Tag Archives: gospel

A Sermon on WX 2015: How Jesus uses Stumbling Blocks and Useless Salt

Mark 9:38-50

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me…

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

It seems like the disciples may have finally pushed Jesus over the edge this week.

Peter was rebuking Jesus a couple weeks ago, which caused Jesus to answer by calling Peter Satan and telling him to start getting with the program or else. Last week, Jesus found the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus’ annoyance was clear.

But this week, John, the beloved disciple, comes to Jesus with a dubious complaint. He says, “Someone was casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because we not following us.”

Wow, John… Is this grade 3 where we tattle to the teacher?

Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that Jesus said, “if you want to become my followers, deny yourselves…”

John has clearly not been paying attention.

And we know that Jesus in Mark’s gospel can be harsh. He called the Syrophoenician woman a dog a few weeks back.

But Jesus’ response to John is more than harsh. Jesus really rips into John and other disciples for failing to get it.

“If would be better to be tossed into the ocean with a millstone around your neck, than to be a stumbling block to one of these littles ones.” Jesus begins.

“Cut off your hand if it is the problem. Cut off your foot if it is getting in your way. Tear out your eye if necessary.”

If throwing people into the ocean to die, or cutting off body parts sounds extreme it’s because it is extreme. But this is not an instructional manual on how to deal with sin.

Jesus is trying once again to make the disciples get it. To make the disciples understand just how much they are getting in their own way. He is trying to express just how frustrating it is to have a bunch of followers who are so focused on themselves and how he doesn’t have time for John’s self-centred non-sense.

It goes without saying that we might be uncomfortable with this frustrated Jesus. And not just because Jesus is supposed to be gentle and nice, but because John’s actions are familiar to us. We too struggle with wanting to be clear with who is in and who is out when it comes to our families, friends, neighbours and churches. We don’t have to look much farther than the niqab and citizenship ceremony debate to be reminded.

Last weekend, I attended the Why Christian? Conference in Minneapolis. There, I was reminded of just how much like John we can be.

The conference was organized as a response to the vast majority of other conferences for Christians that exist. Most conferences feature white, male, middle aged and older speakers who are brought in as experts to lecture attendees. If women or people of colour are asked to speak, it is usually tokenism. One women out of 20 men. One person of colour out of 20 white speakers. And women speak to women’s issues. People of colour speak to issues facing ethnic minorities. They are never asked to experts on the real stuff.

Why Christian? was not a women’s conference. But the two organizers were women. A Lutheran Pastor from Denver and a Christian Author and Blogger from Tennessee. And all 11 of the keynote speakers were women. Straight women, gay women, women of colour, young women, transgender women. And all of them pastors, authors, writers, professors and leaders in Churches throughout the United States. All of them have been and still are being told that they shouldn’t be allowed to do their work, to lead people of faith because of their gender, the colour of their skin, because of who they love, because of their age, because of their tattoos or their voices or the clothes they wear or any number of arbitrary reasons.

It makes us wonder… what would have John the disciple said to Jesus about them?

John would have objected and tattled on them too.

But here is the thing about John.

Jesus called John out of a fishing boat and John has forgotten that. Jesus called him even though the people in power, proper upstanding appropriate people would have objected to Jesus calling a lowly fisherman to be the disciple of an important rabbi, to a position of status and privilege.

Or maybe John hasn’t forgotten… and maybe that is why he is tattling on this person who is out doing Jesus’ work in the world despite not being part of the club. John is worried that Jesus might replace him. John and the other disciples had just failed at casting out demons… Jesus might be on the lookout for new and improved disciples who can get the job done.

John should know better than to tattle on the outsider, because he has been one too. John as been both an outsider and an insider. Both one who has been deemed unworthy and now one worthy of privilege.

And whatever the reason John is tattling to Jesus, whether he has forgotten where he comes from or whether he is afraid… maybe Jesus’s extreme frustration with John has less to do with the fact of John being a stumbling block and more to do with that thing inside of John, the source of that forgetfulness and fear that is keeping John from realizing just who gets to gate-keep the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is frustrated because John’s sinful self is making him forget that Jesus decides who is in and who is out. Not John, not us.

