Category: Discipleship

Prosperity Theology, Creflo, and the People Called Methodist

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Most of the Methodist world gasped in horror at the news last week that a prominent TV evangelist, the surreally-named Creflo Dollar, had gone public with his desire to raise $65 million from his faithful flock for a new private jet. (That’s a lot of dough — you can build a substandard high school football stadium with that! Rim shot, please …)

People in the liberal Protestant tradition can’t really relate to the financial attitudes of a large segment of Pentecostals and evangelicals. I can, because I grew up in this subculture.

My high school years, in particular, were spent at a growing, suburban megachurch in Plano, Texas, which came out of the Word of Faith movement, based in the ministry of Kenneth Hagin and Rhema Bible College. Churches throughout the world have imbibed their ethos from Hagin’s influence, as well as his spiritual descendants, including Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, and others.

Since these are non-denominational churches, there is no direct link between them, except in the loose affiliation of friendly preachers and funders, as well as overarching themes and teachings, the primary one being something called “Prosperity Theology.”

The first, and fundamental, tenet of Prosperity Theology (PT) is that God desires that all Christians be, if not wealthy, then extraordinarily well-to-do, and completely healthy. According to this thinking, believing Christians should have no unmet material needs, nor should they be sick. Proponents of PT point to Abraham as the paradigm of the faithful believer; he was obviously a rich man by any ancient Middle Eastern standard. Much of the Old Testament supports the concept that the faithful will be blessed, while the wicked will be punished with poverty — even in this world, never mind that a whole lot of the Old Testament is also spent pushing back on this concept, including the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.

Financial blessing is a spiritual birthright, then, of the believer. There are a number of ways to tap into this windfall. The Word of Faith folks emphasize the words and speech of our mouth; what we say out loud determines what actually happens. You must constantly “confess with your mouth” that you are prosperous and blessed. You must not allow yourself to voice negative thoughts, worries, or concerns, because then those things just might come true.

Furthermore, you must constantly “believe” or “have faith” that what you want will happen. To “believe for something,” is PT code for “saying that something is going to happen, even though you don’t have any proof that it will.” It’s essentially positive thinking on steroids.

Another way to receive the financial blessings you deserve is to give out of your poverty. The best way to show your faith is to give money away that you can’t afford to give away. Like the widow who gave away her last two pennies, believers are encouraged to give sacrificially. These gifts are then, not simply offerings, they are “seeds” that are sown into fertile ground, and which will reap a substantial reward.

The best proof that this sowing and reaping dynamic works is to look at the preachers who practice it — the people who buy TV stations and broadcast their images throughout the world, while dressing like fashion stars, driving expensive cars, and, yes, buying private jets.

And this theology “works.” All you have to do is count the number of people in Dollar’s churches, or the numbers of people throughout the world who buy it. I was surprised to discover in Cameroon, that one of the handful of public TV stations that were available on every set, was a Christian station out of South Africa. Every program and preacher on the station promoted PT thinking. The Methodist pastors in our fledgling mission ate it up. They thought that’s what American Methodists believed, too.

And so, when I heard Creflo Dollar’s appeal, it didn’t shock or surprise me. It made a lot of sense:

    “The mission of Project G650 is to acquire a Gulfstream G650 airplane so that Pastors Creflo and Taffi (his wife) and World Changers Church International can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace. We are believing for 200,000 people to give contributions of 300 US dollars or more to turn this dream into a reality—and allow us to retire the aircraft that served us well for many years.”

In my last year or two at this megachurch in Plano, I began to be troubled by the disconnect between what I heard from the pulpit and what I read in the Gospels. I notice that our pastor never preached on Jesus’ words, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” He never preached about Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, nor did he address Jesus’ words about not having a place to lay his head.

Even worse was the disconnect between the message preached and the reality around me. I heard people in my church literally tell a man that if he had enough faith, his wife would not die of cancer. Three weeks later, when she died, I couldn’t help wonder if his faith had been damaged for good.

I understand the appeal of PT; it does seem to speak a word of hope and expectation to poor people. But it’s not the right word. It seriously distorts, not only Scripture, but also human experience.

I’ve tried to put that kind of theology far behind me. However, this morning, as I watch the furor around Dollar’s request, I wonder how much PT has seeped into our very own Methodist subculture.

