Monday, October 31, 2011

Abducting Jesus (6) - "Artificial Sweeteners" (continued)

I want to touch on one more aspect of my previous post, and this should serve as a nice segue into my next topic, "Kingdom Kids."  Our obsession with "artificial sweeteners," such as Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Children's Church services have led many to believe that these are the places where spiritual things happen.  This entire paradigm is not directed by God or Scripture nearly as much as it is with our own upbringing.  Many adults are used to a classroom learning approach to everything, including faith.  Here is how the question is posed to me, "Now that your children aren't in Sunday School or Sunday services, how do they learn about God?"
Now, I am going to be pretty bold in my response here and I hope every parent listens in closely.  This question is in the minds of many people who leave the IC because they have been so conditioned to think real learning takes place in classroom settings, even though it is both unbiblical and unscientific to think so.

First, Jesus trained disciples by daily spending time with them living life.  They traveled together, shared stories, and participated in "action learning" - in other words, they put into practice what they learned immediately.  Often their lessons took place in hostile contexts.  The foundation of all their learning was relationship!  That's how Jesus did it.  Other rabbis of his day had a similar approach.  After His ascension, the early apostles continued similar practices of passing on the faith.  They performed miracles, shared with each other, broke bread together, and met in homes daily.  They didn't wait for the annual retreat or conference.  They didn't hold seminars with "fill-in-the-blank" manuals for participants.  They lived out their faith in front of one another.  It was raw and it was real and it was radical!  And one other important "R" word - it was wildly reproducible.

Second, the Bible reveals a long history of this relational, real-life, active approach to educating or indoctrinating ("putting the doctrine in") the next generation.  Somewhat ironically, cited in almost every Christian education program is the famous
Deuteronomy 6 passage about impressing God's commands upon the children at home, along the road, in the morning, at night, etc.  Faith is to be passed along in an ongoing, intentional way, not in one-hour weekly doses in an artificial environment.

Third, almost everything that we have learned about the brain and memory in recent years challenges the myth that learning best occurs in classroom settings.  People need to be engaged - physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, and spiritually.  In fact, the brain filters all incoming stimuli by how it relates to survival first, and emotional impact second, then everything else.  Admittedly oversimplified, this is basically how the brain determines what to give its attention to.  When faith is only talked about in Sunday School or sermons, but not immediately applied in situations that directly affect how people live at home, with their friends, in front of their teachers, while nervous or afraid, etc., then that faith becomes easy to disregard.  This is a biological necessity.  Our brain categorizes it in the unimportant pile of stuff in our head, so it can be dismissed or forgotten without consequence.  That should be a scary thought!

Finally, I would like to go ahead and answer the question as "concerned Christian parents" ask it.  Just how does my child learn about God without going to church programs on Sunday?  Short answer: By BEING the church!  We ask our daughters to pray for us, read the Bible to us, and serve others with us.  We act out Bible stories, use artistic illustrations, sing songs and listen to music, have honest discussions, ask questions, and all those kinds of things you would find in a typical Sunday School class.  The main difference is we do it all the time, in various contexts at various times of day on various days of the week.  The result - they begin to think this stuff is real to us!  They begin to understand that this is true in our home, at our jobs, with our family, and not just in a building once a week where all the religious people talk about God.

One Sunday morning, our family was reading through part of the Old Testament.  We came to a part about the tabernacle, and my daughter (and quite frankly me too!) had some questions about it.  So, we stopped right there, moved the furniture and turned the living room into a temple area.  We figured out how to make a scale version of the whole thing.  We decided together what to use to represent the Holy of Holies, the courtyard, lamp stand, table of showbread, and all the other parts.  We discovered their meaning and significance, and had a lot of fun doing it.  I know, I's not the same as her going to another room on a Sunday morning in a church building and doing a word search about names of books of the Bible, but I guess we'll have to just put up with our inferior way of doing things for now.

Sorry for the sarcastic (almost rude) tone of this blog if it comes across that way, but this is one of the greatest areas negatively affecting the next generation's understanding of God.  It must be addressed! 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Abducting Jesus (5) - "Artificial Sweeteners"

I want to be careful in these blogs to keep the main question before us, "Where is Jesus?"  Remember that my premise is that we have done things, mostly in the Institutional Church (IC), that have replaced - and almost hidden - Jesus.  I have to tell myself to be sure to focus on the point of finding where Jesus is in the midst of all this stuff, not just taking shots at the IC.  So, before moving on, let me say that I have been a member and leader in the IC for over a decade.  I was a Sunday School teacher, youth group leader, an executive pastor, administrative pastor, associate pastor, assistant pastor, youth pastor, Christian Education Director, men's ministry leader, Chilren's/Youth/Family Ministries Director, and basically any other title you can throw in front of Pastor or Director to sound pretty official.  I have preached my share of sermons and planned my share of services and carried out my share of programs.  I did all this with a good heart, or so I hope, in an attempt to bring people closer to God.  This is the same attitude I believe most workers in the IC have!  I want to be clear that I am not attacking individuals.  What I desire to do is to analyze the IC system because I believe it is the system that traps many good people into a life and pattern that eventually covers over Jesus with many other things.

