Tag Archives: christianity

Marketing a Noncommercial Message

The church today has a weakness for numbers. We are infatuated with measurements and quantified data: statistics, opinion polls, market research, attendance figures, bestseller lists, budgets, and so on. We want specific numbers so we can keep tabs on things like market saturation, return on investment, and consumer satisfaction. We want to monitor what the masses are buying, where the people are flocking, and what is hot right now, so that perhaps our warehouse churches will overflow with seeker-consumers. In other words, the church today operates like a corporation, with a product to sell and a market to conquer.

But what happens to our faith when we turn it into a product to sell? What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible? What does Christianity lose when it becomes just one piece of a consumer transaction? These are questions that the brand managers of “cool Christianity” would do well to consider. …

Let’s think for a minute about what Christianity is and why it doesn’t make a good “product.” For one thing, products must be subject to markets, yet God is not subject to the consumer needs or wants of any market. God only and ever deals on his own terms. … Another reason why Christianity doesn’t make a good product is that it doesn’t lend itself to an easy commercial sale. Sure, there are appealing things about it, but there are also not-so-appealing things about it (um… taking up one’s cross, avoiding sin and worldliness, etc.). And although the Gospel is wonderfully simple in the sense that even a child can recognize its truth, it is also mind-blowingly complex in a way that doesn’t lend itself to thirty-second jingles. Marketing requires simplifying, cutting out all friction and obstacles to a sale, and focusing solely on the beneficial, feel-good aspects of a product. To market something is to empty it of all potentially controversial or difficult elements, which is maybe not the best method of communicating the gospel…

Read the rest of this excerpt (from Chap. 13, “Reversing the Ripple Effect,” of Hipster Christianity) over at Q Ideas Blog.

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Christians Need to Love Each Other More

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“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is one of the last things Jesus said (John 13:34-35) to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He told them to love one another in the same way that he had loved them.

This is a verse that gets a lot of play in many churches today. The necessity of love is increasingly heard from pulpits, Christian books, radio shows and so on. Churches and Christians everywhere are scrambling to love the world and serve it selflessly. And that is a wonderful thing. I’m glad to see love making a comeback.

But what about Christians loving one another? Are we as good at this as we are at loving those outside the church? In the Christian world of feuding factions and denominations, theological catfights, and near constant bickering, I sometimes wonder.

Read the words of Jesus again.  He doesn’t say people will know we are Christians because we have so much love for the world. He says people will know we are Christians because we have love for one another.

Perhaps Jesus did mean something more human and universal when he said “one another.” But it almost makes more sense if he was talking specifically about the church loving its own members—his disciples loving each other. Why? Because an unconditional love between people of such diverse backgrounds (Jew, Gentile, poor, rich, black, white) bound only by a common allegiance to Christ IS the most noticeable kind of love. There aren’t many circumstances in this life where people of every sort of class, race, circumstance and struggle are unified and bound by unconditional, unearthly love. But this is what Christianity is supposed to be. And when it IS this way, it is such a powerful witness.

Christianity is about becoming a community of disparate believers who nevertheless fuse together under the auspices of that most binding and barrier-breaking of all sealants: Christ’s all surpassing love. It is only natural that this will look countercultural to a world that more often than not divides itself along whatever lines (ethnic, class, gender, nationality) it can come up with. The Christian church distinguishes itself (ideally) by putting aside these arbitrary dividing lines. As D.A. Carson famously described in Love in Hard Places, we are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake:

The church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance.

Christians loving each other may prove to be the most difficult love of all (because heaven knows we are all so broken and annoying and stubborn), but in the end I think it proves to be the best witness.

I’m sort of tired of Christians fighting with each other so much, tearing each other down, etc. If from the outside, Christian communities look as petty and unkind as anyone else in the world (or worse), why should anyone be interested in Christianity? But if Christians love each other with the sort of unconditional, self-effacing altruism that Christ modeled for us, we will live up to our namesake and people will know we are Christians just by looking.

So let’s put aside our differences, look to Christ, and love each other more.

Lord Save Us. From Your Followers

Last night I attended a screening of Dan Merchant’s new Michael Moore-esque documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers.  It’s a film about how Christians have a huge PR problem and how “the culture wars” are exactly the opposite of what Christians should be battling in this world. The real war concerns things like poverty, injustice, and loving the unlovable, suggests Merchant. If Christians just loved better, befriended drag queens, and washed homeless people’s feet, our image crisis would go away.

But would it gain any new converts? That is the question (one of the questions) I kept asking myself.

