What difference does being a Christian make in your life?

Our church recently had several small groups go through Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Grace Reese, a study on evangelism and the problems facing many mainline denominations. One of the fundamental questions of the book is what difference does being a Christian make in my life?

At first this question might sound kind of strange. The most common answers usually focus on church-related community. Children attend bible study together and may develop life-long friends. Adults could find meaningful relationships through the choir or Sunday school classes. Additionally, there may be an emotive rationale–going to church helps me feel good or at peace. The pastor could be an effective, down-to-earth communicator. Lots of these responses have definitely been true for me at various times in my life. Other responses I’ve heard have been somewhat functional or non-logical: well, I go to church and I’ve always been a Christian, simple enough…?

What difference does being a Christian make in your life? I think it is important to wrestle with this question, especially throughout this season. What is our focus for Christmastime? In Advent we prepare for, celebrate, remember, and/or enact Christ’s incarnation in our lives and world. As people like Stanley Hauerwas have continually asked, what makes something a distinctively Christian response or viewpoint? In other words, what makes Christians different?

For me, this difference has been two-fold. In some ways these two areas overlap.

  1. God in abundance. Being a Christian has made a profound difference in my life through experiencing God in dynamic ways. While this might sound a bit “out there” considering mainline norms, I think this is essential to bring up. My heart has become radically transformed through worship. God’s peace has flooded my life in some very specific and unforgettable moments. I’ve seen prayers answered after 15 years time. I’ve experienced the power of intercessory prayer both ways, too. I’ve had visions from God. And I’ve seen God heal. This Holy Spirit empowerment can really shake you up.
  2. Suffering Christ. Being a Christian has also made a difference in my life in that I have come to see a direct connection with Christ and all who suffer. In some ways, this directly contrasts with the “God in abundance” experiences I’ve had. Feeling alienated, abandoned, or abused is not exactly the most positive experience. But with that said, however, I’ve experienced Christ in darkness and pain–after all, Christ suffered. I think that Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Lament for a Son summarizes this concept perfectly:

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.

In many ways, realizing difference leads to a revitalization of faith. If Christianity is simply about receiving a heartwarming message from the pastor, couldn’t we just podcast the most inspirational public speakers? If it is about gaining a network of friends, couldn’t this be done more effectively elsewhere? The list may go on, but in these models of faith, Christianity seems to be weak or without substance.

But if being a Christian is about experiencing the resurrected Jesus, then things start to look quite different. Christian faith then becomes life-changing, stirring our hearts to become empowered to live in grace and to intentionally love the least of these.

“Peace on Earth” and the poverty-stricken old man

I’ve referenced this story before, but I think it’s worth reposting. Lee C. Camp, an author and professor at Lipscomb University, shares this incredibly powerful story in Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World:

One winter in the early 1970s, nearing Christmas, my father-in-law was working as a reporter for WSM television in Nashville. Having just completed a story at the state capitol building, he heard a call on his scanner: a “10-52-64,” the “10-52,” he told me, indicating someone had been shot, and the “10-64″ indicating someone was dead. The location of the scene of the apparent crime was but a few miles away, in a public housing complex, where the police had discovered an elderly man dead in his apartment. But as they began to investigate, it turned out that the original suspicion was all wrong. There had been no shooting. Instead, the man did not have electricity, and so had frozen to death. What had originally been thought to be a gun wound was no gun wound at all, but the wound from a rat gnawing on the old man’s body. As my father-in-law exited the apartment complex, he happened to see the glow emitted from a sign, perched for the Christmas holidays atop one of Nashville’s high-rises, announcing “Peace on Earth.”

Such an event serves as a parable for a compartmentalized grace: the heartwarming religious message, “peace on earth,” that somehow never gets connected to the real world of a poverty-stricken old man.

Ivory Towers and Pride

I vividly remember one of the first bible studies I taught at St. Luke’s. Right off the bat, I made an attempt to tie in Greek words and their meanings to a New Testament passage. I had seen my seminary professors do this very thing and decided to make the feeble attempt to do the same, despite the fact that I had never taken any language courses. In the midst of stumbling through my bullet points, I soon saw blank stares and quickly switched to talk about other things.

Ivory Tower

The Ivory Tower mentality is very easy to fall into, whether in business, academia, or ministry. Those pesky consumers, administrators, or church members can really get in the way of our own insider discourse.

