The End of Christian America

[great article link at the bottom of this post!]

Until recently, I lived in the most “unchurched” region of the country.

Now apparently, that designation has switched (very slightly) from the Northwest part of our country to the Northeast (though really “church” hasn’t been popular in either region for years).  But, whether we are first in “lack of churchiness” or second, if there is one thing I know it is living in a post-Christian religion environment.

Newsweek coverWhich is why it interested me to read several articles recently that seemed to indicate what many of us have thought for years, that the rest of the country is catching up to us… in godlessness, that is.   [see “The End of Christian America” and  “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”]

Recent studies find that American people are exiting the Christian religion in greater numbers than ever.  Be it evangelical, mainline, etc, America is losing it’s religion.

So what does this mean?  Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask.  Many people think that it isn’t exactly ideal.  I have heard many well-meaning preachers proclaim it as the beginning of the end; the ushering in of Armageddon.  Ahhh, you premillenialist friends are always looking for the signs of the end, aren’t you?  =)

But, it isn’t among just preachers.  There is panic among many everyday Christians.  There is fear that what has been the driving force of morality in this country is going to erode and leave their children depraved and godless.  I have sat in a pew next to many parents who feel this tension all too keenly.  Even in Seattle (where we have a several decade head start in living in this environment) the church (generally), is characterized by great fear in this arena.  It seems as though this decline in the Christian religion–at least in the form we are accustomed to–can only be a bad thing.

Now, before going any further, I’d like you to know that I understand this fear.  I think I understand why many of my brothers and sisters, whom I love, feel this way.  It is indeed scary to see the moral/religious fiber of your country shaken.  I can sympathize with this uncertainty.

christian_america2However, I think our fear may be causing us to behave strangely.  If you read this blog, you know that I often call-out the apparent un-Christlikeness of the church.   In doing so, I am not meaning to say that I don’t believe in Jesus.  I do.  I believe Jesus has opened the fullest and most meaningful way of life for all people.  I want more people to experience this life, not less.  And, I am not trying to say I don’t believe in the church.  Christians don’t necessarily have bad intentions.  I simply think we need to be very careful and think extremely critically about our methods of communicating a message.  Too often, the methods have become the message.  Too easily we believe that we should use any means necessary to convey our point and “the ends justify the means” should never be the attitude of Christ’s people.  Especially as it relates to the fear of “losing our Christian nation.”

Fear of the end of Christian America.

Because of this fear, we have seen (I believe) many Christians behaving in ways that do not show love.  Whether it is the polarizing political attempt to legislate Christianity, the stereotyping generality of protest signs or simply the attempt to shame those who are perceived as the danger through our bumperstickers, t-shirts and slogans.

Because of fear we have reacted poorly.

But, perhaps, we do not need to fear this decline so much as we have thought.  Maybe what we feel we need to protect doesn’t need protected at all.  Maybe, the cause of Christ could be advanced in a much more meaningful way if what we are scared to lose was really to disappear.

You see, living in Seattle, I have heard for as long as I can remember about how non-churched this region is.  I grew up knowing that I was among less than 10% of my local population that attended any type of church each week.   I heard these statistics as a teenager, while in Bible college and beyond in ministry.  I was taught that I was the only beacon of religion in a depraved land.

But, as I’ve hung out with people, got to know them and seen many of them make decisions to follow the life and example of Jesus with their lives authentically, I have learned that these statistics are a bit misleading.  The reality of my interaction with people in this “godless” land is not as dire as I had been made to believe.  In fact, while we may be declining in religious fervor, I have found people here to be more spiritually open to discussion than ever before.

Almost no one that I meet anymore is unwilling to have a spiritual discussion with me, as long as it is honest and not aimed at “converting” them.   And though this seems strange to some of you, I actually think that the message of Jesus is finding more traction in this culture that we fear than in the one we felt comfortable in previously.  It is almost as if the dismantling of the “civic religion of Christianity” is helping people to rediscover the Jesus behind this cultural influence.

church_stateOf course we all know people that would label themselves “Christian” though they make no attempt to follow and model the life of Jesus.  This country, since its beginning, has been labeled by the same generic label, “Christian.”  It has become a cultural and national label rather than an affiliation with the personhood of Jesus.  This faux Christianity, I contend, has actually made it much more difficult to lead people to authentic relationship with Jesus.  And to see it decline, in some odd sense (to some of you) gives me great hope for the future.

