In a web-based article authored by Stephen Surgener back in 2007, I ran across some words that I found compelling: “There is a fear of chaotic Biblical rhetoric not founded in sound theology, somehow contaminating the doctrinal foundations of the body. But what I find most, is the fear of conviction. And that is a fear which poses the biggest challenges.”
I do believe that “chaotic biblical rhetoric not founded in sound theology” is a serious and growing problem in modern Christianity. But like Surgener, I think the root cause of most of our problems today is a sheer fear of conviction; an unwillingness to truly follow Christ by setting aside all the things that make our lives comfortable, “normal”, and a reasonable fit in modern society and modern culture.
Fearing commitment in any area of life, it seems to me, reflects that we are unwilling to give something up in order to attain something else. Consider marriage – one of the biggest commitments we make in life. Fearing commitment in marriage is usually the result of being unwilling to give up the flexibility to explore relationships with other people in order to attain a deep, monogamous relationship with just one individual – or else it is the unwillingness to give up that flexibility simply because one is unwilling to make the compromises necessary to make a deep, single person relationship work over the rest of their life.
Less important examples abound. The commitment required to become a vegetarian, for example, means giving up some foods that one enjoys. I remember reading an interview that was done with the late John Denver many years ago. He was asked about his decision to become a vegetarian. He responded by saying something like: Well, I know that is the healthy thing for me to do. But frankly, it’s still really hard for me to turn down a good beef taco.” Commitment means sacrifice. And sacrifice is something that modern day Christians are not very fond of.
The other important dimension of commitment is that it is the natural differentiator that separates serious people from those who are just pursuing a passing fad. Think about the level of commitment required to become an Olympic athlete. The diet, the exercise, the long training days, and the short sleep, the lack of a social life, and the money required for equipment and trainers. Preparing isn’t just a big part of the lives of these individuals; it IS their lives, for years at a time. Many Olympic contenders begin working on their skills at very young ages – like 4 years old – and spend their next 15 to 20 years on that journey.
Two passages of scripture are especially illustrative here, I believe. The first is the passage where Jesus tells a young man to follow him, not even returning to his home first to bury his recently deceased father. It is recounted in Luke chapter 9, verses 57-62: “And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Whoa! Can you imagine? Jesus told his would-be followers that in order to truly commit to following Jesus, they had to give up everything – including their relationships with their families – even their houses – so that they literally would “have no where to lay their heads.” Now THAT is what Jesus meant when He spoke of commitment. Do you know anyone who has done that? I don’t. I know missionaries who have taken their families into Africa and others who have been persecuted and beaten for the cause of Christ in foreign fields of service. But I do not know of any who literally turn their backs on their families and don’t even provide a place for themselves to sleep at night. Think I am taking Jesus’ direction too literally? No. Earlier in this same chapter in verses 2-4, Jesus says to his disciples: “And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece. And whatsoever house ye enter into, there abide, and thence depart.” He wasn’t kidding.
Consider Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.
If we invert the hierarchy, looking at it from top to bottom rather than bottom to top, it provides a pretty robust guide to the increasing difficulty of increasing commitment to Christ. The further one descends down the hierarchy of needs, toward the most basic needs (food / shelter / clothing), the more difficult it becomes to sacrifice those things for the cause of Christ.
The second is the passage where the Apostle Paul tells followers of Christ to “set aside the weights that so easily beset us” and “run with patience the race that is before us”. It is in Hebrews chapter 12, in the first 4 verses: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.”
Whoa, again! The Apostle Paul actually expects us to resist sin so hard that is brings about a sacrifice of our own blood? Yes, indeed. The early Christians were martyred, including the Apostle Paul. Now THAT is commitment. How many do you know that have taken that path? I don’t personally know anyone. I think just about all of us fear that level of conviction. I know that I do.
What do you think?
