“I’m sorry?” I replied not sure that I heard him right.
“If you plan on planting the kind of church your talking about, then you won’t just be disliked, you’ll be the devil.”
I remember thinking, “Seriously? The devil? Aren’t we all on the same team? Fighting for the same Kingdom?”
Now I can boldly tell you that as of seven months in it has not been as bleak a picture as was painted for me that day, but there certainly have been those who are not overly excited about our existence as a nontraditional place of worship. I’ve been snubbed in pastoral alliance meetings, had my state convention coach called concerning our mere existence, and apparently photos from our website were used in a business meeting of another area church as evidence as to why they ought to pull out of our denomination altogether. So the question that I think begs answering in all of this is “How should we respond?”
In my experience there are two main ways we can deal with these expressions of dislike towards us; self righteously or with grace.
Now I have a confession to make. “I am a recovering Pharisee.”
In my life I got really good at the list, you know the religious list of written and unwritten things good Christians don’t do. I didn’t sleep around, or go to parties and get hammered, I probably couldn’t identify pot if I had to, I didn’t cuss much or watch too many movies that I shouldn’t have. But what I found though is that when you are just good at the list it doesn’t bring the life Jesus intended. Instead it brings with it self righteousness. You wind up being the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” That’s the thing about the Law, it either crushes you under its weight, or if you get good at it , creates a self-righteousness that will eat away at you. So while this is certainly one option we have as a response, to look down our noses at those who have “wronged us” and point out their insufficiency, I’m quite positive this isn’t how Jesus would have us respond.
Perhaps our best option is to chose to respond with grace, the flag of the kingdom we’re claiming we serve. You see Jesus our King didn’t lash out at those who wronged Him, He didn’t look down from His perfection with condescension on those who called Him a glutton and a drunk or accused Him of being demon possessed. Instead of responding with revenge or arrogance He extended His grace to us to walk in. So how can we possibly claim that we are fighting for Christ’s Kingdom if we’re not going to behave as the King does. Seriously, I need His grace today more than any of my critics so theres no way that I can have integrity and not extend it to them as freely as it’s been given to me.
Now this blog post is certainly not intended to change the minds of those who aren’t our fans, it’s intended to remind those of us who may be feeling the “friendly fire” from others serving the same Kingdom that our flag is grace. Keep your eyes focused on the King and choose to respond as He did.
So I like halloween… There I said it. Now before you write me off as a satanic worshipping crazy, the truth is I’m actually a fan of the costumes, and sure the candy. I know it may seem juvenile but actually I see it as redeeming the culture. Our family dresses up and in the past the majority of years threw our costume party where friends (those following Jesus and those who aren’t) could come together and have a good time and build relationships in the confines of a non-threatening environment. I’ve found that partying is actually something that the church has forgotten how to do. I think God knew this and that’s why he commanded these festivals in the Old Testament. He’s telling us that we are to rejoice in Him, have fun, laugh and enjoy him.
In my mind we’ve become so busy that we don’t know how to stop and just relax and enjoy people. If there isn’t a Bible study involved in it then we often times skip it for our couch and an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” We don’t pursue our relationships with people with the same tenacity we do our perceived religious duties.
That’s why in our tribe of faith we shut down our weekly programs on the last week of the moth in order to party. This creates space for us to enjoy one another and to interact with those who will come for a party but would never come for a service. We try to have our parties at places other than the “church” building, homes, parks, restaurants, bowling alleys, etc. This way we are fulfilling what the Westminster Catechism declared the chief end and duty of man, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” When we enjoy God and each other we bring glory to Him by demonstrating how his children rightly react to him. So grab some friends and watch the game, put on some costumes, pass out candy or whatever. Just get out there be the children of God enjoying the love of the Father and display that joy to those who are far from Him. In the immortal words of Bill & Ted “Party on dude!”
For the first time in over a decade I started work this past week in a non-ministry position. I am currently enrolled in the ADC (Arkansas Department of Corrections) Training Academy and will start work in the Tucker prison unit the end of November (after graduating the six week academy). I will tell you up front that it’s pretty stinking crazy! There is no question that I am a part of what us ministry folks would refer to as a “secular” or “pagan” environment. What that means is that its not a “religious” or “Christian” (as if environments could be Christians, they can’t, environments don’t have souls) environment. Profanity isn’t followed by gasps or cringes; subject matter does not include outright Biblical theology; not one person thus far has struck up a conversation with me about how to better make disciples. But you know what has come up? Generic religious jargon. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not being used in a mocking or even demeaning manner. It is for the most part being used in the exact same way that you would hear it on Sunday.
