Joining God in the Renewal of All Things

This is a draft of the first page of the discipleship book I’m working on. I used to dislike the word “evangelical,” because it has picked up so much political baggage over the last several decades, but I have come to realize “evangelical” is exactly what I aspire to be: someone who delivers good news.

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I’m inviting you to join God in the renewal of all things.

Actually, I’m just delivering the invitation. God does the inviting. I think this is cool for several reasons:

  1. God wants you
  2. to join God
  3. in what God is already doing.

You may not believe in God, or in the Bible, or think of yourself as particularly religious. You may have a low opinion of churches and church people, or of people who call themselves “Christian” and talk about Jesus all the time. Or you may have a low opinion of yourself and your own value, and doubt that God would be interested in inviting you to do anything. That’s fine. The invitation still stands.

In one famous Bible story, a king (representing God) invites people who claim to be his friends (religious people) to a banquet, and they all refuse. Fed up with their hypocrisy, the king orders his servants to go invite people off the street until all the seats are filled. After they do so, there are still empty seats, and so the king orders his servants to just go grab random people and compel them to come in, until the banquet hall is filled with people “both good and bad.” Those random people represent the rest of us sinners, saints, and skeptics who never expected to receive an invitation! Some of us find ourselves sitting in the banquet hall hardly aware of how we ended up in this place. Maybe a friend even “compelled” you to come in! Apparently God is less concerned with the value judgments of people than we are. God wants you.

I suppose God could do this on God’s own, but that’s not the way God works. Some religious people like to describe God as all-powerful, sovereign, and in control, and I suppose those descriptions are true. But they are also often irrelevant, because God is first a lover and a creator. Lovers and creators (like parents and artists) know that both creation and loving involve giving up control. God made people in all their rich and wonderful diversity so they could participate with God in creating something wonderful. God wants us to join with each other and with God in God’s project of renewing and salvaging a broken world.

And God is already doing it. Everywhere he went, Jesus said that “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” Although many of his contemporaries believe that the kingdom meant something far off in the future, and although lots of people today believe that “heaven” is somewhere they go when they die, Jesus meant something different. “The kingdom of the heavens,” or the kingdom of God, represented the state of the world when people would finally live at peace with themselves, each other, and all creation; when oppression would end, everyone would have enough to live and thrive, and the world would be healed. Jesus believed in it so strongly he taught it as a prayer that summed up his teaching: “Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.” Moreover, he taught that this kingdom was already breaking through into the world, like a growing plant pushing through the soil. Unlike many modern religious people, he did not see this kingdom as the destruction of the earth, but the renewal of it.

So, there’s the invitation: Join God in the renewal of all things. It’s already underway. Do you want a piece of this action?

God Shows No Partiality Promotion

My book God Shows No Partiality will be available for Kindle for free from Sunday, March 10 until Thursday, March 14 (Pi day!). If you haven’t read it, pick it up! If you have read it, spread the word and change the conversation! It’s high time people knew and reclaimed this slogan from the New Testament.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can always come by our worship service and pick up a hard copy for free—then you can pass it on to someone else when you are done.

A free study guide (which is a work in progress) is available here.

Give Me that Old-Time, Watered-Down Religion

Wine Barrels

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets…” (Matthew 5:17). Have you ever noticed that Jesus sounds a bit defensive, here? Jesus launches one of his most powerful speeches, the Sermon on the Mount, by acknowledging the criticism of his opponents. For him to start this way means there must have been people saying, “Jesus is abolishing the Law and the Prophets!”

I think I can imagine what some religious people were saying about the new Jesus movement. “They’re just preaching Judaism-Lite,” they said. “These Jesus-followers set a low bar for discipleship: you don’t even have to cut off your foreskin! And you know what they forbid you to eat? Nothing! You can eat whatever the heck you like! What kind of religion is that?”

This new Jesus movement preached a message to Gentiles, of all people, and told them “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Choose your yoke- heavy or light?

Of course, everyone knew that “yoke” and “burden” were metaphors for how you interpreted religious law. When the big debate over whether or not new Christians would have to be circumcised broke out, Peter turned on the Pharisees and said, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Then the church leaders composed a letter to the new Gentile converts: “…It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well’” (Acts 15:28-29). Anyone who read Jesus’ words about yoke and burden knew what he meant: “Hey, you Gentiles—you can follow God without cutting off your foreskin!”

With such a light set of requirements, critics of the new Jesus movement had a field day. The theology of this cult was designed to please humans, not God. They were watering down the Bible, teaching their followers dangerous things that would alienate them from God.

