A Reflection on Jim & Casper Go to Church

I wrote the following for my Missional Growth and Health class at Northwest Nazarene University.  Given the requirements of the assignment, I did not write all that I could write about this great book.  I highly recommend it.

I was born and raised in a Christian family.  I have been in a worship service almost every Sunday of my life.  Though I did not become a Christ-follower myself until I was fifteen years old, I have always accepted the validity of the Christian message.  Thus, in my most objective and honest moments, I must admit that my objectivity is, in fact, quite lacking.  In his Forward to Henderson and Casper’s book Jim and Casper Go to Church, George Barna writes, “Most churched people have been so immersed in the church world that they have completely lost touch with what it is like to come through the church door and try to fit into a place that has very distinct habits, language, goals, events, titles, architecture, traditions, expectations, and measurements” (Location 112).  Barna’s words describe my own situation well.

Henderson and Casper’s book tells the story of Jim Henderson, a Christian pastor, and Matt Casper, an atheist, as they journey together for two months to several different churches.  Henderson writes, “This is the story of what happens when two guys with polar-opposite worldviews go to church together.  As a Christian, I was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing something I took for granted, through the eyes of an atheist.  It was simply life changing” (Location 371).  People can learn a great deal about themselves when they learn to listen to those different than themselves.  Henderson’s experiences with Casper helped him to become aware of things that churches do that create barriers in connecting with the unchurched, but these experiences also revealed things that churches do that can help bring unity to people from very different backgrounds.  We can and should learn a great deal from this book to help us improve the ways in which we connect with unchurched people in our own settings.

Henderson took Casper to a variety of different churches, including some of America’s leading mega-churches.  First up was Saddleback, the church pastored by Rick Warren.  Casper’s first critique about Saddleback was regarding the music.  He thought that the presentation was top notch, but He did not have a positive reaction to it overall.  Casper, a musician, told Henderson, “The music is too contrived, too slick, too professional, really . . . When it comes to music, I like it pure.  Too much polish and you lose the heartfelt power, you lose the soul of the music, and you’re not gonna move anyone” (Location 533).  He had a similar reaction to the music at Willow Creek: “This stuff doesn’t seem to be doing anything for anybody” (Location 1096).  In contrast, when they visited Lawndale Community Church, a church that connects directly with many people in need, Casper perceived the music differently: “I’m just enjoying the songs more here, even though the call to belief in the words is the same as we’ve seen elsewhere . . . But these folks are singing these words with abandon, real feeling” (Location 1523).  Likewise, Casper had a positive reaction to the music at Imago Dei in Portland: “There’s definitely something much less contrived about the people onstage here . . . There’s something folksy about it” (Location 1904).

Though Casper and I come from different backgrounds, his reaction to the music at these churches is similar to what mine likely would have been.  I am not fond of an overly-produced worship experience.  Music should certainly be done well, and all those involved in the technological side should do their best to keep things running smoothly, but when things are too slick, it seems to me to lose a certain amount of authenticity.  God has called us to come to God in our brokenness, not to try to perfect ourselves first.  I do think that we should desire to bring our best to God, but realistically speaking, our best is insignificant next to the glory of God.  Besides the amount of effort put into the production, though, there was something else about places like Lawndale and Imago Dei that won Casper’s favor.

As Henderson took Casper to Lawndale, Casper had a hard time locating the church at first.  He saw places labeled “Lawndale”, but he did not see what he expected of a regular church building.  Henderson wrote, “Stand on the street in front of Lawndale Community Church, and you’ll see what church growth backward looks like” (Location 1464).  The neighborhood in which the church is located contains Lawndale Health Center, which was started by the church.  Nearby, you can also find Hope House, which is a recovery place for drug addicts.  There is even a pizza restaurant that the church started to provide both a community gathering place and jobs for people that the church is helping through the recovery process.  After hearing the sermon at Lawndale, Casper said, “Too often what I’ve seen thus far is pastors being focused on one thing: saving souls . . . But this guy I get.  I mean, he’s saving people” (Location 1544).  When they visited Imago Dei, they found that the church met in the auditorium of a school building, and most those attending were young people.  In the worship service, they watched a video showing the work of a team from the church in restoring a public park.  Casper responded to the video, “That was excellent . . . They are going out there and making Sacred Spaces, and it’s not about plastering a bunch of Bible quotes or getting in people’s faces.  It’s about making a tangible, visible, practical difference.  I get that” (Location 1924).