I’m not joking, one young lady when asked about her three kids responded, “Sh*t, He don’t put no more on me than I can handle.” Another time, at a point in the classroom when a profound humorous point was made, a gentleman in the back hollered out a hearty, “Amen!” I’ve tried hard to grasp why, in a seemingly very unreligious setting, these pockets of religious language pop up, and even more interestingly they aren’t scoffed at. My conclusion (which is only my opinion and I am in no way judging my fellow cadets) is that the religious dialog is culturally normal.
To give an example, there is a distinct culture to the prison world. We’re currently spending a great deal of time learning how to stay alive and how to not end up residing inside via drugs or sexual misconduct. The longer I am at the academy, the more the things I come home to tell Jules are normal parts of my day. Like for instance, when our instructor walks into our room, our former cheer leader class leader calls out “Officer Present” and the whole room stands up to attention until given permission to sit down. This is funny to Jules because the thought of her clean shaven, uniform wearing husband leaping to his feet at the command of a cheerleader is a foreign thought to her. It is however, normal to me because I am entrenched in the culture of the academy. Likewise, the pockets of religious talk are not mocked, nor laughed at because they are part of the culture of the Bible Belt. The “Amen”, and other church cliches are simply normal cultural expressions.
There are several ways to analyze this information but for me, the results seem to indicate that the Bible Belt has failed. It hasn’t failed in the way we would think, it has made Jesus, church and mostly religion household knowledge but where its an utter and complete failure is the picture of these things. What living in the Bible Belt has done is, it’s given us heavy doses of bad theology. It’s convinced us that salvation and more importantly Heaven can be had for as little as a walk down an aisle and dip in a pool. We repeat the preachers prayer, which is nothing more than a type of incantation, stand in the back where the entire congregation comes and shakes your hand, take a dunk in a baptistry a couple weeks later and we’re good. From time to time we’ll appease the God who “we invited into our hearts” by attempting to stay conscious through a Sunday service and dropping a twenty in the offering plate. The Jesus I know doesn’t work like that, and His life, that dwelling in me, isn’t obtained by simply doing that.
I want to give you one more example that I believe will help drive this home for us. Scientists are now finding that the fascination we have with rushing to antibiotics for every sniffle is effectively killing us. What they have discovered is that due to the high amounts of antibiotics we are taking that our bodies are building up an immunity to them. This is happening so much that they are convinced that when some people find themselves in a dire, life threatening situation antibiotics will be of no help due to the previous amount they had taken in the years proceeding, thereby giving their system time to become immune to their healing powers. What our Bible Belt culture has done to us is precisely the same thing it has inoculated us. We have been around religious talk, and moral “church” behavior so long that it’s effectively immunized some people to the power of the Gospel. The potent truth of Jesus has been replaced with a watered down, inaccurate, powerless religion that we’re convinced can help us.
Have any thoughts on this? Were there times that you’ve experienced the effects of our Bible Belt Culture? Please feel free to share them in the comments.
This past May I took my wife for a get away to the exotic hill country of Mena Arkansas (sarcasm galore). We stayed in a cabin, ate bad Chinese, and had a good time laughing all weekend. On the way to the cabin there was a little cemetery out in the sticks, and one time on our way in to town I caught a glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, of one of the headstones as we passed. It simply said “SELF.” Now I’m sure if you’ve been around church long you’ve already begun to guess where you think I’m going. “Oh no! Not another die to yourself rant.” Hang with me, I promise this won’t be your normal just die to yourself spiel.
I’ve been in ministry for awhile now, and to be honest where God has me now is the most exciting time of it, it’s also definitely the hardest in a majority of ways. Perhaps one of the ways its gotten the hardest is the intensity with which I feel compelled to study for messages. Now don’t get me wrong its a good thing, its just a hard, time consuming thing. I think currently the part that is the trickiest for me in this phase of life is trying to bring out the truth in a way that pushes it all back to depending on Jesus. The reason this is tough is that here in the south we’re accustomed to being told what God expects us to do. I think this is a big reason that my generation is leaving the church, and not for the reason that you’d expect. They don’t have a problem being told what “to do” they have a problem with the fact that they tried that and frankly their as empty, hurting and desperate as they were before. So they naturally conclude that being a Christian “doesn’t work”. And you know something? Their right.
