On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:
This is the third sermon in an eight part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.” I’m preaching this one tomorrow, and I hope your Sunday is a great one. Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there, too!
Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
Nominalism — Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
In his startling book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider said out loud what had become all too apparent — America’s most conservative Christians, evangelicals, live no differently than other Americans who claim no relationship to Jesus Christ.
George Barna, Christian pollster and trend watcher, said, “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus’ modern disciples do not act like Jesus.”
Sider points out in his book, subtitled Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest of the World?, that Christians are no different than the general population when it comes to failed marriages, domestic abuse, sexual conduct, materialism, and racism. And if you find that hard to believe, let’s do the numbers:
- Marriage and Family. In 1999, Barna reported that divorce rates for evangelicals and the total population were exactly the same — 25%. Brad Wilcox, a Christian sociologist pointed out that “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.” Sadly, in many families that stay together, domestic abuse occurs within evangelical families at approximately the same frequency as in the general population.
- Materialism and Stewardship. By 2001, evangelical Christians were giving 4.27% to their church, down from 6.15% in 1968. And, from 2000 to 2002, evangelicals who tithed (gave 10% of their income) dropped from 12% to 9%, and the trend continues downward. One study pointed out that if all evangelicals tithed, we would have over $143-billion dollars to send to world missions, hunger relief, poverty eradication, and other ministries. The UN has estimated that it would take $70-80-billion per year to provide the world’s 1.2 billion poor with essential services like basic health care and education. In other words, if only half of evangelical Christians tithed, we could raise the standard of living for the world’s poorest to a more humane level.
- Morality and Sexual Conduct. In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention started a sexual abstinence program for young people called True Love Waits. About 2.4-million kids signed the promise to keep themselves sexually pure until marriage. But researchers from Columbia and Yale Universities tracked 12,000 teens who had signed the “I’ll Wait” pledge. The results were disheartening — 88% of those who had signed the True Love Waits pledge had engaged in sexual intercourse before they were married. Only 12% maintained their promise.
- Racism. In a 1989 survey, George Barna asked different groups whether they would object to having an African-American neighbor. Only 11% of Catholics and non-evangelicals objected. 16% of mainline Protestants objected, but 20% of Southern Baptists objected to having a black family on their block. Hopefully, since 1989, some attitudes have changed. Southern Baptists have gone on record as apologizing for the enslavement of black Africans, and for the role slavery played in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. But, some have viewed that apology with cynicism, citing SBC studies which show that for Southern Baptists to continue to grow, we must reach out to minorities and establish minority churches, and train minorities for leadership positions within the SBC. Still our denomination remains one of the most segregated of denominations in our nation. 11 o’clock Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.
The act of failing to live up to the teachings of Christ is called nominalism, from the Latin word nomen, which means name. Nominalism, then, distinguishes that which is real from that which is in name only, or nominal. In other words, evangelical Christians are for the most part, Christians in name only. Our walk does not match out talk.
Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “I would become a Christian, if I could see one.”
How Did We Lose our Way?
Why did I include nominalism under these 7 cultural challenges that churches face? Because culture plays a tremendous role in influencing all of our society, including those of us who claim to be followers of Christ.
Paul writing to Christians in the first century who were in the midst of the culture of Rome, had this to say about the Christians and popular culture —
Christians in the 21st century, it seems, have become so enmeshed in the culture in which we live that we have been conformed to the culture — the world — rather than being transformed by Christ. But how did this happen? Well, there are several answers.
The Marriage of Church and State
The first answer to that question is found in the 4th century. For its first 250 years or so, Christianity was a minority and persecuted faith. All of the apostles were martyred, with the possible exception of John. The story goes that authorities attempted to kill John, but he survived and instead was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he received the great apocalyptic vision we call the Book of Revelation.
That book, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is about the persecution of the people of God, the church. Written during the reign of the emperor Domitian, John’s vision gives hope to the Christians of the first century that their deaths were not in vain, that God saw their suffering, and that they had a special place in God’s kingdom. And, most importantly, one day Jesus himself was coming with the whole host of heaven to vindicate the martyrs, and take them to their eternal glory as all things were made new by Christ. In other words, God was giving hope to his persecuted people.
The early church was persecuted because the followers of Jesus were not like those around them. In an age of dishonesty and everyman for himself, Christians were honest. In an empire where sexual promiscuity was celebrated, Christians maintained the bond of marriage. In a culture where the weak were viewed as a drag on society and were outcast or overlooked, Christians were generous and cared for the poor and the widows. In a culture where rich masters owned slaves, Christians put aside positions of class in the ekklesia and slaves often served as leaders of the congregation.
Gerhard Lohfink has called the early church a “contrast society.” And it was. The values and lifestyle of the Christians of the first and second centuries contrasted dramatically with that of the culture around them. Barry Harvey says the early church saw themselves as “another city” — in contrast to the great city of Rome, the Christian community became “another city” in governance, values, lifestyle, relationships, and conduct.