Casper’s comments show his concern that so many churches focus on gathering funds simply to produce the church service.  Henderson writes, “But the one question that was far and away the most difficult for me to hear was this one: ‘Jim, is this what Jesus told you guys to do?’” (Location 2732).  Casper asked this question time and again while they were on their journey together.  When Casper saw the evidence of lives being transformed through the work of the church, he could see something worthwhile taking place.  However, far too often, what was most visible was the amount of money spent on production and facilities to house the production.

Casper’s concerns parallel much of what I have found myself thinking in recent years.  In the Great Commission, Jesus told His disciples, “Go . . .”  Often, though, we seem to think that the Great Commission is, “If you build it, they will come.”  I think that facilities are important, but they are not the heart of the Gospel.  We live in a broken world, and God has established the church, with Christ as its head and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bring restoration to brokenness.  Though the regular worship gathering is important, there is much more that we are called to do.  We gather to be empowered, but then we are to take what we have received and extend it to all those around us.  Casper’s observations are important for us to take note of.  If we are to be a restorative people in the broken world, we need to be less focused on polishing ourselves and more focused on showing love and compassion to all, and especially the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed.

 

Henderson, Jim & Matt Casper.  Jim & Casper Go to Church.  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2007.  Kindle.

Thy Kingdom Come

Thy Kingdom Come.

Most people who have been around the church and/or Christianity for some time will recognize these words as coming from what is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6, Luke 11). I wonder, though: do we seriously consider what these words mean when we pray them?

Of course, in the Lord’s Prayer they are followed with, “Thy will be done.” In God’s Kingdom, God’s will is done. Simple enough, right? But what does that mean for us and the way that we live our lives?

God’s ways are different than our ways. Or rather, God’s ways are different than our ways while our lives conform to the conditions of brokenness. In our natural selves, in our true humanity, our ways are actually a reflection of God’s ways. Genesis 1 tells us that we are created in God’s image. As the story of God unfolds, though, we soon learn about brokenness. Because of sin, the image of God that we were created with has been tarnished. Because of sin, proper relationships between humans and God, humans and each other, humans and their fellow creatures, and humans and themselves have been broken.

When God’s Kingdom comes, restoration is brought to brokenness. No longer do we live at odds with one another. No longer do we ignore our responsibility to take care of God’s creation. No longer do we neglect our self-care. No longer do we show indifference towards God.

God’s ways are different than our ways in our inhumanity. People who continue to live in a state of brokenness seek to elevate themselves above others. They grasp after greatness, which always leads to others being marginalized. They don’t care who they hurt, what they pollute, or what damage they are even doing to themselves. As long as it feels good, everything is ok.

When God’s Kingdom comes, the pursuit of pleasure, power, and greatness is put aside. The oppressed are lifted up. The marginalized are made known. The hungry are fed. The thirsty are given drink. The prisoners are visited, and even set free. The sick are taken care of. The naked are clothed. The homeless are housed. The lost are found. Hospitality is shown. When God’s Kingdom comes, God’s people stand in solidarity with those who are in need, and through that solidarity, Christ’s love is manifested to all.

As we enter into a new year, we must recommit ourselves to God’s Kingdom. We must resist the temptation to lift ourselves up at the expense of others. Rather than tear down others, rather than call names and mock, we should use our words to lift up others and to glorify God. Likewise, in all our actions we need to be loving and compassionate, representing Christ to all those we encounter.

Just as God put on flesh to reveal Godself to us in Christ Jesus, so too are we called to put on Christ to reveal God to others. In and of ourselves this is impossible to do. However, we have been given the Holy Spirit that can and will cleanse us of our sin and restore God’s image in us, enabling us for the perfect love of God that rejects the pursuit of greatness and rather accepts the humility of the cross.

The Holy Spirit working in our lives brings restoration to all the brokenness of our lives. In turn, empowered by the Holy Spirit we work to bring restoration to the brokenness in the world around us. We seek unity, understanding, and peace between people. We take proper care of our environment, and we work to undue the many abuses that humanity has done it. We take care of ourselves in our entirety (body, soul, mind, spirit, etc.), seeking to properly maintain ourselves so that we can be optimally effective for God’s purposes. We lift up Christ in all that we do, knowing that there is no better way to bring restoration to brokenness than by showing Christ’s love to the lost.

As the Holy Spirit works in and through us, God’s Kingdom is made known and expanded. It is God who builds God’s Kingdom, but God uses us to do the work of the Kingdom. So let us be about that work, knowing that through it, God makes all things new.

Thy Kingdom Come.

