Will the real Christian please stand up?

Christianity is weird

Christianity is a weird religion. I know, I’ve been a part of it for nearly 65 years. And don’t give me that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” crap–it’s a very real religion by any standards. And, it’s chock full of really weird people, who believe some really weird things. My goal, over the last several years, has been to de-weird it.

Actually, Christianity more than one religion, if you want to get right down to it. There is no way, for example, to look at the Eastern Orthodox churches and any American fundamentalist church and conclude they were the same religion. Yet, each considers themselves to be Christian (and would perhaps doubt the status of the other).

And beyond that, it’s clear to perhaps most non-Christians that Christianity is weird, but for many different reasons. From a modern perspective, the Eastern church as well as the Roman Catholic Church are weird due to their rituals, incense and chanting, and their apparent idolatry of odd paintings. The Protestant movement created new weirdness by making up their own rules and throwing out the books of the Bible they didn’t like. As the protestant church evolved into various streams of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and postmodernism, the rules changed even more.

Besides the rules, beliefs changed as well. Many contemporary churches don’t “confess” the historic creeds, and many contemporary church members (I’ll avoid the ‘C’ word for now) couldn’t even tell you what they are. Many are actually down-right heretics in what they believe about the nature of God. And trying to get any consensus on what the Bible means, or even is, is out of the question. It’s my guess that no 1st Century Christian would claim any evangelical church as Christian.

So how can Christianity be considered one religion? The only real commonality is a belief that there was a man named Jesus who was (more or less) the son of God (whatever that means), who taught a lot of good things and was crucified for either political, religious, or prophetic reasons. And, all hold that the Bible is important, was inspired to some extent (with the exception of those several books which are only accepted by half of the church), and may or may not be inerrant.

A little history

According to Acts 11:26, the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch, where the church was rapidly growing. The word translated as “Christian” is “Christianus’ (English spelling) of a Greek word with a Latin suffix. The resulting word literally means “belonging to Christ,” denoting a possession / slave. The name was obviously adopted by the church as they thought it was appropriate.

So, who were these Christians? Did they accept the creeds of the church? No, because they hadn’t yet been written. So, did they believe the trinity? Probably not. In all likelihood, they were nearly all heretics by today’s standards, or even 4th Century standards. They probably had not contemplated the dual nature of Jesus (fully God and fully man), and some may not even have believed Jesus was “of the same substance as the Father.” Oh, dear.

In the 4th Century, various conflicts had arisen about the nature of Jesus (was he God or not?), so in 325AD what is known as the Nicean Council was held with all of the church leaders. They discussed, and argued, and at least one fist-fight broke out. At the end, they had drafted what is now known as the Nicean Creed, which stated the acceptable belief of the one universal church. Until that time, perhaps 1/3 of the church members were heretics, by post-Nicean standards.

“It’s the question that drives us”

So, were they, in fact, Christians? Or, in today’s evangelical parlance, were they “saved?”

This, then, begs the question: by what standard do we judge who is or who isn’t a Christian/saved?

As with many things Christians, it depends who you ask. Note that these are over-simplified summaries; please feel free to correct me on any points.

  • Eastern Orthodox: First, Orthodox theology does not translate well into western, modernist thought. That being said, the basic teaching of the Orthodox is that they are the only true Church, and that there is no salvation apart from the Church. Salvation is by grace, which comes through the sacraments (baptism, eucharist, etc.), and by cooperating with grace in doing good works. It’s a lifelong process, and there are no guarantees should one turn away from the Orthodox Church or faith.
  • Roman Catholic: The first splinter group, the RCC claims that it is the one, true, apostolic church, and that salvation comes through Jesus, the head, through the body, the church. This is through the sacraments, baptism, confession, and communion (eucharist). Non-catholics can be saved, but only because they are ignorant of the truth.
  • Lutherans: Lutherans believe, as taught by Martin Luther, than other we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ. Grace comes through faith, supplemented, as it were, by baptism and communion. Works do not add to our salvation. Salvation is available to all men, regardless of church membership.
  • Calvinism: Calvinists come in various stripes, but all believe that the saved are predestined. One cannot be saved if they weren’t predestined, but rather being saved is proof that you were predestined. There are disputes as to whether some are predestined for hell. In Calvinism, one can only be sure of their chosen status by persevering to the end (“eternal insecurity”).
  • Evangelicals: This is a large, hodge-podge of groups, which can include Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational groups. Typically, there is a rejection of predestination, and a belief that an individual needs to be converted from a sinful state to a Christian, by making a personal choice and confession of faith, followed by baptism (this order is important). There are disagreements about whether one can lose their salvation, or if they are “once saved, always saved.”

Now what?

So, how do we know that someone is a Christian? Is it because someone prayed a prayer “accepting” Jesus, or because they are a baptized member in good standing of a church? Is it someone who simply believes the right things? Or, is it something else?

