Monday, July 27, 2009

Comfortable Christianity

Over the last month on this blog, we've looked at "The Easy Three-sy", the easy, less demanding versions of The Key Three, which are the core values of our church. Whereas a real, authentic faith produces Real Spirituality, Real Community, and Real Story, the Easy Three-sy settles for fake versions of these vital expressions of the Christian life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote famously in his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

That's not a very popular notion with most American Christians. In America, we've been conditioned to believe:

  • that the fastest and the easiest is the best,
  • that suffering and sacrifice are useless,
  • that convenience is a necessity,
  • that waiting for anything is a bother,
  • that pleasure and fun are inalienable rights.

If you don't believe me, just watch our commercials. Every product and service promises instant, easy, convenient fun for the purchaser:

  • Are you tired of the hassle of going to the dry cleaners? Then buy our easy dry-clean-at-home solution!
  • Have you had it with knives that go dull and have to be sharpened? Then get these knives that chop through steel and never need sharpening again!
  • Overwhelmed by all the phone calls from creditors? Then call us, and we'll send you our proven system that simply and quickly transforms your debt into wealth!

So in a culture where running errands is understood as suffering, it's easy to see how death is a tough sell. And yet that's, of course, what Jesus expects of us: "Anyone who does not carry his cross and folllow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27 NIV). As his listeners well understood, a cross was not just a heavy burden to carry, but was the principal device of torture and execution in the Roman Empire at the time. Today, Jesus might say, "Anyone who does not sit in his electric chair and follow me cannot be my disciple." And just in case he hasn't been explicit enough, to drive the point home, he reiterates just 6 verses later, "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (v. 33).

Jesus's expectations for us fly in the face of the "Comfortable Christianity" most of us have consumed for most of our lives--the Easy Three-sy we've grown accustomed to. But if Jesus's expectations are different than our own, whose ought to shift or bend?

I think that notion is worth pondering for a while. Here, I'll stop typing for a little bit while you chew on that thought.






Just a casual scan through the Gospels reveals much about the kind of lives that Jesus expected us to live, as his followers:

  • "When they arrest you, do not worry"
  • "All men will hate you because of me"
  • "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body"
  • "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it"
  • "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me"
  • "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first"
  • "A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God"
  • "In this world you will have trouble"

It's a wonder that we can read any of these words and still believe in a comfortable Christianity. Yet it happens all the time. Somehow, we just skip over these words of Jesus (and much more from Paul, Peter, James, and the rest!), and we figure that they don't really apply to us, somehow. After all, we're Americans! We don't do the suffering-thing. (When the world criticizes church-people for being hypocrites, this is what they are talking about--they're willing to at least respect all-out commitment, even if they don't agree, but to live the same life that everyone else is living and call it better somehow? That's a little hard to swallow.)

So the question for American Christianity, in a way, becomes... How do we become less American and more Christian?

You see, this isn't a struggle for our brothers and sisters in China, Iraq, Egypt, India, and North Korea--they don't have this problem at all. In a way, when there is no external persecution coming against the Church, the living of a Real Faith becomes much more difficult; there is no crisis that forces us to choose it, we don't recognize our impoverishment that shows us how much we need it.

So Real Faith is born from all the little choices we make along the way:

  • Will I always give to God sacrificially of my time and money?
  • Will I worship with reckless abandon, regardless of what others may think?
  • Will I reveal my weaknesses and failures to others so that I can grow to overcome them, even though it makes me vulnerable?
  • Will I talk with my neighbors and coworkers about Jesus and my church, not knowing whether my talking will be welcome or not?
  • Will I serve others when I have the opportunity to serve myself?
  • Will I continually say "yes" to God, regardless of how much he asks of me?

Will you?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fake Story

This morning we had an all-church-family gathering, where we talked about some of the challenges and obstacles that face our church body in this current climate. I was so proud and grateful for the Real Community we enjoyed together, as we had people asking hard and honest questions, receiving hard and honest answers, and telling their very personal stories about what God is doing in their lives. We took off our masks and intereacted with one another as real people. It was an awesome time together.

As people opened themselves up and shared their stories from their hearts, I was struck by the realization of how the combination of Real Spirituality (our authentic relationship with God) and Real Community (our authentic relationship with one another) really does serve as the foundation for Real Story (our authentic relationship with the world). When God is active and working, and we are sharing life with one another on a personal level, we have something relevant and attractive to share with the world around us. I want to remind everyone who was here this morning to remember to share the stories you heard with the people that you come in contact with this week.

