As you probably know, I am rather fascinated by both how Christians have adopted their own consumer culture and the various attmepts to ensure that Christianity is "relevant" to the current generations. Lately I've been wondering how long it can possibly be until those two worlds collide and "secular" consumer industries start marketing things to the church in order to help them in their quest to be more relevant. It looks like that day is already here.
Yesterday, in my quest to get one more Oscar nominated film under my belt before Sunday, I went to a matinee at the local AMC theater. I usually frequent independent theaters (we have some amazing ones here in the Twin Cities) so I always forget that the chain theaters mean at least 20 minutes of commercials, previews, and various theater promotions. Due to that forgetfulness, I arrived early and had to sit through all that promotion. But in the midst of all the clips telling me to go get a Coke in the lobby or join the National Guard, there was one that I hadn't seen before. There was a promotion in the middle of all of this encouraging me to "grow [my] church at the movie theater." Apparently AMC theaters now have an established program of recruiting people to host church services in their theaters as a strategic growth strategy for new and multi-site churches.
The other reason this caught my attention is because awhile back there was some media coverage about a new church meeting in a local theater. It received the typical charming oddity human interest story spin of "Who'd have thought?" Now I know who: AMC theaters and Fathom. That's who thought.
I want to make it perfectly clear that I have no problem with the idea of renting a theater for church and am making no statement on the churches that meet there or their beliefs. It may be a very cost effective option for them that fits into the model of what they want their church to be. Although, I personally would have a very had time focusing on the sermon if the smell of popcorn was wafting in the air. But then again, I'm kind of addicted to popcorn and have a bad habit of not eating enough breakfast prior to leaving for church on Sunday morning. :) If this model works for someone, that's great. I just wanted to mention it because I had been wondering how long the church could seek to find it's place in American culture until American culture realized the opportunity that existed in marketing to the church. I thought this was a very interesting example of that. If you are as curious as I was, you can check out more information at http://www.fathomtheatrechurch.com/
I just wanted to share a brief theory that's been on my mind lately.
I hear many Christians talk about how God is love and their mission to to share that love with the world. Nothing wrong with that. The problem sets in when the people who so loudly profess the love of God and claim to be his vessel behave with so little love themselves. Here's the theory I've developed on the matter.
If you talk about how much God loves you and how you are sharing that love with others but treat people with little/no love, you most likely leave them to arrive at one of the following conclusions:
1. God is not love.
2. I have to earn God's love.
3. God must not love me.
4. I am unlovable.
I know that may seem controversial to some. But think about it, if you claim to represent the source of purest love but do not share that with others, why wouldn't they come to one of those conclusions?
Most of us love birthdays. The cake, the festivities, the presents...overall, they're pretty great. But when I attended Conservative Christian College, I learned that many there celebrated two birthdays...their physical birthday and their "spiritual birthday." Those birthdays didn't come with all the cake and gifts, but they were announced proudly. I've even seen confusing facebook statuses from people in their 20s or 30s that say things like "Today is my 17th birthday!"
Such landmarks were also used to justify why someone did something others disagreed with. For example, "Well, they are just a baby Christian." Or as the basis for a challenge from a chapel speaker or pastor. "Everyone should memorize at least one Bible verse for every year that they've been a Christian." The whole concept confused me, on both personal and theological levels.
It confused me because I had never heard of such a thing before. And once I understood what it meant, I realized that I didn't have a spiritual birthday. Let me clarify.
For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, many in American Evangelical Culture count the day that they "accepted Jesus into their heart" as their spiritual birthday...the day they were reborn so to speak. So, how does one know exactly what day they count as their spiritual birthday? The most common measure is by celebrating the day they prayed "the sinner's prayer." Don't look for the term (or the prayer itself for that matter) in the Bible. It's not there. Rather, it's a prayer that has become the standard to know whether or not someone is saved. It involves confessing one's sin, asking God for forgiveness, expressing belief in Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on the cross, and committing to follow Him from now on.