After the film, there was a discussion involving four participants: Merchant, Everett Piper (President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University), Bill Lobdell (author of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace) and Michael Levine (CEO of Levine Communications and proudly secular).

Levine was the most vocal in the discussion, cynically asking the audience from the outset to “raise your hand high if you’re a Christian… Now raise your hand high if you think I am going to hell because I’m an atheist.” He then explained that a conversation is completely impossible when one of the parties believes in their heart that the other is hell-bound.

As unfair as that is, Levine did make a few interesting points. “Why would I believe in a religion or a God whose followers have no noticeable differences in their lifestyle?” asked Levine, making the point that he has a lot of close Christian friends but none of them live substantially better, more peaceful, more loving lives. And then he used this illustration:

“Imagine there is a gym and you have two groups. One group goes to the gym every day and one group never steps foot in the gym. But the group that goes to the gym is just as fat as the group that stays home. So what does that say about the gym? Why would I want to believe in that gym?”

Point well taken. It is very problematic that so many “Christians” look and act the exact same as anyone else.

But I think Piper made a good point in response when he said that one shouldn’t look first to Christians but rather to Christ in order to evaluate the appeal of the Gospel. He said something like, “Imagine you want to know what a fish is like. You go to a beach and what you see are a lot of dead, smelly, decaying fish. Should you then surmise from this that ALL fish are like this, or that this is how the “ideal” fish should be? Of course not! It’s dishonest to judge the truth of something by looking at the ways in which broken humans have distorted it.”

Yes, there are broken, corrupt, annoyingly off-base representations of Christianity. We are all very aware of that. But that doesn’t change the truth of the God Christians worship. I’m so tired of Christians falling all over themselves with apologies for the oppressive scourge that Christianity supposedly is. Sure, we should acknowledge and own up to the bad things we’ve done. The Crusades and the Inquisition DID happen. All sorts of other sordid things have been perpetrated by Christians throughout history. Guilty! We humans are broken, flawed, selfish, confused people who make mistakes. Even Christians.

But it’s not about us!

We won’t win ANY followers to Christ by focusing our case primarily around how great or loving or happy Christians are. We must focus our case around Christ himself; The gospel; What God has done, is doing, and will do for the world, regardless of how helpful or unhelpful we Christians are along the way. God will do what he will do. He invites us to participate in his work but none of it hinges on our abilities or fortitude (thanks be to God!) outside the power of the Holy Spirit.

We need to stop worrying so much about having a favorable image or being liked! The success of God’s work in the world is not dependent on how people in 2009 perceive Christians. If we believe God is sovereign we need to have confidence that he can overcome all the loudmouth bigots who go around saying idiotic things in the name of Christ (not that we shouldn’t chastise and discipline those loudmouth bigots among us).

We need to quit worrying about how the worst among us are ruining our reputation and instead focus on living Christ-like lives in accordance to scripture and God’s will. We need to worry about our own transformation first and foremost. Are we new creations?

We should love others and ease the suffering in the world not because it will be better for our PR, but because the Bible tells us to and because the Spirit inside us spurs us to outward action. We should exude charity and patience and peace in our dealings with others not because it will win us admirers but because it is the Christian thing to do.

We need to be humble, yes, but not tepid. We should have confidence in the God we serve, the gospel we believe, and the church that we are.

In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes the “immeasurable greatness” (v. 19) of Christ and his “rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21) over all creation, but then he adds that God gives Christ—and Christ’s subsequent authority over all things—to the church (v. 22), which is Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v. 23). At Christ’s feet, the world cowers and all creation converges. And as the church—as the body of Christ—we share in this unique, cornerstone-of-creation destiny.

In light of this reality, how could any Christian lack the confidence to be the church in the world—a body constantly spreading itself outward and expanding the reach of the Gospel? How could we ever worry that the fate of Christianity rests on this generation and these immediate challenges, when we know that we are part of something that will outlast time? I like what C.S. Lewis says in his essay, “Membership”:

The structural position in the church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic. The church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share his immortality… As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.

What an amazing thing! Christians need to wake up to the wonder and privilege and shocking power of what they believe and who they worship. We need to stop looking nervously to the world to define who we are and start looking to the Bible and praying for God’s wisdom. We should spend less time apologizing for all the ways we have failed and spend more time rejoicing and sharing with others the ways that Christ is victorious (chiefly: the resurrection!). And rather than pleading with the Lord to “save us from your followers,” we should simply pray, “Lord, save us.”

Because that’s what he does. And that’s why we should care.

