Thursday, September 27, 2007

Appearances

I'm reading a book called Jim and Casper Go to Church. It's written by our friend Jim Henderson (creator of Off the Map conferences) who co-wrote the book with an atheist. He took Casper to church all over America in an attempt to get an "atheist's" perspective on evangelical Christianity, particularly as churches attempt to draw seekers.

The writing is good enough, the story sufficiently engaging.

Here's what jumps out at me. The atheist offers honest feedback on everything: the insipid lyrics of most worship music, the forced friendliness of ushers and church greeters, the insider lingo used by pastors during sermons, the lack of practical action points ever delivered in those sermons, and the amazing amount of money needed to sustain mega-church corporations. Jim does mostly a great job of hearing him, letting these observations stand, not dismissing or arguing them away.

Yet as I keep reading, a nagging irritation persists. I realized what it was this morning as I was also reading along at Jesus Creed. One of the chief concerns of evangelicals is to be sure that they are perceived as friendly and seeker-sensitive, able to make the Gospel message relevant to non-Christians. Ironically, for all that effort, the atheist in six trips to church calls that effort contrived or failing. Why?

Casper, the friendly atheist (as Jim calls him), comments that at each of the churches they visit, only the official greeting teams are friendly to them, but it feels forced. Otherwise no member of the churches goes out of his or her way to say 'hello' or to genuinely welcome them to the church. Jim's response to this observation was to suggest that he'd like to offer a workshop to evangelicals that would train them to smile and say hello to newcomers. Casper's reaction was classic: "They would need a seminar to learn how to do that?!?" Jim replied (I think missing the point) that the irony of the workshop would be that it would only teach smiling and saying hello, showing evangelicals that they can make a difference through simple gestures.

An additional conversation develops about the fact that one pastor who does go out of his way to converse with the pair of them tells Casper that as an atheist, he will not be able to understand the sermon as it contains spiritual truths Casper won't be able to grasp. Casper is mystified. Jim states in the book that this pastor had not yet learned how to "talk to an atheist" because after all, Jim had, and what Jim learned is that "atheists like to be asked questions." Huh. I had thought human beings liked to be asked questions, not just atheists.

So far we have two workshops to offer to evangelicals based on Casper's observations:
--Workshop to teach evangelicals to smile at people they don't know.
--Workshop to teach evangelicals how to "ask questions" of an atheist.

Maybe they should offer a workshop called, "How to remember what it was like to be a regular human being."

If being an evangelical means you lose your ability to smile or ask questions of other human beings, hasn't something about you, as an evangelical, been changed and damaged due to your conversion? In other words, regular human beings without religious agendas smile and say hello every day, they ask questions of people they meet, they don't start conversations by telling them that they won't understand the words they utter. Sure, the band meeting at school may not produce a flurry of smiles and handshakes, but the stated purpose of the meeting isn't to create community, either. If evangelical Christianity is about spiritual growth which ought to result in deeper human connections, why do they struggle so much to relate to regular people? Why do they need "special trainings" for ordinary human behaviors?

Then this morning over on Jesus Creed, I read the 87 comments on the thread called Dinner. In that thread, Scot McKnight asks,
Which is worse for the kingdom — the generous, kind leader whose thoughts sometimes wander from the traditional or the brash, abrasive, mean-spirited leader whose theology seems straight as an arrow? What do you think and why?
"Worse for the Kingdom?" Why is that the concern? Shouldn't the issue be: Why is a man with supposedly good theology mean-spirited? Why is a generous man suspect for having wandering thoughts? The Kingdom of God is not a "thing" that can be damaged. There's no "such thing." The KoG is within you, it is all around us, it is the activity of God (not the appearance of kindness or rightness).

Evangelicals bargain with reality because the "appearance" of being "spirit-infused and therefore better than the world (either kinder or more right)" must be sustained to validate evangelical beliefs. If the KoG is threatened by a mean-spirited man, then he must change. But if we decide it is not, then his mean-spiritedness is not of real concern. It might make interesting discussion fodder, but the truth is, what advances the KoG (however that is defined - usually for evangelicals it means winning souls) comes first. Therefore the real issue for the church has to do with the convincing appearance of being good, right, kind, true, and superior, rather than actually being those things or at minimum, real, honest, and human.