I’ve been vocal in the last few years about how much I distrust numbers as a sign of fruitfulness. I’ve written here and there about the meaningless of statistics, particularly church membership and attendance. I recognize that this is partly due to my own experience in a PT church growing up.

But take a look at some of the largest churches in the world — Nigeria’s Living Faith World Outreach Ministry has a sanctuary that can seat 50,000. They have three services every Sunday. Pastor David Oyedepo is Nigeria’s wealthiest preacher, worth $150 million by some estimates. And he preaches the same prosperity BS that Dollar preaches. Is the size of his church a sign of God’s blessing on him?

I would argue, “Of course not.” It IS possible to build a megachurch which is built on a faulty theology.

This leads to the question, “Is the size of any church a sign of God’s blessing or curse AT ALL? Is it even a sign of doctrinal orthodoxy?”

The answer is, “No.” It’s simply not a direct correlation. Yet, we United Methodists continue to moan about our membership decline. We are worried that the numerical loss indicates something about our performance. This might be true, but it is not always true. Then we rush around trying to fix the numerical loss, assuming that it is performance-related. This causes us to create fundamentally-flawed, performance-based metrics. “Marks of fruitfulness” can never be expressed on a spreadsheet.

Let me say it clearly: the size and budgets of our churches do not matter, especially in terms of faithfulness, fidelity to the Gospel, and quality of ministry.

Let’s take that question a step further: “Is the size of one’s wallet, or salary, or savings, a sign of God’s blessing or curse AT ALL?”

Again, the answer is, “No, not at all.” Yet I fear that, subconsciously, there are a whole bunch of us Methodists who actually subscribe to the logic of Prosperity Theology, even if we would never articulate it in those terms, and are actually offended when we see it baldly expressed by the Creflo Dollars of the world.

John Wesley was absolutely right when, toward the end of his life, he lamented how wealthy the Methodists of England had become. He recognized that they never did really subscribe to the third of his famous trinity of financial maxims: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” In his sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” he preached:

    O ye Methodists, hear the word of the Lord! I have a message from God to all men; but to you above all. For above forty years I have been a servant to you and to your fathers. And I have not been as a reed shaken with the wind: I have not varied in my testimony. I have testified to you the very same thing from the first day even until now. But “who hath believed our report?” I fear, not many rich: I fear there is need to apply to some of you those terrible words of the Apostle: “Go to now, ye rich men! Weep and howl for the miseries which shall come upon you. Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall witness against you and shall eat your flesh, as it were fire.” Certainly it will, unless ye both save all you can and give all you can. But who of you hath considered this since you first heard the will of the Lord concerning it? Who is now determined to consider and practice it? By the grace of God begin today!

How many of us actually preach it, or practice it?

I confess that I don’t, yet all the while, it convicts me, and gnaws away at my spirit, hoping that someday I might attain the practical holiness of Wesley.

I can sit here on my computer and take potshots at Creflo Dollar’s silly jet idea all I like, but perhaps I am just as silly, greedy, and deluded. I have succumbed to the same dream, the anti-Christian American Dream, the anti-Gospel Prosperity Theology, because I, too, simply want to be wealthy, healthy, and successful.

Lord, have mercy on me.

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Getting Justice Right

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In the North Texas Conference, I am the chair of something called the Board of Church and Society. This is a fancy, United Methodist term for “Committee for Social Justice Issues.” (Or as the Good News folks would put it, “Everything That is Wrong with Liberal Christianity.”)

The name is a holdover from the sixties, I’m sure. It implies that only this committee deals with issues that concern both the Church and the wider world, because everyone knows that worship certainly doesn’t. Or prayer. Or discipleship. Sigh.

The fact that “social justice issues” are dealt with only in this particular committee of the larger church is problematic for me. I find it fundamentally disturbing that we so easily partition off so-called real life issues from the rest of our faith.

There is a seamless integration between the things we believe about God and the way we live inside God’s creation, just as there is no difference between the command to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the command to love our neighbor. It’s one and the same thing. It’s simply two ways of talking about the same exact thing.

You can’t be a great Christian in your heart, while at the same time taking advantage of folks in your neighborhood. You can’t be a wholehearted Jesus-follower in some mystical, spiritual sense, while also being a dickhead to people you don’t like.