Having that out there, now I move to one of those things that I bought into hook, line, and does most of the Western church.  I use the term "artificial sweeteners" on purpose when describing some of our traditional "sacred cows," like the Sunday morning sermon or Sunday School.  An artificial sweetener is something that is intended to make something taste better, to be more palatable, to "go down easier."  It is artificial, not natural or organic, but an additive - man-made!  In other words, it was not part of God's original design, but something we add to make whatever it is different.  We do it to make it sweeter for us

Now, I am not on a campaign to end the use of artificial sweeteners around the world.  I am not holding a picket sign that says "God Hates Artificial Sweeteners!" or frantically telling my friends to stop using artificial sweeteners right away.  In fact, I have no doubt that many of the food items I enjoy are the direct result of artificial sweeteners.  Sometimes, they can help people eat or drink what they otherwise would not.  In short, they can be used for good purposes.

So, here is the analogy to the church.  Many programs or traditions we have in place are like artificial sweeteners.  They are something man has added to the mix.  They are intended to make people happy - to be "sweet" - and cause them to come back for more.  They deal a lot with people's "tastes," their likes and preferences.  They keep people comfortable.  They are artificial, in that they usually take place in a compartmentalized fashion away from the rest of real life.  We usually leave our homes to go hear a sermon.  We usually do not attend Sunday School classes in our workplace or the recreational places we frequent.  It is often a half hour or hour outside of our normal routine of daily life.  It is, therefore, an artificial setting, kind of like a lab.  We simulate the "real thing" with an imitation.

These programs and traditions can bring people closer to God, but my observation is that they usually lull people into a false sense of relationship with God.  Through these "artificial sweeteners" people learn a lot about God, but they do not relate to Him.  After enough time of having them, the original, real, organic flavor becomes forgotten and unfamiliar, or worse, even unwanted.  Eventually, people prefer the artificial over the authentic.  In church, it looks like people preferring the programs and sermons and classes over direct interaction with the Holy Spirit.  That "ride" is just too unpredictable for some people, so they substitute things they can control in its place.  They feel religious and content and better about themselves, but drift further and further away from the real Jesus. 

They are, in a word, Pharisees.  And often they are the last to know it.  I speak from experience as I have been one. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Abducting Jesus (4)

As I previously mentioned, it might be helpful to identify some of the "decoys" that are faking us out in our search for the real Jesus. I intend to examine some of these things that I feel have taken his place in our spiritual lives. For now, let me just briefly introduce some broad (and cleverly, cutely named) categories.
·         "Artificial Sweeteners" - This is one of our Western obsessions. We think that the best learning takes place in classrooms. We expect the teaching of God to be conveyed most often in artificial settings, like Sunday School, lectures, seminary, sermons, etc. There is a time and place for all of these. I'm not advocating throwing them all out, but we have divorced most of our teaching from the real lives we lead.
·         "Kingdom Kids" - What we define as spiritual maturity may not match up with the Scriptures as well as we think. Perhaps, we underestimate the role children play, for instance, in the Kingdom of God. I submit that we do this as a direct result of not believing in the real Jesus as He has been revealed. We have come up with our own system of "discipleship" in which all the steps along the way are established and defined by us.
·         "Calling the Qualified" - In our attempt to train people for service in the "Lord's army," we have basically ignored how God prepared people to serve Him in the Bible - and for that matter, whom He chose for the job. We consider the most qualified ministers those that have been to seminary or through years of training. Jesus had a remarkably different style of evangelism training. 
·         "The B-I-B-L-E...That's the Book for Me" - In most churches, Bible study has been elevated to the position of prime importance. As long as we can say we are studying the Bible religiously, we can "check the box" and appear as righteous as anyone else, even more so if we're good at it. This can clearly become a decoy as John 5 already vividly points out. The Pharisees diligently studied the Scriptures, but missed the whole point of coming to Jesus for eternal life.
·         "Power Play" - This may be the most direct assault on the Headship of Jesus Christ. The way we have raised the status of human leadership, namely in the position of pastor/priest, definitely has the ability to turn many people's eyes away from the true Christ to a fallen substitute. Hierarchical structures have become the norm, but what if they are hiding the real Jesus from us? What if a new understanding of the Body of believers is what it takes to find our "Missing Person"?
As we trudge along into these territories, my only disclaimer is that these thoughts are mine - my perceptions, my observations, my feelings, and my opinions...and of course, that I am right all the time!  (haha...just kidding)
(As a revised note about that last comment, the truth is that there are many, many people around the world who share these views.  In fact, a substantially growing number of believers are making these same observations.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Abducting Jesus (3)