Getting back to Casper and Jim, then, my thoughts as I read were: Can't you see, Jim, that your agenda (though you claim not to have one for Casper) is how to make evangelicals more palatable to atheists (as though atheists are all of one uniform voice, anyway)? It ought to be: What is wrong with evangelicalism that we change from human beings like the rest of the world to those who alienate, irritate or condescend?

Put another way: When will evangelicals give up their obsession with perception (how others see them) and rejoin the human race?

It strikes me as an utterly non-spiritual way to live and view the world, not to mention a gold-plated path to hypocrisy.

**Caveat** I know I'm broad-brushing. What I've discovered in my reading of evangelical books and blogs, in the thousands of meetings I've attended in my 25 years of evangelicalism is that usually non-Christians are categorized and sorted according to type (atheists, unbelievers, secularists, humanists, postmodernists, rebels, back-sliders, other religions, liberals, heretics etc.) with little interest in nuance or variation or even the possibility of spiritual vitality in their lives. Evangelicals believe they need peculiar insight into these various unregenerate groups in order to make themselves relevant enough to convert a few. But they aren't usually interested in learning from these other groups of people. It's a one-way valve. Even Jim's questions of Casper are still about what Jim's world of Christians can do better to speak to atheists like Casper. The questions are not about how the atheist worldview has anything to contribute to the spiritual lives of evangelicals.

In this entry, my thoughts are based on how the evangelical community strikes me when reading them as a group, represented by writers who speak for them. I'm comparing how they represent themselves with how I think they've departed from what it means to share humanity with everyone else. I'm critical, but I hope not mean-spirited. I suppose that is for you to decide.

15 comments:

mariam said...

This particular discussion on Jesus Creed was quite enlightening for me. When I first read the question Scot McKnight posted I thought, "Oh come on. You can't be serious. Who would vote for the mean-spirited guy? Who would say it was better for the KoG to be harsh rude and hateful but spout the right doctrine than to be kind and generous but "occasionally wander" into non-orthodox thinking?" Well, wasn't I illuminated!

As an inclusive sort I believe that God has many faces and that there is a path for each of us that will bring us to God. The path we travel will differ according to our personal circumstances. I really try to see where some of these brothers and sisters are coming from and I suppose if you really believe that God is the terrible being they make him out to be and that he despises us for our sin and has eternal damnation waiting for the majority of us and that our only hope is a belief in certain doctrines and the "get out of jail free" card that Christ's death has bought us (plus being chosen in God's A list lottery) - well then I can see that you might think the most loving thing you can do is try to to convince others how important orthodoxy is. If that is really all God cares about then why would you put any effort into "works" including loving your neighbour. It may even be that you have to trick non-believers into coming to church by putting on the appearance of being friendly until you have them hooked, then, bingo, bait and switch. Like selling timeshares.

As my husband, who is an econimst always says, "It's all about incentives." The question I still grapple with is why, if you could a filter through which to view the Bible, would you choose that one? It is easy enough to say that harsh people will choose a harsh God but I've known lots of kind and loving fundamentalists (or at least they were kind and loving outside of their religion).

Dave said...

To me it seems to all pivot on the a priori assumptions that people bring into their church-related activities. Jim seems willing to stray off the reservation enough to challenge a lot of the status quo methods and habits that his fellow evangelicals have settled into but either can't or won't question the fundamental assumption that "we are right" re: doctrine and standing with God, which just about inevitably leads to "ends justify the means" ways of thinking... which is what it sounds like you observed happening on Jesus Creed.

Of course, questioning basic doctrinal assumptions like that is often enough to blow the whole enterprise to smithereens, especially when the enterprise has become a fairly circular process of "reinforcement of beliefs we've already committed to as demonstrated by how many fresh new converts we can make."

Already ruled out in this process is the idea of being a casual, pleasant, curious, well-mannered, kind and considerate human being for its own sake. That's ruled right up front to be insufficient and even self-deluding.

