Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Labels And Churches

Craig Groschel has a piece on FOX about religious decline in America.
Recent research indicates that the number of people who do not consider themselves a part of an organized religion is steadily on the rise.
Interestingly enough, though the number of those religiously unaffiliated is increasing, there is little to no trend in the number of those who express atheist or agnostic beliefs. People aren’t saying they don’t believe in God. They’re saying they don’t believe in religion. They are not rejecting Christ. They are rejecting the church.
It is interesting that people are not winning to go all the way and say they are atheist or agnostic. There is a connection that people don't want to break completely. Still rejecting the church is rejecting Christ. Remember affiliated in this context does not mean you actually go to church. It just means there is a church you feel connected with. Maybe you were raised in that faith but have not attended in a while. That is what we are losing.
This begs the question, “Why are we losing our religion?”
The growing number of people who don’t identify as part of an organized religion speaks to an increasing wariness of labels in our culture.
Some may be losing their religion, but I challenge the notion that faith in general is waning.
I believe, instead, the trend of people who don’t identify as part of an organized religion speaks to an increasing wariness of labels in our culture. Those labels carry baggage for many who might have been hurt by the Church or let down by religion.
Labels do have more baggage now. Why? Because Christians are attacked more in the culture. Gay marriage has certainly made it very acceptable to hate Christians. So more inactive church members are preferring to identify themselves as unaffiliated rather than Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever. I am not sure that is a bad thing. It means people see a cost to calling themselves Christian. Some are willing to pay it and some are not. I think that is better than when the label meant very little. 
You see, religion alone can only take a person so far. Religion can make us nice, but only Christ can make us new. Religion focuses on outward behavior. Relationship is an inward transformation. Religion focuses on what I do, while relationship centers on what Jesus did. Religion is about me. Relationship is about Jesus.
So what does relationship with no religion imply? I say I know Jesus but my outward behavior does not change?   First of all, the unaffiliated do not claim to know Jesus. They do not say they are atheists but to assume they have some sort of relationship with God is a bit of a stretch.

If they did have a relationship with God and remained unaffiliated what would that mean? Probably very little. Most people need a religion to push them into real change. It is just too easy to assume what God wants and what we want are basically the same. Religion allows God to use other people to reveal His will to you. That is when real change is possible.

This is why choosing a church is so important. People say that as long as you have a relationship with Jesus which church you go to does not matter. That is nonsense. That is precisely when which church you go to matters a lot. If you have not given your life to Jesus then you can ignore your church. When you want to serve Jesus you will follow the teaching of your church.
In order to become a new person, we need Christ. Only through an active ongoing relationship with Jesus can we become transformed and overcome the labels that bind us.
Yes we can. But we need to understand that the main way this happens is through the church.  Yes that means we get a new label. That is good. When we get adopted into a family we get a new name. That is the biblical view of church. It is the family of God. It is your new identity in Christ.