Those things don’t hold together. As John put it, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”

But something insidious burrowed its way into our churches and congregations and persuaded us that “faith” was somehow more important than “action,” and that “belief” has primary over “behavior,” and that “evangelism” is the main task of the church while “justice” is something we can only hope to get around to every once in a while.

John Wesley liked to say that there is no personal holiness without social holiness, to which I say, “Amen!” And to recover the sense of vitality in our own movement, we must rediscover the importance of the pursuit of justice in our lives as followers of Jesus.

Perhaps one problem is the very word, justice. It’s a fuzzy word for lots of us. For some, it conjures up “Law and Order” episodes, in which good guys chase after bad guys. For others, it hints at all sorts of left-leaning causes, which makes a lot of people in my neck of the woods very nervous.

For me, Biblical justice is a very simple concept. It refers to the restoration of right relationships with God, with others, with self, and with the rest of creation, including the earth and its elements, plants, animals, and the outer limits of our knowledge. While we cannot literally restore right relationships between every person and God or others, we can certainly begin the work of demolishing or changing the structures and powers that keep relationships fractured and broken.

I would say this definition of justice describes very well the entire story of God and God’s interaction with the world, as it is told in Scripture. Justice is the reason Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus came to put things right.

And that’s what what folks who claim to follow Jesus are supposed to be doing, too. We’re supposed to be doing justice work! We look at the world with a yearning for things to be made whole again. We should be looking at our communities and asking the really difficult questions, such as, “Why are children in our neighborhood dying from malnutrition and lack of basic medical care?” and “Why do the poor live in such rotten parts of town?” and “Who benefits from such arrangements?” and “Do we have to let things stay like this?”

But these are dangerous questions. And that’s precisely why most of us DON’T do justice work. It verges on the political, on the controversial. And we want so badly to steer a middle course. We don’t want to appear to be “partisan.”

OF COURSE WE HAVE TO BE PARTISAN!

Has anybody noticed that Jesus was clearly partisan? He took the side of the least of these, the poor, the oppressed, and all the other motley outsiders. He was on THEIR side, as opposed to those who were powerful, greedy, arrogant, self-righteous, and overly pious. Yes, he took sides. He played favorites!

In his coming-out party at a Nazareth synagogue, he stood up and said, “Well, I can see that the poor need to hear some good news, that there are prisoners who need to be set free, that there are blind folks who need to see, and there are some oppressed people who need to stand up straight again. Let’s do it! Let’s put things back in their right place!” And as soon as he said this, the townspeople attempted to throw him off a cliff.

But Jesus never once stopped to preach and said, “I think I’ll do some spiritual work now,” after which he said, “OK, back to my secular work, back to real life.” Evangelism and social action were one and the same to him. God’s work was everyday work, something which consumed him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Unless we integrate our lives, and unite our theological convictions with justice in action, then we will be merely “almost Christian.”

Which is to say, not Christian at all.

Isn’t it time for churches, congregations, and Jesus-followers to rediscover the call to do justice?

Refusing the Right to Bear Arms

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My first and only experience with a gun took place when I was eight. My dad gave me a BB gun for a present. I remember shooting at a simple target in the front yard of the home where we lived.

More vividly, I remember the time that a friend was preparing to shoot at the target, and I foolishly passed right in front of him. My friend wasn’t ready to pull the trigger when I passed by, but my dad sternly scolded me. “Never walk in front of someone with a loaded gun,” he said.

Good advice. But I didn’t need it because I never became fond of that gun.

In fact, I’m not fond of guns now — not BB guns, rifles, handguns, or semi-automatics. I never developed any sort of fascination with things that shoot.

I realize this is due to my upbringing. Despite the gift of the BB gun, my father was not really interested in guns either. He didn’t hunt or fish, and so didn’t raise me in that outdoors, survivalist, camo-wearing subculture. Instead, I grew up interested in sports, books, music, films, and urban life.

At some point in my life, I came to the conclusion that gun ownership was actually antithetical to the lifestyle of a Jesus follower. I still believe that.

It is because of that conviction that I don’t own a gun, and never will.

In the midst of the current, post-Newtown national debate on gun control, this is my sole contribution to the discourse. It is my personal pledge, my manifesto.

