Semi-Liveblogging the Vineyard Conference (a)

Vineyard USA National Conference

This week I’m on Galveston Island, southeast of Houston, for the Vineyard USA National Conference.  I am going to be semi-live blogging the event.  I can’t actually get internet in the conference room, and I’m blogging from a laptop.  I will be posting my thoughts that I have penned the old fashioned way and typed out.  I know, I feel like a luddite…or something along those lines.

Galveston was ravaged by hurricane Ike over a year ago.  The flood waters have subsided, or course, but there is still lingering destruction.  Peichi asked me tonight if there were any buildings left.  I guess that the media made it sound like that.  There are.  The whole place was underwater, but many of those places were cleaned and repaired.  But many places were also totally destroyed.  The closer you get on the island to the sea wall, the more you see hotels standing uninhabited, and buildings that look like they’ve been through a hurricane (duh).  The convention center the conference is at has no working elevators anywhere.  This is because of the flooding.

The most difficult thing for me is the fact that half the street signs have all been blown away, and have yet to be replaced, as if replacing street signs for me are a top priority to the city.  It is hard to find my way around sometimes because of it, though.

I’ll be taking pictures and will include them on a different post when time allows.

Rebutting the ARIS Survey Results

RIP Christian AmericaToday I was reading a recent USA Today editorial piece, which examines the much discussed, recently announced “decline and fall of Christian America.” This op-ed was mostly a critique of the Newsweek thesis, that the recent ARIS survey showed a clear decline in Christian influence on American life.  Basically, Stephen Prothero points out that even though the percentage of Americans claiming a particular religion (or denomination thereof) has decreased since the study began in 1990, much of those within that group still claim to believe in “a personal god.”

While it does seem clear this lessens the idea that atheism is greatly on the rise in America, this statistic does not at all reduce the idea that Christianity is losing influence on American culture.  Prothero’s point would be correct if a belief in a personal god was equivalent to Christianity, but that is no more true than liking hamburgers makes one a frequent customer of McDonalds.  It may be argued that those who are true burger aficionados would be less likely to enjoy Mc-Ds, in the same way that those Prothero is discussing, would not be the people we would find frequenting the local Baptist church.

This exposes a critical question in this discussion: Is belief in a personal god outside the constructs of Christianity beneficial to a “Christian America”?  My answer is an unequivocal “no!”  In fact, I would argue that this is more dangerous to American Christianity than atheism itself.

[See Should we be a Christian Nation? For more on this issue]

The problem that this creates is that many Americans (even many who claim to be Christian) are taking a smorgasbord approach to faith.  In the paradoxical rules of post-modernity, all faith is good, and therefore any aspect of any faith can be replaced with any other faith.  It is the community property of math at work in the realm of religion.  One can grab a little Hindu here, a little Islam there, and oh, how about some teachings of Jesus for good measure.  As a pastor, I see this often when I meet people.  In fact, I had an experience this weekend that illustrates it well.

This weekend I went Hobie sailing with a good friend.  On shore, I talked to one of the club members who was generously running the barbeque.  We had a great time talking, and pretty soon he asked what it was that I do.  When I told him, he asked me about our church’s worship.  He said that they were attending a church with a very stogy worship style, and he might like to visit.  In the same breath, he told me how he believed that all religions are good, and he didn’t believe in committing to any one of them.

People seem not to understand that comments like that could not be more offensive to me (they dismiss my whole career and life’s work), though I try to be gracious when I encounter this.  But inside it is troubling, because when people look at Christianity as a salad-bar item they are devaluing it far more than by rejecting it outright.

When a person says “I reject Christ,” although they are refusing an allegiance to Him, they are doing nothing to damage or devalue Christianity.  That is not to say that they aren’t trying to work against Him, but in doing so they are still defining themselves by Him.  This is the reason why Christians actually have very little to fear from Atheist bus ads and Darwin-fish car bumper stickers.  The statement they are making, in effect, “I don’t believe in God, and I hate Him,” is less damaging to God, than it is to the atheist cause.

In the case of the barbequing Hobie-enthusiast, he is not rejecting Christ outright, but accepting a warped version of who Christ is.  This isn’t new in history (see most of the Old Testament narrative and several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament), but is on the rapid increase in America.  When this version of the gospel becomes the common understanding, as it rapidly is becoming, then its essence is completely destroyed.   It is an easy step to go from that to saying that Christianity has nothing special to offer humanity at all, and there will be few left with the ability to make a case otherwise.

It should be the main goal for American Christians to stop worrying about whether we have the influence over culture and policy that we might have once had, but instead focus on making clear the true Jesus in our land, in a way that people hear and understand.   -Ryan


Should we be a Christian Nation?

Jesus Loves AmericaIn order to look at American post-Christianity, it is of the utmost importance to examine the question of whether it should be a goal for America to be considered “Christian” in the first place.  Now, I don’t have a desire to get into the political quagmire of the intentions of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.  In fact, my purpose is to look at this from the exact opposite angle.  So then, the question is not whether it is good for America to be Christian, but instead is it good for Christianity for America to be called “a Christian nation.”