New converts naturally trust the church they end up in much like a child trusts their parents.As we grow in the faith we internalize what we have been taught. It become a part of our conscience. Still we need to understand that the church we pick is the source of almost all of it. This is why it is good that the creed says, "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." We really need a supernatural church. Something that is purely a human institution will not do.
In fact, I’ve struggled with what people think of my label: pastor. For many, this label carries emotional baggage.
When I meet someone new, I get to talk to him or her like a regular person. We joke around, talk about our families, and then the inevitable happens. “What do you do for a living?” When I answer this question, I typically get one of two responses. I either get an onslaught of Christianese phrases -- “Oh, praise the Lord! What a blessing, brother Craig!” or I get stonewalled, and the conversation dies as quickly as it started. 
When people are consecrated as holy then they get different reactions. All holy things divide people like that. Some are drawn to the holy. Some are repelled by it. This is a good thing but it can be hard for a consecrated man.
One time when this happened, the person I was talking with politely shared that he didn’t like religious people. I chimed in that I didn’t like religious people either. His mouth nearly dropped to the floor. I explained that religion is about rules, but being a Christian is about relationship.
What kind of relationship has no rules? Certainly not a close relationship with a holy God. If that does not require any accommodation  on our part it is because we have imagined the gap between God and us is much smaller than it is. It is a good line for shock value but I would hope it is not true. It would certainly mean he does not like me. If I reacted that way he would probable withdraw the comment immediately. It reminds me of a man trying to find the right line to pick up a woman at a bar. It is a cheap manipulation and not the heart reaching out to heart dynamic that evangelism is meant to be.
Now I’m not saying is that religious organizations are useless. Obviously, I’m a part of one. I am the pastor of a church and truly believe what Bill Hybels asserts: “The local church is the hope of the world.” But in order to reach the current generation and generations to come, we must change the way we do things. That’s why we like to say, “To reach people no one is reaching, we have to do things no one is doing.”
If you just get rid of the word "local" then Bill Hybels is right. He is especially right to say "the church" rather than "a church." We need to admit we want people to join the old-fashioned church that everyone has labeled. It is ancient and yet forever new.
As churches, we don’t have the liberty to change the message, but we must change the way the message is presented. We have to discover our "altar ego"—and become who God says we are instead of who others say we are.
The problem is the protestants are at liberty to change the message. The message should not change but it does. Often the message is changed with just this slogan. That is they claim to be just changing the presentation. But how we worship is deeply connected to what we believe. So if we make the sermons more funky and less exegetical we have changed what we believe about how God speaks to us. If we make our services less liturgical and more contemporary we have changed what we believe about how God should be worshiped. God becomes less holy and more someone we can approach casually.
Peeling off the labels that cling to our reputation brings great freedom for us as individuals and as the global body of believers known as the Church. Only when we push past those artificial constraints can we truly become who God created us to be.
What if the label was not artificial? What if the label simply says what God created the Church to be? That is what Catholic says. The church for all of us. That is what Catholic means. The church for everyone. People really are done with thousands of churches with thousands of different labels. But the solution is not to avoid church entirely. It is to go back to the one church for everyone. The way it was for the first thousand years of Christianity and the only way it really works.


  1. "Gay marriage has certainly made it very acceptable to hate Christians."

    I'm curious exactly what you meant by this. It sounds like you are saying that with Gay marriage legal it is now socially acceptable to hate Christians. Perhaps you mean to restrict that to those Christians who actively lobby against same sex marriage?

    According to wikipedia, over 3/4 of the country is Christian, so I don't think there is a lot of widespread hatred at Christians generally.

    Would you care to clarify that thought?

  2. I guess I don't accept the wikipedia definition of Christian. I generally don't include liberal Christianity when I talk about Christians. To me they are not really that different from atheists. Actual atheists are more fun to interact with because liberal Christians won't admit that they ignore the bible and just get their ideas from the prevalent thinking in modern society.

    So when you talk about real counter-cultural Christians we have seen a big change in how strongly society rejects them. We have moved from secular people mostly just dismissing Christians as quirky and maybe getting a little upset when their part lost an election to many people condemning Christians as evil. Anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, whatever.

  3. Now that is very interesting. When you say liberal Christians, do you mostly mean like people in your article here who still call themselves Christians but don't really go to church any more? I'm assuming you aren't meaning to restrict only to fundamentalists when you say Christians.

    As to people painting Christians with a broad brush as anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science. I can definitely say I've seen this attitude toward fundamentalists. Calling young earth creationists anti-science doesn't seem like much of a stretch for example. Towards Christians in general I haven't seen it though, that might come down to our different definition of Christian though.

  4. I guess the research that this guy is reacting to is using somewhat different definitions than he is using and somewhat different than I am using. So that is a bit confusing. His point is more about numbers than mine was. He was saying it does not matter if people no longer self-identify with a particular Christian tradition. I think he is way wrong.