So, like I said...I have no spiritual birthday. I was raised in a Lutheran Church and can remember from a young age believing in God and Jesus Christ, but no one ever told me I had to put Him into my heart and make sure He was my personal savior. I didn't hear that claim until I started spending more time with kids from the Evangelical Church late into my high school years. And at first I worried. "Was I really a Christian? Did all the previous years not count? Why didn't anyone tell me about this? Does this mean I'm not saved?" Due to those fears, I'm certain I must have prayed some version of that prayer at least a dozen times over the next five years. I mean, you can't be too sure, right?
Even so, there was no date I could mark as a spiritual birthday, because I was a Christian long before praying any of those prayers. And once I made the decision to take my faith more seriously, it was a series of small intentional steps rather than one grand gesture. This didn't bother me. After all, didn't Paul say to work out your salvation with fear and trembling? That certainly doesn't sound like a simple formulaic prayer to me.
In some ways I get why so many people push that type of prayer as a measure of faith. It does cover some basic tenets of Christian belief. And if you're from the type of church that prints the tally of the number of people "saved" in the bulletin every week, there's got to be some standard of measure. But overall, it just seems like an overly simplified approach to the complex beauty of faith.
There's something that's been on my mind a lot lately. I've been thinking about the approach American Evangelical Culture takes towards the rest of the world. I think it can best be summed up by "Everyone is lost and we are the only ones who can save them."
I was thinking about this due to a number of things I've seen/heard this week. One was a documentary that an American megachurch produced about how their church got started. In it they discussed how they decided to move to a city that was notorious for the number of churches it had in order to start a new church. They didn't mention anything about the dynamics of the city itself or the people there. They seemed convinced that they were the ones who could bring God's true message to these people in spite of the fact that so many others were working to the same end.
The other was a little more humorous. A girl I know told me a story about a rather sheltered, charismatic Christian, homeschooled boy that she knows. Apparently they were giving him a ride somewhere and without warning he suddenly placed his hand on the top of her head and started praying in tongues over her and saying he was trying to get rid of the devil in her. (I have to think that there is no quicker way to get kicked out of the carpool than spontaneous exorcism.) But the best part about this story is that their vehicle has had some issues with the heating system recently so it intermittently just spits out sudden bursts of air. As he is wrapping up his prayer, the heating system spews a quick burst of air. At which point he exclaims, "Did you feel that!?? It was the Holy Spirit!" In that moment, he was fully convinced that the presence of God was needed in that vehicle and he had ushered it in. Meanwhile, she was completely creeped out and counting the minutes to the end of the ride.
That's the common thread in these two examples: the belief that everyone is without God and it is my job to bring it to them regardless of the circumstances. And to believe so to such a degree that you start attributing things to God that others clearly recognize as having a more mundane source. I keep seeing that attitude again and again in American Evangelical Culture. In college I once saw a video promoting the expansion of a Christian nightclub that featured the "lost" people in the community they would be moving into. It really caught my attention when I realized that one of those "lost souls" featured in their video was the roommate of a good friend of mine. A girl with tattoos, piercings, and a style all her own - a Christian girl who was currently attending a different Christian college in the area. She was absolutely outraged when she heard that her image was being used as an example of the unreached youth in the city.
I also think of my sister telling me about her time studying abroad. She said that she disliked the majority of American missionaries that she met because they didn't seem to truly care about the people or the culture much at all. They had a tunnel vision focus on "saving" everyone and teaching them how to be a Christian in the American sense of the term. A focus that in some instances caused more harm than good as people felt manipulated, marginalized, and uncared for.
My argument isn't about the theological concept of salvation or what it really means to share the gospel. My argument is this: Is this a responsible approach to the world around us? How is the faith of others impacted when they realize it is being second guessed and undermined? Does it help us to feel a sense of urgency when it comes to others? Or does it merely create a framework in which people become projects to be fixed rather than individuals to be loved and valued? Is caring about someone's salvation the same as caring about someone? And most importantly, does it reflect the attitude of Christ or is there a better way? I think it's something worth considering.
In case you missed that sea of red and pink hearts everywhere and the traffic jam of flower delivery trucks, yesterday was Valentine's Day. So I thought I'd post a related t-shirt. One that really creeps me out.