As I listened last weekend to speakers who almost certainly wouldn’t have been given the chance to speak at any other Christian Conference, it was incredible to hear these women tell their stories, and as the name of the conference, Why Christian? suggests, answer the question of Why Christian? Why continue in a religion, tradition and institution that so often seeks to silence their voices in the very name of these women follow.

It was incredible to hear these women speak because even as they all had stories where some well intentioned but misguided disciples like John had told them that they weren’t worthy of doing God’s work because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their impropriety… even as they all their stories of being shut down and pushed to outside by John…

They also had stories of being welcomed and brought back in by Jesus.

They told the 1000 of us who gathered in beautiful and appropriately named St. Mark’s cathedral about the ways in which Jesus continually draws them back to Christianity. How Jesus draws them in by being outraged along with them at the injustice they experience. How Jesus draws them in by declaring that they are beloved and that they belong. How Jesus draws them in through the grace and mercy filled word of God, draws them in through the cleansing water of baptism, draws them in through bread that gets faith under our fingernails in the Lord’s Supper, draws them in through the community that swirls around in the cup of wine.

They told us how Jesus continually draws them back and offers them a place in the Kingdom.

And the stories those women told about Why Christian? tell us something about us.

We are all like John.

We have all been both the ones on the inside and on the outside. We have been told we aren’t good enough to do God’s work and we have told others the same. And we have done so because of our forgetfulness and our fear.

We have done so because of our sin.

And just when Jesus is enraged by the fact that we don’t get it. Just when he seems to be annoyed to the extreme with John and us.

Jesus pulls it back together and Jesus talks about salt.

Salt that acted as currency, food preservative, and fertilizer. Ancient impure salt that had the habit of going bad and becoming useless. Salt that once it became flavourless white powder had no purpose.

No purpose but one.

To be thrown on the roads where it helped keep the roads flat and walkable.

Kind of opposite to stumbling blocks.

Even though like John, we get in the way of our brothers and sisters, even though we have a habit of making things messy and complicated. Even though our sinful selves prevent us from seeing what Jesus is up to… Jesus has a use for flavourless salt.

Jesus has a use for people on the inside who are afraid of losing their place. And Jesus has a use for people on the outside who are excluded because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their voices and tattoos, their lowly jobs and lack of social standing.

Jesus has a use for us.

Because we are both. We are insiders and outsiders. We are tattling on each other and the ones being tattled on. We have been the ones trying to be gate-keepers, and we have all been told we aren’t good enough.

And for Jesus… none of that matters.

Because Jesus decides who gets to be part of the club, who gets to be disciples, who gets to speak, and teach, and serve on his behalf.

And Jesus decides that his kingdom will be full of stumbling blocks AND useless salt. Jesus decides that is Kingdom will be full of people just like you and just like me.

Insiders and outsiders

All beloved by God.

Amen. 

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Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition

I consider myself an orthodox Christian.

Not Eastern, but orthodox in the sense that I adhere to the essential core doctrines of Christianity, like the Trinity, Original Sin, two natures of Christ, the real resurrection, etc…

I also belong a Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) that allows same-sex marriage, ordains women and LGBT people, teaches its pastors historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship, and does any number of other things that many Christians consider heretical.

There is an inherent difficulty in operating in an orthodox and small “c” conservative faith tradition while adopting socially progressive ethics and post-modern scholarship. This difficulty has been churning in the back of my mind for months, and this week it is about to come to the forefront.

My wife and I are headed to the Why Christian? Conference hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. In preparation for the conference, Rachel Held Evans asked the question on her Facebook page “why christian?

And the question was asked in light of recent events in news: The hype around Kim Davis’ stand for “Christian values” in refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples contrasted by the photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washing up on a Turkish beach.

When fellow Christians are rallying behind someone trying to use the government to impose her beliefs on others in the name of religious freedom, how does one stick with this Christianity business?

When ‘Christian nations’ seem so passive about doing anything about the plight of refugees escaping violence because they are muslims, how do you continue to call yourself Christian?