Real Story is sharing with other people the real difference that a relationship with Jesus makes in our lives. Real Story is talking about the problems of a life without Jesus and how knowing Jesus makes all the difference in every way that matters. Real Story is sharing about our own journeys and the journeys of others we know in a way that the people around us can relate to it, and then inviting them to come consider a life with Jesus.

But when we're living lives of Fake Spirituality and Fake Community, we can't talk about how Jesus makes all the difference--because he makes hardly any difference at all. We haven't made the decision to obey God in every area of our lives; we pick and choose what we want to obey and what we don't. And our lives look just like everyone else's lives. Our biggest fear is having our masks ripped off to show our hypocrisy. When that happens, all we have to offer the world is Fake Story.

Fake Story is trying to attract people to our church without relationships. If we don't have an authentic relationship with God or an authentic relationship with other people in our church family, we certainly can't develop an authentic relationship with those outside it--at work, in our neighborhood, in our kids' t-ball league. So we don't talk to them about Christ, about our church, or about the difference God can make--we don't have the foundation for that. What we do is work the registration table at the Easter Egg Hunt, or put a car in the Trunk or Treat, or sit at the Hospitality Tent at Soccer Camp. And hopefully, somehow because people's kids have gotten free candy, that will make them want to come to a worship service on Sunday morning and pray to receive Jesus as their personal Savior. Fake Story just doesn't work.

But that was never the intent of our outreach events. They were always intended to be a tool for relationships, not a substitute for them. They were meant to be a way for us to build closer relationships with the people in our lives, by providing us an opportunity to interact with them in a different context, to introduce them to other people in the church, and serve as a way for us to follow up with them afterwards--maybe even inviting them to attend, if our relationship with them is at that stage. But the event can't do all that by itself; it serves as a tool for the relationship, not a substitute.

The other way that outreach events can work successfully is if we establish new relationships with people at the event. If someone comes and we get the opportunity to start up a conversation with them, we might find some common ground with them and use that to meet together with them again so that the relationship can keep going--setting up a play date with our kids, for example. Then we can talk more about our church and our relationship with Christ. Again, the event is a tool, not a substitute.

But Fake Story can't handle relationships. Fake Story doesn't want to get close to people outside the church. Fake Story doesn't want to reveal anything too personal, or get in a place where there might be uncomfortable questions. Fake Story doesn't want to deal with unchurched people's messy problems or complicated lives. Fake Story wants to keep the lines of distinction clear and easy-- Us ............ Them--so that there will be plenty of space in-between.

Fake Story is rooted in fear--fear of being discovered as a fraud, fear of being labeled as a Bible-thumper, fear of being rejected, fear of going out on a limb, fear of being asked a question we can't answer, fear of looking foolish. So Fake Story is rooted in selfishness. Because none of our fears relate to the other person; they only relate to me. Fake Story is concerned only with me, not with them. If we were concerned about them, we'd cross over into Real Story, and share with them the truth that could save their souls and transform their lives.

You see, Fake Story is EASY. That's why these are called the Easy Threesy. It's convenient Christianity, life on my own terms with a Jesus Christ insurance policy for my soul.

But Christ's call is to something deeper, something richer, something REAL. Easy is FAKE. The only kind of faith that matters is the faith that actually costs you something (Mk. 10:17-23).

Can you get over your fears? With Christ's help you can. But are you willing? Will we do the hard thing of holding out the Hope of the World to the people that God has placed in our lives around us? Will we tell and share the Real Story?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fake Community

Last week, I didn't put anything up on this blog because I was on vacation over the 4th of July holiday in Kentucky. But this week, we're continuing our examination of The Easy Threesy, looking at Fake Community.

I believe that one of the most serious problems of the American church is that we pursue shallow, insignificant, insincere relationships with one another. We may not immediately see this as a spiritual issue that has any impact or reflection on our relationship with God, our ability to serve him effectively, or the power of our witness to the world, but that is preceisely the case.

Our Core Value of Real Community is all about having real, authentic, vital relationships with one another within our church body. For our relationships to meet the criteria of Real Community, we need to practice several essential habits:

  • Giving preference to the needs of others, rather than our own comfort;
  • Utilizing our gifts, abilities, and talents to serve others and build them up, instead of serving ourselves and feeding our own egos;
  • Recognizing the value of each member's uniqueness, and how both our strengths and our weaknesses can bring glory to God because of our connection with one another.