Had a few too many loaves and fishes over the past year? Ever wish your workouts were accompanied by a live gospel choir? If you answered yes to either of those questions, Body Gospel may be just the product for you.
This last Sunday I didn't go to church. I had been on the verge of getting sick, hadn't been sleeping well, and was absolutely exhausted. In spite of that, I had considered attending. After all, I live right next door and I really should go to church, right? But I decided that I needed to stay home. Not only to prevent myself from getting sick, but because a few months ago I noticed a bigger problem that I wanted to address.
When I was in the midst of American Evangelical Culture, there seemed to be few quicker ways to peak someone's concern for your spiritual well being than to let them know that you hadn't attended church or that you didn't have a "home church." Often such concern was justified by pointing to Hebrews 10:25 which reads "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more so as you see the Day approaching." Looking back, it strikes me as odd that in a place such as CCC where people were going to daily chapel, taking required Bible classes, meeting in small groups or hall Bible studies, etc. that the simple act of missing one Sunday service was seen as a sign that you were giving up on "meeting together." But I digress.
I've mentioned before that from time to time I notice habits or assumptions that I still hang onto from all my years in that culture. Earlier this year, I had noticed another. My family was visiting and we had been working hard with their help to finish some painting and other work that would help us get settled into our house. We had stayed up late into the night one Saturday in order to finish a room. Because of that, I overslept Sunday morning. I woke up 20 minutes before that last Sunday morning service. That isn't anything notable in and of itself, but my reaction to it was.
I got upset. I asked everyone else why they hadn't woken me up. "You were exhausted. We thought you needed to sleep." I was quickly letting my emotions get the best of me. I nearly burst into tears as I said "I wanted to go to church." That's when it hit me. This wasn't about me wanting to go to church. It was about me feeling guilty if I didn't.
I spend at least one afternoon a week at the church helping out. I volunteer in a number of capacities and participate in multiple programs there. Between the Bible study resources at my house, the vast options available on the internet, and the number of like minded friends I have who would always be up for some spiritual conversation and prayer, I wasn't lacking in ways to engage with God. I simply hadn't ever fully shaken the guilt that was driven into me during my time as an Evangelical that should I miss a church service for less than acceptable reasons, God was disappointed with me. I don't believe that anymore. But my subconscious hadn't shaken it's automatic response that if I missed church, my faith might be faltering.
I vowed to battle those automatic thoughts and not let them take over like that again. So when I recognized that same battle brewing in my mind this past Sunday, I decided to stay home. I enjoyed a quiet morning of rest, contemplation, and prayer. Afterwards, I knew I had made the right choice. I will never be able to fully embrace the freedom of true faith if I allow myself to be motivated primarily by guilt.
And they'll know we are Christians by our excessive aversion to whatever germs they might be carrying... That is how that song goes, right?
This product holds a special place in my heart due to the fact that during college, I once went on a missions trip where one of the leaders insisted everyone use hand sanitizer following each time they'd interacted with street children. (I declined as the concept of treating people as if they will taint you seemed very unChristlike to me.)
But there's one other thing that should be noted. This hand sanitizer will set you back $3.99 for the 2 oz. bottle pictured above. A quick search of Walgreens online store finds that for about the same price you can get 33 oz. of a "secular" brand. That's an increase from $0.12 per oz. to $2.00 per oz. If you opt for the spray bottle (which is listed as a best seller on the site), it's $2.99 for 0.25 oz. At that point you are paying a whopping $11.96 per oz. Just thinking of paying 100 times more for hand sanitizer simply because it sports a label that quotes a Bible verse about clean hands is making me feel dirty.
The previous post was something that I wrote a few years ago while processing through my decision to leave that particular congregation and heavily influenced my decision to return to a more liturgical tradition. It's a very personal story and not one that I share easily. I was not a soldier or a rape victim. My trauma sprung from involvement in a severe fatal multi-vehicle accident. As such, it's not as understood as trauma caused by more extreme experiences. To be fair, it caught me off guard as well. I wanted to share that story, because I know that there are others who have found themselves in similar circumstances.
