, Virtues, and Seraphim?  And, finally, did you know that angels are charged with care of creation as well as people?

In my own internet search for theological books on angels, I ran across very few.  Most angel books tell accounts of how angels appeared to various people, but few give serious theological consideration to the subject of angels.  In light of this dearth of material on angels, should we just dismiss the whole angelic order as though we’ve out-grown the childish notion that there are guardian angels?  Or should we get to know more about angels because we might have to respond to questions about Rice’s books?

What do you think?  Are angels the new vampires?

Here’s Anne Rice’s statement to her fans about her Christian faith and the Vampire Chronicles.

Sermon: The Future of Our Faith

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, August 16, 2009.  The Future of Our Faith concludes this 8-part series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  The preceding seven sermons are:

Here’s the concluding message.  I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow.

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces: The Future of Our Faith

Revelation 3:7-8
7“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Reviewing the Seven Cultural Challenges

The passage we have just read was penned during a time of extreme challenge to the church of Jesus Christ.  The emperor Domitian persecuted the church more fiercely and relentlessly that previous Roman emperors.  Yet John’s words to the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, contain words of encouragement.  Some contain words of rebuke, but as Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia, he offers words of hope for their future —

“See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” That is very much the position that the church of the 21st century faces — an open door, but with great challenges.

Over the past weeks, we have examined Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.

  • When we discussed secularism, we asked the question, Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
  • On the Sunday we looked at pluralism, we asked,  Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
  • Thinking about nominalism, we did some self-reflection around the question, Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
  • Looking at our consumeristic lifestyle and materialism, we wondered, Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
  • Taking a cue from pop culture and post-modernism, we wrestled with Why Is Truth No Longer True?
  • We wondered Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore? when we thought about criticism of the church and Christianity.
  • And finally, we talked about atheism, and asked the question, Why Don’t They Believe in God?

All seven of these cultural challenges are converging in unique ways, especially in regard to the community of faith we call the church.  David T. Olson in his book, The American Church in Crisis, states —

“In America our world is also changing.  The ongoing downturn in church attendance this millenium is partially related to external cultural changes.  Christian ministry faces more challenges today than it did 20 years ago….Largely unaware of these changes, many churches continue to operate in modes and mentalities that no longer resonate with our culture.”  Olson, p. 161.

With the exception of nominalism, which means that Christians don’t walk like we talk, the remaining six cultural challenges are all external to the church.  In other words, these are forces and challenges that lie outside our control.

— We cannot stop the rising tide of secularism as a greater percentage of our population concludes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not necessary for a full and happy life.

— We are witness to our changing communities and the vast multicultural tsunami that is sweeping over America and the globe.  With easy access to international transportation, millions of new cultures have migrated to our shores, just as our forefathers brought the cultures of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Europe to American soil in the 18th and 19th centuries. With that multicultural flood also have come the faith traditions of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners — Buddhism, shamanism, Islam, and other non-Christian traditions.

— We are, and have been, participants in the mentality of a growth economy, relying on consumerism to fuel the economic engines of our nation, cities and states.  As a result, we find ourselves — Christians and non-Christians alike — suffering through the inevitable consequences of of the meltdown of materialism.  Churches and denominations have reduced budgets, laid off workers, downsized programs, and sold property in order to survive the economic downturn.

— While post-modernism defies a common description, the loss of confidence in the stories that to this point had sustained our nation and churches is being felt in lower church attendance, and the questioning of any claims to absolute truth.  The internet, for all its good, has also leveled the playing field between truth and falsehood, or truth and personal opinion, by creating space for all ideas, regardless of their credibility.

— And finally, we are seeing the church and Christianity attacked boldly and without hestitation by movements like the new atheism, or simply by individuals for whom church is not a necessary part of their lives.

The doom-and-gloom recital of decline and demise could go on for the rest of this sermon, but I think you get the picture.  We are facing some unique challenges.  The question is — what about the future of our faith?  Will the church survive?  Will Christianity disappear?  Will our grandchildren and great grandchildren find the same faith we did, or will church buildings become museums and art galleries as many have in Europe?

The Church Has Always Faced Challenges

Before we despair too much about the current set of challenges we face, we need to remind ourselves that the Church of Jesus Christ has always faced challenges.

At her birth on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 may have been saved, but immediately the apostles were challenged, persecuted, and imprisoned.  As the church grew, new challenges emerged with each succeeding year.