Of course, American Christians should in some sense want our country to be Christian.  Even avid abortion-rights supporters, for instance, would say that they would prefer to live in a country where abortion is rare.  Christians would agree (abortion-rights issue removed) that the best thing for our country is for Christian values and morals to be embraced, and therefore, for the question of whether a woman should want an abortion to be one that is not often even considered.  Most American Christians also understand the important mandate of God to be a light to those who have not been freed from sin and death, and would therefore hope to live in a country where everyone had been saved by the grace of Jesus.

What is at issue is how and why these values should be embraced.  Most sincere Christian would say that Christian morality should be welcomed because people are deeply committed to following Christ.  They will then order their lives around what He would want of them, and what would be best for their relationship with Him.  Therefore, it is best for Christianity for a commitment to Christ to be a thing of supreme value, and a Christian morality to flow down from that.

The problem is that this is not what appears to be happening in American culture as a whole.  Much of Christian morality is seen as normative in American culture still, but a commitment to Christ is often believed to be secondary to a devotion to Jesus by many at best, or a even a distasteful thing when pop-culture is taken into account.

I therefore, strongly believe that American Christians need to run far from the idea that getting people to live more Christian-ly will make them followers of Jesus.  It is irrational for people to want to follow any value-set when they have no commitment to the source of that value-set.  Don’t believe me?  Try walking up to a random person in a store and telling them to organize a shelf of merchandise.  They won’t follow your command at all, and might use a few expletives.  But if you were a manager at that store and they were an employee, the situation would play itself out exactly the opposite.  In the first example, you won’t be heeded because you have no power or authority over that person, but in the second you have both.  It is the same way with morality.

Whenever Christianity becomes a lifestyle instead of simply a commitment to Jesus, it loses the essence of what gives it power.  When Christians lose “Christ” as the primary source of their identity, they become just “ians,” which are no different than Australians, or politicians, or librarians.  So, in one sense it is very good for America to be a Christian nation, when Christ orders everything we do.  But when we are anything but that, we put ourselves in a corner where we are forced to prove our lifestyle as a powerful force for good in the world by only our moral code.  We will never win that battle.  Without Christ as the center, Christianity is neither powerful, nor good at all.   -Ryan


Finding Meaning in Leviticus

I spy a great sacrifice Many of you know that I just recently finished going through the Bible cover-to-cover in 90 days.  It was a challenge in many ways, but in another sense it was exciting and refreshing.  I don’t think that reading so much scripture so fast is necessarily the best way to study always.  I often counsel students to whom I minister to read it slowly, in bite-sized chunks, and think about it.   I did learn different things than when I’d read the Bible through in a much longer period of time, though. Continue reading “Finding Meaning in Leviticus”

What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 4a)

I am sure that I will regret posting this.  I weighed the options in my mind: Don’t post-it doesn’t sound polished, there is no main point, I have no idea what I’m saying.  Do post-I won’t sleep if I don’t get this out.  I’m posting.

I just watched a video webinar from Drew Goodmanson and Cynthia Ware that was linked from Drew’s site.  It presents the data from a survey that they helped conduct.  I must say that it is making me re-examine some long held preconceptions of church social networking in my mind.  I am coming to realize that much of what I had thought two years ago is not working out socially the way I expected.  It is one of those slap-in-the-forhead moments.

I am still working out a lot of this.  Here are some things that I learned over the last 45 minutes:

The manin desires that the people in churches who were surveyed have for their church websites:

  1. Church events on an online calendar.  They want to be able to sign up for things online.
  2. Prayer requests online.  They want to be able to post prayer requests through the website.
  3. Serving connection.  People want to be able to find out how their gifts can fit into an area of service at the church.
  4. Home group connection.  People want to be able to connect to and interact with a home group.
  5. Church email/directory.  They want a way to be able to contact the church and church members using the website as a resource.
  6. Bible study connection.  They want to be able to study and connect with a Bible study online.

You know what was missing?  Social networking.  People did not feel that they needed a social network within their church.  Why would they?  Can we do Facebook better than Facebook?  If we could, should we?  Now that I think about it that way, I realize that even my answer is “no.”