The Worst “Christians” in the World

A couple of years ago the BBC aired a television documentary about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist (the “God Hates Fags” church). The documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, follows the BBC’s Louis Thoreaux as he spends time in Topeka with the Phelps. I watched it for the first time yesterday, and experienced the most anger and disgust I’ve ever felt towards people who supposedly worship the same God of the same religion and Bible as I do. I was thinking that if these people are Christians and are going to be in heaven one day, I don’t know if I want to be there with them. It’s a HIGHLY disturbing and maddening film for anyone to watch, but perhaps especially frightful for anyone who cares about Christianity and hates to see it be expressed in such a thoroughly skewed, unbiblical, self-serving manner.

Watch the whole thing (60 minutes long) here:

Some of the questions I asked myself after watching this: Why does God allow such crazy, fringe, ungodly people to be such a public face of the Christian church? Are these people actually Christians and is God using them in some purpose I don’t understand? If so, how can I blame anyone for not wanting to believe in this God? Is there any way we can shut down this church and silence the “God hates fags!” voice in a loving, nonviolent way? Why do the 30 people at Westboro Baptist get to do so much damage to the worldwide image of Christianity? What can the other billion of us Christians in the world do to counteract this?

I’ve been critical in recent years of the trend of Christians saying things like “I love Jesus but hate Christians” or “Lord, save us from your followers,” or similar variations on this “Christians are annoying but Jesus is cool” idea. But when there are people like the Phelps clan in Topeka who are masquerading as Christians and dragging that name in the filthiest kind of mud, I can’t help but understand why so many within the church are frantically trying to distance themselves from the designation.

Still, I think it’s wrong to get too worked up and worried by these sorts of people. That the Phelps—such a tiny anomaly of Christianity—could stir such a frustrated, stressed-out reaction in me ultimately indicates that I need to have a stronger faith. Not faith that I’m right and they’re wrong, but that God—above all earthly things—has a purpose and it will prevail, regardless of whatever stupid things people say or do in his name.

Christians today need to have confidence not in their own cultural dogmas or prophetic/martyrdom complexes (as in the Phelps’ insistence that God only smiles upon them and hates everyone else)—but rather confidence in Christ and his transforming, world-altering gospel. Contrary to what the Phelps might think, the Christian gospel is a hopeful message for the world and is about love rather than hate and grace rather than legalistic obsessing about the keeping of Mosaic laws.

Sure, there are unrepentant sinners. And yes, there is the wrath of God. But it’s God who will exact that wrath and doll out judgment as he sees fit. As Christians we should focus on thanking God, worshipping him and being imitators of Christ—which means loving and serving the world unconditionally and spreading a message of resurrection hope.

I don’t know what Bible Phelps reads or what God Westboro Baptist worships, but I’m not going to worry too much about it. They can call themselves Christians (even though they aren’t living Christianly) all they want; It won’t change the truth of who Christ actually was and what he actually said and did.

Christian Cussing

When I was a writer for The Wheaton Record circa 2003, I wrote a feature entitled “Cursing at Wheaton.” It was a two-page spread, 3,000 word story that I had researched and worked on for a month. It covered all the angles of cursing from a Christian perspective, including insightful interviews with English and Anthropology professors (Roger Lundin and Brian Howell), and even a survey of 100 Wheaton students who reported on their cursing habits. My biggest finding in the article? Seniors at Wheaton were about 30% more likely to cuss on a daily basis than were freshman. And more likely to use the f- word on a daily basis. No big surprise, I guess. The language of Christian young people isn’t as pristine as it used to be.

The issue of language is of course a terribly complex one, and an entire book could be written on the whole idea of cursing, profanity, expletives, etc.

But to me (call me old fashioned), the issue for Christians is pretty cut and dry. We should avoid using profanity; we should keep our cussing to the absolutely minimum, especially in public.

It has less to do with anything inherently wrong with the words themselves and everything to do with our Christian witness. Even if you disagree that certain words are “profane,” you can’t change the cultural perception. You can’t change a taboo. And as long as certain words are viewed as offensive, profane, or taboo, Christians should make every effort to avoid speaking them. We are called to a higher standard, right? Aren’t we supposed to be set apart? For the same reasons that we should avoid drunkenness and drugs and other “worldly” activities, we should avoid cursing. We are the salt of the earth. We need to discipline ourselves as such.

When I am around Christians friends and I hear them cussing up a storm, I cringe. It makes me sad. The words themselves don’t necessarily bother me. They aren’t what make me cringe. Rather, it is the fact that my Christian brothers and sisters are so recklessly abandoning scruples in what I daresay is one of the most crucial areas of our Christian witness: our language. Just read James 3:1-12.

