Cultural Christians

widetableDuring my first break from class today, I found an article published by The Babylon Bee that, while a parody, also had a ton of truth to it. If you’re not familiar with the Bee, this is a blog that lampoons the most cliche aspects of Christianity, particularly to the culture of Christianity. In this instance, the article is entitled “Local Pastor Longs For Good Old Days When America Pretended To Be A Christian Nation.” Here is a quote:

“’I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit,’ Reverend Frank Baxter of Garden Falls United Methodist Church reportedly lamented to parishioners at Wednesday’s potluck. ‘On Sundays, Americans used to close their businesses, shine up their shoes, and wear their very best clothes. Sure, they were sin-laden enemies of the Almighty and objects of His wrath, but at least they had the common decency to act like they weren’t.’”

While this is a completely made up statement by a completely made up figure, the sentiment expressed is all too often heard. I have heard similar statements from a variety of people, lay and clergy. When such statements are made, I think it’s a sign that the person saying it has missed something major that is occurring within our churches and within the Christian faith. First, it should be pointed out that congregations should not base their effectiveness solely on attendance figures. It’s not merely about numbers.

The “decline” we are witnessing in American Christianity is actually the death throes of cultural Christianity. This is a cutting away of the dead branches from the vine.

Jesus used such an analogy in John 15 when he told the parable of his being the vine, we (his followers/disciples) being the branches, and the Father being the gardener. Jesus makes it clear that the branches that do not produce fruit are cut off while the ones that do produce fruit are pruned and tended to. The fruits include such things as patience, love, kindness, works… all of this in response to our faith.

Simply showing up to church because “it’s what we do” (in other words, going through the motions) does not generally produce spiritual fruit.

Jesus did warn of the dangers of being a “lukewarm” Christian. John of Patmos recorded these words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea:

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17 (NLT)

I believe that the church is going to be much stronger than she is now. Contrary to what many of us want to believe, this is not all about numbers. This is about the discipleship fruit that is produced by believers. Cultural Christianity contributes nothing to the well-being of one’s soul because simply doing what is expected is not going to cause one to be made new. Yes, the church hit its heyday in the 1950s in terms of numbers, but this was also largely a cultural phenomenon. One was expected to go to church. One could lose business relationships, elections, and other standing for either not attending a church or by not attending the “right” church. Many used Christianity as a means to an end, thus many of these cultural Christians had no faith whatsoever. I won’t presume to judge the destination of their souls, but I will say that scripture is clear on the consequences of unbelief and non-repentance. If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

The dying away of cultural Christianity is actually a good thing. Those who remain faithful will be proven to be the ones who truly love God, truly follow Christ, and who want to go out and make disciples. I actually welcome the time where not everyone attends worship or believes in God. I would rather someone truly believe because they have faith rather than claim to believe because they feel that claiming a faith will benefit them somehow.

Let’s remember that faith is not about numbers, bur rather it’s about transormation and dedication.

The Power of Words

powerofwords“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” Yehuda Berg

We see them everywhere. You’re seeing them now: Words. Whether spoken, written, posted, shared, blogged, tweeted, or even thought, words are powerful things. Words can build up, words can tear down. Words can encourage, and words can discourage. There is a reason that an English author by the name of Edward Bulwer-Lytton quipped, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

As a pastor, I am constantly searching for the right words to communicate a message that will give God a smile and help someone grow closer to the Lord. Sometimes I feel like God helps me to find the words easily, while sometimes I find myself searching for a long time. The words that I use as I preach and pray are vital and I want to make sure that I’m using the best ones possible. Words shape our perception of everything from food to God.

Our words carry great power, therefore we have a great responsibility to use them properly.

One of the biggest pet peeves that I have is the use of corporate jargon. Phrases such as “going forward,” and “best practices” sound like nails on a chalkboard to me. When I hear people say these kinds of things in everyday conversation, I can’t help but look at them as if they are crazy. Buzzwords in general really bother me. My experience has been when one uses such phrases they are only trying to make themselves sound educated and well-versed in whatever business they are engaged in.