Because of their contrasting lives, Christians were easy targets for the failing Roman empire. Nero was the first to blame Christians wholesale for the failures of his regime. Subsequent emperors seized upon Nero’s idea, and expanded the blame placed on Christians until it reached fever pitch during the reign of Domitian.
But, as Christianity spread and grew, and Christians became more numerous, the empire began having second thoughts. When Constantine ascends to the emperor’s throne, he needed to do something to bring a decaying empire together. Christians were now as sizeable part of the population, and so Constantine decided to embrace Christianity as the unifying factor in his empire.
The famous legend of Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky, and Christ’s words to him, “By this sign, conquer” makes for a great legend, but Constantine was no committed Christian, only accepting Christian baptism as he neared the end of his life.
For centuries, the church celebrated their new found status in the empire, sharing some power with the emperor himself. As is always the case when the religious community seeks favor with politicians, the church woke up one day several hundred years later to its own corruption and loss of witness. The church had become nothing more than the extension of the state.
That’s the historical setting, but it doesn’t fully explain how we in the 21st century, almost 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, are still being conformed to culture, rather than to Christ. And, how culture shapes us, rather than Christians shaping culture.
A Missed Chance at the Reformation
It seems that even the Reformers — Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others — also fell for the same fatal idea: church and state should be one. Which meant that church and culture would become one, and we live with that bad bargain made 500 years ago still today.
Of course, Baptists and American evangelicalism contributed the idea that religious freedom should prevail in America. That we should be free from government establishment or prohibition of religious expression. Baptists were highly influential in persuading Thomas Jefferson, and other colonial leaders, to write the Bill of Rights, which first took hold in Virginia where the Episcopal Church has already been established as the official state church. The Episcopal Church was disenfranchised, and freedom of religion became the law of the land.
But, escape from government control did not mean escape from cultural influence.
The stories of faith and freedom were so closely tied in the newly-born United States that we as a people assumed they were one and the same. And, the slide into Americanized Christianity took place over that past 250 years or so. Now, American Christianity contributed some great things to the cause of faith — we focused on the individual, not the class or family, so that individuals were free to trust Christ without the constraints of social status or family heritage. As a matter of fact, John Wesley’s Methodism sought out the disenfranchised first in England, and then in America, and presented the Gospel to them as well.
But, God and country are not the same, and when pressed to pledge allegiance to one or the other, Christians should have chosen God, as they did in the first century. Instead, too often we chose American culture.
An example of the choosing of culture over Biblical faith is the founding of our own denomination — Southern Baptists. Prior to 1845, with slavery becoming more widespread in the South where labor intensive crops like tobacco and cotton dominated the economy, Baptists in the North began to object to Baptists in the South holding slaves. That objection extended to the rejection of mission offerings from Baptists in the South, until such time as these southern Baptists divested themselves of their slave holdings.
Baptists in the South were outraged and offended. So, in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was born, allowing Baptists in the South to send their own missionaries to China and India and Africa, without the judgmental interference of their Northern counterparts. Clearly, our Southern Baptist forefathers gave in to the culture and the economy, rather than to the Gospel of Christ. Of course, numerous passages of scripture were quoted and re-quoted justifying slavery, and bolstering the status of Southern Baptists.
With 150 years of hindsight, slavery is a sin of which we should still repent. One wonders if a denomination born in strife, and on the backs of enslaved human beings, can or should survive. That is a debate for future Baptists, but I wonder if the fractious history of our denomination, which continues to this day, is a part of our denominational DNA.
The State Cannot Impose Our Values On Others
History is full of failed moral experiments, Prohibition being one of them. During Prohibition, our country learned that you can’t legislate one morality for all people. While the Temperance Movement was thrilled when Prohibition passed, legions of Americans (including many in our own community) broke the law to either get a drink or make liquor out of economic necessity.
So, before I go any further, let me state that I do not believe that the Bible teaches that we as followers of Christ should impose our moral system, whatever it is, on others. We cannot make people act like Christians, who do not follow Christ. Of course, some laws that accomplish our purposes are laws passed for the common good. Laws that protect children from being exploited either by unscrupulous factory owners, or pornographers, are good laws. They serve Christian purposes, but also the higher good. So, we are not opposed to laws that protect and define conduct that makes the world a better place for all.
Back to my illustration of Prohibition. Even though it is now legal in many places, including Chatham to sell and purchase alcohol, it is not legal to drive while intoxicated, sell alcohol to minors, or sell non-tax paid liquor, known as moonshine. All of those laws serve our Christian idea of good, but are not specifically Christian laws.
No, the answer to why we don’t walk like we talk is not found in the local town ordinance, the state legal code, or federal law.
We Lost Our Way, Because We Have Left The Way
I believe that Christians have lost influence with our society because we have lost our way, The Way of Jesus. You and I could debate endlessly what a Christian could do, should do, and ought to do. That, in part, is why we have so many denominations. Some find great latitude in how to live the Christian life, others like our Amish brothers and sisters, follow a much more narrow path.
But being a follower of Christ is about being a follower of Christ. When we began to look for the loopholes, the exceptions, when we begin to ask ourselves “where’s the line?” in our conduct, we have missed the point completely. The Pharisees were far better a walking that fine line between religious legality and illegality. Jesus completely dismantled their thinking every time he said, “You have heard….but I say unto you.”
