Christians, What Now?

reconciliation-clipart-sj7The election of Donald Trump has swirled a storm of questions around Christians in America. The deep divisions across the country are mirrored in our faith communities. Some voted for Trump because they agree with Republican economic principles while opposed him because of his outright immorality. Some voted for Trump because they believe that he will help curb abortion in America while others opposed him because of his promotion of war crimes, including torture. Some voted for him because they wanted to “shake up” Washington while others opposed him because he seems to exude sexism and even appears to have confessed to sexual assault. Some ignored his transgressions. Others held their nose and others simply couldn’t pull the lever for this candidate.

And yet we are all part of the same family (John 1:12Romans 12:21, etc.)  with the same Father (1 John 3:1-2, etc.) and the same callings. We are called to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), offering safety, comfort, security, bringing knowledge and driving out the darkness. We are charged to seek the welfare of our cities (Jeremiah 29) while opposing oppression (Proverbs 14:31;  Psalm 103:5-6Zechariah 7:9-10, etc.) and standing for marginalized, being the voice of the voiceless (Jeremiah 22:3; Micah 6:8, etc.) and fighting for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, etc.). Christians are called to be good citizens while speaking truth to the power structures of our day.

As I wrote about yesterday, because of and through Jesus, Christians are charged with the “ministry of reconciliation” in a divided world. We must seek peace and we must stand in the gap, reconciling warring factions. This is only possible when we understand our calling to be greater than partisan politics.

But that’s not all we’re called to and herein lies some of the difficulty we are heading towards. Trump has peddled in fear and given rise to bigotry. He has demeaned others, bragged about adultery and made a living swindling others. Christians must not only be among the calmest voices pursuing reconciliation but among the loudest voices holding the Trump administration accountable. I’ll be honest: I don’t know what this looks like.screen-shot-2015-05-11-at-3-06-41-pm

How can we strive to be good citizens, fulfilling our mandate to care for others and love our enemies while still retaining the prophetic voices of salt and light? We can accept the results of the election. This is not the same thing as endorsing Trump’s beliefs and behaviors. But he was elected and we are called to honor our leaders. We can separate his transgressions from political policies. We can listen to those whose frustration ushered Trump into the Oval Office while also listening to those who feel threatened by his rise. We can give Trump a chance while not forgetting his past because right now, it’s up to him to prove that he will do good with power and that’s he’s not the person he’s led so many of us to believe him to be.

But we must not expect government to fulfill our mandate. It’s one thing to speak truth to power, asking Trump to change his rhetoric and it’s another for us to tangibly put this love in to practice. It’s not enough to call our leaders to welcome immigrants if we’re not doing it. It’s not enough for us to call our leaders to honor life if we don’t.

Christians are called to speak against oppression. Christians are called to pursue reconciliation. I don’t know where else to look to try to understand this other than the life of Jesus. He condemned the hypocrisy of his days’ religious leaders while spending time (thus validating) the marginalized. Somehow, He was able to pursue reconciling men and God (and men with men) while speaking against injustice. This is the task ahead of Christians.

Those who supported Trump have a lot to answer for. Many feel that turning a blind eye to his transgressions cost Christianity in America valuable credibility. Those who opposed Trump must not give in to cynicism. Both sides must find a way to honor their convictions while coming together. Both sides must show the world that we are Jesus’ because of our love for one another (John 13:31), speaking against immorality and for the weak.

We have a lot to figure out. Let’s work together.

The Problem(s) With Christians Supporting Donald Trump

untitled-2Since I have spent the bulk of my professional life as a pastor, I have avoided endorsing political candidates. I have, in the past, tried to remind people that the current election (whatever year it was) was not the “most important election of our lifetime”. I have also tried to remind people that if they lived in fear of the other party winning, then they likely didn’t fully trust God. But I have refrained from endorsing any particular candidate. I have also urged people to think of people on the other side of the aisle as people rather than enemies. But I have not publicly endorsed a candidate. And I’m not endorsing any candidate this year.

But I am speaking out against Donald Trump.

I have been asked several times this election season why I have been vocally opposed to Donald Trump but not other candidates. It’s because I don’t have a significant number of family, friends and peers trying to convince people that Clinton, Johnson, Stein or even McCullin are “the biblical” choice and the candidate Christians should choose (especially when said candidate is so utterly antithetical to everything else these people claim to value but more on that later).