At first the Roman empire believed that Christianity was merely a branch of Judaism.  As much as possible, the Roman empire allowed its conquered states to keep their traditional religions, as long as they posed no threat to the Pax Romana, and the goals of the empire.

But as Christianity grew in numbers, and Jews like Saul of Tarsus began persecuting Christians, the empire itself began to see the Christian church as a threat.  And even though the story of Saul who became Paul, turned out to be one of the great stories of the church, the empire increased its scrutiny of those who were called “christiani” or the little Christs.

By Nero’s reign, Christians were being made the scapegoats for everything wrong in the empire, much as Jews were vilified in Nazi Germany.  Persecution rose to such a crescendo by the reign of Domitian (81 AD to 96 AD), that John the Revelator was given the vision that became the Book of Revelation.  John’s message was one of encouragement in the midst of persecution to Christians facing martyrdom in the first century.

Persecution continued however, until the reign of Constantine who in 313 AD issued the Edict of Milan, which returned the property of Christians back to them.  In essence, Constantine’s decree legitimized Christianity and brought the Church into a partnership with the state.

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle writes that the church goes through a major transformation every half-millennia.  She quotes Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer, who quips that every 500 years or so, “the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  We’re in one of those times, according to Tickle.  And at least three other of these theological rummage sales preceded this one.

In the first 500 years of the church, the monastic movement took hold.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers, predecessors to the later monastic movement, fled the corruption of the church in the cities in order to live ascetic lives devoted to God.  The challenges the church faced then were both external and internal.  External persecution came from a hostile regime, until Constantine; but then internal pressure came from the church’s shifting partnership with the state after Constantine.  Those who fled to the desert also fled the corruption of the church herself.  Clergy under Constantine had become extensions of the empire’s bureaucracy.  Clerical appointments became political favors often handed out to completely unqualified and unsavory churchmen.

Gregory the Great took the monastic tradition to a new level, and sheltered the great traditons of the faith — theology, liturgy, daily prayers, personal devotion — during a time when the Roman empire was collapsing and the Dark Ages were upon Europe.  Monasteries became the keepers of the flame, the repositories of faith and practice in a world that seemed to be losing its way.

The second great event came about 500 years later.  The Great Schism — the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church — divided a previously united, if fractious, Church into its two predominant cultures.  The Eastern or Orthodox church went its way with its icons and liturgy, while the Western church became consolidated in Rome.

The third great transformation was the Great Reformation of 1517.  We know the event that sparked the split.  A Catholic priest named Martin Luther posed his 95 theses — topics meant for discussion — on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.  Challenging both the theology and the corruption of the church, Luther sparked a firestorm of religious fervor that brought new thinking and new theology to the western world.

Tickle believes we in the 21st century are experiencing another one of those “great” moments in the church, which she calls the Great Emergence.  Personally, I don’t think Tickle fully captures what is happening in the global church, but she at least gets credit for naming this fourth ecclesiastical rummage sale.

My point in all of this is that the church has always faced challenges — some external, some internal.  But, as the church has come through those challenges, she has been changed dramatically.

New groups, new liturgies, new theologies, new mission, and new believers came out of each of these great transformations.  Unfortunately, not all the tactics were peaceful, not all the arguments civil, and many died defending their version of the faith rather than the faith itself.

What Does The Church of The Future Look Like?

But, even though the church has faced and survived challenges in the past, what does that mean for us today?  With annual declines in church attendance, one wonders.  Examples are not hard to come by.  The Episcopal Church had set a goal of increasing attendance by 20% by 2020; instead, their attendance has declined by 7%. Southern Baptists have little room to brag either.  Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, has pointed out that the SBC has been in decline for the past 50 years, and the indicators for the future do not bode well for us either.

Lyle Schaller, renown church consultant, published his book, The Ice Cube is Melting, as a wakeup call to his own United Methodist denomination.  The Presbyterian Church USA launched a major effort to include more minorities in its congregations, only to discover that after an immense effort, their denomination still remained 97% white.

Churches of all flavors are facing tremendous challenges, and the methods of the past are no longer working.  In light of that, what does the church of the future look like?

First, to understand the church of the future, you have to look at the world of the world of the future.  According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2009 report, the world population will hit 7-billion by 2011.  The climb from 6-billion to 7-billion took only 12 years, and according to the same report, by 2050 the world’s population will stand at 10-billion.  That’s almost a 50% increase in people on this planet from where we are today.