Particularly with church work, we are often quick to slide into an elitist theology rather than approach things with a practical mindset. Greek and Hebrew words supposedly dazzle audiences and give us credibility. Sleekly marketed concepts can potentially win over outsiders. But does this necessarily lead to transformation and effective discipleship? Or it is simply a prideful gimmick?

I’m not being critical of the message itself–the content of biblical commentaries, contemporary scholarship, etc.–only the means through which it is delivered. Scholarly approaches to biblical texts are goods, but I think the problem comes when we fail to relate to other people. This is especially important considering how our religion can be detached from the concrete world, which actually might end up being a pretty big heresy (denying the incarnation).

What about you? Where have you seen an Ivory Tower mindset in the church? Is this necessarily bad? Do you see sermons and lessons as relatable to the real-world, or are they more of an abstraction?

Modern Day Slaves

Here are some excerpts from an article I wrote that is published in the fall edition of St. Luke’s Pathway Magazine.

When most of us hear the word slavery, we usually think of past events from the 18th-19th centuries. People like Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and William Wilberforce come to mind as they sought to abolish slavery. Places like Gettysburg are sobering reminders of our dark, bloody past. But assuming that slavery was a thing of the past presupposes that all people today enjoy freedom. It also assumes that slavery is no longer a problem facing our world. We might think it odd that slavery could still be an issue. After all, people are not publicly and cruelly traded in marketplaces anymore. Labor laws, in theory, protect workers from exploitation. We fill out forms and contracts when accepting jobs. Does this mean that slavery is irrelevant?

I remember a startling realization my wife and I experienced a few years ago. We were teaching English in Ethiopia for a couple of months in an impoverished area of Addis Ababa. Next door to our guest house there was an eerie looking building, bustling with activity at nearly all hours. We thought nothing of it at first, but we soon found out that this was a small restaurant by day and a brothel by night. Crudely made booths lined the property courtyard, each with a curtain to hide a small space with a mattress. Women would take male clients of all ages to these rooms. This realization was chilling. Were women being forced to work there? I recall hearing that most women had traveled to the city from rural areas, hoping to find work. Even though brothels were illegal and there was a police station just up the road, most people simply looked the other way. It was heartbreaking.

On the same trip we met several humanitarian workers who were investigating something called human trafficking. I had obviously heard of things like drug trafficking, but this was different. Ethiopian women, looking to provide more income for their families, would commonly travel to Middle Eastern countries to work as housekeepers for wealthy families. They were usually underpaid, abused, and exploited, all without any knowledge of the local justice system and their rights. Many simply disappeared, never to be heard from again by family members back home.

When I reflect over these experiences, it seems as though slavery is not just something we read about in history textbooks. It did not end with the Civil War. We still deal with this problem. Many people are exploited for labor and sex in our world today. According to Exodus Cry, an organization addressing modern day slavery, nearly 21 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. Of this number, about 4.5 million are subject to sexual exploitation. This is a highly profitable business, generating nearly $150 billion annually, according to a recent International Labour Organization study. Of this number, $99 billion comes from commercial sex exploitation and $51 billion from forced domestic, agricultural, and other economic work.

One of the sobering realities of our trafficking epidemic is that it is extremely difficult to see. Instead of public slave markets, the trade has gone underground. Two-hundred years ago, families were ripped apart as Africans were kidnapped and transported in the transatlantic slave trade. Families are still torn apart today because of slavery, but now the location might be in a secret brothel in an urban city or an overcrowded factory in a third world country. To use a phrase crafted by journalist Stephanie Hepburn and justice scholar Rita J. Simon, trafficking is an issue that is hidden in plain sight.

Particularly in Houston, A 2nd Cup, a non-profit anti-trafficking coffee shop, notes that Houston is a major trafficking hub because of its proximity to a major port and the Mexican border, and I-10 serves as one of the main routes for trafficking. Victims, with desperation to provide for themselves and families, will be tricked into work, no matter how abusive or harmful a job may be.