I have not received unsolicited e-mails from family and friends with pieces from well-known evangelical leaders preying on people’s fear and urging them to support a particular candidate other than Trump. I have not been sent pieces claiming that any other candidate is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy or comparing any of the other candidates to biblical characters.

I have not seen American Evangelicalism eviscerated by any of the other candidates. I have not seen the Religious Right forsake its identity to support any other candidate. I have not seen American Evangelicalism make a deal with the devil to support any of the other candidates and I have not seen people bully others into voting for any of the other candidates the way I see well-intentioned people trafficking in guilt and shame in order to try and persuade others to vote for their candidate.

I know people who feel pressured by family and friends to vote for Trump. I know many people who feel  shunned by evangelical family and friends because they refuse to support Trump and I know many people wrestling with guilt because they feel so surely that something is wrong with Trump while being so soundly rejected by important people in their lives.

The reason all of this concerns me is that I come from an Evangelical tradition which has often aligned itself with a faction of the Republican party often known as “the moral majority”. Founded by Jerry Falwell and others in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, this was a group who insisted that morals not only mattered but were demanded of our elected leaders.

Remember when the Moral Majority said that “character counts” for our elected untitled-1leaders? Such is no longer the case (see here, here and here). We have perhaps no clearer example of this shift than noted theologian Wayne Grudem who, earlier this year, argued that “Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice“. The problem, of course, is that Grudem was among 150 Christian leaders who condemned Bill Clinton’s scandals in 1998. Grudem has now openly admitted that what he held against Bill Clinton does not matter in Donald Trump. What’s different? The political affiliation and perhaps the level of sliminess.

After the revelation of 2005 “hot mic” video of Donald Trump confessing to sexual assault, Grudem changed his mind, saying:

I previously called Donald Trump a “good candidate with flaws” and a “flawed candidate” but I now regret that I did not more strongly condemn his moral character. I cannot commend Trump’s moral character, and I strongly urge him to withdraw from the election.

While one may initially simply say, ‘Well, Grudem made a mistake,” but I want to point out what he says later in the same article:

Some may criticize me for not discovering this material earlier, and I think they are right. I did not take the time to investigate earlier allegations in detail, and I now wish I had done so. If I had read or heard some of these materials earlier, I would not have written as positively as I did about Donald Trump.

It’s not that we didn’t know who or what Trump was prior to the sexual assault video, it’s that Grudem didn’t look. Grudem didn’t look because he’s so committed to Republicanism that he didn’t want to look. While many were decrying the absolute lack of morals in the candidate the party of “family values” had chosen, Grudem was one of his most notable and unexpected cheerleaders. Unexpected because Grudem has once so strongly stood against the very behavior Trump revels in. Notable because Grudem now seemed to be willing to trade policy for character.

Grudem has made this clear, now saying: “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Policies“. Though he still does not defend Trump’s character, Grudem, when faced with voting for Trump or Clinton, (as though those are the only choices) says:

“I overwhelmingly support Trump’s policies and believe that Clinton’s policies will seriously damage the nation, perhaps forever. On the Supreme Court, abortion, religious liberty, sexual orientation regulations, taxes, economic growth, the minimum wage, school choice, Obamacare, protection from terrorists, immigration, the military, energy, and safety in our cities, I think Trump is far better than Clinton”

In other words, policies “trump” character (pun intended). In other words, Grudem will vote Republican regardless of who the candidate is, what they do or what they stand for. In fact, he will lay aside once held convictions about the importance of character when the deviant politician is on his own team; even when it’s unclear whether the candidate in question actually believes anything Grudem attributes to him. And Grudem (along with those for whom he speaks) is willing to make weak arguments in support of Trump, seemingly out of nothing more than party loyalty.

For example, Grudem is willing to make the “supreme court argument” (presumably with a primary view to abortion) even though clear evidence shows that this point is moot at best and misleading at worst. As many have argued, there is no “pro-life” argument for Trump. Not only do we have little to no evidence that he is actually pro-life himself, the point is moot. As a friend recently pointed out on Facebook:

In the 43 years since Roe v Wade, there has been 25 years of Republican presidents. There was a Republican in office when RvW passed. There have been 18 years of Republican majority Senates, and 18 years of Republican majority Houses. There were 12 years where both the Senate and the House were Republican majorities. There have been 40 years in which the Supreme Court had a majority of Republican appointed justices. There was a total of 4 years in which there was a Republican president, a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House, and a majority of Republican appointed justices. Still—no reversal of RvW.