Secondly, 90% of world population growth in the 20th century took place in less-developed countries.  In the 21st century, virtually all of the world’s population growth will take place in less-developed countries.  Africa and Asia will lead the way.  India will emerge by 2050 as the most populous country in the world with almost 2-billion inhabitants.  China will be second with 1.4-billion.

The US will rank third with 439-million by 2050, up from our present population of 307-million, another almost 50% growth.  But, in the US, most of the population growth will come from newcomers to our country, primarily those of Hispanic descent.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll be dead by 2050, so it won’t affect me.”

Well, you might be right, but most of the shift in demographics will occur within the next 20-years.  By 2020, whites will no longer be the majority race in the US, and in fact, there may be no majority race.

But, even if you think 2020 is a long way off, we’re already seeing significant signs of demographic shifts in our country, and in our region as well.

An example is the church I pastored in Stone Mountain, Georgia from 1980-1984.  I was called to Pine Lake Baptist Church when I graduated from seminary.  At that time the community was a suburb in the greater Atlanta area.  Middle to uppper-middle class subdivisions dotted the landscape, and our members reflected the white, middle class world of suburban Atlanta in the 1980s.

The year I came to Chatham, 2004, Pine Lake invited me to come back to preach their annual homecoming service.  We walked into a much different church than the one we left.

The platform had been reworked, and the organ replaced with a place for their new 4-piece band.  A couple of guitars, a drum set, and a keyboard stood to one side of the platform.  The choir director was from Jamaica, and the song selection was upbeat and happy.  The choir was made up mostly of west Africans, Jamaicans, and some long-term white members of the church.  Black and white deacons served together.  A Laotian church meets there each Sunday, conducting their worship in their native language.  The community around the church has changed from white suburban, to urban and ethnic.  Many are students at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory University, or one of the other colleges and universities in the Atlanta area.  The church had lots of kids, young people and families.  It truly was an amazing experience, reflecting the trends that are changing the ways we live our lives, including the way we worship.

So, first the church of the future is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.  Sunday morning will no longer be the most segregated hour of the week in our communities.

But, wait, that’s not all, as the TV commercial says.

The rising generation, called Millennials, will change our own country in ways we are just now beginning to see.  Millennials are young people born after 1980 or so.  As a generation, they are larger than my generation, the Baby Boomers.  We thought we would dominate society until we passed off the scene, but the Millennials are already upstaging and displacing Boomers in number and influence.

The good news is that Millennials are optimistic, and eager to make this world a better place.  They volunteer to help in soup kitchens, to build Habitat houses, to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters.  They work well in groups, are open to all ethnicities, and are generally accepting of others.

Millennials have been compared to the World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw labeled The Greatest Generation.  They are builders and world-changers, just like the World War II GIs.   They never have known life without a TV, a computer, a car, or a cellphone.  They are technology natives, ready to harness the power of the internet to do good and connect with friends.

And, they are staying away from the traditional church in droves.  Their criticisms of the traditional church sting, but must be heard.  They are also not interested in the issues that have driven evangelicals in the past 30 years.  Millennials see the culture wars of the 1980s as a remnant of a dying movement.

In addition to the world population, and the Millennial generation, the shift from rural to urban will increase.  Today about half of Americans live in small towns or rural settings, and about half live in large urban centers.  By 2050, 90% of Americans will be living in densely populated urban areas, reflecting the sprawl of cities that are already evident in places like Mexico City, Shanghai, and Mumbai, India.

In short, the world as we know it is changing rapidly.

An Open Door That No One Can Close

The church will have to change.  And it will change because there are increasing voices calling for the church on earth to reflect the diversity of the church in heaven — with people from every tribe, tongue and nation.  Although change will come more slowly to us here in Chatham, we are not immune to the challenges of our culture.  We must change.

And the question we must ask ourselves is not ‘Who is here?’, but rather, ‘Who is not here?’ And the answer to that question will reflect the changes in our culture for we are not reaching those of other ethnicities, the young, and those not like us.

We need to open our eyes to those around us like one of the rural Methodist churches whose pastor I met this past week.  They have a ministry to bikers — not motorcycle riders, but bikers. One of the men who works in that ministry, a biker himself, was asked to tell about what they were doing.  He stood before the assembly of 100 United Methodist pastors, plus Debbie and me, and with his scraggly beard, long hair, bandana on his head, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and he told about the biker ministry and said, “When you’re working with God, nothing’s impossible.”