A recent article written by David Roach at Baptist Press entitled “Poll: Churches Are Fans of Facebook, Social Media” says that “Churches are turning increasingly to social networking tools as ministry aids and Facebook is by far the most popular tool.” The article quotes a LifeWay study of more than 1,000 Protestant congregations. According to the survey Mr. Roach is citing: “Large churches use Facebook far more than small ones. Eighty-one percent of congregations with 500 or more in average worship attendance use Facebook, compared to 27 percent of churches with one to 49 attendees. Forty-three percent of churches with 50 to 99 attendees use Facebook, as do 46 percent of churches with 100 to 199 attendees and 56 percent of churches with 200 to 499 attendees.”
Why do churches use Facebook? According to the study, “73 percent use them for interacting with the congregation, 70 percent for distributing news and information in an “outbound only” manner, 52 percent for fostering member-to-member interaction and 41 percent for managing the church’s group ministry. A majority (62 percent) of churches that utilize social networking tools use them to interact with individuals outside the congregation.”
This topic is of interest to me. I utilize Facebook a lot, and it proved especially useful as a way to remain connected with my family and friends while deployed to Afghanistan. But one other aspect of Facebook and other social media tools that I did not expect and was unsettled by initially is the insight it provides into the lives of its users. I have a pretty normal population of Facebook “friends”, I think. They number about 100 family and friends (I know many folks have more “friends”, and the selection of “friends” is probably a great topic for some future blog entry. But I have about 100.) So I recently went back through the last 100 posts on Facebook and categorized them by the nature of the entry.
In aggregate, 50% of the posts were what I call “Shallow Social Interaction”. These posts include things like: “Work tomorrow, chores after, and then mooooore homework…. I’ve done so much homework the last 24 hours I could throw up.”, and “ I’m ready for bed. Game night was pretty awesome :)” The next largest category of posts (15%) is status updates such as: “George Smith is now friends with Sally McNally”. The two categories that I call “Meaningful Exchange of Information” and “Meaningful Exchange of Views” were statistically tied at 10% each. The “Meaningful Exchange of Information” category contains posts such as “Just saw an article about a recent survey related to Something-or-Other, and here were the findings.” The content of the category “Meaningful Exchange of Views” contains such entries as “Haven’t read the book but wholeheartedly agree. Our children are raised in an environment that “idolizes” television. Where are they now? The most favorite expression is “I’m bored!” The balance of the posts (about 15%) is comprised of other odds and ends like people who post inspirational quotes and advertisements.
This is of interest to me as a business guy and because I have a fairly analytical bent. It is quite consistent with the old Pareto Principle, which states that 20% of the population of a group represents 80% of the value. So for example if you currently have a wad of cash or a pocketful of change, an examination of either of them would probably show that 20% of the bills represent 80% of the dollar value of the entire wad of cash, and 20% of the coins represent 80% of the monetary value of the pocketful of change. The same kind of distribution seems to be at work with Facebook posts. About 20% of the posts communicate meaningful information and views. The other 80-% is drivel. Now that’s not to say that the 80% drivel should necessarily stop. I find some comfort in being attuned to what’s going on in the lives of family members and friends whom I would almost certainly otherwise lose track of. But even among the 80% drivel there is a Pareto distribution – 20% of the drivel holds 80% of the value. For example, a relative who says: “Returned from Mayo Clinic safely today. Glad to be back home at last.” has communicated something much more valuable to me than the one who said: “I’m ready for bed. Game night was awesome.” One Facebook friend who eventually (thankfully) “de-friended” me typically posts things like: “I wanna go home”, “I love Netflix”, “tired tonight”, “work sucks”, and so on. This corpulent correspondent communicates everything short of his bowel movements, and often even posts photographs of the meal he is consuming at some local eatery. He is at one time both sad and infuriating, and I am richer for his absence on my FB friends list.