By definition, Christianity is a conservative faith. No, not conservative in the political sense. Christianity is conservative in the practical sense. Christianity seeks to maintain, protect, promote and conserve the teaching, preaching and good news of God in Jesus Christ. Christianity is trying to bring the past forward – a conservative way of being. And yet, along the way Christianity has also conserved things like patriarchy, sexism, systems of power and abuse, bigotry and racism, judgementalism and close-mindedness.

Christianity has a lot of baggage to contend with, and our baggage is frequently getting in our own way. Our baggage is often the thing Christians mistakenly hold up and shout loudly to the world that this is what God – not just Christianity – is all about.

A common refrain among those who struggle with the conservative baggage has been to drop the Christian label in favour of “following Jesus.” And who can blame them? Considering the Christianity that is so frequently presented in the media and practiced so widely, or when Kim Davis or Donald Trump or Fox News is our spokesperson, we should want to say, “I am not with them.”

The Kingdom of God is Near - the Lion of St. Mark
The Kingdom of God is Near – the Lion of St. Mark

Ten days ago, I got a tattoo (insert joke – “a pastor walks into a tattoo shop…”). Getting a tattoo is a very intimate experience. For four hours I had to lay still as someone literally did artwork on my body. And yet, during those four hours I had an extremely familiar experience. My tattoo artist and I talked for hours about all the ways that Christians are judgemental, agenda-filled and often put off and offend unchurched people like her. Yet she didn’t find me that way.

My tattoo artist told me that I was not like any pastor she has ever met (well, not quite, as my wife spent an afternoon with her a couple of  weeks before me). I get told that a lot. When I meet with unchurched couples coming to get married, when unchurched families come to have a child baptized, or when unchurched families come for funerals they often tell me that I am not what they expected. Most unchurched people that I get to spend some time with tell me I don’t sound like the Christians on TV, or like their one friend who can’t stop talking about their megachurch pastor, or like their grandma who looks down on them for having tattoos, piercings, not going to church, living in sin or whatever else. I don’t sound like those other Christians because I am cool with questions, even encouraging of them, I share my doubts, and I even share my own frustrations about the judgemental behaviour of many fellow Christians.

Maybe this should make me wonder if I got Christianity wrong along the way? Is the way I practice it so uncommon?

It isn’t.

I have spent far too long studying history and theology in university and at seminary to not know that the way I practice Christianity is fairly consistent with the way it has been practiced throughout history. And most of the Christians I know approach faith the way I do.

Yet, despite the baggage that Christianity carries these days, despite the undignified death that Christendom is undergoing, despite the pop-culture caricature that Christians have become, I can’t walk away from the religion.

I am a Christian, even if Kim Davis gets to speak for me, or Fox News or even… heaven forbid… Donald Trump. 

And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember.

Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power.

Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation.

And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.

As much as I shake my head this week every time I see a Kim Davis news story scroll by on Facebook. As much as I get enraged when I read that Christians are rallying behind Donald Trump, or rallying behind Stephen Harper here in Canada. As frustrating as it is that the Christianity that is represented in the media is one I neither recognize nor practice.

But I know that this is not the whole story.

I know that the church I grew up in is full of people just like Kim Davis, and they have sponsored 3 refugee families over the past 15 years. In fact, churches are some of the most frequent sponsors of refugees. I know that the grandmothers who guilt their grandkids into bringing their babies to be baptized also knit quilts for Canada’s northern communities and brought sweaters by the truck-load so that Canadian Lutheran World Relief could send 70,000 sweaters to Syrian Refugees last winter. I know that church people who struggle with how fast world is changing and who long for the golden age of Christendom are also regularly volunteering at the soup kitchen, filling the food bank, visiting people in hospitals and old folks homes and are caring for the world in their own small ways.

But most importantly, I know that Christianity is at its best when it is practiced by sinners. Even when those sinners like to tell everyone outside the church that they are the sinners. Christianity is still for sinners.

Christianity, the religion with all this baggage, is also the means by which God meets our broken world and speaks words of promise, grace, and mercy. The baggage filled traditions of Christianity are the means by which God washes and claims us as God’s own, the means by which God feeds us with God’s very Body.

Christianity is the community where God transforms us from broken and flawed people into forgiven and whole. 

And as filled with baggage as Christianity is these days, I need it. We all need it.

Because we need God

and those promises

and that washing

and that food.