I don’t own a gun, and never will.

I refuse to claim the rights (whatever they may be) of the Second Amendment. Those rights don’t mean anything to me as a follower of Jesus, who warned us that those who live by the gun, die by the gun.

I’m not that interested in changing the laws either. Yes, I think it’d be great if access to guns were restricted, but wouldn’t it be better if people just began to disarm themselves? Wouldn’t it be better if each of us said to ourselves, “I am not going to own a gun anymore”?

And wouldn’t it be better if, in particular, those who claim to follow Jesus decided to disarm? Imagine the impact if hundreds of thousands of folks said, in unison, “I don’t own a gun, and never will, because I follow the way of Jesus”!

I’m not advocating any sort of forced, government-imposed disarmament, but the free choice of people who are ready to live differently in this gun-loving nation, who are willing to completely divest themselves of weapons in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Why don’t we rise up en masse to refute the words of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who foolishly said, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”? Theologically, this statement is indefensible. Jesus stopped the ultimate “bad guy with a gun” by giving up his life non-violently, and in the process, “destroyed death,” according to the Apostle Paul. The whole truth is that there are lots of ways to stop a bad guy with a gun, and not surprisingly, love is one of the ways.

Furthermore, there is a stark, false dualism at work when we so glibly refer to “bad” and “good” men. How can one really tell the difference, especially when Jesus kept pointing out that those whom his contemporaries thought were “good” were remarkably “bad,” as in the “scribes and Pharisees” who were hypocrites, and that the “bad” deserved compassion and kindness, such as the prostitutes and tax collectors? Guns enforce a black-and-white view of the world, which is extremely gray. And it’s amazing to me how many “good” guys suddenly turn “bad” when they have a gun in their hands.

I can’t think of a more powerful faith statement than to stand in solidarity and say, “Despite the presence of evil and terror in this world, I will not succumb to the false security of owning a gun.”

A word to hunters: Yes, I know that there are many folks who follow Jesus who also like to hunt. I know that your reason for owning guns is recreational. I don’t intend to try to persuade you to give up your guns, nor to insist that there is something morally wrong with hunting. If you hunt, then hunt safely. And keep following Jesus.

A word to those who carry guns which are required by profession: I am aware that there are many folks who follow Jesus who carry guns as part of their job. Again, I have no interest in trying to persuade you to take my pledge. I know that you carry your weapons with a clear conscience. I am not interested in starting an argument. All I ask is that you continue to wrestle with the words of Jesus, in particular, the command to, “Love your enemies.” That’s the best that any of us can do, to continue to struggle with the full import of Jesus’ message. He said some pretty strong things, and commanded us to do some really hard things. None of us are able to live completely and perfectly in the way of Jesus, no matter how hard we try.

However, the person who professes to follow Jesus must grapple with his teachings, as well as the example which he set. It’s clear in my mind that the arc of Jesus’ ministry steers us away from violence in any form, toward peacemaking and acts of radical love. His life also teaches us that violence can never be used to accomplish peace or love; the ends do not justify the means.

I can’t imagine a more powerful witness to the way of Jesus Christ than for as many of us as possible to say proudly, at the top of our voices: I don’t own a gun, and never will.

Who wants to say it with me?

Noel Moules’ Manifesto is My Favorite Book of 2012

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I read a lot of books during the year, but there always seems to be one that stands out, that I continue to go back to again and again.

Last year, my favorite read was Samir Selmanovic’s It’s Really All About God: How Islam, Atheism, and Judaism Made Me a Better Christian, which probably had a lot to do with the Ramadan experiment that I conducted in the summer.

This year’s best book came out of nowhere and crashed into my consciousness just a few weeks ago.

I happened to see a chance to get a free book from Christian Alternative, a liberal/radical Christian imprint from John Hunt Publishing on Facebook, in exchange for the promise to review it on Amazon. Out of five or six titles, I noticed one that sounded especially interesting: Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace: A Spiritual Manifesto from a Jesus Perspective by Noel Moules. I’d never heard of the book or the author.

Fingerprints of Fire is an extremely exciting read, laying out a vision for the authentic Christian life in today’s world. It’s truly the manifesto of one particular man, Noel Moules, a founding member of Anabaptist Network UK and the creator and director of Workshop Programme for Applied Spirituality.