A similar Pareto distribution exists among my Facebook “friends” population. 20% (or less than 20%, really) of my friends post entries that make it into the “Providing Meaningful Information” and “Meaningful Views Exchange” categories at least some of the time. Everyone else is posting some combination of “Shallow Social Interaction”, “Status Change”, and “Other Odds and Ends” stuff.
I would encourage all of you to do a similar analysis of the Facebook posts on your home page. I think that if you think about what you find, you may be surprised. However, recognizing that Facebook and similar social networking applications were designed primarily to enhance ongoing communications among the general population, this is exactly what I would expect to find.
So from the perspective of a social observer (kind of a layman sociologist), what could be inferred from this information? Well, we might infer that what is presented, if it truly is what is going through the minds of our friends, and they feel it is worthy to communicate with the FB “world”, is – well, trivial at best. The thoughts and communications of the general population, one might conclude, are mundane. They reflect little depth, little intellectual activity, and little purpose beyond mere existence. They reflect the lives of people who work, eat, sleep, and watch television sports and American Idol. They live, they die, and for the most part it seems to me that their lives will leave no discernible mark on the world for good or ill. They raise families, are good children, parents, and co-workers, and that’s pretty much the extent of their lives. Is this a harsh and jaded and cynical view? Perhaps. But I believe it’s also pretty accurate. That doesn’t mean the bulk of the population aren’t good people – they are; at least the people on my friends list are. I like them all and love some of them, and a few I wouldn’t want to try to live without. But in terms of a purely dispassionate view, Facebook reflects a general population that isn’t very deep.
Let’s examine this same data from a Christian perspective. Out of the 100 posts I reviewed, 9% of them mention either God or prayer. Most of those mention God in passing, only 3% actually communicate information, express views, or attempt to explore some aspect of the human spiritual condition or God’s leading in their lives.
Now this becomes really interesting in light of instructions given to Christians in the Bible related to our conversation and our daily thoughts. For example, (Philippians 1:27) “let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;,” (James 3:13) “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom”, and (2 Peter 3: 11-13) “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness,.”
Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Philippians 1: 27-30, said: “The original word “conversation” denotes the conduct of citizens who seek the credit, safety, peace, and prosperity of their city. There is that in the faith of the gospel, which is worth striving for; there is much opposition, and there is need of striving. A man may sleep and go to hell; but he who would go to heaven, must look about him and be diligent. There may be oneness of heart and affection among Christians, where there is diversity of judgment about many things.”
The vast majority of my Facebook friends are professing Christians. Yet, as is a reflection of our day-to-day conversations, a very small percentage of our Facebook conversations have anything to do with God, and an infinitesimal percentage reflect what Matthew Henry refers to as “striving” for the “faith of the gospel”. While I know there is a great deal of “diversity of judgment about many things”, there isn’t much intelligent and respectful discussion among Christians who are working through issues, wrestling with the application of Christian principles in their daily lives, or even questions like: “What do you suppose the Bible is really telling us when it says thus-and-such in this chapter and that verse? I don’t understand what Jesus was saying there.” There is, on the other hand, a great deal of conversation about baseball, football, the weather, the latest news event (like the recent shooting in Tucson or the State of the Union Address), some movie or play, and Uncle John’s hernia operation.
My overall observation about these things is that our time and our conversation – Facebook or verbal – is largely not consistent with Biblical instruction for Christians, and frankly represents a horrendous waste of the precious time that God has granted us here on earth.
What do you think?
Reading a recent article, the question: “What do you see as the biggest struggle or issue currently facing Christianity?” was posed. One of the respondents, who identified himself as Ted Blair, had this to say: “One of the problems are guys like Brian McClaren who for the sake of looking missional and seeking dialogue and conversation neglect to follow the actions of Jesus and the doctrine of Jesus. Dialogue and self discovery are good, if it leads to authentic faith that follows with self sacrifice and a commitment to tell the world of the cross, grace, and goodness of God. The problem is we, the church, love to talk but rarely take action.”