Is, in fact, being “saved” and being a Christian the same thing?

The Bible contains some interesting passages, like this one from 1 John:

Beloved, love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7,8

Or this one, from Jesus:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46

And there are plenty more texts which challenge many current beliefs about who (or who isn’t) being saved. Some read them exclusively, others see more inclusion. But, does this impact who is or isn’t a Christian?

Final thoughts

There are many from various diverse backgrounds, going back to the early church, who believe that “Heaven” (for lack of a better term) is available and open to all, including those who have believed differently than the standard Christian groups. Read the 1 John passage again, and think about it. Can a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim end up in Heaven if the love they show demonstrate that they “know God?”

I am one of those people who see a bigger salvation, a bigger God, a bigger love than the belief systems that focus on who doesn’t belong. However, I don’t believe that calling oneself a Christian has any meaning whatsoever in that respect.

If we go back to the original meaning of the word, I would propose that “Christian” applies to someone who belongs to, or is a slave of, Christ, regardless of whether they call themselves one or even believe in Jesus. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

“Christian,” then, would appear to be a functional or descriptive term rather than ontological. Or, we could say that the word “Christian” has a non-ontological meaning as well as an ontological one. I think with the way many who are labeled “Christians” act, we need to be aware of which sense of the word we are using, and not to confuse the two.

The key to knowing who is an ontological Christian, I propose, is that they demonstrate love and try to model their lives after the teachings of Jesus, as much as they are able. As the song goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Some have started to refer to themselves as “Red-letter Christians,” referring to those Bibles who put Jesus’ words in red. I find the term unwieldy, but I understand its use.

So does that mean that someone who claims to be a Christian but acts contrary to the basic teachings of Jesus not “saved?” I would never say that. God’s grace is unfathomable, and as 1 John 2:2 states, “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” All that we can say is certain words and actions do not reflect Christianity.

The day I was assaulted in church

First, let me say that I am no wimp when it comes to loud music. I lived through the sixties. I operated farm equipment for years without using earplugs. I’ve attended many, many concerts.  I’ve played electric guitar in a band, before we used things like drum cages. I typically stood close to the drummer, and had to crank my amp up to be heard over both the drums and the vocal monitor, which was cranked up to be heard over the drums. My wife claims I’m losing my hearing.

And yet, I felt that I had been physically assaulted by sound waves last Sunday during worship. I kid you not, the sound levels were incredible. I should have asked what the db levels were.  The only thing I’ve experienced anything louder was when I took my son and his friends to a Thousand Foot Krutch concert.

The Story

We have recently started attending a local church that we really like. We know several of the people (which helps) and the pastor seems to have a very strong grasp on grace. We were looking forward to going to church. But then, we walked in the door. I spent about a minute in the sanctuary, then went back out into the lobby, my ears already ringing. The sound was so loud, you had to shout to the person next to you.

My wife, who is more sensitive to sound than I am (remember, I have hearing loss), spoke to one of the ushers. He replied that several people had already complained, and that the pastor and sound guys had been told. My wife even spoke to the sound kid (early 20’s, wearing a red headband), who replied somewhat arrogantly that “he was a professional sound man, and no one had spoken to [him] about the sound.” I had heard one gentlemen yell as he walked out, “Can you make it any louder?”

A couple of times I ventured in and looked around. Most people were not singing along (you honestly couldn’t have heard yourself anyway). One guy in a red shirt played air drums.  It was not a corporate worship experience. If anything, it was a concert, and people responded accordingly (although this is not a “dancing” church).  The worship band was even applauded during the announcements.  The pastor praised the lead guitar player. Granted, they were good. I would have enjoyed hearing them, under better circumstances.

I wanted to leave. We waited in the lobby until the music was over, then went in.  The guest speaker was fine, but by that time I was in no mood to listen to anything (my ears were still ringing). When the pastor got up to close the service, his mic was so loud it sounded like he was shouting.

Again, I am no sound wimp, but this was terrible. I really don’t know if I risk going back, unless I know who’s doing worship (even acoustic sets have been too loud at times).  If anything, I may start coming at 11, after the worship is over. But, I realize that this means I’m not really a part of the church.

The Problem

The main problem is a complete lack of understanding of the nature of corporate worship. I should mention that I have been a worship leader as well as having been the sound guy in a couple of churches. Doing sound for corporate worship is not the same as doing sound for a rock concert; the two experiences are not even in the same category. The only similarity is that both involve music.  In a concert, everyone realizes that the band is the focus. That’s why people come, to hear the band.

However, worship is a corporate experience. The worship leader(s) are there as servants, to facilitate a corporate worship experience.  There are 2 key words: worship, and corporate. Music is actually optional; recall Matt Redman’s The Heart of Worship.