Here is what they said they didn’t want:

  1. The ability to blog
  2. Classified ads
  3. A way to post their own photos
  4. A job posting board
  5. The ability to post things to a social media site

I do believe what they said regarding this day and age of new media is correct.  Building upon their base, I believe that Christians are going to have to use mostly existing social networking with excellence, and our success in Web Ministry will depend on our ability to do the following:

  1. Not add an additional network or online activity that church members don’t have time for.  I have been mulling this a lot lately.  It is becoming a full time job for people to keep up with all their networks.  In the very near future either one network is going to beat all of the others so badly that no others will exist, or social networking will completely disappear when everyone gets tired of it (not likely), or a solution will appear to completely integrate all major existing networks so that no one goes to or any of the others anymore.  One blogpost will go out simultaneously on all, and these portals will cease to exist in the eyes of the average user.
  2. Make their Web Ministry a completely interactive place.  I can’t stress my belief in this point enough.  I am almost willing to say that an e-brochure style website is almost more of an embarrassment than a benefit.  I stop short though, because if a church doesn’t have their vital info linked online, they should think about shutting their doors.
  3. Provide instant gratification.  Things like podcasting and video have got to be available and accessible.
  4. Be decentralized.  Church Web content cannot be done in a top-down way.  Content has got to be available from more than one direction, if that makes sense.  I’m still working this one out.
  5. I really think that there needs to be an open-source nature to Web Ministry as well.  It needs to be collaborative, and allow some of the more tech-savvy people to do what they do best.

There will be more.  Like I said, I am still working this out.  This has been very stream-of-consciousness, I know, but now I am going to go to bed a little depressed.   I don’t like not having things worked out in my mind.

The Christian Saint Patrick’s Day

Easter 2009 has come and gone.  Into the closet goes the little bunny decorations; into the tummy go the eggs, candy, and chocolate bunnies; into the compost go the dying lilies.  Now we turn the calendar page to things like Pentecost and summer.  Many of us have gone to church in order to do our twice yearly duty and are no worse for the wear, although less and less of us are doing this little dance each year.  Coninue Reading…

The Christian St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patty's CommunionEaster 2009 has come and gone.  Into the closet goes the little bunny decorations; into the tummy go the eggs, candy, and chocolate bunnies; into the compost go the dying lilies.  Now we turn the calendar page to things like Pentecost and summer.  Many of us have gone to church in order to do our twice yearly duty and are no worse for the wear, although less and less of us are doing this little dance each year.

I like Easter.  I have followed the tradition of Lent for all of my adult life.  I always feel elation on Easter Sunday, with a sense of accomplishment and reverence.  It is a sort of “holy high” that isn’t completely describable with words.  This year, I felt this high even more, due to the fact that I finished reading my Bible cover to cover in 90 days (OK, plus about a week).  Onward Christian soldier I went with my sword in hand, and committed in my heart.  I’d like to say that the church service magnified this sense of elation, but I honestly can’t.

As I left church on that day and allowed my mind to wander, I strangely started to think of St. Patrick’s Day.  At first I ignored this, because I felt that maybe I might have taken too much communion wine (OK, it’s grape juice).  But as I thought deeper, I realized that these holidays really have a lot in common.

I must have some Irish in me.  After all, both of my names point to the Emerald Isle.  But no matter what my Irish-blood-ratio may be, it is not something that I find any identity in whatsoever.  In fact, most St. Patrick’s Days I don’t even wear green.  I don’t pinch people, and I’ve never had a green beer.  I do enjoy the occasional Shamrock Shake, but that is about it.  I have no reason for this lack of “green pride.”  It isn’t like I wouldn’t drink a green Guiness if I had the chance.  I just feel no real desire to.

This is not the case with most people, I know.  Saint Patty’s Day is the one day where everyone is Irish.  From Snoop Dog to Isabella Rosalini, everyone is in on the action.  We can all grab a bagpipe and march down Main street in our kilt, and drink a pint at O’Malley’s when we’re done.  Tomorrow we go back to drudgery, but everyone can be a part of this party.  There is no card check at the door, no proving your heritage, no strings attached.  At the same time, no one I have ever met has their life positively impacted in a lasting way by all of this festivity.

I realized that in may ways, this is almost exactly like Easter.  On Easter people flock to the church in their new costumes (don’t tell me you wear a light grey suit any other time of year).  People go through the motions, eat their Easter meal, and hide their eggs.  This doesn’t mean that anything is required of them on Monday.  It doesn’t mean they change their heart any more than celebrating St. Patrick’s Day makes people join the IRA.  Easter revelry doesn’t contain so much beer and rowdiness, but other than that it seems it is pretty much the same for a lot of people.

I am not saying that Easter is meaningless (see paragraph 1).  I am saying that when Christianity becomes a culture it is easy to separate the meaning of its symbols and celebrations from the heart of what its true meaning is.  I saw this in a conversation I had with a friend from across the world the other day.  We wished each other a Happy Easter, and as we talked I realized that he didn’t have any idea that the holiday wasn’t mostly about eggs and bunnies.  I learned that our chief export in this regard was not a holiday centered around the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but instead one of fertility symbols and sweets.

I believe that there is a world agenda of forces that want to distract humanity from the truth of what Jesus did on the cross.  But I also know that people communicate what is most valuable to them.  It just kind of spills out of them constantly, and everyone around them knows it.  Jesus said that “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).  In other words, what we communicate to the world, is what is truly in our heart.

America is filled with many sincere Christians who are doing powerful work in the name of Christ.  Many churches are transforming the world.  But the cultural Christianity that we’ve grown used to is not.  It has all too often spewed a non-committal holiday of Spring, like so much green St. Patrick’s vomit.  –Ryan