I disagree with many other of the positions Grudem wishes to defend but that’s not my point here. Instead, I want to urge Dr. Grudem and those he represents to stop making light of the true danger posed by Trump and the damage (t)he(y) is/(are) doing to the Evangelical witness in America. You no longer have any ground to assert that morals matter in leadership if you support Trump.

I particularly take issue with Grudem’s approach of “if you don’t like either candidate”. This is not an issue of not “liking” Trump. The man has proven himself to be not only unqualified but unfit for the highest office of the land by demonstrating persistently bad character. In addition to being a thin-skinned, quick-tempered bully who fears losing above all else:

  • Trump traffics in fear and fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, promoting the idea that to be “other” than him and his base is to be dangerous (even within his own party).
  • If Trump is not a racist, at least knowingly traffics in racial invectives and refuses to distance himself from openly racist supporters who claim that he speaks for them.
  • Trump has pridefully announced that he does not apologize for anything and that he had never asked for forgiveness (which, by the way proves that he is not a Christian.).
  • If Trump is himself not anti-Semitic, has at least knowingly trafficked in such invectives and refuses to distance himself from openly anti-Semitic supporters who claim that he speaks for them.
  • Donald Trump confessed to sexual assault. Then denied it and now threatens to sue women who have come forward and the newspapers who reported the story as well as NBC for having the tapes at all.
  • Donald Trump has not only had multiple marriages but has bragged about committing adultery. Numerous times.
  • This is a man who has historically and continues to objectify some women while demeaning others.
  • Donald Trump has encouraged physical violence against protesters, even offering to pay legal fees.
  • Donald Trump paid the maker of the “Project Veritas” videos $10,000.
  • Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns.
  • Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter.
  • Donald Trump attacked John McCain as a failure for getting caught while serving our country, then attacked the family of a fallen soldier.
  • Donald Trump was the public face of the “birther” movement.
  • Donald Trump lies every five minutes, even directly contradicting himself. Even on issues on which his comments are documented.
  • Donald Trump openly said that an American born judge was unqualified because of his Latino heritage.
  • Donald a Trump has threatened to sue journalists who are simply doing their job, ushering in legitimate concerns about limiting the First Amendment.
  • Donald Trump has fostered and encouraged division in his own political party.
  • Donald Trump has used this campaign to pay himself and his family millions of dollars.
  • Donald Trump is on record making inappropriate comments about his own daughter and even encouraged Howard Stern to think of her as a “piece of ass”.
  • Donald Trump has admitted that he does not listen to or even seek counsel.
  • Trump has repeated the assertion that not only does he never apologize, he has never asked for forgiveness (thus dispelling any notion that he is any sort of “Christian” in any meaningful sense of the word).

We all make mistakes. I don’t list these things simply to hold Trump’s past mistakes against him but to show that he has persistently showed the world just what kind of person he is. In a newly surfaced video, he brings a beauty contestant in front of a group with the express purpose of humiliating her while saying that he had decided not to humiliate her. He literally denies doing it while doing it. This horrifying scene is introduced with Trump very clearly laying out his life-code: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe that.”

As if his character were not enough, Trump is genuinely dangerous. In addition to his character, we have many legitimate “policy” issues which should concern everyone:

  • Donald Trump has encouraged foreign powers, namely the Russians, to engage the US political process through cyber-attacks and hacking. Then denied saying such things. He has then ignored security briefings demonstrating that the Russians have, in fact done these very things for the benefit of Trump’s campaign.
  • Donald a Trump has threatened international stability by suggesting that the US abandon NATO.
  • Donald Trump has threatened international financial stability by threatening to walk away from free-trade agreements.
  • Donald Trump has praised authoritarian leaders, praised Vladimir Putin as being a stronger leader than Barack Obama and received the support, not only of Russia but of North Korea.
  • Donald Trump openly undermines the foundational underpinnings of democracy, leaving open the option that he would reject the election results if he loses and urging the country to simply cancel the election and declare him the winner.
  • Donald Trump has advocated racial profiling.
  • Donald Trump has advocated voter suppression/intimidation and has not rebuked supporters who threaten violence if he loses.
  • Donald Trump has advocated torture.
  • Donald Trump has advocated killing the families of enemy combatants.
  • Donald Trump has made light of war, even nuclear war.
  • Donald Trump has threatened to thrust the US in to trade wars with China and Mexico.
  • Trump supports tax plans that not only benefit himself but threaten trillions of dollars added to the deficit.
  • Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand or care how government actually works.