Though the book is fairly compact, it is packed full of biblical quotations, anecdotes from history and personal experience, wisdom from different faith traditions, and theological insights. Even more important, Moules has put his own soul into this book — the words vibrate off the page with energy.

Moules writes of the time that he discovered the Hebrew concept of shalom, or peace, and how it transformed his understanding of the meaning of the scriptures, and of Christianity. He began to see that shalom was the point of Jesus, that shalom is the message of the gospel, and that shalom is the way forward.

Chapters are titled by different names of the Jesus-follower: New Age Traveller, Cosmic Visionary, Shalom Activist, Radical Mystic, Creation Companion, Messianic Anarchist, Values Master, Meekness Zealot, Wisdom Dancer, Subversive Celebrant, Faith Friend, and Childlike Inquisitor.

Moules’ vision of 21st-century Christianity is not so much different from Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Tony Jones, or any other emergent thinker.

Yet it sounds new and refreshing. Perhaps this is because Moules is from the UK; maybe I can hear his accent in his writing!

But it’s more likely because Moules’ voice truly is different and compelling. His book invites the reader into a new kind of life, beckoning us all into a vision of shalom for the world, full of grace and openness. He writes as if this vision is possible, as if we can actually participate in this radical world of peace. In other words, it truly does read like a manifesto. And I want to be a part of it.

Where do I sign, Noel? I’m all in!

Getting the Band Back Together

This is the fifth in a series of posts about following Jesus in the UMC. I am looking back to John Wesley’s three-tiered structure of discipleship for suggestions and hints of how Methodists ought to pray, plan, and proceed in the future. The first post is about the UMC’s drift away from discipleship; the second explored the meaning of the very word “Methodist.” The third and fourth posts began to explain Wesley’s structure, specifically the nature of “societies.” This post investigates Wesleyan “bands.”

Does any significant spiritual growth happen in gatherings larger than just a handful of people?

That’s not a rhetorical question – what I’m asking has serious, long-term ramifications for the way we do things in the United Methodist Church.

When I look back on my own life, the really important things that happened in my soul and spirit occurred in small, quiet, largely private settings. I flash back to discussions with youth pastors, conversations with college roommates, and heart-to-heart chats with fellow seminary students. I also remember being profoundly shaped by those of us who went through the candidacy process together – we met monthly in prayer and accountability groups.

Funny, but I grew up in a tradition (charismatic non-denominational) that actually valued the public worship gathering as the locus of the work of the Spirit. Services tended to focus, not on preaching, but on the extended time of praise and worship after the sermon, accompanied by altar calls and prayers for healing. It was rather frenetic, noisily chaotic, and extremely emotional.

I remember being raised with the idea that nothing really good happened in a worship service unless lots of people moved up front at the end, shed tears, were “slain in the Spirit,” and asked Jesus into their hearts.

It didn’t take long, however, to discover the deeper truth that what happened at church, tended to stay at church! Frankly, much of what happened there at the stage was simply good old-fashioned excessive emotionalism.

Certainly good things can – and do – happen in large groups. Public worship gatherings can be inspiring and moving, of course. Music and preaching have their place.

But it seems rather obvious that true, long-term, mature discipleship only takes place in the context of small groups of people who are open, transparent, and committed to each other, and to their relationship with Christ.

It is my conviction that John Wesley understood this concept extremely well, and shaped a system that effectively funneled interested people into smaller and smaller groups of people in order to facilitate this kind of discipleship.

The pinnacle of this system was the “band.” Bands were groups of four to nine people, of the same sex and, usually, same station in life, who met as often as twice a week.

Bands were a prominent feature of Wesley’s first society, the group which met at Fetter Lane beginning in 1738. According to the rules of the society, during band meetings everyone was invited to take a turn to “speak as freely, plainly, and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.” In other words, bands were a kind of intimate confessional group. In the freedom of band meetings, individuals could share frankly and openly about their lives, their hopes and their doubts.

I imagine that, during the 18th century, Wesley was responsible for hundreds of these small bands across the English countryside, which met regularly like AA and Weight Watchers to support each other.

There’s no doubt that having three or four close friends who stay in touch on a regular basis for the explicit purpose of supporting you in prayer and encouragement would have a powerful effect on your walk with Christ.