Media and Church Culture

moviesThe year is 2014.  Many faith-based movies are scheduled to be released, including Son of God (February 28th), God’s Not Dead (March 21st), Noah (March 28th), Heaven Is Real (April 16th), Left Behind (September 11th), and Exodus (December 12th).  (I think that it is probably a stretch to call Noah and Exodus “faith-based”, but the basic stories have their origin in Biblical narrative.)  A number of other movies are scheduled to be released as well, including Divergent (March 21st), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 4th), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2nd), X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23rd), Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1st), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (November 21st), and The Hobbit: There and Back Again (December 17th).  Would it surprise you that I am more looking forward to the second list than the first list?  Well, I am.  Let me explain.

Before I do explain, though, I want to make sure that I emphasize that I am not telling you or anyone else what they should like or see.  I am merely explaining my own perspective.  I never want to poo-poo what another person finds value in.  Also, I should emphasize that I am sharing my own opinion, not that of The Church of the Nazarene, Rocky Mountain District Church of the Nazarene, or Bitterroot Valley Church of the Nazarene.  There are possibly other individuals in those organizations who will agree with me, and there are likely many who will disagree.

Three years ago, I was planning on attending a concert in Missoula called “The Rock and Worship Roadshow”.  It included a number of musicians and bands, including Lecrae, Thousand Foot Krutch, Jars of Clay, and Mercy Me.  Other than Jars of Clay, I was not a big fan of any of the bands, but the ticket was only $10, so why not?  My brother saw the same concert in Colorado Springs about a week beforehand, and he was raving to me on facebook about how great Lecrae was.  He was excited for me to go to the concert and experience this rapper myself.  He was sure that I would love it.  Well . . . I respect Lecrae and what he does, but I don’t like rap.  I’m not anti-rap.  It just isn’t my cup of tea.  It has nothing to do with race.  Some of my favorite musicians are Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk.  I’m just not into rap.

There seems to be an expectation in church culture that everything produced as Christian should be embraced.  I do not share this expectation.  I like what I like, and I don’t like what I don’t like.  And actually, I tend to prefer that the Gospel be communicated and shared incarnationally rather than through media produced specifically for Christians.  What do I mean by “incarnationally”?  Thanks for asking!  Let me explain.

Christian theology, deriving from Scripture, teaches that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  God took humanity upon Himself, truly became human (not just in appearance).  This is what is known as the incarnation.  God presented Himself to us within our own setting and culture, in a way that we could understand Him and have relationship with Him.  Things that are incarnational are things that similarly present the Gospel in such a way that they can be understood within the culture that it is being presented to.  Let me explain further with an example from the Apostle Paul.

Acts 17 tells of a period that Paul spent in the city of Athens.  He initially went there to wait for his team to catch up with him, but when he observed all of the pagan religions and philosophies around him, he couldn’t help but share the Gospel.  He was eventually called before the city council to give an account of what he was doing.  He used that opportunity to continue sharing the Gospel.  Unlike Peter in Acts 2, who shared the Gospel to a bunch of Jews by telling them how Jesus fulfilled their anticipation of a Messiah, Paul used examples from the Athenians own culture to tell them about Christ.  He used an altar “To An Unknown God”, and he used two lines of Athenian poetry that were originally in reference to Zeus and reapplied them to the true God.  He did not neglect telling them about Jesus and His resurrection, but he understood that presenting the Gospel to the Athenians from a Hebrew perspective (as Peter did in Acts 2) would mean nothing to them.  The Athenians were not Hebrew; they were Greek.  In order to accept the Gospel, they needed it presented in a way that they could understand and relate to.  This is what I mean by “incarnational”.

When I look at faith-based movies, for the most part I do not see anything that is incarnational.  I see movies that are made specifically for Christians.  There is nothing wrong with this.  I am glad that movies are being produced that contain good messages and wholesome values.  But when I imagine myself being a non-Christian, I see nothing that will draw me to the theater to see them.  Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God want to see a movie called God’s Not Dead?  Why would someone who does not believe in Heaven have any interest in seeing a movie called Heaven is Real?  I know that I wouldn’t.

I do want to give faith-based movies some props, though.  They have come a long ways from fifteen years ago.  Not only is the eschatology in the original Left Behind movies terrible, they are some of the cheesiest movies that I have ever seen.  Quality-wise, Son of God is light years ahead of the Jesus movie.  I just do not see any real evangelical value in most faith-based movies.  Sure, they are great for giving those who already believe warm-fuzzies (and there is nothing wrong with that), but I do not see what value they have for us in fulfilling our mission.

When it comes to media, I prefer media that is either produced by Christians but not as “Christian” or even media that is produced by non-Christians but still contain strong messages through which the Gospel can be shared.  Alison Krauss & Union Station is one of my favorite bands.  They are Christians, and some of their songs are very Christian-themed, but they are not a “Christian” band.  Another one of my favorite bands is Mumford & Sons.  The status of their faith is up in the air, but there is no doubt that many of their lyrics reflect Christian principles.  One of my favorite lines comes from the song “Roll Away Your Stone”:

It seems that all my bridges have been burned, but you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with the restart.