I believe we live in the greatest moment for followers of Jesus in the history of our world (and country).  I believe that this decline is preparing the soil (and has already) for a much deeper commitment to Jesus in the hearts of people than we have seen in our lifetimes.   It is not a day for fear, but for great expectation.  It is a great day to be a follower of Jesus!

I have included a link below to a blog by Greg Boyd.  His excellent blog lays out several reasons not to fear this decline.  Hopefully, it will be very helpful to some of you.

“Don’t Weep for the Demise of American Christianity”

But he also has two excellent books on this subject.  The second of which just came out last week and is fantastic.  Both of these books should be required reading for Christians in America.  If you haven’t read them, please consider picking up a copy this week.

themythofachristiannation

myth of a christian religion

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Love Connection – 3/22/09 – Part 2

Ok, this may be the most “scandalous” blog that I have written to date.  Wait, a minute… probably not.  The “Gay-Bath House” series was a bit scandalous too, huh? (Gay-Bath House article).

love-connection-jpgOh well, apparently my lot in life is to get involved in the dirty, messy and controversial subjects.   So, let’s jump right into the final question for this week, which almost gave me a coronary attack as I read it knowing I’d have to answer it!  Thanks everybody…  Let’s just get back to asking questions that are “safe,” huh?  LOL.


Question #3:
What are your views on masturbation?  Is it okay?

Wow, so we’re gonna go THERE now?  Ok.  I guess I should have known that we would eventually get here.   This question doesn’t necessarily have to do with relationships, however it is an issue that could impact relationships on many different levels.   So let’s go ahead and discuss it.

This is a very difficult question to answer.  On the one hand, many people believe it is wrong.  But, on the flip side, many Christians believe it is not.  Either way I answer I do two things:  1) I make half of everybody angry.  2) I assume that I actually know the answer.  (LOL)

So, let me give you my best effort at an answer.  It may not be perfect, but for better or worse, it is what I believe by faith right now.

First, the Bible has nothing to say directly about this issue.  The word “masturbation” is not in the Bible at all.  It is a subject, like dating, that isn’t discussed.  And without making too much of an “argument from silence” it does at least gives us a little bit of flexibility here.

However, there is one Bible text that has been used to condemn the behavior and it is worth mentioning here because its often use in this manner is not only unwarranted but flat-out coercive and wrong.

onanGenesis 38:8-10:  “Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.  But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.  What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also.”

Wow!  How’s that for a little provocative Bible reading?  Just tell your parents: “Hey, you wanted me to read the Bible.”

Now, when I was a teenager (like 100 years ago), this verse was quoted to me as God’s ultimate word against masturbation.  The line went like this, “See, Onan wasted his seed  (sperm) and God’s punishment for him was DEATH!!”

Nothing like a little fear that God will strike you dead to keep you from masturbating!

However, this story has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH MASTURBATION.  It is a story about a strange, but merciful Jewish law that took care of widows and passed on family inheritance.

In the Jewish culture, if the husband of a woman died, his brother was required to marry her and save her from widowhood.  And if she did not have a son to pass the deceased husband’s land and assets to, then the brother was required to father a son with her.   This son would not be considered the brother’s son, but the deceased husband’s son and thus he would inherit the land.   It was God’s way of providing for families in crisis and ensuring rightful land inheritance.

In this text, then, God is not addressing masturbation at all.  He is punishing Onan for purposefully being disobedient and not taking care of his brother’s family.

So, if the bible doesn’t directly address this question, than what are we to make of it?  Is it okay?  Is it a sin?

Well . . . to say that it is a sin goes beyond what we have God directly saying to us in the Bible.  Because of this, theoretically, I believe that the act itself is not sin.

looking with lustHowever, while this makes sense theoretically, there is a very practical reality to consider.  Maybe most compelling are the inevitable thoughts that go along with this act.   And while no Bible text deals with masturbation, per se, Jesus does have some pretty radical things to say about our thought-life.

“You have heard it said that you should not commit adultery.  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  — Matthew 5:27-28

What Jesus is saying here is that our “thoughts” are as important as our “actions.”   The intention behind what we do or don’t do is as crucial as our actual actions.

Now, even if theoretically, masturbation isn’t a sin, think of all the thoughts that usually invade your mind during those moments.  I would say that it is extremely rare that one engages in that action without some sort of impure thoughts about another person, whether you know them or don’t know them (in the case of most pornography).  And these thoughts are IMPORTANT, because they affect our relationships with other people and how we see other people.  Particularly for guys, this type of visualization reinforces “objectification” of women–seeing women as “objects” to possess rather than people to be honored and loved.