gettyimages-484797712_custom-695b9781e4a550ac0cdd3eba481660feefd333a8-s900-c85Again, I don’t list these things to simply nitpick someone but to demonstrate that Trump has consistently lived the exact kind of life and held the kinds of positions that the “Moral Majority” (sometimes equated with the “Religious Right”) has just as consistently condemned. So what changed? The political affiliation of the candidate in question seems to be the most obvious and disturbing answer. If this is correct then the “moral majority” was really only interested in “morals” when they furthered a particular political agenda (now we see, ironically, the political party identifying with “family values”).

We are left wondering what “morals” the “moral majority” really ever cared about. We are left wondering what religion the “Religious Right” was really advocating for. A man like Trump is fairly vocal about being in this first and foremost for himself and yet he has enjoyed the support of those who once decried men like him in the town square. It appears that now, morals only matter when they fit your agenda. It seems that, as Russell Moore has warned: “The Religious Right turned out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.”

The “Moral Majority” has traded in credibility to cling to a perception of cultural power and influence. They no longer have the right to condemn the morality of the other party because they have condoned one of the most openly immoral candidates in my lifetime, if not ever.

I want people to know that there are Christian voices who have remained adamantly #nevertrump from the beginning. I want people to know that, it’s OK if your family and friends have chosen to support Trump. We’re all entitled to our own opinions. But it’s not OK if your family and friends somehow try to convince you that support of Trump is somehow the more “Christian” option. It’s just not true. He will receive undying support from some simply because He is the Republican candidate. But he should not receive the undying support of those who claim that character counts.

If you support Trump, I will still be your friend (and/or I’m still your family whether you like it or not). But please don’t try to say he’s a good choice other than the party placeholder he really is. If you are so committed to Republican principles that you have now realized that you will vote along party-lines regardless of who the candidate is, please, at least, admit that this man is no leader. If you are a Christian supporting Trump, at least admit that the man directly contradicts everything you claim to value other than partisan policies (and there’s good question of what the candidate himself actually believes or how he will govern). If you are voting for Trump simply out of opposition to Hillary, don’t say he’s any “better” of an option.

Christians who support Trump must weigh whether the ends justify the means? Are we willing to give up our prophetic voice to the culture for short-term political gain? It is inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst to continue to claim that character and morality matter to us if we are willing to support a man like Donald Trump. Is this worth it?

It’s not enough to vote for a candidate simply out of opposition to another candidate. To vote for a candidate, I believe that you must be able to objectively argue that you think they are the better choice. Is it worth it to sacrifice our position as the voice of faith in our culture in exchange for party loyalty? Apparently, many not only think so but actively condemn those who won’t take such steps.

No matter who you vote for, don’t be like this man. Don’t hold grudges. Forgive. Seek reconciliation. Walk in humility and think the best of others. Seek the best for others. If you are part of God’s family (and even if you’re not), please commit to being a minister of reconciliation. Don’t judge those who vote differently. This is a contentious and important time for our culture. Christians, let’s not make it worse.

 

An Introduction to the “Ugh-Churched”

ugh-shirtI am Ted Wiggins and I speak for the trees!

No, that’s not right. I am Brent Thomas and I speak for . . . well, I might not speak for anyone other than myself. However, I have the hunch that I speak for a growing number of Christians who are increasingly frustrated by American Christianity.

Discipleship is the primary task Jesus left His people (Matthew 28:18-20). This simply means helping ourselves and others become more like Jesus. This is the fundamental task of Christians and encompasses all of life including all of our relationships. We are publicly trying to live out the ways of Jesus and striving to help others (no matter where upon the faith journey they might currently find themselves) to see the beauty in doing so (This is different from evangelism. Evangelism is not a thing in and of itself but is a subset of discipleship. Maybe more on this later.).Many churches grasp this, using pithy, easy-to-remember phrases like: Make, Mature and Multiply (Disciples), or Gather, Grow, Go.