I can’t believe in Jesus alone, I need all these messed up people – Christians – to do it with me.


 

Why are you still a Christian? What are your frustrations with Christianity? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

This Ash Wednesday, I can’t do ‘Ashes to Go’ or ‘#Ashtag’

ashtag-selfie-ashwed-churchmojo-squareThis morning a blogger and writer that I like to read and whom I respect, David R Henson, posted an insightful blog post about the problems with #AshTag.

As I prepare for Ash Wednesday, my own thoughts have been swirling around how to approach and understand this first day of Lent. As David considered the problem of Ash Wednesday selfies posted to social media using the hashtag #AshTag, one line in particular caught my attention.

The systemic push within the church for Ash Wednesday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards.

Needless to say, I won’t be posting an Ash Wednesday selfie (one would think that Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras would be the big selfie night).

AshestoGo4But another Ash Wednesday innovation that I have surprised myself by not being terribly interested in is ‘Ashes to Go.’ Ashes to go is where clergy go out to street corners and subway platforms to offer ashes to those passing by. Often clergy do this in full vestments.

I am all for getting out in the world. I totally agree that churches need to look beyond themselves for ways to connect with the world around them (see my last post). And I would never claim that the intentions behind these two practices(?) are not well-intentioned. Nor would I say that Ashes to Go, in particular, doesn’t produce some amazingly powerful encounters between clergy and folks about town.

But there is just something missing for me.

Again David Henson makes the point:

“The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.”

For me, Ash Wednesday has a deeper context.

A few years ago, during a shared Ash Wednesday service with another congregation, I got to watch a good friend and colleague place ashes on the forehead of his six-year-old son. It was a powerful moment for this parent to have to declare to his own son, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year, I will put ashes on my own infant son’s forehead and speak those words.

And over the past 6 years of ministry, I have scattered ashes and sand on many caskets. I have uttered the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over the bodies of those who have died of painful, fast-acting cancer, over murder victims, over those who have taken their own life, over children, over those who have suffered for years with diseases like Parkinson’s or MS. The ashes are real in these moments, they aren’t just symbolic.

For me, the ashes are not to be taken lightly.

For me, the ashes are a reminder of my own tenuous mortality.

For me, the ashes cannot be separated from confession, from Gospel, from Eucharist.

For me, the ashes are not mine to give, but it is the church’s job, our job to receive them.

This is not to say that I would refuse anyone ashes tomorrow night. I wouldn’t.

But Ash Wednesday is the church’s chance to confess, to admit our failures, to declare that we are dead, that our bodies, blood, sweat and tears – that even our buildings and budgets –  will all be ash one day.

And I cannot deliver that message in 30 seconds on a street corner.

Perhaps, I could stand on a street corner in full vestments make confession to strangers and ask passersby to put ashes on my forehead. Maybe ‘Ashes to Go’ would make sense to me then.

But more importantly, I can’t leave Ash Wednesday at the ashes. I can’t just stop at the part where I am dead. I have to hear the Good News. I have to hear that God makes me alive. That God makes us alive.

And as a preacher, I need to preach that news too. I need to invite the Ashen Assembly to the table of the Lord, to receive the bread and wine that makes our dry bones and ashes come to life.

To me, smiling goofily into my smart phone for an #AshTag selfie, or standing on a street corner in my vestments handing out fast food ashes has missed an important part of Ash Wednesday.

The reality that we are really dead, like body-in-a-casket-being-lowered-into-a-grave dead.

And the reality that only God can make us alive.

The thing is, we need Ash Wednesday, all of it.

And the ashes aren’t really the point.


What is Ash Wednesday for you? Have you received Ashes to Go or have you #AshTag-ed? What was your experience? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

iPhone 6 and why churches should stop trying to get more people to come.  

Last week, as throngs of people stood in line at the Apple store, Courtenay and I walked up to our cell phone provider’s mall kiosk just a little further down and asked if they had any iPhone 6s left. A short while later, we had traded our old iPhones for the shiny new ones of our choice.

applecrowdWhen we had tried the apple store earlier, it was so busy that we could hardly get close enough to a display model to see one. At the cellphone kiosk, we were given demo models to hold and play with. While you had to make appointments to receive service at Apple, walk-ins were welcome at the cellphone kiosk. Shipping problems meant pre-orders were delayed and backlogged at the Apple store. The cellphone kiosk? We were the first customers to buy the new iPhones from our sales associate, and it was the middle of the afternoon already. And my wife and I loved buying our phones from the friendly guy at the mall kiosk.