Not using profanity in today’s world is noticeable. It is the sort of abstaining activity that people will take note of. What an opportunity for Christians to truly show restraint and demonstrate the different-ness of the Christ-like life! I’m not saying we should chastise non-Christians for using bad language or avoid movies or music with salty language; I’m just saying that we, as Christians, should set an example by being different.

Certainly the case can be made that a well-placed swear word can be appropriate for a Christian when no other word will get across an idea or express a certain level of emotion/emphasis. Some of my favorite Christian artists will occasionally throw a profanity into their lyrics to really drive home a point.

Dave Bazan, for example, in his Pedro the Lion song “Foregone Conclusions”:

And you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord /
to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the f— up.

Or Over the Rhine, in their beautiful song “Changes Come”:

I wanna have our baby / Somedays I think that maybe / This ol’ world’s too f—-d up / For any firstborn son.

And most recently, Derek Webb caused a stir when his record label refused to include the song “What Matters More” on his new CD because of this lyric:

‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face / About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save / Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit / About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today.

So there is definitely a place and a time for a well-placed cuss word. But it has to be used sparingly and with a real meaningful purpose behind it.

In general, Christian brothers and sisters, we need to clean up our mouths. I don’t want to get all pharisaic or anything, and maybe in the grand scheme of things it’s not a huge thing. But it is a thing. And a thing we need to be better about controlling. We have cussing pastors now, and cussing Christian bands, and LOTS of cussing Christian college graduates (they tend to take special pride in developing their long-silenced cursing skills). If I was a non-Christian observer I would be wondering, “What ever happened to the good little Christians who always said darn and dang and butt and shoot? I kind of miss them.”

Some Thoughts About Humility

I’ve been thinking recently about how Christians are meant to be set apart from the world. One of my goals for 2009 is to memorize all of Romans 12, and for February I am working on the part about how Christians are called to “not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But what exactly does that mean? The renewing of your mind?

Basically, I’ve been wondering what it is about Christians that makes us “set apart.” You certainly can’t tell by looking at someone—especially these days when Christians of my age dress and act (in many respects) like your average hedonistic hipster. So it must be a difference in our behavior or attitude, right?

I was talking to a friend about this a few weeks ago, and he suggested that, at the end of the day, the things that really distinguish Christians from the rest of the world are humility and forgiveness. Humility and forgiveness…

I think he was right. This pretty much sums it up.

Humility and forgiveness are totally countercultural. They are things that go against every grain of our nature—a nature that is so fundamentally driven by pride. Pride is the original sin, and the root of all subsequent sin. To be Christian is to actively repudiate our pride-based identity and instead follow Christ’s example of a self-denying, other-focused existence. And don’t think that it’s not a bruising struggle.

Everything in our society urges us to embrace our pride—to “go for it” and “be all that you can be,” to have high self-esteem and self-worth because we accomplish great things. Our parents and teachers tell us we are special and that one day we will probably be famous. The Internet tells us that we can and should be famous now. Our economy is structured in such a way that presumes that everyone ultimately wants more: more wealth, more prestige, more renown, more significance. Pretty much everything most of us do is toward the end of bettering our lives, making something of ourselves, and leaving some sort of important legacy behind.

Christianity says, “deny yourself” and “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.”

It’s a crazy idea. To think that, even as every instinct within us clamors for the recognition and envy of others, we might put ourselves last and love others first.

Just imagine what Christianity would look like if we stopped being so self-obsessed! What would the world do if every Christian stopped trying to make themselves look good or sound smart, and humbled themselves to a place where everything they did was not about them but about how they could be used to bring God’s graces and glories to a world in need?

What if we all decided to live simpler lives and consume less, giving more of our resources away instead of spending it all on iPhones, expensive wine, and whatever other status symbols we accumulate to pamper our lives and project an image of stylish perfection? What if, instead of obsessing about our complicated relationships or fretting about silly things like how a facebook wall post might be perceived, we realized that the deepest thing Rick Warren ever wrote is totally, reassuringly true: “It’s not about you.”

It’s. Not. About. You.

It seems like if ever we are to truly appear set apart—in a desirable, “I want to go to there” sort of way (to quote Liz Lemon)—a good place to start is with some sincere, “it’s not about me” humility.