Couple that with the fact that masturbation is about selfish gratification (as opposed to sexual intercourse which when performed “in love” as intended is done as much for the other person as for you) and you at the very least have a less than beneficial activity.

So when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure I can make that judgment call for you.  I don’t know what goes on in your head.  Only you do.  And I don’t know what God’s Spirit convicts you about.

But it might help as you think through this issue for yourself to be reminded that sin is not primarily a legal infraction.  Sin is not like a speeding ticket.  God isn’t necessarily keeping track of all your tickets and waiting for you to “pay-up.”

Instead, I believe sin is more like an infection.  It is something that messes up your relationships with God and other people, like an infection messes up the way your body is supposed to work.

With this in mind, I don’t think God is going to kill you for it and you won’t be sent to hell for masturbating too much.   However, it may warrant a bit of caution.  Just because something may not be sin, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good for you or for your relationships with other people.   And if this issue causes problems between you and God or you and other people, you would be wise to listen to that prompting of the Spirit and choose differently.

Ok.  Hope that helps.

By the way, for those counting at home, I said the word, “masturbation” nine times.  Oops, make that ten.

“Letter from SEATTLE” – (response #2)

[Response #2 from SEATTLE – Part 5 of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Hey, MISSISSIPPI:

Hahahahaha!  You respond so quickly!  It takes me weeks to have time to sit down and write an email like that, and before I wake up you have written back. =)  So, I thought I would continue the dialogue—a little quicker myself.

And I think you must have been watching me write the last email because I really was smiling and laughing half the time!  Of course, it was late at night and I get a little delirious when I’m tired.   Well, and Jay Leno and Conan were on, so that makes me laugh too.

But, I also do appreciate a good friendly conversation that isn’t communicated through anger, meanness or general insensitivity.  If you only saw some of the emails and comments that come my way!  I don’t even show them to my wife, most of the time, because they are so full of anger and intensity.  And sadly, they often come from “Christian” brothers and sisters.

I really believe that these are the types of civil and open conversations that more Christians should be having with each other.   And I sincerely appreciate your views and the attitude with which you communicate them.

In regards to your last email, I think we probably agree in more areas than we realize.  For instance, I agree that at times we will be persecuted by people for standing up for what is right.  As you correctly stated, Jesus promises us that the world will hate us as it hated him.   And in that regard, I am OK with not being popular or liked.  Trust me, I have to have some thick skin to write blogs like that!  As much as you might think there are many who would cheer that blog, there are three times more that would like to dis-fellowship me for it.   I simply choose not to post their emails or comments because they are too rude and at times vulgar.

Here is the rub for me, though.  I believe Jesus was willing to be hated and I should too.  However, I just want to make sure that I am hated for the things that Jesus was hated for.  I want to “stand-up” for what Jesus stood for.   And as I read through the gospels, I can’t think of a single time that Jesus was hated because of his proclamation of repentance to people that were notorious sinners, unbelievers, non-religious or of other religious persuasion.  His methods seemed different when it came to outsiders.  He didn’t shy away from the problem, but he didn’t seem to start with behavior modification or correction either.   I do think Jesus wants repentance, but I can’t find any story there that is similar in method to the [mega-pastor] event.  Jesus lived love, and out of that love, spoke healing truth into people’s lives.  His message was about the “Kingdom” available to all, not simply adjusting your behavior.

Honestly, I really want to have those conversations with people around me that are hurting.  And I do engage in those conversations.  In all my relationships with people that don’t follow Christ, I am longing toward one-day (in some cases sooner, others later) sharing the truth as I see it in God’s word that can set them free from oppression, self-indulgence, greed, hostility, loneliness, and despair.  But, with so many of them I can’t start there or they’ll never hear it.  I have to earn that right to speak into their life.

I approach it that way (and hopefully some of my other nut job Christian friends do too) not because I’m ashamed of the message, but because I’m not ashamed to love them regardless of whether or not they ever believe it.

Also, I agree that there are those apparently following Christ who appear “ashamed” of the relationship and of any standard that God calls us to.  Whether this is more so now than at other times, I don’t know.  It seems that truly following Christ has always been counter-cultural and the temptation exists to make His radical claims more palatable.

This, of course, is unnecessary.  And those that distance themselves from the difficult parts of Jesus’ teaching in order to make Jesus sound more acceptable to hearers are not only fooling themselves, but really deceiving those they intend to attract.  And at any rate, I think there are many well-meaning people that are lumped into this category that actually believe more of what I have described above than just “shame” in following Christ.