This is why Jesus starts off the Sermon on the Mount with a defensive statement, and why Paul constantly has to defend himself to churches. Make no mistake: A good portion of the New Testament was written not to potential pagan converts, but to religious traditionalists who were critical of the liberal theology of the new Jesus movement.

This is why Paul is so defensive in Galatians: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10). He also sounds defensive in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The people who were trying to make Paul ashamed of his gospel were not secular pagans, but Christian Pharisees who insisted his Gentile followers should be circumcised, abstain from pork, and celebrate Jewish holidays.

So when I preach about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons or against religious exclusivism, I expect the same reaction from religious conservatives that Jesus and Paul faced from their critics: “You are watering down the Bible!” In fact, I might go so far as to argue that if you are *not* getting this kind of criticism from Christian traditionalists, you’re probably not actually preaching the gospel.

In response, both Jesus and Paul shifted the charge back onto their Pharisee critics: YOU are the ones who believe in human tradition more than the Bible (Matthew 15:1-20). YOU are the ones who are playing to the desires of the flesh: the desire to dominate, to divide, to conquer and possess (Romans 2:1-5, Galatians 5:14-24).

Jesus goes on to contrast his followers with the Pharisees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He tells his liberal followers that they must outdo their traditionalist critics; out-pray, out-give, and out-live them in their spiritual lives: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus ups the ante. Though his followers have heard religious language about how to live their lives, his requirements are actually more stringent: “You have heard it said you shall not murder—I tell you don’t be angry. You have heard it said don’t commit adultery—I tell you don’t lust.” How would he preach this today? “You have heard it said love the sinner but hate the sin—I tell you don’t hate at all. You have heard it said give a tithe—I tell you give it all.” Yet he considers this discipleship an easier yoke than what his critics offer.

Jesus-followers claimed that their “watered-down” religion was actually more intense about things that matter. Even though their yoke was easy in one way, they were still obligated to conduct themselves with strict personal moral discipline, making it clear to others that this new community would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This new teaching was not for the traditionalists who already felt they knew and owned God—it was for all those alienated from God who needed Good News. Jesus compared his message to new wine, which you cannot put in inflexible, old wineskins. If his Good News offended you, maybe it wasn’t for you.

Viewed from this perspective, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (turning water to wine) was a tongue-in-cheek jab at his critics: you may think this new teaching is “watered down.” But it may be too strong for you.

I am thankful that more and more Christians are waking up to a gospel that is fully inclusive of all people. And I am thankful that I have met more and more folks who hold traditionalist values who also understand that this new wine is not for their church, but needs a new church, a new wineskin, to hold it.

Jesus vs. the Drama Queens

We usually use the word “hypocrite” to mean someone who doesn’t practice what they preach, or someone who notices other people’s sins but do not notice their own. But after hearing yesterday’s lesson on Mark 7, I began to hear something different about the way Jesus uses the word “hypocrite.”

I wrote about this passage in my book God Shows No Partiality: “hypocrite” is a Greek word that meant stage-actor, and for the first Gospel writers it would have carried several negative connotations that they associated with Greek theater. Because both Christians and non-Christians use the word so much, it has lost it’s ability to connote these other meanings.

So I started thinking, what if we translated “hypocrite” as “drama queen?” Imagine Jesus saying to today’s Christians, “Woe to you fundamentalists, you drama queens!” The phrase “drama queen” connotes both acting and overacting. It can include manufactured outrage, religious posturing, or disapproval at people who break religious regulations. It connotes the shocking gender and sexual ambiguity that was present in first century theater (where men played women’s roles, and theater people were associated with lax morality) as well as the modern implication of some kind of personality disorder. Religious drama queens have a deep personal need for attention and approval, either from God or from their social group. They love stories in which they are an oppressed minority. For them, the world is always about to end. The president or the pope or Lady Gaga are the anti-Christ. For preachers who rail against homosexuality, the phrase “drama queen” points out that they may have their own gender and sexuality issues.

It’s too easy for Christian holy-rollers to shrug off being called hypocrites, and it’s too easy for non-Christians to slap the hypocrite label on religious people without thinking of how it applies to themselves. One common sermon illustration is the person who says they don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites. The pastor replies: “We’ve always got room for one more.” Both religious and non-religious people can be drama queens.