Once again, here I must ask, to what extent does the current UMC provide for, and attempt to establish, band meetings? When was the last time you were asked to become a part of a very small group of persons who wanted to do nothing but meet regularly for prayer and spiritual conversation?

We could at least begin with our preachers, who are folks who desperately need the fellowship and support of colleagues. In some annual conferences, clergy are assigned to various large “cluster” groups for the purpose of mutual accountability, but the practice of requiring clergy to participate in band meetings is unknown in my experience.

Walk to Emmaus Reunion groups also contain “band”-like features. In my last church setting, I knew of at least two active reunion groups which have kept individuals tied together for at least five years. The participants acknowledge that they hardly ever miss meetings, because the fellowship is so rich and valuable. In fact, they are more likely to skip Sunday morning worship than miss a reunion meeting.

My point is simple – how can we possibly expect to “make disciples” if we aren’t constantly creating and fostering those places where we know disciple-making occurs best?

Go start a band!

Moccasin Politics: On the Ministry of Empathy

The most fascinating news item of the last two weeks is the story of the anti-Semitic Hungarian politician who recently discovered that he was Jewish.

According to media reports, Csanad Szegedi was a rising star of the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary, who had accused Jews of “buying up” the country and desecrating national symbols. The 30-year old Csanad was raised as a Presbyterian, and was responsible for the creation of the neo-fascist Hungarian Guard, which was outlawed in 2009. In 2010, he was secretly taped being confronted by an ex-criminal with reports of his own Jewish ancestry. Csanad appeared surprised, and attempted to buy off the convict.

But after the confrontation, Csanad approached his maternal grandmother, who told him the truth of his Jewish ancestry. She was herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau.

Csanad resigned his membership in the Jobbik party shortly afterwards. According to media reports, it appears as if Csanad is spending time discovering his ancestral roots. He met with a Hungarian rabbi and plans to visit Auschwitz soon.

In other words, it appears as if Csanad might have had a change of heart. (More recent news reports seem to dispute this development and hint that Csanad is, in fact, considering starting a new, even-further-right political party.) Any possible change in Csanad’s perspective was spurred by the discovery of his own true identity. He discovered who he really was, and the discovery is forcing him to confront the implications of his politics.

As the old Native American proverb goes, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Perhaps Csanad is finally walking in the shoes of a Hungarian Jew.

If I had the chance to ask Csanad Szegedi a question, it would be this: “What took you so long?!! Why did it have to become personal for you to acknowledge somebody else’s perspective?”

The world seems to run on a shortage of empathy. Empathy is the ability to enter vicariously into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of another person. It is the virtue of putting one’s self into the place of another, or to walk in someone else’s shoes.

In the 21st century, I can’t think of a greater virtue for a human being. Empathy is what will enable humanity to prosper and thrive in the future. We must learn to put ourselves in the place of others, to try to see the world from their point of view. We can no longer afford to impose our worldview onto others.

I remember the very first time I discovered “empathy.” I was on a college mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico over a Christmas break. We spent most of our time working and worshipping with a community that lived in a garbage dump. It was my very first direct encounter with extreme poverty, and it shocked me.

I watched the young kids digging through the piles of broken glass, twisted wire, and plastic bottles, and thought to myself, “What if I grew up here? How would my expectations of life be different? What would I believe about God?”

I learned to ask these questions everywhere I go in the world. I have pondered these matters while holding orphans in Zimbabwe, sitting in an airport in Casablanca, worshipping with immigrants in Paris, zipping through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a motorcycle, and sunning on the beach in Southern California.

Attempting to answer these questions has helped make me a more honest human, and a more searching Christian.

Without empathy, we are all liable to become like Csanad Szegedi – railing and spewing self-hatred in our ignorance.

As a Christian, I believe that one of God’s own qualities is empathy. This virtue is at the core of our doctrine of the Incarnation.

God took great care in creating us; we are told that we were created “in God’s image.” But because we were “other” from God, and because we seemed to be destined for an eternal separation from God, God chose to step into our situation. God, as it were, “walked a mile in our moccasins” by becoming human, by taking on flesh and blood.

God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the supreme act of empathy. And the point of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion is that God went all the way through with the act of empathy. God didn’t shy away from the most painful part of the act.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to the ministry of empathy, too.