It doesn’t work, simply going to church and doing the right things doesn’t work. It only frustrates us more. But get this, if you’ve gotten to this point you are closer than you think to figuring it out. The fact that it doesn’t work is the point. You can’t get your stuff in order well enough to please God and enjoy His presence. You simply can’t. Unfortunately though, what most people hear on Sundays around the country is a version of try harder, rather than give up. What I mean by give up is simply that you have to come to the understanding that without Jesus living through you, you are a selfish, wicked individual. Jesus tells us in Luke 14:27,
“27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” – Luke 14:27
In the middle of this passage of discouraging people from following Him, Jesus gives this as one of the reasons. He’s basically saying “You pretty much can’t follow me and live.” It’s the Holy Spirit in us that is the life force that is capable of really living out this Christian life, it’s only when we stop trying to do it ourselves and surrender to the fact that apart from Jesus we have no chance, that we’ll experience the joy that He has designed for us. Only then will we truly live.
We’ve looked at the fact that we were actually created for something greater than this life, and that Jesus command to us is to take the truth about His saving grace to the world. Which means we’ve established that we are made for the adventure, and we’ve seen what the adventure is; leaving only the question of will we embrace our true role and get in the adventure?
Now if you’re like me and you’ve been around church for very long the command to make disciples isn’t some revelation to you. You probably aren’t sitting in your chair going, ” Wow! This Rothacher guy is just spitting new truth all over the place.” In fact you quite possibly were a bit let down by the revealing of the adventure and frankly feel like I gypped you. Let me tell you why I think that is. We associate the command to make disciples with an uncomfortable evangelism class. We have tried hard in the past to live that way, you know have the awkward conversation with the waitress, and it was just another thing you’re supposed to do as a Christian. What we’ve been trained to believe is that being a follower of Christ is following a big long list of rules without grumbling, because if you grumble or worse don’t follow the rules God will send you to Hell. So, you hear make disciples, and you instantly check out. It’s why more and more young people are leaving the church, it simply isn’t worth it. What if being a follower of Christ isn’t about following the list of rules? What if it isn’t about doing better or more? What if in actuality it only requires one thing from you? Die.
Jesus tells us in Luke 14:
“27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” -Luke 14:27
He says this multiple times, recorded by multiple witnesses. We like to down play these verses, and try and make it sound like Jesus is really saying to give up R rated movies, or alcohol and thats bearing your cross for Jesus today, but we’re wrong. Jesus is straight up saying, “You want to follow me? It’ll cost you everything.” This is certainly not the come down front, pray a prayer, fill out a card and stand in the back while every old lady in the church comes by and hugs you simplicity that we have made it. It’s a call to stop existing. You lay down your wants, your passions, your desires and you become something greater.
Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 (the verses that follow are some of my favorites and give us more insight into how to accomplish the mission, so it’d be a good idea to go back after reading this and read them):
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.t The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” - 2 Corinthians 5:17
It’s very plainly telling us that when you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Look what happens to you, “the old has passed away.” Sometimes we like to apply some hyper spiritual application to the text when we’re reading the Bible cause all the words must have come from a different plane of thinking. So I’ll put it this way. If I told you that someone you loved had “passed away” what would you conclude happened to them? Exactly! They died! So we don’t try harder, we don’t do anything. We don’t exist anymore. Jesus in and through us is leading us in this adventure just like He led the heroes of the past.
Have you ever wondered why God didn’t save Paul for our generation? There are more people alive today than ever before, and with the internet he could have boldly taught thousands. How about Moses? Or Abraham? Peter? They could have done really well today. Why didn’t God save them for now? Because he has you! You are His plan for today, it is your time in the epic eternal adventure. You have the chance to take your place along the line of human history and make a difference. He has chosen you to carry the message of salvation to the world.
I want to point out one last thing, look at the scene in Revelation chapter seven:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Do you see the picture of this amazing scene at the end of time? It says he saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne”. So here in John’s vision of the end of time there are people of every nation, tribe and language which means the word of Jesus’s salvation makes it to the ends of the earth. I want you to see that, because what that means is God doesn’t need you! He will accomplish bringing salvation to the world with or without you and me. Which leads me to the conclusion that His command to be a part of the epic adventure of saving the world is for me, not because he needs me. In other words, Jesus commands you to make disciples, because it is what is best for you. It is what connects that yearning in your soul with the divine purpose you have. Will you join up? Take your place in the landscape of human history, leave the rules and traditions behind and come and die so that you may truly live the fullness of life and adventure that He has in store for you!