It was somewhat of a surreal experience to be quietly buying new phones just down the way from the clamour of the Apple store.

As we experienced the release day chaos first hand, it dawned on me that churches could learn something from all of this. We wish we could all be Apple stores, with the throngs of people, not unlike the mega-church, but most of us are more like the small cell phone kiosks. We offer the same thing as the mega-churches, but most people don’t know we have it.

As a pastor of mainline denomination in Canada, my 5 years of ministry experience has been serving in a denomination in decline. There are a zillion factors for this, of course: changing social norms, less and less societal evangelization on behalf of the church, new census categories that actually allowed people to choose “none” or “other” in the religion category, less immigration from countries with people that are mainline adherents, a failure to evangelize our own children over the past 5 decades, judgemental and condemning attitudes by church leaders towards pretty much everything new in the world and so on.

I often remind my people that while we are partly to blame for our own decline, a lot of it is simply out of our control. 

Yet, in the midst of this decline, many Christian mainliners are concerned about getting people back to church, about returning to a time of full pews and overflowing offering plates (I am not sure this ever existed).

People often point to the other choices that people seem to be making instead of church on Sunday mornings as the thing to blame for shrinking membership roles. Sports, dance, music, shopping. Mega-churches, Evangelicals, praise bands.

These are the things that people want, or so I am told.

We need to be flashier, more engaging, more interesting, less old, less traditional, less churchy.

And yet, my own anecdotal experience tells me that my current high church liturgical predilections are “attracting” or “not attracting” just as many people as the young adult praise and worship band that I played in for years. Lutherans are coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Other mainliners, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and new converts are also coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Apparently fewer people are attending church across the board.

I am not the first to say these things, you have probably heard them before.

But back to iPhone 6 release day… with the pandemonium of people lined up for hours, days even, to get their new Apple products, I wondered why all these people are here for this stuff.

And it dawned on me.

They are buying something. Apple is selling something.

grandarcade_heroApple is great at selling things. My cell phone provider, while strong in most of Canada, has yet to get a foothold in this province. Mainline decline is a loss of a foothold. Whatever we were selling, people aren’t buying anymore.

More importantly, people are attracted by things to buy, consume, attain, acquire. They want something new, flashy, entertaining.

Lutherans, with other mainline Christians, are just not selling what the people want.

This is a good thing. 

As I realized that my church isn’t selling what people want, unlike Apple or sports or movie theatres or shopping malls, I also realized that we don’t want to sell something.

The churches that do sell what people want, are peddling things that I would never offer my people.

http://www.flcsf.org/history
http://www.flcsf.org/history

Years ago, when mainline churches were on the top of the heap they weren’t more holy or gospel filled places. What we did was sold the only show in town on Sunday mornings, we sold social networking the old-fashioned way, we sold black and white morality, we sold plenty of judgement and we sold cheap access to heaven (for only 1 hour of time a week on Sunday mornings).

https://deanlbailey.wordpress.com/tag/megachurch/
https://deanlbailey.wordpress.com/tag/megachurch/

Today, lots of churches are selling the same kind of stuff: A privileged place in God’s kingdom, the promise of wealth and success, black and white answers, us vs. them morality, security in a dangerous world, entertaining worship, vanilla lattes in the narthex, music like you hear on top 40 radio, and cheap access to heaven (for only a sincerely held, unquestioning faith).

Now, I am not saying that churches who achieve attendance and budgetary “success” aren’t preaching the gospel, creating disciples or doing good ministry. Yet, I do question attendance as a metric of good ministry, or as a way to determine if the gospel is preached. If numbers really do measure good ministry, than movie theatres and pro sports are doing the best ministry there is. Apple is an evangelistic super star.

Now I have to admit, in my weaker moments I do fret about numbers. I am secretly prideful when my church is packed at Christmas or Easter. I am inwardly disappointed when there is a sparse crowd on cold day in January or a lazy dog day of summer.