You can be a religious or a non-religious drama queen any time you build yourself up by showing others what a lifestyle diva you are: praying in the marketplace, as Jesus said, or publicly lamenting whatever it is trendy to lament, or manufacturing outrage over someone else’s misstep. Their are eco-drama queens, and second amendment drama queens, and vegetarian drama queens, and libertarian drama queens. In this way, hypocrisy is not only about saying one thing and doing another. It’s the whole practice of blowing tiny things, even irrelevant things, out of proportion.

The story from Mark goes like this: The disciples sit down to eat one day without washing their hands. (For contemporary Christians, this might be like sitting down to a meal without saying a blessing first). Some of the Pharisees notice, and they say to Jesus, “Don’t your students care about honoring God before they eat?” Jesus answers, “The Bible warns about you religious drama queens: ‘These people talk incessantly about me, but their hearts belong elsewhere. Their worship is meaningless, and they teach their own rules instead of mine.’ ”

The Pharisees were taking a few verses from the Bible about religious purity for priests (who were supposed to wash their hands and feet before serving in the Temple) and applying it to all people in all situations. Today, religious drama queens take all kinds of scriptures out of context, or make up new restrictions that they say follow logically from other scriptures, and teach them as God’s Will for All Humankind. Jesus says that such people are not really following God. They are drama queens.

As we begin forming Saint Junia, our new United Methodist Church in Birmingham, I think we need to establish early on a “no drama” rule. Not the theater arts, obviously, which are hugely important, but the bad drama of moralistic posturing and religious politics. The idea is to walk with God humbly, recognizing that it’s very easy for us to cross the line from authenticity to overacting without ever realizing it.

I’m the Problem

Conservative churches grow. Liberal churches fail. That’s been conventional wisdom for thirty years. In the 1980’s, as the religious right was beginning to flex its political muscle, people said this kind of thing all the time. This is why the mainline Protestant churches were declining, and Southern Baptist churches and “nondenominational” churches were growing.

Only it turns out that neither their theology nor their politics had much to do with it. According to exhaustive research by Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, it was mostly due to marriage and birth rates. The best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids, and the engine of church institutional life for the last century has been married families. As much as churches of all varieties liked to think that they were bringing the lost to Christ, the fact is that most of their numbers came from simply breeding new Christians. The mainline Protestants, who tended to be slightly higher on the economic ladder, expected their kids to go to college and delay marriage until they had a sufficiently high-paying middle-class job. Their pastors, likewise, were supposed to be well-educated (and thus slightly older) than their “evangelical” counterparts. This meant fewer generations in a given church, and therefore fewer people. Of course, once the non-denominational evangelical churches eventually caught up with the economic prosperity of the mainliners in the 1990’s, they started seeing the same downward trend. (In the second decade of the 2000’s, there’s another disturbing trend: marriage is increasingly the privilege of a shrinking middle class. A majority of households below median income are now unmarried. What will that mean for the church of the future?)

I do wish it were otherwise. I wish that most of our growth was from changed lives, new believers, people who were committing their lives to following Jesus. That’s what “evangelism” originally meant, before the related word “Evangelical” took on such conservative political connotations. I consider myself evangelical: I believe all people—sinners, saints, and skeptics—need Jesus. They do not need a doctrine about Jesus. They do not need a particular prayer or a set of words. They need the person, Jesus, even if they aren’t to the point of “accepting” him. As a fellow church-planter says, the gospel isn’t about us accepting Jesus into our hearts anyway. It’s about Jesus accepting us.

Unfortunately, the discredited idea that conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline has not yet died. It was trotted out again by Bishop Lawrence, an Episcopalian who is distressed about that denomination’s decision to bless same-sex unions and ordain transgender people. “Sexual and gender anarchy,” he claims, will lead the denomination into decline.

There are two things (besides the prejudice) that bother me about this kind of argument.

The first is that there is little evidence that the political or theological alignment of a denomination actually affects church participation. On the other hand, there is plenty of data that point to socioeconomic factors (class, marriage, kids) influencing church involvement

Church people are notoriously bad about making fact-free assertions. Lawrence claims it’s their liberal ideas that hurt mainline churches, but I could use his same set of facts to claim that it’s the weather: Churches in the Southeast are doing better than churches in other parts of the United States. Clearly, it’s hot, humid weather that makes people more religious! So all we need to do is get more people to move to the Southeast! Or make the entire planet hotter!

At our General Conference back in April, one delegate had the audacity to stand and proclaim the same conventional wisdom as Bishop Lawrence. He said that we Methodists needed to learn from successful churches like WillowCreek, megachurches that were more conservative. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 10,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, sat maybe two tables away. I wish I could have heard his thoughts at that moment.