Nothing is impossible for those who are faithful to Christ.  In the face of overwhelming challenge, there was one church, the church in the original Philadelphia.  Jesus told them, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”

We can also be that church, the church of brotherly love, the church of the open door.  For it is Christ himself who has opened that door.  A door to the masses on earth today and the increasing populations in the years to come.  It is a door of opportunity that Christ alone can open, and no one else can close.

And, Jesus recognizes our limitations.  We may appear to have little strength.  We may appear to be unequal to the task.  But strength is not as important as faithfulness.  Jesus told the Philadelphian church — “You have kept my word, and not denied my name.”  To keep the word of Christ is to be faithful to Christ asserting in the face of changing cultures that Jesus is still the savior of the world.

What is the future of our faith?  Our future is not restricted by the changes in the world around us.  Our future is bound up with the purposes of God.  Our future is God’s future.  The door is open, the world is waiting, the Gospel still is good news.  We must walk through the open door, change our methods but not our message, and present the unchanging good news to an ever-changing world.

Jesus concluded his message to the church in Philadelphia with these words —

11I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Our prayer is that we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church.

Sermon: Atheism – Why Don’t They Believe in God?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  It’s the last in the series, Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces.  The other six on the blog, and I hope they’ve been helpful.  I hope your day is a wonderful Lord’s Day!

Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces:
Atheism – Why Don’t They Believe in God?

Luke 23:32-43
32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[e] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38There was a written notice above him, which read:  THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

A Familiar Scene with a New Question

Here we are in a familiar scene — the crucifixion of Jesus.  Luke offers us a glimpse at the activity surrounding the cross of Christ, and paints a very graphic picture of Jesus’ last moments.

After Jesus is given over to the mob, Luke turns our attention to the others being executed that day.  In the company of Jesus, two men — both criminals Luke notes — are crucified with Jesus.  As the men are nailed to the crosses, and the uprights dropped into the ground, the mob works itself into a frenzy.

Shouts of derision — “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” — fill the air.

Roman soldiers mock Jesus, offering him wine vinegar, and say, “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.”  The Jews mock Jesus for not being the Messiah, and the Romans mock him for not being a real king.  They even nail a placard over his head which reads — This is the King of the Jews, adding insult to injury.

As if the crowd’s taunts and the soldiers’ mocking is not enough, even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus joins in the hateful chorus, with a challenge that reveals his own self-interest — “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other thief rebukes him — “Don’t you fear God?” he asks.  Then, he addresses Jesus — “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus’ reassuring response must have brought comfort to the penitent thief, and strangely brought no response from the other one.

Normally, we focus on the penitent thief, explaining that paradise literally means “the garden of the king.”  Jesus’ assurance to the one thief was that he would be his personal guest in the eternal kingdom of God.

But the question I want us to ask ourselves today is this: Why did one thief believe in Christ, and the other reject Him?  Because today we’re dealing with our final cultural challenge:  atheism.  Why don’t atheists believe in God?

How could two thieves hanging an equal distance, one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus, come to such different conclusions?  The penitent thief even chastised the other by asking, “Don’t you fear God?”  Apparently he didn’t.

Atheism Finds Its Voice

In the past 10 years or so, atheism has found its voice in our culture.  In 2006, Richard Dawkins, British biologist and professor at Oxford, published his atheistic tome titled, The God Delusion.  In it, Dawkins contended that belief in a creator God was a delusion refuted by scientific evidence.

Dawkins is said to share the sentiment made popular by Robert Pirsig in his book Lila, “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”[4]

Dawkins presented four arguments in The God Delusion:

  1. Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.
  2. Natural selection and similar scientific theories are superior to a “God hypothesis”—the illusion of intelligent design—in explaining the living world and the cosmos.
  3. Children should not be labelled by their parents’ religion. Terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make people cringe.
  4. Atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind.[4]

Christopher Hitchens published his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in 2008.  Part of the movement called “the new atheism,” Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris — author of Letter to a Christian Nation — and Daniel Dennett, philosopher, are called “the four horsemen” of the movement.

I struck up something of a congenial relationship with another atheist, John Allen Paulos.  Paulos teaches mathematics at Temple University, and I received an email from him after I had dismissed his book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, as just one more volume in the popular past-time of God-bashing.