Increasingly, however, I am asking more and more “what brings people to church anyways?” While I have been mostly unsure about the answer these days, my experience with the Apple store taught me something about what does draw the crowds.

As individuals, we may be some of the most pious seekers of Christ and spiritual enlightenment there are. But as people, as a mob… we are attracted by a good sales pitch.

And as a Lutheran pastor, I am not selling – not even offering for free – what people want at their basest levels. 

People want new, I offer old.

People want flashy, I have steadfast.

People want to be entertained, I point to the One who transforms.

People want easy answers, I have only more questions.

People want security, I can only tear walls down.

People want assurances, I talk about uncertainty/faith.

People want something immediate, I am interested in the eternal.

People want power and control over their world…

I can only talk about how we don’t have it…

And how God does.

And yes, I realize I am may sound like I am rationalizing decline. Maybe I am. But Jesus only had 12 followers, which makes me a ragging success comparatively. I still can’t help but notice that the churches that are drawing the crowds tend to look a lot like Apple product launches. They are selling something to the masses.

And Jesus, my friends, is not for sale. Maybe it is time we stop worrying about numbers, decline, fewer resources and smaller budgets. Maybe the spirit is telling us that God’s church is not for sale.

Maybe Jesus is a little less Steve Jobs, and a little more like that faithful stalwart whose butt imprint has been etched in the pew because church is not about getting something new…

…but about becoming someone new.

Many pastors and congregations just might feel like that small kiosk in the mall, that we all pass by because they look like they are selling cheap crap. We might look longingly at the mega-churches and Apple stores with their throngs.

But good ministry is not selling something. The Gospel is not a sales pitch.

Jesus didn’t command us to fill pews and offering plates. Jesus commanded us to baptize, to eat and drink, to forgive sins.

And those things don’t fill pews or offering plates…

… but they do transform us and the world.

So maybe it is time to stop trying to get more people to church, and just give the gospel to the people we have. 


Are we trying to sell God? Are “successful” churches really selling something? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor, or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

The Christian Horror Movie that will Win People to Jesus

So I have been listening to the Moonshine Jesus Podcast, with Mark Sandlin and David Henson. It is a basically half an hour of two ministers and bloggers talking pop-culture and theology over drinks. As many pastors know, this is what some of the best moments of seminary, and later on, what clergy conferences are all about. The podcast is great fun and worth a listen, you can find it on iTunes and here. In a recent episode Mark and David shared that there is a Christian Horror movie coming out called Final: The Rapture.

Now, I am not a big fan of Christian movies or Christian radio. I was subjected to far too much Touched by an Angel growing up, but I have to admit that the production quality of Christian music, TV and film has gone up dramatically since then. Recent movies like the Son of God or the Passion of the Christ, or even like Noah, show that the entertainment industry is investing in Christainment.

teaser-poster-final-the-raptureHowever, Christians themselves are also invested appealing to broader secular culture, and so we end up with movies, like Final: The Rapture, being made with the aim of appealing to a broader audience. The movie is being billed as a frightening story of what the end of the world will look like, full of violence, blood, death (no sex or swearing, of course). The producers themselves compare the movie to a Trojan Horse. They are hoping to bring people in with horror and send them out with the fear of Hell the love of Christ in the hearts.

If you watch the trailer, it is clear that this film is not top quality acting, writing, directing or production. But lots of horror movies aren’t these days and they do just fine at the box office.

The quality of the filmmaking isn’t really the issue.

Of course, it is absurd to try and trick people into “coming to Jesus” with a horror movie. Even with the poor filmmaking in mind, don’t spend too long thinking about how many times along the way there must have been opportunities for someone to point out to the producers that spending the money, time and effort on making such a film is ludicrous. It will hurt your brain to imagine that some poor schmuck in an editing room had to finally say, “Yes! This is it! The Christian horror movie that will bring people to Christ!” Don’t even start on all the actors, film crews, on-location personnel and more, who had to agree that this film was worth making.

The thing that really turns my brain inside-out is the motive to make this movie in the first place. It is a logical and theological fallacy that underpins this whole venture.

