Some people have told me they don’t ever submit ideas for guest posts on other blogs because they don’t think they will get chosen. You never know until you try – I have tried a few times and actually got one accepted! Addie Zierman, author of When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, was kind enough to post my submission for her One Small Change series of guest posts. So please go read One Small Change: Freedom Firm of India for my stories of travel in India and finding small ways to still live out my earlier dreams of changing the world in the midst of the busyness of life. And if you have never read Addie’s blog, I would highly recommend it. if you are recovering post-evangelical, you will find a lot to relate to there (and in her book).
Anytime some speaks about why the Church is dying in America, you can expect one of two typical reactions. The first one is people agreeing wholeheartedly as they identify with their own personal problems in the Church. The second is usually a more mean-spirited response that centers around the idea that “if The World™ likes the Church, we must be doing something wrong because The World™ is supposed to hate us.”
(I’m putting a ™ symbol with “The World™” because it seems like every person that uses that term has a different definition that may include other Christians they don’t agree with – so I just want to give credit for creating a non-Biblical idea where credit is due after all)
Ever wonder what God was thinking by creating an organization that The World™ mostly automatically hates? I mean, we say that God loves every single person in the world (the world that Jesus refers to, that is), but then creates a Church that most people are going to hate?
Or did Jesus really teach that we have to expect hate no matter what?
The main scripture used to support the idea that we will be guaranteed hatred is John 15:18-25. I think there are several things many people miss about this passage:
- It starts with the world “if”. Jesus is only telling you the reason why the world hates you IF it does. But that is not a guarantee that it will.
- The next part of the passage starts with another “if” – “if you belonged to the world.” Again, not a guarantee that you will be hated – just a recognition of the fact that the world would love you automatically if you belonged to it.
- We then see Jesus say “this is why the world hates you” which some take to be a guarantee. Seeing that it is in the context of so many “ifs”, many it is really just referring back to the first scenario: “IF the world hates you.” It seems to be more of a comfort for those that are being hated, not a guarantee that we will all be hated.
- This same passage then says that “if they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” They being the world. Wouldn’t you say its kind of hard to say that hatred is guaranteed from those that also might also follow Christ’s teachings.
To me, what we have in this scripture are three things. First, Jesus is telling us that people hate Him because His miracles make them feel guilty for their sin. Secondly, IF we also end up facing hatred because people feel guilty over the miracles of Jesus, then it is because they hated the One that performed those miracles in the first place (how do we know Jesus is referring to His miracles? Because He said “If I had not done among them the works no one else did”). Finally, Jesus tells us that being of the world guarantees us that we will be loved by the world – but not that it is THE only way to be loved by the World.
Also take a closer look at what versus 21-25 are telling us. Jesus is describing how people have seen His miracles and know they really happened but don’t want to repent of their sins and therefore hate Him because they know the Truth and yet do not follow it.
This is the real source of the hatred: people that have this nagging feeling that Jesus is real, but don’t want to deal with their sins and therefore live in denial of what they know deep down… and then hate Christians for reminding them of that. This certainly happens often to all of us. Even if you aren’t a Christian, maybe you are a healthy person and you have several unhealthy people that hate you because they know they should live healthier but just don’t want to give up their vices. We have probably all been on both sides of many issues like this.
However – none of this is a guarantee that we will be hated or a sign that we are doing something really wrong if we aren’t hated by all. You see, in between those that believe in Jesus but refuse to follow and those that will love you if you belong to the World is whole vast host of people that don’t really hate or even know Jesus, or that at least don’t believe in His teachings. They don’t hate you, they don’t persecute you, they don’t accept Christ’s teachings, they don’t fit any of the descriptions in John 15:18-25. They are just a vast sea of humanity that will probably be drawn more by love than hate.
So, the main idea here is that people will hate you IF they first hated God because they recognize that He is true but they don’t want to follow. If they are hating you even though they don’t first hate Jesus, it possibly means that you are outside the conditions of this particular teaching of Christ’s. Maybe they are hating you because they know enough about Jesus to see that you aren’t really representing Him very well?