In another post entitled “Assessing Your Relationship With God”, I laid out what I believe to be a pretty accurate scale for self-assessment of one’s personal relationship with God, based on biblical teachings. I believe in the accuracy of this scale, partly because reviewing it objectively I find myself scoring at a pretty low level. Breaking Mr. McClaren’s statement down into the components of his argument, the Christian Walk as he defines it would include elements such as:
These two elements are a subset of the ones I describe in my article on assessing our relationship with God. The weak spot in Mr. McClaren’s observation is that he has painted all Christians with the same brush. This isn’t McClaren’s fault – the question asked in the survey required a “one size fits all” response. I would say that for 80% of the Christian population, he is absolutely right. I think the Christian community, as a population, pretty much adheres to the Pareto Principle. In terms of our maturity and value to God (from the standpoint of Christian service), 20% of us do 80% of the evangelism. 20% of us spend 80% of the hours expended in worship. 20% of us do 80% of the financial giving.
The more detailed assessment tool, as described in the “Assessing” article, is 3 pages long. However, boiling my assessment tool down to a single chart, Christian maturity (defined as the degree to which the life of a Christian actually demonstrates compliance with what Christ directed us to do, and what He did Himself as an example to us) looks like this:
So looking at this scale, observing my own performance and the behavior of the general Christian community surrounding me, it’s pretty easy to see where McClaren is coming from. I think I agree with him. The percent of the Christian population occupying each level is smaller and smaller as one travels further and further upward in the scale. Between levels 5 and 6, where believers begin to really share our faith in a meaningful way with others on a frequent basis, the population drops like a rock. What percentage of Christians do you think meet that criteria? I would estimate that it is less than 10%; certainly less than 20%. By level 7 – where the majority of free time is focused on telling others about Jesus, worshiping, meditating, and praying, I’d guess we are down in single digits on a percentage basis. Most of us spend the majority of our free time on TV, web surfing, sporting events, restaurants and concerts. The percentage of us who actually take the Great Commission literally, drop our proverbial fishing nets and move into full time Christian service to become “fishers of men” as Jesus Christ directed us to do, is miniscule. Many of us talk a great game. We make great spectators, and to McClaren’s point, great commentators. Not many of us ever really enter the arena.
What do you think?
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an independent Baptist church known for its extreme stance against homosexuality and its protest activities, which include picketing funerals and desecrating the American flag. The church is widely described as a hate group and is monitored as such by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. It is headed by Fred Phelps and consists mostly of members of his large family; in 2007, it had 71 members. The church is headquartered in a residential neighborhood on the west side of Topeka about three miles west of the Kansas State Capitol at 3701 West 12th Street, Topeka, Kansas, United States. Its first public service was held on the afternoon of Sunday, November 27, 1955.
Westboro Baptist Church is an independent church located near Topeka Kansas. It is not recognized as a member or affiliated with any Baptist denomination or association. The “church” is recognized principally for extreme / radical actions taken to protest homosexuality. They picket and shout hate-filled slogans at the funerals of American servicemen and servicewomen in protest of recent decisions more accepting of homosexuality among the US Armed Forces. They desecrate the American flag. They are, for many of the rest of us who are self-professed Christians, a symbol of many things we despise. I am attaching an excerpt from Wikipedia at the conclusion of this article for those who are unaware of the recent Supreme Court battle engaged around Westboro’s protest of a military funeral in 2006. I’m also including a web link for readers who wish to know the rest of the sordid Westboro story.