As Christians, we have the imperative of following the mission of Jesus. In Luke 4, we read Jesus’ “mission statement” of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to bring about the Lord’s favor. Jesus’ mission is essentially our mission as well. Through living out a relationship with Jesus, we become a people oriented around bringing restoration. Perhaps the most pressing question to ask yourself is what am I going to do? Our world is filled with captives and oppressed people. In other words, there is a lot for us to do. Jesus calls us to participate in his mission of freedom and liberation. So, how will you get involved?

religion from the least to the greatest

JesusPower

John Wesley had some pretty radical stuff to say. Joerg Rieger recently highlighted a specific example of this while in class at SMU. Wesley once wrote in his journal on May 21, 1764 that “religion must not go ‘from the greatest to the least,’ or the power ‘would appear to be of men.'” Wesley had this brief thought in response to visiting a “very elegant congregation.”

Such religion of those “on top” is fishy, for lack of a better word. It seems to be created by humans seeking to exercise their own power and protect institutional interests. Instead, religion from the bottom-up is from God. The incarnation of Jesus is evidence of this: God, the creator of the entire universe, is born as a little, helpless baby. He matures and intentionally dwells with people who are disadvantaged.

In many ways Anabaptist theology also rests on this concept as well. Anabaptist Christology and ecclesiology note the profound impact that the life of Jesus has on us as Christians. Jesus used non-coercive power and embraced non-violence. We are to do the same in order to live faithfully as disciples of Christ. Additionally, theology looks quite a bit different through this lens. Instead of wielding destructive lightning bolts against a rebellious, fallen people, Christ embodied grace to the least of these. The Son of God, though capable of all the power in the world, chose to serve others, even when it led to his crucifixion.

What does your theology look like? How do you see God?

Does God live in a church building? Does God “happen” on Sunday morning for an hour? Is God only active during a successful building campaign?

Does God only “show up” during economic prosperity? Does following Jesus necessarily lead to financial gain? Does it always cause upward social mobility?

Is God automatically on our side? Does God ordain us to use violence and coercion against those we hate? (I’m reminded of Anne Lamott’s well-known quote that “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”)

Does God only care about you when you “have it all together?” Is Christian community reserved for only those who have conquered certain sins?

Is your theology rooted in the greatest-to-the-least mindset? Is God primarily for those on the top end of the economic, social, and religious hierarchy? (As someone pursuing ordination in the UMC, this question really challenges me–especially the “religious” part…)

If your answer is “yes” to any of the above questions, then I would say that your religion “would appear to be of men,” to use Wesley’s words.

 

Elusive Millennials

The American church has a love/hate relationship with people in the 18-35 year old age range. On one hand, effective outreach to this demographic is a marker of success. Having a thriving college or young adult ministry means that the Christian tradition will (hopefully) continue and be passed on to future generations. I think this is especially true of so many denominations across the country. To put it bluntly, church doors usually close because members eventually die off without adapting to meet the needs of the community.

On the other hand, however, folks often bemoan the supposed moral wasteland of emerging adult culture. People in this age range deal will all sorts of vices: casual, non-committal sex, recreational drug/alcohol use, and pop culture (or, more simply, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll”).

This got me wondering, what are the differences between emerging adults and mainstream American Christianity? Do we have godless heathens on one side and righteous institutions on the other?

Sociologist Tim Clydesdale has some interesting thoughts in his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School.

The dark cloud is this: most American teens do not question whether popular American moral culture provides a sufficient basis upon which to construct individual biographies or sustain shared lives. Can the private pursuit of happiness through personal intimacy and individual consumption, with a dash of patriotism and a sprinkling of theism, sustain these young Americans should daily life be significantly interrupted or permanently altered? I am dubious.

In many ways I feel like the issues surrounding ministry to millennials are sensationalized. Blog posts about “Why Young People Don’t Like Church” may go viral (and are certainly important to discuss), but I certainly don’t think the only problem facing the church is an attendance-related one. Millennials (like me) certainly cling to the values of personal intimacy, individual consumption, and bits of patriotism and theism. But historically speaking, these values have also been central to American faith in general–both for being a model citizen and somewhat-faithful churchgoer. In other words, the supposed “millennial problem” points to something greater, namely that American Christianity can even affirm these westernized values. Maybe the young adult demographic is simply a highly-visible and targetable portion of the population that exemplifies private pursuit of happiness.

Can anyone be truly sustained by these four ingredients? On a surface-level, maybe. But the task of the church is to dive deeper into the Kingdom of God. I think this could be accomplished through promoting a different set of values: relational intimacy, collective giving, properly-located patriotism, and intentional theism.

Ministry to the emerging adult demographic (and everyone else for that matter) would look quite a bit different along these lines.