Monday, November 30, 2009

Reactionary Faith

I know this seems to be trending towards being habitual, but I promise that these long posts will not be the norm. I'm currently really focused on this issue of conversations about God and realize that the big ideas I'm trying to examine won't work well in a multi-post format.

There is a reactionary element to our Christianity that, in my opinion, hurts more than it helps the cause of Christ. Let me clearly state right off the bat that I recognize that I will be vilified by many as I hold up a mirror (the Scriptures) to our collective faces and ask that we confront the truth about our reflection, but I love the Body of Christ enough to be willing to endure the pain of potential rejection and marginalization if it will motivate and inform an authentic and vulnerable assessment of the facts. Now I’m confident that when we oppose and confront people who appear to minimize our faith, we are doing so with sincerity and a firm belief that we are defending the cause of Christ, but I make so bold as to declare that we are sincerely wrong! We are not wrong because we respond to an attack on our faith, but often because of the manner in which we do it and the apparent hypocrisy that is displayed in so doing. Our disagreement is often aggressively confrontational, harsh, arrogant, and belittling in contrast to the mandate of Scriptures.

Take the recent meeting of the Atheists of Florida which I attended in Lakeland. Many have asked me why I would want to attend such an event and my swift and certain response has been, “what’s a better place to find people that don’t believe in God, for whom Jesus died?” Last time I checked, very few if any Atheists are coming to church and so I figured it would be a great idea for me to take church to them (I am the Temple of the Holy Spirit, according to the Scriptures). Besides, I really liked the idea of trying to get a sense of what it feels like to be a minority in a place where a different ‘language’ is spoken and a different worldview is expressed. After all, each time we ask people who are not like us to attend church with us, we’re asking them to do the same thing. In Acts 17, Paul’s ability to impact the Agnostics and Atheists of Athens was strengthened by his willingness to meet them in their space (the marketplace) as opposed to waiting for them to come to the synagogue (the believer's first space).

I’ve written quite candidly and exhaustively about my perception of how the Lakeland meeting went, here so I won’t be redundant and rehash the same issues. But I should tell you that as a follow-up to that meeting I received this note from Rob Curry, the President of Atheists of Florida:


Thank you for traveling out to Lakeland on Monday. I was glad to meet you in person, however briefly, and sorry that there was not more time to chat.

Did you know the My Fox Orlando reporter for channel 35 featured you as “the voice of reason” in her televised report that evening?

Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!


Now before you indignantly begin to accuse me of bragging, or before you begin to make all those tired arguments about how you’d rather please God instead of men, let me assure you that, first, the only reason I’m willing to share this note is to make a broader point, and second, I don’t believe that pleasing God and men are mutually exclusive of each other. Here’s my broader point: Remember that Paul’s conversation with the unbelievers of Athens in Acts 17 was seasoned with grace and love and the end result was people turning to Christ. Well, here’s what Colossians 4:5-6 has to say about that:

Be wise in the way you act with people who are not believers, making the most of every opportunity. When you talk, you should always be kind and pleasant so you will be able to answer everyone in the way you should.

I’m very big on the idea of starting points for conversations about God being found in the daily and seemingly mundane routine of life happening all around us, and in a previous post I pointed out this fact using everyday events that directly or indirectly affect our lives. These conversations, in order to be effective, must be civil and motivated by a genuine caring and love for people. People will not listen to what you have to say if they sense that you don’t like them, or if they feel that they are being talked down to. So what’s reactionary? And can you please get to the point? I hear you ask. Well, following the billboard that instigated the Lakeland meeting, Christians, in direct reaction to the billboard, decided to put up one of their own just down the street that reads: “Believe in God, you’re never alone.”

Now my question is, why? Clearly this was not a previously planned, well-thought-out advertising campaign. If anything, it was a direct reaction to the Atheists’ billboard. So I ask again, why? What does it accomplish? Do we really think it will suddenly cause non-believers to go, “Oh look, finally the Christians are speaking up, let’s ignore the Atheists’ billboard and go to church!”? I know, I know, I’m being facetious, but I’m firmly convinced that a billboard opposing the Atheists’ billboard is not going to attract people to Christ. Instead of reacting, we should be finding more constructive ways to introduce Christ to our community, while loving and serving the people of that community, which incidentally, includes the Atheists against whom we seem to be battling.

This reactionary faith seems to be a fundamental flaw in the way we express much of our Christianity. Let’s examine another volatile issue that often seems to spark a reactionary response. It seems that the large majority of Christians are only vocally pro-life during an election year. I mean, you’ve never seen more bumper stickers, posters, advertisements, and debates over the issue of abortion when elections are imminent. But mystifyingly, once the elections are over silence reigns. It would be wonderful if the statistics showed that every single year Christians led the list of people who adopt babies, or provide constant care for single mothers and whatever else is necessary to help women make the decision to keep their babies rather than abort them. My friend, Steven Hickey, is one of the few people I know that makes this a forefront issue every day of his life. He has been vilified, targeted for death, had his property vandalized, and had just about everything you can imagine done to him in response to his stand on abortion. Steven is not a reactionary. He puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to the issue of abortion. Whatever else you might say about Steven, you certainly can’t accuse him of not truly caring about the plight of the unborn.