(re-posted from earlier date)

Yesterday I watched the movie Ransom, starring Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, and Gary Sinise. I love that movie even though it has an obviously disturbing theme of child kidnapping. There are some great scenes, one of which is when Mel Gibson's character ("Tom") makes the unbelievable move of going on TV and announcing that the $2 million ransom demanded by his son's kidnappers will never be paid! He turns the tables on everyone, including the FBI and his own wife as well as the kidnappers, by letting everyone know that the ransom amount is now going to be a reward, a bounty, on the heads of those who have taken his son. 

Well, you can guess that everyone has an opinion about a move like that. Later in the movie, the lead FBI agent on the case complains about the high number of false reports and bad tips they are receiving from the public as a result of Tom's decision. He makes the case that for every false lead that an agent investigates, there is one less agent working toward the safe recovery of the child. It is quite an interesting drama that unfolds.

I bring up this dramatic film scene because it reminds me of what I have started describing in these blogs. In real life, people sometimes get confused mistaking one thing for another. They may think they see someone, but it is really another person. They may think they heard something, but they have the words all wrong. They may call in to a hotline to report something that turns out to be leading investigators down the wrong path.

My contention is that we have done a lot of this chasing of "bad leads" or "false reports" in the church. In our search for Jesus, there are many things that good "witnesses" will identify as Jesus that actually have very little, if anything, to do with him. As I have said before, we have done a good share of replacing, or substituting, the real thing for something different. In the church world, it can look like...

Sunday School
Youth group
Going to church (attending services)
Doing well at school
Following rules
Being a greeter/usher
Participating in Bible studies
Voting Republican/Democrat
Being a nice person

I have heard all of the above, at one time or another, used as justification for describing someone as a Christian. In fact, usually the phrase is "
strong Christian" or "good Christian" or "devout Christian" - wording that I still don't completely get. For example, have you ever heard, "[So and so] is in church every Sunday no matter what. He is such a devout Christian.", or "She is a strong Christian young lady. She attends a Bible study with her youth group every week. She even prays out loud when nobody else will." We hold up these examples as the ideals of strong Christians. The funniest one I have heard multiple times is crediting someone with being a strong Christian because they can sing well! "Did you hear the way [so and so] sang that song in church? Such emotion, such passion, I can only hope that my daughter is half the Christian she is." (You think I'm making this stuff up, don't you?)

Let me qualify that a person can be a genuine and faithful follower of Christ and be a loyal attendee at a Bible study or youth group. I am not arguing that these are mutually exclusive characteristics. What I am arguing, though, is that nothing from the list above is Biblical. The reason that is so interesting to me is because the Bible
does spell out very specific, concrete ways of knowing whether we have had an authentic "Christ sighting." Jesus himself said that his followers will be known by their love. Paul makes a clear distinction in Galatians 5 between what the spiritual life looks like as directed by God versus a life based on our own fleshly desires. Again, there is love, first and foremost. He continues spelling out that a Spirit-led life consists of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So, you see, there is a way to tell. It is just a radically different list than the one we usually use.

As a youth pastor, I had lots of students attend our events regularly who treated each other like crap. More than a few times, these students would bad mouth teachers, disrespect parents, insult peers, outright lie, and take almost no personal responsibility for their relationship with Christ outside of showing up to our meetings. In fact, at times our meetings were almost the antithesis of peace or patience or gentleness. But as far as the "church" was concerned, they were being discipled and becoming "strong Christians" merely because they were there! The thought of stopping such meetings was viewed as a heretical move. Ironically, if you ask me, continuing such meetings in the name of Jesus is probably a greater heresy.

