Monthly Archives: April 2013
Beginning in the early nineties, Cindy and I made the jump from a high church format (no, it was not a church of stoners) to a casual church that included contemporary worship music. (There wasn’t even an organ in the building.) It was a dramatic change for us. We felt uncomfortable for a long time in the contemporary church. They actually had drums and guitars in the sanctuary. (How gauche!) Not that high church is bad or inferior, but the contemporary format and the style of preaching eventually stirred deep emotions in me. It often led me on an inward journey where God’s spirit revealed some things in my life that needed to change. Oddly, it was uncomfortable and fulfilling at the same time.
I would never want the high church format to disappear from the ecosystem of Christianity. It functions quite well for millions of Christians. In fact there are times when I am simply not in the frame of mind to worship to a contemporary beat and listen to a hip message delivered with polished stagecraft and energetic oration. In other words, I occasionally crave a more reverent tone. That’s when it’s wonderful to slip in and worship with high church believers.
One of my in-laws is in a mixed marriage: He attends a high church while his wife and children attend a contemporary church. Just recently, my wife asked him why he doesn’t go to church with his family. He said it was because the theology of the contemporary church was wrong. Specifically, he said the contemporary church in question believed in decision-based salvation. (Funny, I expected him to say it was because they have guitars and drums in the sanctuary.) At least his reasoning was not superficial.
I’ve always thought that all genuine Christians, at some point in their life, made a “decision” as to whether they believe in the divinity of Christ and that he suffered and died for their sins. Still, I ran this controversy of decision-based salvation by a friend who happens to be a deep thinker. Here is a paraphrase of what he said:
The evangelical church has this tendency to present the message of salvation a little too much like a sales pitch. After all, who doesn’t want to go to heaven and who doesn’t want to stay out of hell. And who doesn’t want a Savior who is there to help them through their problems. So when a pastor or a Christian friend pitches salvation to an unbeliever, the formula is simple: The unbeliever is coached to pray the sinner’s prayer whereby they admit their sinfulness, ask for forgiveness, and invite Jesus into their heart. There! The decision is made and the deal is closed.
My friend suggested that it’s possible that many people who come away from this type of salvation sales pitch are not saved. This type of quick decision-based path to salvation bothers the high priests of high churches. They may be right.
Perhaps contemporary evangelical churches need to proceed a little more cautiously when presenting the gospel. I am not suggesting we embrace legalism, but maybe salvation should not be treated like a sales pitch where the customer is presented with only the positive features of the product. Entering a covenant with Christ is a lifetime proposition that will have challenges along with rewards.
I recently watched a video where random people were being interviewed on the street. The questions focused on personal vices and sins. The responses of one young woman caught my attention. When asked if she had ever lied she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When asked if she had ever stolen she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When asked if she had ever lusted she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
We all have a tendency to look the truth in the eye and deny it. We also have a natural tendency to grade ourselves on a moral curve. We whisper to our innermost selves: “I’m basically a good person. Other people have done worse things.” The sobering truth is that God is not swayed by our comparisons to others.
Tragically, many people get seduced into a false sense of moral health when compared to everyone else. (I compare myself to Simon Cowell when I need to feel better about me.) But comparing ourselves to others obscures the accuracy of our inward gaze. In the Beatitude of Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This Beatitude about poverty in spirit is another way of describing the epiphany we have when we finally see ourselves as we really are—morally bankrupt and unable to avoid judgment despite the fact that there are many people in the world who are more reprehensible than us. It is that “aha!” moment when we realize that God does not grade on a cosmic curve when judging our life. It is the first step towards redemption and comes after we gaze inward, without rationalizations or comparisons to others, at our sins and shortcomings.
Ironically, we move further from God when we insist on maintaining the illusion that we are not a bad person. As soon as we admit the truth about ourselves, the heart of God melts and we can move closer to him. I’m not suggesting that we need to toss our value and self-esteem out the window. I am, however, suggesting that the best self-esteem and understanding of our value comes from God’s love and mercy expressed through Christ rather than from our perception of our self-worth compared to others.
It is a beautiful day in Northern California and my two dogs won’t go outside after breakfast. (If they had thumbs they would play video games all day.) Anyhow, we recently bought two identical food bowls, one for each dog. Each food bowl is divided into sections designed to reduce the speed at which my dogs gorge themselves at feeding time. My female dog, named BG, is often bitter and irritable if our male dog, named Joe, gets his bowl of food a few seconds before she gets her bowl of food. BG probably thinks Joe is getting fed with her bowl. In the spirit of détente, my wife wrote each dog’s name on their bowl with a permanent marker, but that didn’t ease tensions between the dogs at meal time. (No, I have not questioned my wife as to why she thought it helpful to write the dogs names on their identical bowls, which made me wonder if my dogs are more literate than I give them credit.)
BG often gets irritated at everything Joe does. If Joe gets a few pats on the head, BG growls at him. If Joe runs to get his bone, BG growls at him. If Joe tries to sleep under the bed with BG, she growls at him. If we go to the park and chuck a tennis ball for Joe to retrieve, BG chases Joe and barks at him. (Their relationship is a lot like marriage . . . did I just say that?)
Have you ever noticed how some people are just like BG? They find fault with everything and everybody. Negativity oozes from their pores. If management changes the layout of office furniture at negative Neal’s place of employment, he doesn’t like the new layout. If a colleague at work makes a mistake, he is on it like white on rice. If the company changes a policy, negative Neal whispers complaints under his breath. If a meeting starts late, negative Neal gripes about the leader’s lack of punctuality. On the other hand, if negative Neal makes a mistake, well, you bring it up at your own hazard. In the mind of negative Neal, his work is important and highly confidential while the work of others is unnecessary and inconvenient, especially when it interferes with his duties.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale. I do not bow down at the altar of the power of positive thinking. To deny that bad things happen is to deny the truth. I do not believe God expects us to live in a fantasy world where we pretend everything is OK. But I find it disconcerting when encountering uber-negative Christians who have been churched a long time. I have fallen into this trap at times. You know the type: the person who will tell you they are an imperfect sinner but never seem to see their own flaws, only the flaws of others. Again, don’t get me wrong, I too see all the faults and warts that are part of the modern Christian church. What I am talking about here is an unhealthy personal feeling of superiority to others. A need to constantly feed the beast of superiority through criticism is evidence of something amiss in a person’s life. It is, rather, a weakness and a possible sign of deep insecurity.
If the entire Christian church would spend several weeks a year studying and implementing the three verses in Matthew 7:3-5 (it will have more impact if you look it up), it would send shock waves through the darkness for generations. It would also drastically improve the spiritual, mental, and physical health of God’s people. In addition, Philippians 2:14-15 tells us to stop grumbling and complaining. We can attend church for years and go through all the motions of piety, but it is just dead religion if we never make these verses active in our lives. Sure, we’ll feel good when our ears are tickled by truth, but we won’t be transformed down deep in our soul. These verses are the cure for many ills.