I've heard many different stories of people who have left churches and regardless of the reasons, they all seem to share a common theme: the loss of one's sense of safety. For me, once I heard the preacher openly deny the existence of my experiences and saw members of the congregation agreeing with him, I not only felt like I would never be understood, but any sense of emotional security I had was stripped away. I felt vulnerable. I felt as if I could never let anyone know and if they found out I wouldn't be able to bear the pain of having to be accused of not trusting God enough all over again. Ironically, given the bad experiences I'd previously had with a Christian community over the same issue, just the act of going back to a church was a major step for me in trusting God.
I believe that experience was a large part of what led me to a more liturgical tradition (in my case a Lutheran Church, which is what I grew up in). I know that many find liturgy to be bland or dry and some wonder how you can still engage with words you repeat every week. Liturgy doesn't just provide phrases to repeat, it also moves the congregation through the church calendar and establishes the Bible passages to be used for sermon texts each week in accordance. I think liturgy helps to keep us more focused on the person and work of Christ, which is the center of our faith. Most Evangebapticostal churches do not utilize liturgy. In those congregations it is up to the pastor to decide what he/she feels the congregation should hear. Although there is nothing wrong with that, it often leads to pet issues being given prominence. How many of us know of churches where the pastor speaks about tithing/repentance/evangelism/sexual immorality at least once a month? In doing so, think of the percentage of time each year that is being dedicated to more minor theological issues. How is that distorting the behavior of the church?
I love liturgy because it doesn't go off on tangents about where man has failed God or what is wrong in our society. Rather it reminds us of the work and example of Jesus which challenges us to examine our own lives and behavior in light of such.
When I read the Gospels, the only people I see that seemed to feel unwelcome in the presence of Jesus were the fundamentalist religious leaders who couldn't understand why he would associate himself with the "unclean" masses. Their churches, like many of ours today, might as well have had a sign post out front reading, "You must be at least THIS holy to enter." But Jesus never seemed to use a spiritual measuring stick on others before deciding if he would interact with them. We read of him associating with tax collectors, adulterers, the poor, the disabled, the doubtful, and even the judgmental religious leaders themselves. He didn't just preach at them either. We read of him asking thoughtful questions, listening to their responses, and encouraging a dialogue that would make them think about things for themselves. His open arms were not paired with judgemental eyes. All were welcome. Can the same be said of your church?
For those of you who feel unsafe in most churches or in the presence of many Christians but still desire to seek God, don't give up. That's not a true reflection of Christ or what Christianity should be. There are people and churches that aren't like that. And they are worth finding.
I sunk lower and lower into my seat. When I had arrived, I imagined that the unforgiving wooden pew and lack of air conditioning would be the most uncomfortable things I would encounter that evening. Now I would gladly replace every piece of furniture in my house with these very pews if this would just stop. I glanced around and my heart broke even further as I noticed the heads nodding in agreement with the preacher. A few people throughout the congregation were softly proclaiming “Amen” as the words kept flowing from the pulpit. Each one was a knife slicing to my very core.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” I thought. “Maybe I need to listen more carefully. Maybe he’s not saying what I think he’s saying.”
So I listened more intently, trying to focus through the fog of pain I was making a futile attempt to suppress. I hadn’t misheard. The words were exactly what I’d thought they were.
“We rely too much on psychologists, psychiatrists, and drugs. Depression…Schizophrenia…Bi-polar…Anxiety…”
“Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it. Please stop.” I continued to silently pray. And that’s when the fatal blow came.
“…Post Traumatic Stress…We are not relying on God with these issues. We need to stop turning to psychologists and turn to God.”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to make him stop. I wanted to let him know the destructive power of the words he was speaking. I wanted to tell him that he had no idea what it was like to struggle with trauma and have people in the church constantly telling you that if you were really trusting God this wouldn’t be happening. I wanted to tell him that he had absolutely no idea what it felt like to seemingly have your brain rewired in a matter of minutes. I wanted to tell him that sermons like this would make some people feel rejected by the church and ultimately by God. But I didn’t. I sat there frozen to the cold, hard, wooden seat glancing at my watch and hoping that the assault was almost over.