But here is the current situation: The Supreme Court found in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, overturning a lower court ruling, siding with these malefactors against the family of the slain soldier. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the rest of the court in a decision that even the mainstream media reports as outrageous. He expressed sympathy for those who are targets of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members but said the First Amendment protects the church from having to pay damages to a grieving father whose son’s funeral was the site of their protest. Accordingly, the chief justice voided a multi-million-dollar tort verdict the Snyders had won when they sued the Phelpses for picketing their son’s funeral with signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
The Bible is, of course, extremely clear about God’s position on homosexuality; God finds it abhorrent. It is true from the Old Testament to New Testament (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1). I have seen some ridiculous stretches of logic to try to disprove this (here is one example if you’d like to take a look for yourself. Here is a quote: “The fact is that Paul nowhere condemned or mentioned romantic love and sexual relations between people of the same sex who love each other. Paul never commented on sexual orientation. As in the rest of the Bible, Paul nowhere even hinted that Lesbians and Gay men can or should change their sexual orientation.?” (It is often astonishing to me how far people will go to deny what is clear and consistent in scripture. This is a classic example.) However, even in the case of homosexuality, there is absolutely no biblical precedent for the behavior that Phelps and his minions at Westboro have undertaken. Jesus did not hold public protests. He did not launch verbal attacks on the innocent families of fallen soldiers, even when those soldiers served brutal regimes. The message of the Gospel is a message of compassion, reason, and conversion of nonbelievers so that the Holy Spirit can convict and change behavior from the inside.
The only Supreme Court justice showing a modicum of insight and propriety in this case was Justice Alito. Alito wrote the dissenting opinion. It was brilliant, and absolutely correct. Alito opened by saying: “Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right. They first issued a press release and thus turned Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media event. They then appeared at the church, approached as closely as they could without trespassing, and launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability. As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury. The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree.”
It was reported that he concluded with: “Respondents’ outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the Court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered.”
Alito got it right. The increasingly liberal Supreme Court – with the exception of Alito – should be ashamed of itself. In case after case, the Supreme Court is enabling the far left to pull America further and further away from not only the letter of the law, but more importantly the spirit and intent of the founders who authored our Constitution. Beginning with Engel v. Vitale in 1962, careening onward through Roe v. Wade in 1973, and continuing with decisions such as Snyder v. Phelps in 2011, the court has flung our nation onto a slippery ideological slope, from which recovery is extremely unlikely.
Even more recently, the burning of a Quran in Florida by the Westboro pastor incited riots in Afghanistan, resulting in multiple deaths and inhibiting ISAF operations. At some point “free speech” becomes “hate speech”, and these folks crossed that line long ago.
What do you think?
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has been making a big splash in the media lately with a very inclusive view of world religions, writing books like “You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right”. Most recently, the Rabbi authored an Opinion piece for Fox News entitled “Is Religion Headed for Extinction”. (http://blog.beliefnet.com/windowsanddoors/)
This piece discusses the implications of a study conducted by scholars from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University. The findings of the study were presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society. (I have no idea what that is.) The upshot of the study, according to Hirschfield, is that religion may be dying in nine countries. The study projects the extinction of religion in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It seems clear from the article that Hirschfield believes the trends observed also apply in the United States, though perhaps to some lesser degree. He points out that polling conducted for the American Religious Identification Survey identifies the fastest growing religious group in America as the “nones” (people indicating that none of the religion-oriented categories offered by the study fit how they would describe themselves.)
Several points are made in this article, including:
The Rabbi is obviously an intelligent guy, and he has clearly found a way to get his message out to a broad and accepting audience. In my experience observing both political and religious figures, the more diluted and ecumenical one’s message, the more widely accepted it is; Rabbi Hirschfield seems to be another example of this phenomenon. I think the general assertion made by the book title “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right” just about sums this all up in a proverbial nutshell. And that position is wrong. Jesus said: “Not every one that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7: 21-23) I am not always right, but God always is. And God is very black-and-white when it comes to good and evil, truth and lies. He doesn’t deal in “options”. God is always right, and therefore, in this case Rabbi Hirschfield does indeed have to be wrong.
It is a nearly universal truth that the easy path in life is never the best path. The best path for Christians is to follow is not the easy path represented by Rabbi Hirschfield. It is the direction provided in scripture (2 Thessalonians 2:15): “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”
What do you think?