Now, almost no pastor or church leader or parent would ever admit that we would rely on physical attendance as the sole indicator of a person's spirituality. That would be absurd! Anyone can see that! However, our practice betrays us because, frankly, attendance alone is really what most churches shoot for as the single greatest measure of effectiveness. In the words of Reggie McNeal, we need to change the scorecard. So, in our attempt to find Jesus, we may have to "call out" some of these "false sightings" - these decoys, if you will - that fool us into thinking we have come close to Him when, in reality, He is nowhere to be found.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Abducting Jesus (2)

In his book, Organic Church, Neil Cole writes about an explanation of church that he received as a seminary student. It included characteristics like a group of believers gathered together, elders present, an agreed-on set of doctrines, practices of baptism and communion, etc. I have heard other speakers talk of similar results when they have posed the question, What is the Church? Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong about the items on this list, but as Neil Cole points out...there is something VERY IMPORTANT missing! It's that guy named Jesus! Maybe you've heard of him.
Jesus is missing!!! Later, Cole states, "The church is often more about what we bring to the table than what God does" (Cole, 2005, p. 50). This is really such an interesting point if you think about it. I once had a pastor friend confront me with this in another way. He said, "We can get a lot accomplished with just our talent and intellect alone." He was not saying this as a good thing, but as a note of concern about leaving the Holy Spirit out of the equation and depending only on our human abilities. It was a word of caution, of warning.

This isn't really a new thought, though. Theologian A. W. Tozer talked about our misperceptions of God. He observed that most churches in America would go on as if nothing happened if the Holy Spirit was removed from the picture. We have this knack for minimizing the Divine down to our human understandings and mental pictures, and then worshiping those. It's kind of like our own "mini-me" version of God, a smaller, less powerful image of the Original. We have just enough of the Real One for us to manage and handle in our minds, but not much more, and sometimes a dangerously poor resemblance.

But picking up where Cole leaves off with this thought, if you take Jesus away, then there is a void that has to be replaced with something. And how we have filled that void with all kinds of things over the years, the centuries! In fact, there exists an entire model of church premised upon the need for a pastor to lead a congregation, a concept never modeled in the New TestamentIncredibly, the word "pastor" does not even appear there!! (Note: The plural form of the word - "pastors" - is included one time in Ephesians 4.) 

I submit that we have replaced Jesus with so much stuff that we have lost sight of the fact that he is missing. He is almost
unrecognizable to many church people, similar to a sketch of a missing person that leaves us wondering if we have ever seen that person. He was taken from right beneath our noses while we preached and prayed in his name. Could it be that someone kidnapped the Christ child?  Is the abduction of Jesus a real crisis for us today? 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Abducting Jesus (1)

I recently heard a former U.S. Senator talking on a radio show. He told about an informal survey that he began conducting with students whenever he would speak at college or high school campuses. He would poll his audience, asking them to choose which of the following ideals was found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."Separation of church and state" OR "Free exercise of religion"

Even though the "free exercise of religion" is specifically mentioned in the First Amendment, the Senator shared that more and more often, a majority of students believe the actual phrase "separation of church and state" is included in the Constitution.  Now, stop and think about that for a minute. We are talking about people who have been through years in our school system, many of which are at higher learning institutions in America. No doubt many of the students surveyed were taking some type of history or civics courses at the time. Furthermore, it wasn't a question about some obscure part of the document, but the very first amendment. It is in the news all the time. It is the start of the Bill of Rights, which almost everyone studies at some point during their public schooling. The bottom line is that every American citizen with a high school diploma should know at the very least that Congress should do nothing to establish a religion and should do nothing to prohibit the free exercise of religion! It is in black and white as an essential part of our founding documents!

So then, why? How? What happens to cause so many people to
ignore the obvious, explicit statement written right before their eyes and make up a new reality? How do people go about creating a different "truth" out of thin air?

Let me leave those questions hanging out there for now, and make another proposal. I believe this is the same thing that many of us have done with the Bible, especially the
New Testament, even with the church and Jesus himself. We have read in new "truths" to the original text, things that are
clearly not there (and skipped over things that clearly ARE there at the same time). We have equivocated terms, substituted one set of principles and practices for another man-made set. We have spliced and dissected and picked apart divinely inspired guidance and changed it so much in the process that we have killed the "living Word" in some ways. We found a way to extract its power, and replaced it with our own. We took over control. Instead of being the servant, we tried on the clothes of "master" and we became comfortable with how they fit.

I am starting a new series of blogs, entitled
The Abduction of Jesus, to further explore these ideas. I welcome you to join me on this journey. Realize that it might be uncomfortable at times. You may disagree with me often. Most of all, let's grow and think together. Add your "voice" to the mix and make comments along the way....Because, you see, I believe someone kidnapped the Christ child, and the Church needs to seriously begin a frantic search to find him.  If we don't, then we all pay the price; we all suffer; we are all lost!