So what exactly is my objective here, you may ask? Am I some self-appointed watchdog or ‘Christianity-cop’? Absolutely not. I’m simply a concerned Christian who really wants the Church to reflect the image of Christ to the people that need Him the most. I’m simply against a clearly unsuccessful approach to sharing Christ with our communities. I don’t think Christians are perfect and I don’t think we have all the answers (I think Jesus is perfect and that He has all the answers), and so I’m convinced that a more humble approach with a willingness to invest the time it takes to learn about people who don’t believe the way we do or share our worldview, will take us much further than a reactionary faith. I believe this is borne out by the Scriptures multiple times over.

When the time was coming near for Jesus to depart, He was determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent some men ahead of Him, who went into a town in Samaria to make everything ready for Him. But the people there would not welcome Him, because He was set on going to Jerusalem. When James and John, followers of Jesus, saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy those people?” But Jesus turned and scolded them. Then they went to another town. (Luke 9: 51-56)

I’m not interested in a theological debate on the context of these verses, I’m simply interested in highlighting the reaction of James and John and Jesus’ subsequent response. There’s no question in my mind whatsoever as to the sincerity of these “reactionary” disciples. Zealous in their knowledge and belief of Jesus’ goodness, they couldn’t fathom anyone not receiving Him and were willing to write off a whole town because of their rejection of Messiah. But Jesus wasn’t in such a hurry to condemn a town to “fire from heaven.” Instead, He was willing to scold His disciples for their insensitivity to God’s broader purpose and love for all people. But my favorite verse of those six short verses is verse 56. Verse 56 contains the theology of love. It contains the theology of interacting with people who are not like us, and it contains the theology of understanding that we will make mistakes and God will love us in spite of ourselves. It simply states: “Then they went to another town.” It didn’t say Jesus “benched” James and John from ministry for the next few “crusades” because of their reactionary faith. Having scolded them, and imparted the lesson of truth that He wanted them to learn, they moved right on and went about the vital business of loving and reaching people for the cause of Christ.

It’s my singular hope and prayer that we will be the same as we examine our reflection in the mirror of His word. If the “scolding” shoe fits, let’s wear it and move on so we can be about our Father’s business. Charles Swindoll, in his book Simple Faith says, “Then how far do we take this love-your-neighbor stuff? Do we love atheists? Yes! Scoffers? Yes! Criminals? Yes! Love, remember, sees the soul and focuses on the heart.” I know quite a few Christ-followers that are living examples of this. Here’s a short list of a few of my friends that fit the bill, Patrick Voo, Alex McManus, Erwin McManus, and Eric Sweiven . Just my two cents.


Ron said...

Personally, I would much rather see someone declare themselves to be an atheist than to claim to be a “Christian” and live as if God does not exist. It seems to me that it is much more feasible to reach an atheists heart who believes that there is no heaven or hell, than someone who thinks they are heaven bound because they are living better than the next guy.

I had an incident last week at The Classical Academy Charter School that reminds me of this. TCA is branded by the media and others as being an “underground” Christian school. The HS Principal actually censored references to God and Christ written by students in their bios for the musical (ironic). I stepped in to apologize on behalf of the school to the kids protecting their 1st amendment rights of free speech. I would have, however, just a vehemently stood for their right to thank Allah, Buddha, or even Satan. The point is that we all need to be free to express what we believe and why as long as it is in a respectful, non-threatening way.

I’d much rather see a person with conviction that is open to the exchange of ideas, than a person who lives as a hypocrite.

Joseph said...

Ron, brilliantly put!

Patrick Voo said...

my dear dear joseph,

if i could edit your post, i would ... to include me in the company of mentors like erwin mcmanus and eric sweiven is humbling-borderline-embarassing. it's enough to be included in the company of those who bravely attempt to follow in the way of Jesus!

rob curry's note to you indicates to me one thing if nothing else ... that you have formed a relationship that has all the potential for influence. i'm reminded of jesus' interaction with the woman at the well - oh, how Jesus loved to negotiate the non-negotiable lines of social convention - and i think "what must have happened that this woman met someone who saw her for everything that she is, and yet still wanted to introduce others to him?"

may you continue to be one who presses forward toward a kingdom future where everybody belongs and everybody matters.


Patrick Voo said...

[joseph, please edit my previous comment to include alex's name - i'm not sure why it didn't get included in the first edit! - cheers, patrick]

Joseph said...

Patrick, I failed to mention in my post that another hallmark of people who truly reflect the image of God is their humility and desire to remain uncelebrated. I knew I was right about you the first time. :)

I love your take on the woman at the well and how she was willing to introduce Jesus to everyone she met even though he had seen through to her very soul. I'm grateful to be on this journey with men like you, it makes the road easier to travel.

Ash said...

i remember someone wise once telling me (when i was in master's commission, i believe) "the sin of youth is to react, while the wisdom of age is to respond."

i am always learning what this means on a daily basis: but it is true. lashing out, or making faith in God a political statement, rather than a passionate and loving one only keeps those that aren't with us-- away from us.

of course whether it was Nicodemus, a man of the law or the Samaritan woman, a despised their time, jesus showed love to both and in the end: won both

Joseph said...

Ash, couldn't have said it any better. Thanks for your contribution.