Some days it seems like the crazy on the Interwebs just gets to be too much. From people that think Obama is the anti-Christ to people that don’t get what feminism is all about to people that don’t care what gay rights are about to people that do more to hurt and wound the Body of Christ thinking they should write books to tell the rest of us how we are wrong if we don’t see things their way, it just seems like the world is on a path of social implosion.
Sometimes I want to spend all my time writing out comments to put these people in their place. But I just don’t have that luxury right now. What I have to realize is that the biggest problem with these people is really the problem we all have – myself included: “our way.”
We all have a way of seeing things… a way that we “get” the world around us. We tunnel vision in on “our way” of viewing the world and then turn people outside of that view into others that we don’t “get.”
But there has to be a better way. I think there is a better way. I believe that somehow we can be people that “get” where other people are coming from, even if we don’t agree.
Just think how much that would change the conversation around any issue – like, say, Obamacare – if we stopped looking at people on the other side as “disgusting idiots” who don’t see “clear logic.” What if we tried to “get” where they are coming from, even if we don’t agree?
You see, Jesus was one of those people that made a point to “get it” with everyone He met. The Dude that went around saying “go and sin no more” was also accused of being a “friend of sinners.” Think about that for a moment. The Person that created the definition of what sin is would constantly hang around with people that didn’t do things His way. He didn’t see them as “others” who refused to see the “clear light” of His side. He got where they were coming from and chose to talk to them, visit them, even eat and hang out with them in spite of whether they saw things His way or not.
Oh, and the kicker is that He is the only person who can ever truly claim to be on the right side of every issue. Yet He didn’t act like many of us who think we are always right but probably are more wrong than we realize. Its crazy when you think about it – those of us that know so little about the universe go around like we have all the answers, while the One that created the universe walked this earth to spend time with those who cling to different answers than He created in the first place. Crazy and Divine at the same time.
It always starts out innocent enough. A friend posts a good question on Facebook – someone that you know is looking for an honest, calm answer. You decide to give your view on it, you get a few likes, and all seems to be good. Because you were nice and encouraging about it, you think it is a win/win situation, even though you might have discussed a very divisive issue.
But then, that person reads your comments and decides you are a ____ (fill in the blank with any number of unkind descriptors) for “butchering” the Bible.
You try to calmly describe your thoughts, but get met with a barrage of random scriptures… what about this one? How could this one mean that? This one clearly says you are wrong.
Oh, how I hate that word: clearly. It was a perfectly cool word until the Church weaponized it.
You try to explain that you are just attempting to be open about what the Bible says and what it really doesn’t say. You don’t want to give the impression that the Bible says something that it really doesn’t. You are trying to have the utmost respect for what the Good Book actually says.
But that doesn’t seem to mean anything. You have said the wrong thing. You have not validated their opinion on what the Bible is really saying. No matter how you try to explain your position. Because the crazy thing is that you both actually agree on the overall principle. But you just don’t want to demonize people that have a different interpretation of scripture. You know enough about the ambiguities of some scriptures to know that both sides have valid interpretations. You don’t think someone is just “being ridiculous” because they don’t see it your way.
Because ultimately, that is where you are going wrong in their eyes. You allow for other valid interpretations. You allow for gray areas. You allow for things that aren’t so easy to explain. You embrace mystery and faith.
But, really – what good is faith if everything is already so clear?
Those loud, arrogant voices are slowly strangling the church to death. They are destroying faith and mystery and hope. Because, yeah, people also don’t really need hope if everything is clear. Hope is ultimately resolved when someone get an answer, and that is good when it happens. But people never have to rely on hope if they already have the answer. They have already peeked inside the wrapped present that is hope – at least, in their own mind. That “peek” means that it is no longer hope, at least in reality.
And when the present is finally opened and they find out their early “peek” was imaginary all along? Whoa, boy…
So I get it when you just want to give up and not do the church thing anymore. I wish I could give you some words of encouragement to see past the imperfections. Yeah, I know we are all imperfect and so we shouldn’t judge. But dang it – some imperfections are harder to be around than others.