So much emphasis rides on an outcome-based assessment of whether or not what we did "worked" or not, with the definition of "worked" being 1) did it convert the other person or 2) did it convincingly demonstrate the inferiority and insufficiency of their reasons to not convert or 3) did it succeed in upsetting their own emotional or intellectual equilibrium to such a degree that their defenses won't be quite so intact the next time we resume the conversion/conversation process? And we could add a 4) which is, did I at least manage to reassure myself that I'm still right and the other person is wrong/mistaken/naive/rebellious/etc.?

My summation is that it's difficult but not impossible to "just be" as an evangelical, and those who find a way of "just being" often have a hard time resting in that because of Christian leaders (pastors, teachers, etc.) who continually agitate their followers to get out and change/challenge/confront people.

We do well to remember the wise saying, "Don't just do something - sit there!"

R. Michael said...

Evangelicals bargain with reality because the "appearance" of being "spirit-infused and therefore better than the world (either kinder or more right)" must be sustained to validate evangelical beliefs.

Julie, I liked this summation because I think it capsulizes what I call the normative evangelical presupposition, that is, that we alter reality (our "square peg") to fit our beliefs (round hole) so that just about anything is possible. The selling of this idea as Miriam points out is equally disingenuous. I recently attended a "how to evangelize" seminar and I felt like I was learning how to lure people to an Amway presentation...

Dave, nice response. I particularly liked the statement "ruled out in this process is the idea of being a casual, pleasant, curious, well-mannered, kind and considerate human being for its own sake." This would be a foreign concept for evangelicals b/c they would argue that this could only come from the grace of God (if not specifically imparted on a person then generally imputed as part of his overarching grace to all mankind). I am not convinced that normative civil behavior is the result of an intervening God without whom society would devolve into complete moral chaos.

Maria said...

Julie,
I think your critique is spot-on. What is it about the evangelical subculture that turns us into something less than ordinary people? Or somehow incapable of relating to the people around us. I would add that it tends to be the same problem inside the church, only the level of denial is deeper. I wonder if it boils down to the theological understanding of conversion, and conversion's goal. If coming to faith requires a definitive break with how I have lived in the past and even who I have been, then the door is wide open to all kinds of artifice in living out that "new creation" life post-conversion. I'm going to natural tend to imitate all the idiosyncratic, weird behaviors of the church people I've just associated myself with. It's a self-perpetuating system, where life gets stranger and less truthful as the system remains more and more closed. That us-them mentality makes sure it is closed in the ways that really count, no matter how much we talk about outreach.

I'm going to mangle the quote, but one of the early church fathers wrote something to the effect that "the glory of God is the human being fully alive." His point was that living a life of faith should make us more fully human, not less. I suppose Jesus said the same thing when he talked about having "life to the full" -- rather than a cramped, artificial lifestyle that only works inside the safety of the four walls of a church building.

Bilbo said...

I too agree that Evangelicals, in general, have little interest in "nuances and variation" and "learning from others" but what does one expect when a person's worldview/theology asserts that they have the truth with a capital "T"?... and...there is,imo, an inherent logic in possessing the "Truth" and the lack of interest in "nuance and variation"...The Evangelical worldview/theology does provide "potential" for accepting and, or embracing, ambiguity, uncertainity, nuance, and variation, but Christian tradition and Church history don't have a great track record, promoting such notions, especially, in regards to alternative religious perspectives...Personally, I stopped going to Evangelical churches, in large part, because "I" felt it was all about validating what they already believed and this particular emphasis didn't complement the spiritual journey I was on...Thanks for the book reference....It looks interesting...I'm waiting to buy Frank Schaeffer's new book, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take it all( or almost all)of it almost back....

Dancingirl365 said...

Oddly enough what you say here meshes quite well with Shakespeare's Henry VIII which I'm reading for my class. I'd never read it before and it's a fascinating look at truth (or Truth?). You say much I agree with here.

julieunplugged said...

Oh Becky don't leave me hanging! A comparison with Shakespeare? You've got to flesh that one out. :)

Steve said...

Julie:

This is by far the most profound thing you have said in several years. I am so looking forward to conversation with you!

Email me. Go Bruins.

Matt said...

Thanks so much for reading and writing and talking about our book!

I think this is a great dialog you're having here, too. In my opinion, it kind of supports what I identify as the problem facing many of the evangelical churches I visited—they transformed their mission into an agenda.