Unfortunately, I have noticed the same in ministers.

More and more, I’m noticing pastors, lay ministers, and churches using more and more jargon. A lot of these words seem to be derived from the corporate world, but there are also a lot of “churchy” buzzwords making their way into the fray.

Here’s my question: Why?

Being a seminary student, I seem to be exposed to a lot more of these buzzwords compared to everyday folks. Walking around the quad and overhearing conversations containing words and phrases such as “intentionality,” “creative discipleship” and of ministries being “transformational” is a nearly everyday occurrence. It drives me crazy.

It needs to stop.

The reason I feel this way is not just my personal disdain for buzzwords but a concern I have that using such language simply does not meet people where they are. That in addition to the fact that I think using such words sounds pompous and otherwise just plain stupid. People who are seeking Christ are not going to care what our latest “discernment” (which, let’s be honest, is typically nothing more than an attempt at polite manipulation) on how to properly “do life” is. And they certainly are not going to give much thought to exactly what it means to “be intentional” about prayer, scripture reading, or eating fried chicken at the next potluck.

I don’t have to tell you that Jesus excelled at many things during his ministry, but one thing is really excelled at was truly meeting people where they were. He often used parables so everyday people without temple education could better grasp the point he was attempting to make and used language that people could easily understand. Perhaps I’m crazy and not hip to the latest ministry trends, but I feel that we should “go and do likewise.” It’s great that I and others like me are in seminary (or have been) and are getting (or got) great educations, but at the end of the day, people have to be able to understand what in the heck we’re trying to tell them. Using buzzwords is not going to advance the cause of Christ one bit.

I admit, I’m guilty of using some of these terms, but really it was an attempt to fit in. One piece of advice I received when I first began to preach was not to “use ten dollar words when a word that cost a dime will do.” As pastors, we must make sure that people feel like we can be approached and sounding too smart for the crowd is only going to alienate us from the people we are supposed to be ministering to.

Outspoken and very much non-traditional Lutheran pastor Rev. Nadia Boltz-Webber had this suggestion for using such buzzwords:

Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing, or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional.

When it comes to using churchy jargon and buzzwords, let’s keep it simple and weigh the cost of our words carefully.

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

17098646_10202750955530329_99281674997685426_nPicture the south in the 1960s. Many people would tend to imagine a vision that may be encountered on an episode of the Andy Griffth Show. Unfortunately, there was a system in place that kept blacks and whites separate and considered African Americans to be inferior. Schools were segregated. Water fountains were segregated.

Even churches were segregated.

The Methodist Church (this was before the “United” was added to that name in 1968) was a prime example of the segregated church. Just within Mississippi, there were separate annual conferences for whites and blacks, with separate bishops and separate clergy. These congregations all worshipped the same God, but could not mingle or have any official tie other than the word “Methodist” on the sign. It was a dark time in the history of the church, to say the least.

A group of young clergy decided that enough was enough. With increasing racial tensions of the early 1960s approaching a fever pitch, these men sensed that the time had come to take a stand that was not popular within the white Mississippi Annual Conference. Several of them gathered in a cabin in the middle of nowhere to craft what would become known as the Born of Conviction statement.

One of the signers of this document was Rev. Keith Tonkel. Keith went on to the Church Triumphant this morning after a prolonged health battle. Many of the signers of the document were forced to leave Mississippi but Keith refused to leave. He spent much of his pastoral career at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Keith was also famous for appearing weekly on the United Methodist Hour where he would teach a brief Sunday school lesson. People always seemed to look forward to learning from Keith, with the style and delivery that one could say would remind them of their grandfather.

His loss is tremendous but his legacy will live on for generations. It is thanks to his witness that we often saw a glimpse of how eternity hopefully will be – full of people who love all just as Christ loves them. May we continue to learn from and follow his example and to allow his legacy of love and acceptance for all of God’s people to live on.

Well done, good and faithful servant.