And to be honest, most days I just want to give a big middle finger to the whole deal and go hang out with others that are like me. Those that get God (somewhat), that get what it means to hang with others that (somewhat) get God, but that don’t get what this strange strangled beast we falsely call the “church” (traditional, emerging, or otherwise) is all about. I feel more like the Bride of Christ when I hang with those that are more on the mysterious gray side.
So, another move and another new season in life means finding another church in another town. So like most people my generation, I turn to the all-knowing, all-powerful Google to see what is out there. I look through several websites of several churches, and after a few minutes I wake up from dosing off to come to a startling realization:
Most church websites suck. Big time.
Oh, they look great and contain a lot of vital information. But for a new person trying to find out if we are really going to fit in at these places… nothing useful. Nada. Zip.
Sure, there is always a good, long description in the ubiquitous “what we believe” or “who we are” sections. We believe that Jesus is the coolest, the Bible is Truth, we are loved, etc. They all pretty much sound the same, and before too long I feel like I am listening to one of the adults from Peanuts talk to me.
Sometimes I just want to email them and say “you believe in Jesus? So THAT is why you aren’t call a mosque or a temple or a coven or whatever. Thanks for spending an entire page explaining it to me on your website!”
Kidding aside, experience has taught me that behind all of these generic and cool declarations of what a church believes, there is the “real story.” All of these churches try to say the right things, but they all have vastly different ways of implementing these beliefs.
Then there is all the stuff they don’t talk about on their websites.
Are they egalitarian or complementarian? Are they anti-Science? Do they ignore the ambiguity of certain Biblical passages or embrace them despite that? Do they make non-extreme right-wing Tea Party people feel welcome or weird? Do they truly embrace cultural diversity or are they still patting themselves on the back for that one black family that stumbled through their doors 10 years ago and for some reason never left? Do they look at your injured back that still hurts despite prayer and then rank your spiritual maturity as “low” based on that fact alone?
And for goodness sake, what are their people like? Are they so addicted to coffee that you will be forced to suck it down or feel like a social pariah? Do they think that Mumford & Sons counts as “good music”? Do they think that families of 10 or more are normal? Do they equate your political leanings with spiritual maturity, all the while believing the lies being fostered on them by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton and Ron Paul? If one of your sons ends up being effeminate, are they going to stand by him if he gets bullied, or “just stay out of it because we don’t want to look like we are supporting the gay agenda”? Do they even believe in weird concepts like “gay agendas”, “Obama becoming a dictator”, or “Jesus wants me to own a military-grade fire arm to blow your head off in love”?
Of course, most bad churches don’t have a huge expensive neon sign pointing to the coffee shop right inside the door to tip you off that you need to “run away as fast as you can” like some do. Many will look good at first and then go downhill quickly once you finish the membership class. So you obviously have to look at the website first, because there seems to be no UrbanSpoon for Churches. But there is often nothing there to tell you where any of these churches stand on any issue other than the Trinity. And we all know that churches will just fall apart if they don’t all get a clear vision of what it means to believe in a word that doesn’t even appear in the Bible.
So what I want to see on Church websites is a list of where the Church stands on current issues, even hot button topics. What about an active blog by the church leaders where they discuss these issues? Or a Facebook page where the members come together to discuss? Give me a place that I can freely access to see what people are like at your church. And why not a resources page of popular bloggers or writers or thinkers that influence your church? If you follow the teachings of John Piper, let me know. If you follow the teachings of Rachel Held Evans, let me know.
In other words, quit being so wimpy about where you stand on issues when it comes to what you put on your website in an effort to trick people to come visit. Grow a spine and let people know where you stand on issues from the get-go. Even if you aren’t sure – sometimes it is refreshing to see a church admit to not knowing everything. Open learning is all the rage in educational circles. I am ready for some open churching.
One of the best metaphors I have heard for society is that of a tapestry. Many different voices, strands, colors and ideologies are skillfully woven together to make this complex and sometimes crazy picture of who we are as a people. Some tapestries are quite extravagant while others can tend to be bland. Some are peaceful and others are terrifying. But examining the tapestry that is woven by a society can give you great insight into the bigger picture of that culture.