Yes, it’s hard. Insanely hard. And even as I’m writing this blog post I’m stuggling with it. But the most subversive thing about the whole idea is that, even though it’s hard and seems stupid and self-loathing to purge ourselves of pride, it is ultimately a much better and more fulfilling place to be. For when we remove our own self-aggrandizing tendencies, we open ourselves up to being conduits of some other, higher, infinitely more significant purposes—the purposes of God. It’s about Him; not us. What a ridiculously comforting thought.

Sex From the Pulpit: Part Three

Sex scandals and evangelicalism go together like Christian Bale and rage. And it’s all very unfortunate. From Jim Bakker to Paul Crouch to Ted Haggard, we Christians are all too familiar with our leaders being caught in sex, scandal, and hypocrisy. Mostly we just like to forget that these things happen, hiding them or writing them out of the history books to whatever extent we can.

The case of Ted Haggard, unfortunately, has recently resurfaced with a vengeance, thanks to two things: 1) the release of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, and 2) the new allegations that, in addition to having sex and meth with a male prostitute, Haggard also had an inappropriate relationship in 2006 with a 20-year old boy in his church. In something of a bizarre press tour (similar to that of Rod “I might as well milk my infamy” Blagojevich), Haggard has recently appeared on Larry King, Oprah, and Nightline to discuss his experiences of being sexually confused, shunned by his church, and generally despised by most everyone. It’s all very sad to watch, as Haggard describes his various therapists’ opinions on his sexual orientation and how he’s tried to reconcile his sexual struggles with his abiding passion for Christ, the church, and his family.

Watching Haggard on Larry King Live last week, I had a few thoughts:

  • It’s hard to feel bad for Ted Haggard. But I do. He started his church from the ground up, made it a megachurch, made a name for himself in evangelical circles, and let the pride and hubris of all of it undo him. It’s not the easiest thing to be powerful—especially in the church.
  • The evangelical church is really bad at dealing with any sort of complicated issue in sexuality. This is why Haggard was and is so confused about it; it’s why he is shunned by most in the established church. We don’t know how to handle people like him. He had no one to talk to about it for all those years, because the church is so ill equipped to offer any guidance on the matter. This is not to put the blame for what Haggard did on the church. It’s just to say that, as an institution, we’re not that great at helping people through these things.
  • The church’s reaction—to exile Haggard and let him fend for himself post-scandal—is understandable but very unfortunate. When people in our Christian communities mess up, are we really supposed to kick them out and let them find redemption some other way? (in Haggard’s case: not through a church, but through a string of therapists and counselors). I understand the gravity of Haggard’s sin. It was egregious. Our response to moral failure must involve discipline and punishment, yes; but shouldn’t it also involve forgiveness and restoration?

All of this got me thinking of Lonnie Frisbee, an influential evangelist from the early 1970s who ignited the Jesus People movement in Southern California and proved to be the catalyst for the explosive rise of two very prominent evangelical denominations: Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. Frisbie, an LSD-tripping hippie who converted to Christianity in the late 60s, struggled with homosexuality prior to his conversion. And, as is so often the case with life post-conversion, he continued to struggle with it. But he was a lightening rod and major boon to the growth of the church in Southern California, and so initially the pastors who brought him on as preacher looked past his sexually suspicious past. But as soon as Frisbie had a few “lapse” moments and it became clear that his homosexuality could not be hidden from the congregations, he was kicked to the curb—first by Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel and then by John Wimber at Vineyard. Eventually both denominations made attempts to write Frisbee out of their official histories or at least downplay his contributions. Exiled, Frisbie eventually died of AIDS, a shunned and misunderstood footnote in evangelical history.

It’s not that I fault any of these churches for removing Haggard or Frisbie from their ministry; I think it would have been wrong to let them continue in ministerial authority even in the midst of illicit sexual sins. But I do lament that they felt the need to essentially disown these fallen men, making little attempt to work with them for community-based healing and restoration. It’s as if they were saying, “It was an aberration that this pastor ever had our respect; we’re sorry we put you in the trust of such an imperfect man.” But aren’t we all imperfect men? I’m not saying that we should validate unrighteousness or anything. But can’t we at least admit that struggling with sin is not abnormal or immediately exile-worthy? Hasn’t the church always been led by screwed up people?

Thus ends the “Sex From the Pulpit” series, on a slightly off-topic note. I suppose one take home from all three posts is that, while sex can be recklessly wielded from the pulpit, it can also be recklessly ignored by the church at large. We need to talk and think about all this stuff, critically, carefully, and Christianly, and we need to do it together. I hope these blog posts have been productive in that regard. Now I’m ready to not write about sex for a long long time.