There may be no greater calling at this moment in history, especially in America. What could be more healing to our politics of church and state than to become willing to consider the plight of persons of color, of women, of gays and lesbians, of immigrants (documented or undocumented), of mentally ill persons, of prisoners, of persons of other faiths?

The list could go on and on, because there are an infinite number of persons who are NOT you and NOT me!

Yes, empathy is difficult, and it takes constant work. But it must be done, for the sake of the planet.

There are lots of moccasins to go around. We should get used to trying different ones on.

Down the Drain Together

 

Russ Douthat and Diana Butler Bass, and everyone else with a blog or a website, has shot an arrow across the bow of the American religious liberal/conservative divide in the last 48 hours.

“Can liberal Christianity be saved?”

“Why don’t conservative Christians take blame for the decline of the church?”

“Can Christianity in America be saved?”

“Which part of the church can be blamed for the great exodus from American churches?”

Here’s a thought – the so-called “decline” of the American church has nothing to do with the church itself, its theology, or its beliefs.

It has everything to do with a growing crisis in American society concerning public trust in institutions. Christopher Hayes makes precisely this point in the first chapter of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. He asserts that the “core experience of the last decade” is “the near total failure of each pillar institution of our society,” including the Supreme Court, the US security apparatus, the financial system, Congress, the White House … and the church.

The church-as-institution has certainly not fared better than any other secular organization, whether you want to point to the Catholic Church’s priest-as-predator scandals, or the co-opting of the Religious Right by shady politicians, or the shameful TV evangelists who peddle their shallow theology to desperate folks.

A recent Gallup poll shows confidence in the church at an all-time low, down 12 percentage points from its historical average.

We simply don’t trust our institutions anymore. Too many of our leaders are corrupted souls, and we can see through them quite easily. And the leaders who do have a measure of integrity find themselves constantly stretched and pulled into compromising situations. We have given up on the hope that our largest institutions can faithfully reflect our aspirations and values.

Smaller bodies and organizations still maintain some modicum of trust, especially if they operate transparently. But once they start to expand, we begin to grow increasingly skeptical.

I am tempted to suggest that this mistrust is inevitable, given the rate and speed at which information travels. In the past, our leaders may have had clay feet, but we simply didn’t see it. In the present, everything is observable and up for scrutiny – instantly. The words I tweet or type in this blog may come back to haunt me in the future. Who knows?

Yet, there’s something else going on. Pollsters have been trying to tell us church folks for years that there is a growing segment of the population that call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” They may like Jesus, but not the church and her various laws and doctrines. They are interested in God, but not all the accoutrements, especially not theological speculation. And they are interested in social causes that reflect basic, decent, humanitarian and Golden Rule-ish values.

They are, in other words, finished with the church-as-institution, because it consistently has failed to meet basic spiritual and social needs.

I am pretty sure that the “decline” of the liberal church has nothing to do with its supposed theological shortcomings, nor its refusal to defend historical Christianity. Just as I am likewise sure that the “decline” of the conservative church has nothing to do with its supposed theological shortcomings, nor its strong defense of orthodox Christianity. If anything, churches of all stripes have largely failed to satisfy people’s cravings for higher meaning and divine purpose in life. Churches of all kinds of theology or non-theology have apparently failed to connect people with meaningful service and transformative mission.

When people express their hunger and thirst, our churches have responded by sending them to professional clerics, appointed them to committees and boards, and asked them to put more money in the plate.

The people respond by staying away.

Instead of divesting itself of the trappings of the institution, large parts of the Christian church in America are still desperately clinging to what worked in the past, and hoping to revive the respect, dignity, and prestige that the institutional church once held in the eyes of society.

This is a dead-end road. Public confidence can’t be restored over night.

Furthermore, Christians around the world are beginning to rediscover the idea that God’s mission in the world transcends the institutions and organizations that have historically carried the name of Jesus. It appears that something new is happening, something messy and chaotic, unpredictable, anarchic.

Whatever is emerging, it doesn’t appear to look anything like the cathedrals and chapels of the high churches, nor the boards and agencies of the mainlines, nor the revival services of the evangelicals. And it likely won’t be measurable by any known metric.

In fact, the best metaphor is one that Jesus himself used: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”