Years ago, while I was sound man at a Vineyard church in San Diego, I recall reading an article by Todd Hunter, who was then the President of the Association of Vineyard Churches. He made a very simple point: If you can’t hear the people around you singing you aren’t having a true corporate worship experience, and the music is too loud.

And, consider this: Putting the focus on the music and worship band is actually stealing worship. Worship, after all, is about focus.  Remember, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  You can’t be a worship leader if you aren’t first a part of the congregation, and you aren’t leading others into worship if the attention is on you. The worship leader should be loud enough so that everyone can hear and follow along; that, after all, is their purpose.

In operating a church service, one of the things we must be aware of is the old Marshall McLuhan concept of “the medium is the message.” What we do and how we do it speaks volumes—perhaps more than what is often said (way more than what many contemporary worship songs say.

Other Problems

Then, there’s the attitude problem of the self-identified “professional” sound man. The sound team in a church should be part  of the worship team. They should understand the purpose of worship, and understand that they play a servant’s role. The sound man is perhaps the 2nd most important person on any given Sunday morning. He or she have the power to make Sunday morning a worshipful experience, or an abusive one. It takes maturity and humility. It takes an understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Am I expecting too much?

There also seemed to be an honesty issue, as the sound kid told my wife no one had spoken to him about the sound levels, although it appeared that others were indeed complaining to him. Perhaps this was just a communication issue—I can imagine that no one really heard what anyone was saying as the music was too loud.

Other problems, not specifically related to this church but certainly including this church, involve the ability of the worship leaders to choose songs which appropriately create a corporate worship experience. If this is merely a concert, that’s not important. However, songs that reflect a personal attitude or an emotional state do not make great corporate worship songs. Again, it’s a matter of focus. “Jesus, I love you” is a pretty weak worship line. It says nothing about Jesus, it merely reflects the writer’s emotional state.  I’ve often sat through these worship songs thinking, “does the worship leader have the slightest clue about what this means?”  Bottom line, emotions change, truth does not. Sing truth, let people have their own emotions.

The Buck Stops Where?

Someone has to have responsibility for creating a corporate worship experience.  In the early days of the Anaheim Vineyard, the pastor, John Wimber, approved the worship list before each service. Some may call this having control issues, but seriously, someone has to take responsibility. A mature worship leader – of which I’ve known a few – can do this. Most, honestly, can not.  Again, what is done on a Sunday morning – including which songs are sung – speak more about the church than the sermon.

So yes, last Sunday I felt not only like I’d been assaulted, but I felt like I had been abused and that I simply wasn’t important.  It’s too bad.  I’ll perhaps try this church again, but not without some good earplugs.

Give pastors some grace

In the past few days a couple of former-Christians-become-atheist sites have picked up on this article (by Dr. Richard J. Krejcir) on Schaeffer Institute site about the sad state of evangelical pastors. For a number of reasons, the atheist sites present the material in a more compelling way than does Krejcir’s article. Here’s just a few of the figures:

  • 1500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • 50% of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • 80 percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
  • 50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 40% of pastors polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

The conclusion, reached by atheists and Christians alike, is that something is seriously wrong in the evangelical church. Being a pastor is certainly a stressful job, there’s no doubt about that; but I don’t think it has to be as stressful as it often is.

During my stints in church leadership positions, where sometimes my main function was merely to look out for the well-being of the pastor, I recognized some problems. I believe it is systemic. There is a really, really bad model of church that has been perpetuated in evangelical churches that in essence makes the pastor a potential victim of abuse. Some of this is actually encouraged by the pastor, as it’s what they have been trained to believe.

This usually results in the pastor – as a survival mechanism – becoming an abusive leader.

One of the problems is that the church adopted much of the corporate business model, which is essentially organized social Darwinism. It’s survival of the fittest, results matter, perform or get out. It also puts the pastor in a conflict of interest situation with regard to his finances. His continued income depends on the church growing (at least financially) and the church giving. Again, this is a set up for abuse. If nothing else, the pastor lives in conlfict.

Many pastors have never been trained for anything else; they are indentured servants of the church system. And, many of them don’t have any retirement plans, and may not pay into social security. So, when they burn out or retire, they are nearly destitute. Unless, of course, they’ve learned to make money as authors, conference speakers, and TV personalitites.

The church needs to understand that being a pastor is just a job (yes, that’s what I said). It’s a role, of which there are hundreds in any church. Rather than the pyramid-shaped CEO model that most churches use, the church was really designed as a “flat” organization, where all relationships are reciprocal in nature. That is, if the pastor helps you with his teaching, you help him with whatever “good things” you’ve got, not necessarily financial.

If everyone in the church would function on this principle of grace – sharing each other’s burdens, sharing all good things with one another, and so on – the pressure on the pastor would be relieved.

Of course, grace means freedom – which also means personal responsibility, for everyone.  Good luck getting a church to buy that.