Paulos offered to send me a review copy of his book, in which he challenged the typical Christian arguments for the existence of God.  Frankly, I thought he did a pretty good job of dismantling the standard proofs for God offered by Christian apologetics.  He was so stunned that I gave his book something of a “rave” review, as he put it, that he offered to buy me dinner the next time I come to Philadelphia.  I have yet to take him up on that, but heard from John just a couple of days ago.

Among other things, John indicts Christians in his book for the terrible treatment of atheists.  He has been the recipient of a lot of Christian vitriol directed his way, and finds that rather offensive, as I do to.

But, atheism, and its close cousin agnosticism, aren’t just for egghead professors.  In 2007, the Lilly Endowment funded a survey by Trinity College that revealed that 15% of Americans not cite “no religion” when asked for their religious preference.  The Washington Post summed up the findings this way —

“The only group that grew in every U.S. state since the 2001 survey was people saying they had “no” religion; the survey says this group is now 15 percent of the population. Silk said this group is likely responsible for the shrinking percentage of Christians in the United States.”

Northern New England has surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country; 34 percent of Vermont residents say they have “no religion.” The report said that the country has a “growing non-religious or irreligious minority.” Twenty-seven percent of those interviewed said they did not expect to have a religious funeral or service when they died, and 30 percent of people who had married said their service was not religious. Those questions weren’t asked in previous surveys.”

Granted, saying you have “no religion” doesn’t mean you’re an atheist, but the accompanying answers on religious funerals and weddings indicate that faith traditions are not as important as they once were in our culture.

Why Don’t Atheists Believe in God?

Atheists obviously don’t believe in God.  I’m reminded of the story about the little boy who was growing up in an atheist home.  He turned to his dad one day and asked, “Daddy, does God know we don’t believe in him?”  And while that is an amusing story, the reality is that fewer people see the need to center their lives around a god of any kind, much less the God who sent Jesus to save the world.

So, why don’t they believe in God anymore?

First, our culture has changed.  Religious faith, or at least church membership, is no longer required for one to be considered a good, upstanding member of society.  As a matter of fact, in certain circles — academia being one of them — religious faith is viewed as a non-scientific superstition, and those who hold religious views as deluded.

Following World War II, as the GIs returned home on the GI bill, former soldiers went to school, graduated, got jobs, and moved to the suburbs.  Church nurseries were packed, as were sanctuaries.  God, home, and country were the pillars of society in the 1950s.  Of course, not everyone went to church, although a higher percentage of the population did then than now.  But, most everybody had an answer for the question, “What religion are you?”

Of course, that was long before a plurality of religious beliefs flooded our nation.  So the answer to the question, “What religion are you?” was usually Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian.  At least in the south.  But those days are over, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  Faith now is not a cultural expectation, but a personal experience.  But the option not to believe is just as accepted in our culture as the act of believing.

Secondly, atheists are often convinced that the only rational position based on science is that there is no god.  Scientists haven’t discovered God, have proven his existence, and have developed widely-accepted explanations for how life on this planet began, and how it sustains itself.  Atheists reject the idea offered by Christian apologists that if you have a garden, there must be a gardener.  Why? they ask.  Just because that’s how things work in our everyday lives, doesn’t mean there is a superior intelligence guiding us.

The New Atheism is also promoting a new name for atheists.  Apparently being called an atheist still carries a lot of cultural baggage with it, so the new atheists have come up with a name they like better.  They would prefer to be called “Brights.”

Granted, Brights does sound, well, all shiny and bright — luminescent, glowing, a kind of aura.  They are “bright” they say because they believe in science and rational thought, not superstition and tradition.  I’m not sure “brights” will catch on, but the name they have chosen says more about their view of themselves than anything.

Third, atheists often come to that position after a bad personal experience with the church, religion, or religious people.  And, they remind those of us who are Christians that there was a time when the Church killed those it considered infidels or blasphemers.  Of course, they are right.  The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the settling of the new world, all involved either the conversion or subjugation of those who were not Christians.

Although not an atheist, Ghandi’s observation, “If it weren’t for Christians, I’d be a Christian” has a stinging rebuke to it.  We Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to appealing to atheists.

The opposition that Madalyn Murray O’Hair garnered after successfully suing to stop prayer in public school, led Life magazine in 1964 to call her “the most hated woman in America.”  O’Hair became the target of the wrath of the Christian community.  As founder of the American Atheists, she served as president of that organization until her disappearance and death in 1995.