Few seem to argue the fact that the core of Christian Living is discipleship. Over the years, I’ve asked over a hundred people: How well do you think the American Church as a whole, has done at the fundamental task of Discipleship?

I have yet to have a single person tell me that “as a whole,” we’re rocking it. Several people have been able to point to specific times when they have been spiritually cared for and encouraged and seen significant growth but these cases seem to be the exception rather than the norm. No one has argued that, “as a whole,” we’re doing well. There was one guy who was adamant until I realized that he was arguing that Young Life did a great job of discipling, not the church.

93434191-einstein-tongue_custom-36fb0ce35776dc2d92eda90880022bf48a67e192-s6-c30And yet it seems like just about every church is doing the fundamentally the same things. You remember how Einstein defined insanity, don’t you? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. That seems to be the current predicament for American Christianity. Sure, the flavor might change but nearly every church seems to have the basic, Sunday-driven, education-based, program-driven structures. Two or three songs, a sermon and some more songs. Some churches are showy-er about it than others. Some churches have different emphases within those parameters but nobody seems to question the basic. passive, education-based approach.

But there is a growing number of people who believe that the Christian life is more, not less than the modern church experience. Many people sincerely want to follow Jesus and find a divide between how we see that suggested in the New Testament and how it is largely practiced here in the United States of 2016. Drawing from researchers like Thom Rainer and others who discuss the “pre-churched,” the “de-churched,” the “un-churched,” etc., I have come to think of this group as the “ugh-churched”.

The “ugh-churched” as I understand them, are not abandoning their faith nor do they want to abandon church participation. Much ink has been spilled rebuking people who say that they love God but feel no need for church. These are not the ugh-churched. The ugh-churched, if I may speak for a category I’ve just made up, believe that the current model is lacking at best and broken at worst. The ugh-churched believe that so many modern churches rely on programs because real relationships simply don’t exist.

But it’s a catch-22, isn’t it? Many churches see the New Testament’s expectations that we will “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1-2), that we will rejoice and weep together (Romans 12:15), that we will speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:25), that we will live as family and so we create programs in which these things are supposed to occur but these things do not occur in programs because programs are not relationships. People oftentimes don’t know how to have these types of relationships because they’ve been caught in programs. A growing number of people have become disillusioned with the current approach and long for Christianity to be lived out in the context of meaningful, challenging relationships. Though there’s lots to do in the American Church, it just doesn’t always seem worth the time and energy and many are left wanting more.

As my friend April recently said:

I’m at a point in my Christian faith where I don’t want to go to a church with a “tag line” or catchy mission statement. I’m so over it, like way way over it. I want to go to a church that really wants to be the Church and not some cool kids club, that strives to be relevant, or hip, or urban, or progressive, or liberal, or seeker sensitive, or “down to earth”. I’ve found that there’s a lot of flavor out there without a lot of substance (kinda like Doritos). Hoping God will bring us into a community of believers who want to do honest, raw, life together for the long haul. Keep our family in your prayers, and keep me in your prayers that God will show Himself to me in his people and that I would be encouraged.

The problem is that we’re left with cliché’s like “authentic”, “genuine” and “organic”. They sound great but have largely lost their meaning in the current church context because every church uses these terms but seems to mean something different by them and the result is has simply become a standardized approach to how we “do church”. This is why many of the ugh-churched feel increasingly disenfranchised from the American church; they want more, not less. They want substance over performance and they believe that following Jesus is about more than superficial slogans like “Win at Life”.

This means that we must stop doing church the way we’ve always done it. Far from being threatened by the ugh-churched, we should revel in the desire for deep and meaningful community faith. This is an exciting time for the American Church. We are faced with an identity crisis and we have reached a tipping point. How will we emerge? Will we embrace the growing desire for simplified schedules and deeper relationships or will we create another church program?