After twenty minutes, which to me seemed like hours, he reached his conclusion. People around me were still smiling and nodding. The service wrapped up and we were dismissed. I saw a number of members greet the preacher and thank him for the wonderful and convicting sermon he had just delivered. I just hoped to reach the door before anyone stopped me to chat. I grabbed my coat and exited as quickly as I could. I didn’t pause until I was in my car with the engine running.
That’s when all the emotion that I had been holding back suddenly broke free. The tears were unstoppable. I felt absolutely crushed. Regardless of what had happened, people kept reminding me of the importance of attending a church, so I kept trying. But this continued to be the result. I was always taught that the role of the church was to bring healing to those who were hurting. So, that’s where I turned. I had quickly learned that by “those who were hurting” what most churches seemed to mean were unbelievers, teenagers that attended youth events, anyone encountered on a missions trip, and anyone else that would make for a good photo op or board meeting agenda item. This sermon had only confirmed the harsh lesson that I had been learning over and over again: the majority of churches within American Evangelical Culture were completely unable and/or unwilling to help people work through long term psychological/emotional/mental issues. And in many cases, they denied such issues even exist.
I prayed that no one would suddenly go off their medication based upon that service. I thought of the generation of young soldiers that would be returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom who would return with mental health issues. I thought of young women working through the shame and trauma of rape, as well as countless other scenarios that could lead to traumatic stress. How would the church respond? And what can be done to help make sure this doesn’t keep happening?
I didn’t have any of those answers. Instead I just kept driving, because I wanted to get as far away as possible from what I’d just experienced. I turned up the radio trying to drown out the echo of his words and raced towards the safety of home.
I previously talked about some of the identities that are afforded to Evangelical women. The examples I gave were positive examples. I mean that not in the sense that they are necessary good choices for your primary identity, but in the sense that if someone in American Evangelical Culture assigned you one of those labels, they would likely see it as a positive thing. But there are other labels that exist within that culture that are used when referring to women and they are not as nice. In this post I'd like to share the worst label I ever heard assigned to women in my time at Conservative Christian College (and one that I'm sure was assigned to me). Drum roll, please...
This was one of the most shocking,surprising, and hurtful terms I heard when I started attending CCC. I didn't just hear it once or twice. This seemed to be a commonly used term and there was absolutely no distinction between a feminist and a "feminazi." The terms were used interchangeably (or at least they would have been if the former term were used). Any feminist was by default a "feminazi." Believe women should have a guarantee to equal pay for equal work? Feminazi. Believe it's okay to be a working mom with a stay at home dad? Feminazi. Think it's actually not a terrible idea that churches and/or Bible translations seek to use more inclusive language where appropriate? Feminazi. Believe that our society has long been male dominated and is misogynistic in many ways? Raging feminazi whose faith will in turn be questioned.
In case you haven't figured it out, this is a hybrid term created by combing the terms "feminist" and "nazi." Apparently in some American Evangelical Culture circles, they see absolutely nothing wrong with equating a fight for equal protection in society regardless of gender with horrific mass genocide.
I, on the other hand, saw a lot wrong with it. A LOT. It makes my skin crawl. I still have an extremely vivid memory of the first time I heard it my freshman year. The thing that remains so shocking to me (even after having heard this term literally hundreds of times at CCC) is how easily the term was used. It was spoken so casually, as if it were a normal and acceptable thing to say...as if it wasn't extreme in any way but an honest assessment of what is occurring in society. And to be fair, I'm certain the speaker may have actually thought that. Statements such as "She's such a feminazi." were spoken as naturally as stating "It's raining outside."
Moments like that made me wonder if there was any middle ground in Evangelicalism for women. Was there any identity we could claim that rested somewhere between pastor's trophy wife or model homemaker and being considered a female Hitler? Similar tension exists for girls throughout our society as they are labeled either slut or prude, goody two shoes or bitch, ditz or academic show off.
Perhaps what amazed me most was the fact that people could profess to believe that all it took was a word from God to create the entire universe, but that it made no difference what words they used when dealing with one another. So, American Evangelical Culture, if you're out there listening...for the love of God, stop calling women feminazis. It's demeaning, cruel, and completely unnecessary.