(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...
Going to church (attending services)
Doing well at school
Being a greeter/usher
Participating in Bible studies
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.