Thursday, February 26, 2009

Six Steps to Save the Church - Observations by an Ex-Christian - Part 1

Part 1 - Overcome Fear with Love

Tommy Jackson, a pastor of a rural church in Texas, recently conducted an experiment – he pretended to be a drunk and homeless man wandering the church parking lot.

“Jackson wanted to test his congregation on their compassion for those in need. Playing the part to the fullest, he even had the police called on him. Some church members were [leery], but others offered food and shelter, not knowing who the mystery man was. Jackson revealed himself at the end of the Sunday service.”

Reviews on various websites about the experiment were mixed. One person responded: “Of course people will act righteous. They’re in a church parking lot. They have an audience. I couldn’t even begin to recall all the holy pissing contests I’ve seen among congregations. When I was attending the Christian high school, people tried to out-holy each other all the time–as long as someone was watching. In private, especially off campus, people were considerably less Christ-like.”

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed. Most Christians - the suburban, generally wealthy or middle class ones like we have here in the South - they can deal with one or two people. They can deal with one drunk, one homeless person, one black person, one gay person.

What they can’t deal with is being a minority. They have a great fear when they are the minority in any situation - they feel unsafe, and they feel they don’t have control. I’m a minority in my neighborhood - everybody in my neighborhood is an ethic minority; there is no majority. It’s a pretty safe community but most suburban Christians would never venture here - to them it’s a “ghetto” and “unsafe” - usually code words for “there be black or brown people there.”

This is often why we never see the suburban churches helping with the urban problems. In my city there are over 5,000 homeless and only around 2,000 beds in shelters on any given night. The suburban churches see no issue in building gymnasiums that sit empty for five days a week. They can spend 30,000 on a new video projection system. They fear being out of their comfort zones. They need to be entertained. When a call goes out to collect 5,000 sets of coats and winter clothes for the homeless, local churches give a half-hearted response of around 1/5th of what is needed.

The churches can usually do an okay job at collecting some money or canned food because it doesn’t actually involve having to be around the poor and homeless. I saw photos of a church that recently hosted a “30 Hour famine” event to raise money. The youth group made card board boxes to sleep in on the front lawn of their suburban church, many painting and decorating their boxes. As somebody who has been around the homeless quite a bit over the past few years, it is hard for me to even begin describing how outrageously out of touch with reality are these people.

In fact, I find it rather insulting. It is if they are saying “I pretend to understand you and your situation even though I don’t care enough about you to even meet you, spend time with you, or get to know you.” Why not have the youth group spend the night at a homeless shelter or in a park frequented by homeless? Even better, why not have them meet every week to minister to the poor and homeless – NOT to hand out tracts to them, NOT to simply pass them a couple bucks and scurry away, but to LOVE them like Jesus loved them? Because it isn’t safe? Really? And I thought you believed you had a God watching over you and protecting you? More likely it’s because you’d be so ashamed to be seen with Lazarus, right Rich Man?

Fear has no place in the life of a Christian – except fear of a life of apathy, a life without empathy, and a life of complacency. If you fear being a minority in a group of people radically different that you, then you need to reevaluate what your beliefs. As I’ve heard before “The church needs more martyrs and less celebrities.”

“People sometimes ask if we are scared of the inner city. We say we are more scared of the suburbs. Our Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can harm our bodies or those things which can destroy our souls, but we should be far more fearful of the latter. Those are the subtle demons of suburbia. As Shane’s mother says, “Perhaps there is no more dangerous place for a Christian to be than in safety and comfort, detached from the suffering of others.” We’re scared of apathy and complacency, of detaching ourselves of others. It’s hard to see until our 20/20 hindsight hits us, but every time we lock someone out, we lock ourselves in. Just as we are building walls to keep people out of our comfortable, insulated existence, we are trapping ourselves in a hell of isolation, loneliness, and fear. We have “gated communities” where rich folk live. We put up picket fences around our suburban homes. We place barbed wire and razor wire around our buildings and churches. We put bars on our windows in the ghettos of fear. We build up walls to keep immigrants from entering our country. We guard out borders with those walls – Berlin, Jerusalem, Jericho. And the more walls and gates and fences we have, the closer we are to hell. We, like the rich man, find ourselves locked into our gated homes and far from the tears of Lazarus outside, far from the tears of God." - Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How much have you crossed off the pyramid?

I think fundamentalists Christians fear more than anything else a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and the creation story because it is often the beginning of disbelief for many ex-Christians/atheists.

This idea came from Dan Barker, but it does fit my life as well. Start with a pyramid. The pyramid has a descending order of beliefs. For example, at the top is belief in an all powerful god. Below that is the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, the Trinity, atonement by the blood of Jesus, the belief in salvation in faith alone, etc.

At the bottom of the pyramid is maybe belief that Baptism is required to enter heaven. Or that Christians can’t work on Sundays. Most Christians don’t believe these are necessary tenants of faith, so go ahead a cross them off your list. As you go up the pyramid, you have various denominational beliefs. Some restrict pastors to being only male, for example.

As you get up the pyramid, you come to issues like belief in a literal creation story. “Well, if the creation story isn’t literal, that’s okay. It was parable, just like Adam & Eve and Cain & Able were parables. The truth is in the message of a parables.” Scratch another level off the pyramid.

Creationists/fundamentalists say “Here’s what we believe, what evidence can we find to support it?” Scientists and freethinkers say “Here’s the evidence, what conclusions can we draw from it?”

“Most of the old testament was written by a primitive people trying to understand god, so I’m not going to take everything literally. Noah was a parable. Moses was a parable. This doesn’t conflict with the belief that god loves us and has a plan for us.” Scratch another level off the pyramid.

As Christians become less literal in their interpretation of the Bible, the fundamentalists have lost control over them. They no longer have the ability to steer Christians in one direction or the other on their political agendas. No longer does it work to cherry pick one or two verses and telling Christians they must interpret this verses literally.

Eventually, as the pyramid gets smaller, you cross off things like Jesus being the only path to heaven, and eventually you doubt the need for Jesus' divinity at all. Like Thomas Jefferson and many other deists, your faith is in the overall message of Jesus, but you don’t take literally the stories of miracles or even the resurrection.

At this point you see many other stories of morality through out the world that are as good or better than the Bible. You see that morality is found outside the church. As Steve Weinberg said:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

There’s only one block left atop the pyramid now - scratch it off.