 

 

A New Evangelical Ecumenicalism

10511268_10152952001991450_2281633900746319744_nOver the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the ideas surrounding “vocational ministry”. As I pointed out, I am not in a bad place at all, just one of public wondering. I would love to see some meaningful dialogue in the Christian community about some pretty fundamental issues like: has our pervasive model of “doing church” succeeded in making, maturing and multiplying disciples. If it has, great! Let’s find ways to improve. But, if it hasn’t . . . then we’ve certainly got problems with our cheeseburgers in paradise. I’m not a betting man, but if I were and if there were a market for betting on such things, I’d bet that, deep down, most Christian leaders would say we have a long ways to go in the area of actually encouraging and equipping people to resemble Jesus more and more.

When asking deep questions about the “how and why” of what many now consider to be “tradition” (it’s the way we’ve always done it!), we must continually walk the path of humility. It is easy to become bitter when recognizing our failures and it is certainly tempting to point out other people’s failures. It’s far too common for those who begin by asking good questions to end up with an “I’ve got it all figured out” attitude. Neither is helpful for biblical.

But it is also true that we will not grow without the humility to wrestle with our family issues, pushing ourselves and one another to mature, especially when we may not see eye to eye on everything. This certainly takes humility but it also requires open forums in which we may be forced to be a bit uncomfortable.

I am fortunate to live in Phoenix (I never thought I would say those words!) at this time because I am seeing a spirit of what I call “A New Evangelical Ecumenicalism”. Over the past several years I have seen pastors around the Valley coming together in cooperation for THE Kingdom rather than their individual kingdoms. I have lived in the Phoenix area most of my life and I can say that I have not seen anything like this here.

In fact, I have come to wonder whether we are seeing a new understanding of ecumenicalism. I have to clarify here that I am speaking from and about my own experience which has shaped my understanding. Somewhere along the line, I was led to a particular understanding of what “ecumenicalism” meant and why it was bad. It was thought that, since each tribe’s “hard borders” were its doctrines, and of course, our slice of the pie is the “right pie”, those whose borders are too far away from our own may not even be in the same country as us. In fact, they might just be our enemies.

In other words, different strands of Christianity were not pictured as separate but intertwining threads, they were seen as some sort of self-contained unit, a closed circle, which a gate (that group’s pet doctrines). To enter that group, you had to cross through that gate. All of this, of course, led to the idea that cooperating with another family of Christians who might have some different beliefs than us (forget whether or not both groups are well within “orthodoxy”, we just don’t like “other) meant shattering our borders and also compromising our beliefs.

This meant that, at least in my city, there has not always been a tremendous spirit of cooperation amongst local churches. In fact, you might even say that some pastors view other churches as competition and might even fit the description: “territorial”.

But I have been joyfully watching a new understanding of ecumenicalism (at least for my context) lead to a new practice of cooperation. Certainly all the churches of Phoenix do not agree on everything. We all have our own approaches and boundaries. But I think that the renewed emphasis of a missional understanding and practice of our faith has led us to give the border guards a break. That doesn’t mean we will sacrifice orthodoxy but it does mean that, in the words of Hirsch, Frost, and others, that we are seeing a willingness to move from a “bounded set” Christianity to a “centered set” faith.

Instead of viewing each of our individual camps as held together by the outer fences that divide us, what if we were all bound together by our mutual dependence on a well? Some may be closer or further from the well and many will come from many different directions, but we’re all heading to the well, which, of course is Jesus. If you and I are both trying to be closer to Jesus and made more like Him, why would I let our differences lead me into believing that we were not heading towards the same goal? What’s more, why wouldn’t I want to help you on your journey?

32358464-four-arrows-pointing-into-the-center Now, before I hear from the curmudgeons that are not me, I am not saying that everyone is a Christian. I do believe that, “Orthodoxy” eventually must have boundaries. That’s what makes one thing “Orthodox” and something else “Un-Orthodox”. For the sake of this conversation, I would point to the Great Creeds of our faith (the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creeds in particular). There are people who are outside of even the widest boundaries of accepted Christianity. But that’s not who I’m talking about.

I am seeing a lot of local Christian churches who once saw each other as closed-off encampments cooperate together without sacrificing orthodoxy. They may grow and mature (which, means, “GASP!” change) by interacting with one another, but as long as they’re all heading towards Jesus, they’ll be the better for it.

It’s encouraging people to see their differences as talking points rather than dividing lines. In other words, “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things”.