Clearly, churches across the theo-political spectrum are able to do well. Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco is radically inclusive and very liberal, yet people line up around the block to get in. At the same time, there are plenty of dying conservative churches all over the country. Quality ministry does not depend on the orientation of one’s theology or politics. People who use the tired rhetoric that liberal churches are dying while conservative ones are thriving are simply spouting their own prejudices wrapped up in religious language.

The second thing that bothers me about Lawrence’s argument is this: I believe that if more churches gave a rip about about marriage and childbirth patterns, about the disappearance of the middle class, about the economic factors that make people poor and why that makes marriage less likely for them, they might do better ministry AND address a demographic problem of decline. But my saying that probably makes me a liberal. So according to Lawrence, I’m the problem.

You know what? I’m fine with that. I’m fine with being a problem. I dearly hope that we manage to grow a big Birmingham church of a gazillion people who are also problems, who also believe that God shows no partiality. I believe we problem people need Jesus, too, and I hope that we finally bury once and for all the idea that God only works with people who don’t cause such problems.

The Church Birmingham Needs

I’m going to try to be as honest as I possibly can about my hopes and dreams for this new church, which means saying some things that may make people uncomfortable, and taking a risk on saying something that may be wrong. That’s okay. I’ve been wrong before.

One of my deepest longings for this new church is that we will have a diverse congregation: black, white, Latino, and “other” (a category I always find amusing on demographic questionnaires, considering what “other” means in theology and sociology), straight, gay, lesbian (and “other”), old, young, (and “other”), rich, poor (and “other”), hard-core believers, agnostics (and “other”). Given Birmingham’s history and the continued political and social dysfunction we experience in our city as a result of that history, I believe we need churches that are as diverse as the Kingdom of God, who represent a community that truly believes “that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6).

It is difficult to express this vision to others. I often get the response that “we can’t just have diversity for diversity’s sake.” I agree. We need diversity because it expresses the action of God in Jesus Christ who deliberately preached and acted on reconciliation and justice in his whole ministry. We need diversity because it strengthens our community. I am happy that most churches are at a point where they realize if their leaders are all old, white men that something is wrong. I am glad to have served churches that, as they are choosing leaders, will say, “we need a young person on this committee” or “we need some female representation on this team.” The leadership of these churches have gotten over the idea that this is “diversity for diversity’s sake.” This is about leadership and the mission of the church, about reaching new people for Christ and the realization that our own vision is limited. We need a diverse community to lead well.

Since moving and beginning the process of church planting full-time, I’ve been trying to meet as many people as I can. Yesterday was the first time we encountered old-school Birmingham racism. A man struck up a conversation with us, and we started talking about area schools. (We homeschool because traditional school didn’t work well for our son, but people attribute to us all sorts of reasons for our doing so. It’s interesting what our decision to homeschool reveals about other people’s attitudes.) He approved of our decision to homeschool, because he didn’t approve of the way public schools “indoctrinated” kids about civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wow.

The conversation made me aware of how much I’ve gotten used to being around people like me (white, middle-class, generally open-minded), and how easy it has become for me to be unaware of racism in my own context. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been used to moving in a social environment where the “soft” racism of privilege is still acceptable. People talk about crime or neighborhoods instead of race or class. It’s just that I hadn’t bumped up against privilege’s overt cousin in several years.

I can tell when I start talking about this stuff that people squirm a bit, and I have to be honest that I feel the sting of my own words. I’m living in Crestwood, a neighborhood that is “gentrifying,” that is on the right side of the tracks (literally) for urban renewal. I’ve had people tell me that churches that manage to be diverse don’t talk about such things. They just focus on Jesus, or just focus on relationships. While I believe in the importance of Jesus and developing interpersonal relationships with my whole heart, how can I not speak the truth?

I recognize that the challenge will be not coming off as paternalistic. Nobody wants to be part of a church where they are valued only as token members of a demographic. But I also recognize that churches do spend a huge amount of time figuring out how to attract people between the ages of 18 and 35, and they have done marketing and theological acrobatics to reach the “Nones.” They have celebrated preachers with hipster glasses and tattoos who have the same tired evangelical theology of their great-grandparents but who repackage it as “edgy.”

I am not interested in being edgy. I want to be truthful. I think that’s the church that Birmingham needs. Perhaps it is naive of me, but I do believe that all people need to hear and experience that kind of community.