For it is not in the letter of the law that we find Christ, it is in the Spirit of the law. It is not a matter of how little do we have to do, or how much can we get away with in living and still be called Christian. Rather, we should live our lives with Jesus, as though he were here, present with us. For he is.
26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” — John 15:18-27
Why don’t we walk like we talk? Partly because we don’t want the world to hate us. We want to fit in, we don’t want to stand out. We want to be like everybody else, and that is our problem. We want to be like everybody else, when we ought to want to be like Jesus.
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except by me.”
Jesus did not say, “I know the way” or “I’ll teach you the way” or “This idea is the way.” He said, “I am the Way.” Period. In the first century Christians were called followers of The Way. It was Jesus’ Way because the Way was Jesus himself.
We do not walk like we talk because we are not following Jesus.
More than 25 years ago, Graham Cyster, a South African Christian struggled against the wickedness of apartheid — the institutionalized racism and genocide of the South African government. Other groups were also working to move South Africa away from the apartheid, and Communists were among those working in South Africa to bring equality to all South Africans — black and white.
Graham Cyster was smuggled into an underground Communist cell of young people one night, in hopes of presenting the message of Christ. Amazingly, the young Communists gathered that evening said, “Tell us about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” half-hoping for an alternative to the armed, violent struggle they knew they faced.
According to Ron Sider, Graham gave a clear and powerful explanation of the Gospel, telling how faith in Christ can transform individual lives. He talked about how Christian love could break down the barriers that separated people, and quoted from the Apostle Paul that there was no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but that faith in Christ builds a new community where all God’s people live together in love.
One 17-year old exclaimed, “That’s wonderful! Show me where I can see that happening!” Graham’s face fell as he had to report that sadly, he knew of no place in South Africa where that was true, even though there were many churches in South Africa.
With that the young man cursed, and left the meeting. Less than a month later, he had joined an armed band of Communist guerrillas who were committed to the violent overthrow of the South African government.
The world around us is not interested in what we believe. Nor are most of them interested in where they will spend eternity. The world around us wants to see that the message of Jesus, the message of God’s love is possible. For if it is possible, then there is hope. If it is possible, then there is a heaven. If it is possible, then there is a God who loves even me.
I don’t mean to harp on this, but the current rise in oil prices impacts more than just where we take our next vacations. As James Howard Kunstler states in his article, Wake Up America, We’re Driving Toward Disaster:
As the world passes the all-time oil production high and watches as the price of a barrel of oil busts another record, as it did last week, these systems will run into trouble. Instability in one sector will bleed into another. Shocks to the oil markets will hurt trucking, which will slow commerce and food distribution, manufacturing and the tourist industry in a chain of cascading effects. Problems in finance will squeeze any enterprise that requires capital, including oil exploration and production, as well as government spending. These systems are all interrelated. They all face a crisis.
The rise in oil prices will have a ripple effect through the world economy, and small churches (big ones, too) will be affected. The good news is Kunstler sees a re-ordering of American life:
So what are intelligent responses to our predicament? First, we’ll have to dramatically reorganize the everyday activities of American life. We’ll have to grow our food closer to home, in a manner that will require more human attention. In fact, agriculture needs to return to the center of economic life. We’ll have to restore local economic networks — the very networks that the big-box stores systematically destroyed — made of fine-grained layers of wholesalers, middlemen and retailers.
We’ll also have to occupy the landscape differently, in traditional towns, villages and small cities. Our giant metroplexes are not going to make it, and the successful places will be ones that encourage local farming.
Kunstler sees us buying locally, growing more of our food locally, and moving in a small geographic area with $5/gallon gas than we did with $2/gallon gas. With this small, local revolution in the works, small churches that position themselves to minister to their community will be attractive as our country refocuses on small, local, sustainable experiences from food production to education to work to worship. Churches have the opportunity to lead this revolution. The question is “will we learn to think differently” and reimagine the church, not as a consumer experience, but as a community that serves.
CNN reports that crude oil prices hit $99/barrel yesterday and are headed to $100/barrel and up. Gas is already past $3-a-gallon in much of the US. A gasoline transporter told me that people appear to be conserving more. So even at $3 a gallon the price is having an effect. What if gas goes to $4-a-gallon? I think then we’ll see a serious reordering of our lives and schedules. If you have not thought about how higher gas prices might affect your church, you need to. Some implications are —
- Fewer but longer gatherings to pack more content into one trip to church.
- Decentralized meetings in homes that draw folks from the neighborhood.
- Reimagining the weekly flow of church activities in both small and large churches.
- Re-evaluation of staff responsibilities if there are fewer “come to the church” meetings.
- Impact on budgets. Higher gas prices mean not only higher costs to fill your members’ tanks, but higher costs for all goods and services.
- Emerging churches might already be blazing a trail for others in their flow of activities.
Higher gas prices are coming. You might want to begin to shift gears now. Or at least think about it. Have a great Thanksgiving!