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (03): Emotionalism/Performance, And, “I Don’t Feel Close To God”

Emotional-TradingOver the past week or so I’ve been wondering whether our current system of “American Church” actually makes our fundamental task (Make, Mature and Multiply Disciples) more difficult than it ought to be. We’ve looked at questions like: “What is the Call To Ministry” and we’ve examined why many seemingly qualified men often feel discouraged from ministry as well as the idea that our current system actually promotes passivity rather than active faith.

We’ve also taken a moment to point out that voicing questions/concerns does not mean that I’m bitter in any way. I’m really not. But I am in a place of wrestling with a lot of really big questions which I feel deserve open consideration and public dialogue.

Today I want to consider another issue that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. As you might guess, I wonder if there aren’t many ways in which our current system have actually made following Jesus more difficult than it was meant to be. I’ll be open and say that, though it’s been many years since I’ve read Neil Postman’s essential Amusing Ourselves To Death (seriously, if you haven’t read it, please do so), his notion that “the medium is the message” has stuck with me as I’ve considered American Evangelicalism both as a pastor and church planter.

I have come to wonder whether the very systems we have adopted are actually distracting from discipleship. I believe that one of the main places where we see this disconnect is given birth in our Sunday Gatherings but matures in personal quiet times. Let me explain.

Though there are certainly exceptions, I’ve come to wonder whether American Evangelical “worship gatherings” can be separated from emotional appeals. The very notion of our Sunday gatherings has borrowed so much from the entertainment industry that I’m not sure they can be separated. We borrow our seating structure from entertainment venues, with the “crowd/congregation” seated as spectators and the “leaders” on a stage with cool lighting and a professional speaker. I’ve been to worship gatherings that were indistinguishable from rock concerts and that should be at least a bit disconcerting.

Many people describe their favorite concerts as “religious experiences”. There is something special about losing yourself in the moment to the power of music/crowd/shared experience. But I wonder how much of that we have set out to re-create in our Sunday gatherings. The most famous “worship leaders” are often the ones who can most consistently get an emotional reaction. The most famous preachers are also those who are typically the best public speakers. We have come to believe that the most “effective” worship gatherings are those during which we were most emotionally moved.

This, of course, carries over into the personal Christian Life. We have come to believe that we are most close to God when we “feel” most close to God. Our “most powerful” quiet times are those that are the most emotional. In other words, though it begins with our production/performance based Sunday gatherings, it certainly extends to our personal spiritual disciplines. We have have come to equate spiritual growth with emotional experiences.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me as a leader and said that they just “don’t feel moved” in their quiet times, so they must not be “close to God”. I get it. I mean, there are times in marriage when you “feel” closer to your spouse, but (hopefully), your commitment does not waiver when the emotion is not there. Yet, somehow, we have come to believe that our faith is in danger when our emotions aren’t moved.

If the medium is the message, as Postman asserts, then many of the ways we have adopted in following God owe more to American entertainment culture than with genuine faith. If emotionalism can weave and wane in a marriage, surely we will not always have an emotional response in worship or Bible reading/prayer. And I’m not so sure this should be as much of a concern to us as it seems to be.

In fact, the more we equate emotional experience with spiritual experiences (which are, undoubtedly often emotional), we are setting ourselves up for a never-ending cycle of theatricalism in our churches. Once a specific church hits a “dry spell,” many might head to the church down the road who has the “fresh experience”. When we don’t always feel “moved” in our quiet times, we will be tempted to substitute time with God’s Word for time with things that tug on the heart strings.

Many of us have wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to the chase of emotional experience while we hope that spiritual growth will follow. But what if spiritual growth is not always accompanied by emotional experiences? I have grown the most in some churches many would consider “dry” simply because I was regularly encouraged to place myself in an encounter with God’s truth. The speakers weren’t always dynamic nor the music moving but the truth was impressed in my heart.

I worry that by adopting so much of our systems from the entertainment industry, we have communicated that “church” is just another form of entertainment. Hopefully you’ll grow during the performance, but at least you’ll leave wanting more.

It has become so confusing that I have to wonder what it might look like to remove the performance aspect from our Sunday gatherings. Is it even possible any longer? And, while there is certainly an emotional equation to our faith, God’s move will always produce emotional responses in His people, but I’m just not sure that emotional experiences will produce the movement of God. Have we muddied the waters and made it more difficult than it was ever meant to be?