And, I’m not saying that there aren’t ever going to be times that non-believers disagree with us and even antagonize us for it.  I think that happens too and we should be OK with it.  But I think that happens for similar reasons when the world sees us caring for people it casts-off (i.e. drug dealers, sex offenders, terrorists, etc.).  If people who DID BELIEVE think that Jesus loved too much, how much more those that don’t believe?

Interestingly, though, when Jesus talks about being hated, the reference—I believe—is more the religious people around them than the non-religious.  In Jesus’ own context it was the religious leaders that always hated him.  It was they who killed him.  Not because he preached so much propositional truth, but because he loved too much. Or, if preaching, because he preached the truth about love.

In that way, I think [the mega-pastor] (if the illustrated scenario you described was accurate) misunderstood sacrifice.   He could have still been unpopular in his belief on homosexuality (I think that is fine, in fact, theologically we agree), but found an equally unpopular way (in Jesus’ sense) of loving outsiders.  Instead, it felt to me like he was willing to be unpopular with the world to in some small way be more popular with his church friends.

Now I’M being dangerous because I’m guessing at his motives!  And maybe I’m mistaking his motives (which isn’t really my point anyway—I’m not criticizing his motives, he might be a fine man, just his methods that I don’t think are consistent with Jesus), but if he did feel like a prophet, he’d do well to remember that is was God’s people that were angry with the prophets, not outsiders.  They existed, primarily, to reform God’s people, not convert others.  (the only exception I can think of here is Jonah, and without going into another long email, I think the circumstances illustrate a similar point).

In terms of media, I think you are right here as well.  They do often cast all Christians in one-boat as a bunch of wackos.   Of course media has an agenda too.  And very often they do choose the worst to represent us all.  And in that way, they share part of the blame of the perception of Christians today.  Although, I think we’d be wise to own up to our own fair share responsibility.   The Church does do some weird things sometimes!  LOL.

But, this comes down to several things for me too.  1)  There is a difference, I think, between the “cultural Christianity” in America today and real Authentic Jesus-following stuff.   The “cultural Christianity” (CC) is what makes the news.  It’s the people that say they are Christian, go to church occasionally, but live lives that look nothing like Christ.  Christianity isn’t so much a lifestyle to them, but a cultural definition of who they are.  However, whenever there is something to protest (and I’m not lumping [mega-pastor] in with this group) that is different than their American-Christian worldview, they are the first to speak up.  Not so much based on conviction about Christ’s transformation in their life or the world, but out of a sense of pride in their worldview they’ve always known being right.  These are the people that news agency’s love because they are full of hypocrisy, contradictions and have volatile sound-bites.

Then, there are the many good and devoted followers of Jesus in this country that really live what they preach and love God deeply.   And it is this group that I think you rightly pointed out are doing a great many things in their churches and communities that doesn’t make the TV.  And to these people I am deeply indebted and extremely proud.

Now, I know for me personally, when I am found agreeing with the media about the Christian stereotype, it is not because I’m ashamed of what that latter group believes and lives, or that I find it easier to perpetuate the media’s skewed perceptions.   But, rather, it is my agreement that the former group IS fraudulent and in many ways destructive.   I want people to see through that type of commitment anyway.

Which brings me to the second point . . . 2) I often spend a great deal of time criticizing the former group because I have to convince people today that not all Christians are like that.   To convince them that there are many followers-of-Jesus found in group 2 that are consistent, truthful and worthy of admiration.   It’s why I often don’t even use the name “Christian” for myself anymore (because it is culturally associated with CC), but use something else, such as “follower-of-Christ.”

My thought is that many people our age have noticed this difference as well.  Now, no doubt there are some that simply want to hide from difficulty, as you suggest, and it is easier for them to agree with mainstream thoughts about Christians.  And shame on them.

But a great deal more may simply be trying to make the point that Christianity is not a cultural garment to be worn when convenient, but is a life-altering commitment that invades every moment of your life.   It may be that this language we hear is an attempt at making that distinction in post-Christian culture that thinks they’ve heard everything there is to know about Jesus already—even though they probably haven’t.

Can it go overboard?  Probably.  I think it is a tough line to walk.   You are trying to build credibility, while still showing the good that exists in the bride of Christ.   Maybe I don’t always walk it correctly myself.  But, I really do try hard.   And I’m sure people of both good and bad motives go overboard in this area and that is regrettable.

At any rate, while not all helpful or purely motivated, some of what I hear today actually gives me hope that things can be better, not worse.

Ok.  Long enough for email #2.   See you got me all thinking today, when I should be working!  LOL.

Grace and peace,

SEATTLE