Fourth, some view the existence of multiple religions as proof that none are right.  “If the Christians are right,” they argue, “then the Muslims are wrong; and vice-versa.”  Pluralism, which we explored at the beginning of this series, becomes the basis for not believing in anything.

Finally, I am sure some deny faith in a God of any kind because of their own personal tragedy, or their inability to understand the problem of evil and suffering in our world.  UNC professor Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus Interrupted, writes in his book that the problem of evil and suffering is what led him to become a “happy agnostic” in his words.  The loss of a loved one, an injustice or hurt, can shatter personal faith, or become a stumbling block to that faith.

Other reasons probably exist for why people choose not to believe in God, but whatever the reason, we as followers of Christ must find ways to engage our atheist and agnostic neighbors and co-workers as friends, not as objects to be converted or hated.  Jesus responded in love to both thieves hanging beside him, I am sure.  Only one believed that Jesus was the son of God.

Losing Faith and The Clues For God

Debbie and I were in the youth group at Dalewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee when we were in high school.  Our church didn’t have a paid youth minister, but we had great volunteers who opened their homes to us, took us on retreats and camps, and helped us find our own faith during our teenage years.

Two couples stand out in my mind.  Bob and Darlene Mendenhall, and Leonard and Norma Wills.  Bob was the manager of the Baptist Bookstore in Nashville, and he and Darlene had the entire youth group of about 25 kids over to their house many Sunday nights after the evening service, as did the Wills.  Debbie and I saw Bob and Darlene last in 2003, the year before we moved to Chatham.  We had the “World’s Oldest Youth Fellowship” reunion, and several members of our old youth group came.

But Leonard and Norma Wills weren’t there.  I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but during our high school years, Leonard stopped working with the youth at our church.  As a matter of fact, he quit coming to church altogether.  We missed him, prayed for him, but never heard exactly what happened.

Years later, in 2003, at the World’s Oldest Youth Fellowship, Bob Mendenhall told us what had happened to Leonard.  Leonard had become an atheist.  Apparently one night Leonard walked into his backyard in Nashville, and said, “God if you’re real, strike me dead right now.”  When nothing happened, Leonard concluded that God did not exist.

Faith is a fragile thing.  If you’re looking for reasons not to believe, they’re all around us.  War. Poverty. Disease. Famine. Suffering. Tragedy.  The list goes on.  If you’re looking for scientific proof for the existence of God, you won’t find it.  When the first Russian cosmonaut returned to earth, he proudly observed that he had been into the heavens, but hadn’t seen God.

When our grandson Wesley was about three, Blues Clues was his favorite TV show.  Blue, a cartoon dog, and his real sidekick buddy Steve, led preschoolers on a search for something that was missing in every show.  The kids could buy Blues Clues notebooks, so they could put the clues they found in them.  After enough clues were revealed, the mystery was solved.

A clue on the Blues Clues show was indicated by Blue’s paw print, in blue, of course.  So, if you saw a blue paw print, you knew that was a clue.  One day our grandson was standing at the front door, when he said, “A clue! A clue!”  He had spotted what looked like Blue’s paw print, even though it wasn’t blue, on the sill of the front door.

After writing the review of John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, and posting on my blog, I wrote another article titled, Why I Believe God Exists.  I told the story of our grandson, that I just told you, and here’s the rest of what I wrote —

“The point of Blues Clues was to spot the clues and jot them in your notebook. Well, that’s kind of what we do as believers. We spot the clues of God. We make note of them. Those clues validate, not prove, that God is here, just like we read in the Bible. The Bible which contains the story of God.

So, I don’t need proof. I don’t need the philosophical sleight of hand that loses me in its twists and turns. I just need some clues. And a story. And a community to share it with. Do I agree with Paulos? I think he makes some good points, and I agree he presents his case well. It just doesn’t matter to me. Just as he states his unbelief, I state my belief. He finds no reason to believe; I find a million clues to believe.

In the New Testament, they just told the story of God and of Jesus. They told it to those who wanted to listen, and to those who did not. They told it to those who accepted it, and those who rejected it. They told it to those who loved them, and to those who tried to kill them. But, they told the story because they believed it with all their hearts. Which is where this story takes root, and flourishes, waiting to be told to others who have also seen the clues but need a story to go with them. That’s why I believe God exists.”

For those who do not believe, our lives are the only Bible they will read, the only presence of Christ they will experience.  Whether they come to faith or not, our job is to love them, just as God does.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.