I believe you can be on a mission: people are generally ok with that. A mission is out in the open, it's how you live, and free for all to see.

But an agenda is an itinerary, a list of tasks to accomplish, and it’s not out there (no mystery we’re used to hearing the word itself preceded by “hidden”). An agenda invariably makes the “agendee” feel manipulated.

I've been thinking about it and what I'd ask is that the evangelicals lose the agenda and live the mission…

Jim and I can be found here if you ever care to drop us a line: www.churchrater.com

thanks again...

jim henderson said...

Julie

Thanks for pimping our "godd enough writing" (I agree that is an accurate assessment :-)

Also you asked this and I thought I would answer

"Getting back to Casper and Jim, then, my thoughts as I read were: Can't you see, Jim, that your agenda (though you claim not to have one for Casper) is how to make evangelicals more palatable to atheists (as though atheists are all of one uniform voice, anyway)? It ought to be: What is wrong with evangelicalism that we change from human beings like the rest of the world to those who alienate, irritate or condescend?"


I think you may be projecting your own issues here. This is understabel if you have been indoctirnated by evangelicalism as much as it sounds you have.

I am not at all trying to make evangelicals "look friendlier" I am holding up a mirror and asking why they accept that substandard idea and in fact asking another more subtle question - Why can't you be normal?

Thanks again

julieunplugged said...

Jim, Matt - thanks for commenting! Very nice of you to engage.

Jim, I'm willing to accept that my own history with evangelicalism influenced how I read your book. For sure. I also really agreed with your assessments (for example, the way you explained Mark Driscoll's church).

I like the idea of holding up a mirror and if your aim was to say "Why can't you be normal again?" then we're on the same page, actually.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. A page turner. I found myself not wanting to put it down to see what Casper would see next. So well done. :)

Do you think, Jim, that the message you want people to take away from this book is that evangelicalism itself is flawed and creates a persona that makes the evangelical culture alienating? And if so, what is the remedy?

Julie

Kansas Bob said...

Great obervations Julie. For me, I think that the application is way broader than evangelicals ... I think that most people in our culture ... at least most of the ones I have contact with ... suffer from narcissism. My wife and I have had many conversations around this ... very few people that my wife and I have conversations with ever (I mean ever) ask questions about us ... and if they do their questions seem to be pretty superficial with no follow-up at all.

Not to give the wrong impression ... we do have friends (some Christian) who do make these kinds of inquiries ... but very few that we go to church with, few in our family and fewer of our (mainly Catholic and Jewish) neighbors.

R. Michael said...

I would like to tack onto Julie's question to Jim an additional question. Our own teaching that says we are "in the world but not of the world" and encourages us "not to be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world"...does this actually strengthens the resolve to be alienting because of "righteousness"? Have we taken this teaching as a justification for creating a subculture that does not appear to be real?

australisa said...

<<< Jim's response to this observation was to suggest that he'd like to offer a workshop to evangelicals that would train them to smile and say hello to newcomers. >>>

This says it all. It sounds like a group of people from another planet being trained to interact with humans.

my15minutes said...

I found this today on a friend's blog
(http://gkupsidedown.blogspot.com/2007/10/true-evangelization.html) and thought of your discussion here:

"According to Pope John Paul the Great, evangelization works like this:

1. Spend time (lots of time) in contemplative prayer
2. Because we become like the thing we worship, we will eventually become more like Christ
3. As we become more like Christ, we will reflect his glory in our own lives, and our faces will become radiant with glory like Moses.
4. Because we are becoming more like Christ, we will want to spend more time with people and for people
5. They will see the beauty of Christ in our lives and be drawn to Christ as a magnet draws iron filings.
6. This will happen, because they will instinctively recognize in Christ the fulfillment of their heart's true desire.

This evangelization is effective because it is:

1. Appropriate for each person in a natural way
2. Totally the work of grace and not human effort
3. Free of personal ego on the part of the evangelist
4. Non-threatening and naturally attractive
5. Free of guilt, pressure of propaganda or coercion of any sort

In Evangelization, like all things in the Christian life, the most rapid progress is made on our knees."