For any of these habits to become anchored in our lives, it requires difficult conversations, truthful self-revelation, accountability, deep respect and love for one another, and honest dialogue. That's exactly what Fake Community simply will not tolerate. Fake Community:

  • Places a high premium on easy relationships; it steers far clear of any relationships or conversations that could become difficult, uncomfortable, or potentially awkward.
  • Sees ministry as a platform for exalting oneself--whether in one's own eyes or others' eyes. Our ministry--not our identity in Christ--becomes the proof of our value and worth;
  • Gives lip service to loving other people, but grumbles and complains behind their backs about all the ways that they are irksome, irritating, and obnoxious. Fake Community is a fault-finding community, not a grace-giving community.

It really comes down to this: Do we exist for others, or do they exist for us? That's a very important question that gets down to the essence of our approach to all our relationships. On the night of his betrayal, after celebrating the first communion meal with his disciples, Jesus got down on his knees and washed each of his disciples' feet. As he did so, he asked them, "Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." The text tells us that the reason he did this was to show them "the full extent of his love." (Jn. 13:1-17).

You see, Jesus lived a life that was all about service, and nothing about self. He came to serve, not to be served--even though he was worthy not only of service, but honor, power, glory, worship, devotion, obedience, reverence, and much more. But he didn't claim his right to these things. He humbled himself and took on the nature of a servant--to show us the full extent of his love.

A Real Community of Christ-followers--a group of people who actually seek to imitate Jesus in their lives--will nurture in themselves this same attitude that was in him (see Php. 2:1-11). Here's what happens if Real Community has been supplanted by Fake Community:

  • Grudges, grumbling, and gossip spread like a virus, squeezing out room for forgiveness;
  • Relationships are weak, so that they aren't able to stand up under difficult conversations. Either those conversations never happen, or they lead to a rift or separation;
  • Error, sin, and wrong attitudes are excused ("Oh, that's just Sally"), ignored, and not addressed so that relationships stay shallow and insincere;
  • When someone admits a failure or shortcoming, it creates awkwardness and discomfort in others because they expect everyone to keep up appearances. For someone to remove their mask and refuse to play the "image game" might mean that others will also be expected to reveal their own failures. The loss of a good image is the ultimate fear of Fake Community;
  • There is no sense of one's place in the body of Christ. Each member is a lone ranger--no authority, no accountability, no external expectations or standards. If such elements were introduced, they would elicit cries of "legalism!" and "authoritarianism!"

And the outcome is that we do not really know anyone, and no one knows us. We are lonely, isolated, and scared--when the family of God is meant to provide love, compassion, and care. Further, we have nothing interesting or compelling to offer a world that needs to see what love in action looks like because they're too jaded and cynical to believe that it really exists. Jesus said, "All men will know that you are my disciples by the love you have for one another" (Jn. 13:35). Fake Community ensures that they will not know--it emasculates our ability to tell others about Jesus. How can you tell if you have a problem with Fake Community?

  • When someone hurts you or slights you, do you say anything to them about it?
  • Are you eager to understand others' point of view? Do you ask questions before jumping to conclusions?
  • Are you patient with the weaknesses and failings of others?
  • Are you eager to serve and to give to those who have needs?
  • Do you take the initiative to connect with others so that they don't have to?
  • Do you serve without expectation of reward, recognition, or appreciation?
  • Are you grateful for who God has made you to be, with all your abilities and talents, to serve him and others in the body of Christ?

"No" answers indicate a tendency toward Fake Community. We can go through the motions, be in a small group, serve on a ministry team, and shake hands in the lobby--but if we keep people at arm's length about who we really are on the inside, we will never "get" what the church of Jesus Christ is all about. We will miss out on all that God has for us, and we will undermine the very mission of the church, the whole reason the church exists.

It's hard to belong to a Real Community. It takes effort and diligence. It requires honesty and vulnerability. Sometimes we'll get hurt. Sometimes we'll want to hide. But the payoff is so great. When we are connected with people who truly know us--the real us--and still love us, warts and all, we become empowered to live a life that is rich and free. It is so liberating to remove our masks and stand boldly and confidently with each other as beloved children of God!

Easy relationships are fake relationships. That's why Fake Community is one of The Easy Threesy. And fake is boring, it's pointless, and it's unattractive. I'm not really sure why anyone would want to waste their time with it, and yet we do. It's so much more enjoyable to get to know a real person instead of the mask they wear. It's so much more purposeful to talk about the real issues of life instead of the trivia. And it's so much more compelling to invite others to experience a depth of love they never realized was possible instead of another circle of shallow relationships they don't need.

Why not venture out into Real Community? Let's start being real with one another. Let's really give and receive the kind of love that Christ has poured out on us.