Absolutely beautiful words!  Or even Lecrae (who I mentioned above) or Switchfoot (another one of my favorite bands), both of whom are identified as “Christian” artists.  Both Lecrae and Switchfoot tour with non-Christian bands/musicians, giving them the opportunity to share “wholesome” music with those who might not normally be exposed to it.

When it comes to movies, I believe that I can be more effective in sharing the Gospel with something like The Hunger Games than I can God’s Not Dead.  Plus, and I’m just being honest here, I find the former to be more entertaining than the latter.  I’m sure God’s Not Dead is a great movie, and I’m sure that I will see it eventually.  I just do not feel a burning conviction that I have to see it just because it is a faith-based movie.  If you want to see it, great!  More power to you!  I absolutely support you in doing so!  I just also encourage you to find opportunities to engage the broken world where they are at, within the context of the culture.  This is what the Great Commission calls us to do, this is what God Himself did for us, and this is what it means to be incarnational.

Finally, I want to stress that the best form of evangelism is not handing someone a tract, a Bible, or inviting them to watch a movie.  The best form of evangelism is in the example of our own lives: How God has transformed us by His indwelling Holy Spirit, and how we live out the Christ-life by bringing restoration to brokenness.  God’s love, working in our lives, is His love letter to the broken world, and it is that same love that will see His Kingdom come.

A Whiskery Eulogy and Reflection

It was with great sadness that I learned last night of the death of a dear friend.  His name was Whiskers.  He was a fifteen-year-old cat that lived with my parents and youngest brother.

Whiskers joined our family when I was eighteen years old, shortly after the death of our beloved Pooh, who was older than me at age nineteen.  Whiskers was brought into the household as the cat of my youngest brother, Alex, but I’ve always considered him my cat (sorry Alex!).  Or rather, I think that Whiskers adopted me as his human.

Whiskers was a very tiny and timid feline when he first entered our household.  I remember very clearly on his first or second day living with us when he was lapping water from the ginormous water bowl that we had, I thought that it would be funning to gently push him in the bowl with my toe.  The poor creature just sat there and shivered.  It made me laugh and feel like a terrible person all at once.

It did not take Whiskers long to find his confidence and fit into the family, though.  I used to come home in the middle of the night from either working late or hanging out with my friends, and Whiskers would be waiting for me.  He would follow me downstairs to my bedroom for the night.  And even in the years after I had moved out, when I visited my family Whiskers would always follow me around and settle down with me.

Whiskers is the third loss in my parents’ household over the last year.  In February, their 14 year old Pomeranian, Crissy, died, and then in April, their 9 year old (I think?) German Shepherd, Shep, had to be put to sleep.  So it has been a rough year in their house, and it has even been really sad for me from 500 miles away.

So what does it mean when we lose a beloved pet?  Obviously, there is a void left inside us as we adjust to life without our animal friend.  Is there any hope for a reunion someday, though?  I really can’t say one way or the other.  Of course, there are plenty of tales of “kitty heaven” and “doggy heaven”, and the like.  Most evangelical Christianity that I have encountered, though, seems pretty united in the belief that there is no “eternal life” for animals.  A couple notable exceptions are C.S. Lewis and John Wesley.  Lewis speculated that as animals grow in relationship to humans, a sort of identity, sentience, or consciousness might develop, thus allowing animals to attain eternity through humanity.  (See his chapter on “Animal Pain” in his book The Problem of Pain.)  Wesley, in Sermon 60: The General Deliverance, speculated that when “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new’” (Revelation 21:5), this “newness” extends to animal life.  He wrote the following:

But will “the creature,” will even the brute creation, always remain in this deplorable condition God forbid that we should affirm this; yea, or even entertain such a thought! While “the whole creation groaneth together,” (whether men attend or not,) their groans are not dispersed in idle air, but enter into the ears of Him that made them. While his creatures “travail together in pain,” he knoweth all their pain, and is bringing them nearer and nearer to the birth, which shall be accomplished in its season. He seeth “the earnest expectation” wherewith the whole animated creation “waiteth for” that final “manifestation of the sons of God;” in which “they themselves also shall be delivered” (not by annihilation; annihilation is not deliverance) “from the” present “bondage of corruption, into” a measure of “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  (III.1)

So will I ever again get to see my beloved cat?  I really don’t know.  But if any cat had personality, it was Whiskers.  Regardless as to whether or not he will have eternity extended to him through his relationship with my family, what I know for sure is that going “home” will never be the same without him.

We miss you, Whiskers!