I usually imagine that the tapestry that existed when Jesus came on the scene was pretty bland and restrictive. The Israelites had been given all of these incredibly beautiful strands to weave with. Some were easy to understand, others were hard. Some of these strands were just too much for leaders to handle. So they took the God-breathed ones they could handle, the ones they liked, the easy ones, and began to weave those together with many of their own man-made strands. Ultimately most of these strands were only of two or three similar colors, so they ended up with a bland wall of restrictions that they then pressured everyone to praise and follow.
For several years, I see Jesus walking around the edges of this tapestry, picking at the different pieces and strands at the edges and causing the tapestry to fray around the edges. Just enough to really irk a lot of the people that made the tapestry. But they saw no rhyme to his reason and let him go about it in some ways.
But then Jesus revealed his master plan – he took the Cross and slammed it down square in the middle of this tapestry. Because of the skillful way he had been picking at the edges, the whole thing fell apart in one huge mess of strands.
And what did he do with this mess? The disciples at times seemed to expect him to be the one to put it back together the way it should be. But Jesus just picked up the strands that He originally breathed into being out of the mess, gathered the ones that had been left out for centuries, handed them all to his Bride, and left it up to us to weave it back together.
Which is crazy if you think about it – we messed it up in the first place, and he gave it back to us to weave back together again.
But this is the pattern that God had been following for thousands of years.
Go back to the Garden of Eden. God gave out a few simple tools to weave the tapestry of the garden, and Adam and Eve messed it up. They wove in their own thoughts and ideas. God came in, torn it down, picked it all up and gave it back to them to work on it again. But made the whole thing a bit more complex.
And so we built the tower of Babel. God came in, tore it all down, picked it all up, and gave it back to us to work on again. And again made it more complex.
Then there was the flood, the Law, the nation of Israel, etc, etc. Every time, humans build their tapestry of society up incorrectly. They only take the pieces they feel safe with, and then add in so many of their own. And every time God comes in to unravel what we created. He then pulls out the strands that were from Him, picks up the ones we missed, adds in some more complexity, and gives it all back to us to try again.
The two things we should learn is that 1) God always wants us to be the ones to weave the tapestry, but that we always get it wrong, and that 2) what God gives us back is more complex than it was before…. the most recent added complexity being the teachings of Jesus on love.
Never easy, never simple, never what we expect – but always worth it. Love.
If you look back at the last few decades of the Church, I think we see that the edges have been slowly unraveling. So that means we have been getting it wrong. Whether we have been going to a long-established church in a very old building or a new church that started last week in someone’s empty office space… we are getting it wrong.
But are we stuck in a cycle that has to be repeated? Does God have to destroy it all and rebuild it again?
Possibly… but you have to wonder if God is waiting for us to figure out how to re-invent ourselves so that He doesn’t have to come in to tear down what we have built up.
Think back a few centuries ago. Business or governments that failed were doomed to die. Whether through revolution or going out of business, it seemed like survival of the fittest was the rule. But what do we see now? Companies can do a horrible job, restructure, go through massive changes, and come out again on top. Or they can dig their heels in and follow the same path that dying companies have for centuries. Governments are also showing that they can do the same.
So, the options are to go through an honest (and painful) re-organization to grow, change, and become better… or stick with “we have always done it this way” and die.
Our culture has evolved to the point that it is no longer survival of the fittest, but survival of the smartest. Our society has evolved to the point that even large, complicated organisms such as businesses can survive getting it wrong if they are just willing to look inside and change.
So that is the challenge of the Church – we have to realize that we are getting it wrong and will get it wrong no matter what. No gold stars for effort (let’s face it, the Tower of Babel was a good effort). We have to be willing to change. The other option is to face being torn down by God. We can cast ourselves upon the Rock, or have the Rock cast upon us.
But being honest about what we are doing wrong is hard. Every teacher knows that students won’t see the need to improve if you give them an ‘A’. No one interprets as ‘A’ as ‘we can still do better.’ They see it as ‘we got this down, so sit back and relax.’ If we want to improve, we have to get honest about how we really aren’t doing that well, and where we need to change.