This movie might be billed by the producers as a bait and switch to bring people in with the horror and send them out with Jesus, but it isn’t. In fact, Jesus has little to do with it at all. The real aim is to bring people in with horror and send them out with Hell.

This is laughable at first thought, but there is something deeply troubling about this line of thinking. The bait and switch tactic is dishonest, but the real bait and switch tactic is terrifying and I can’t believe that Christians are still using this strategy. It appears that the producers of this movie are using Hell as a first ‘in’ to get people to believe in God. 

I don’t know if this is a conscious effort or some response to the New Atheism that fundamentalists seem to be fond of sparring with. However, trying to terrify people with Hell so much so that they open themselves to eternal damnation is cruel. But thinking that a fear of hell means an unconscious belief in eternal salvation? This is absurd!

Yet, as far as I can tell, this line of thinking exists. Fundamentalists seem to be saying that if we can get people to be afraid of Hell, then they will, by default, also believe in Jesus – maybe without even really knowing it. You can’t believe in Hell without then believing in God right?

This is the horrific part.

I don’t recall Jesus saying, faith the size of a mustard seed in Hell, will bring you into the Kingdom of God. I don’t recall Jesus telling us to go out and spread the Bad News of God’s wrath and damnation. I don’t recall Jesus giving Christians the ‘judgement and condemnation of God’ as an evangelism tool.

Most Christian music, TV and film verges on the hokey, even if the production value is getting better (especially in terms of music). And fine, if Christians need faith based pop culture – whatever. But if we think that we can trick people into heaven with an illogical, unscriptural fallacy?

Then we really have created a horror show. 

What do you think? Do Christians need their own pop culture? Does believing in Hell make people also Christians? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

The Gospel According to Downton Abbey

Around New Years, my wife and I jumped on the Downton Abbey bandwagon and binged-watched the whole series in about a week. For those who don’t know, Downton Abbey features an aristocratic household in the early 20th Century, following the lives of the Lords and Ladies who live “upstairs” and the servants who live “downstairs” at Downton Abbey.

Downton’s appeal is that it is like a view into a time that our world can almost remember. My grandfather born in 1919 would have been a baby just around the time the show takes place. It is almost memorable for us but still so very different.

Now, I promise no spoilers.

Downton-Abbey-CastOne of the main themes of the show is change. The early 20th Century was much like the early 21st Century is now. There was a technological revolution taking place, and it is funny to watch the characters of Downton deal with the newness of very old technology. Electricity, phones and automobiles were transforming the way people communicated, traveled and worked. There were new jobs which required new skills, while old skills and jobs were being made obsolete. Communication over long distances was now instant and ubiquitous, with phones being installed in houses. Cars allowed people to travel farther and faster. Medicine was being revolutionized with anti-biotics and surgical procedures. And of course, warfare became more deadly with inventions like machine-guns and tanks.

Alongside this great technological change was social change. The established social orders were unravelling, the servant class looked forward to new opportunities, while the upper class watched as their power and influence eroded. While the show hasn’t made it as far as the Great Depression, this event would become a seminal moment of this era, leading into a very different middle 20th Century. Communication and technology were creating a new democratization of opportunity. The social playing field was levelling.

The technological and societal changes were evolving a world for the young adult generation that was very different than the world of their parents and grandparents, causing generational tensions.

This all sounds somewhat familiar doesn’t it?

I don’t think Downton Abbey would have worked as a show 10 years ago. Yet, today we can equate the experience of a phone in every house with a smart phone in every pocket. We can understand the experience of new ubiquitous instant telephone communication like new social media connectivity. We experience clear class distinctions with our growing economic disparity and inequality. These mirrored experiences with our great-grandparent’s generation make the show appeal to our present.

However, as a pastor, there is one thing that makes my hair stand on end, episode after episode.

Throughout the show, characters often talk about how “everything is changing.” Even though it isn’t always clear what this new technology and these new social attitudes will mean for the world, everyone carries a deep sense of change. Some embrace the change and look forward to this new world. Others grieve it and lament what these changes will mean. In particular, the privileged upper class is generally fearful of what they will lose and often work to prevent or slow the change. The servant / working class generally embraces the change, looking for what they can gain and attempt to hasten the arrival of this new world.

The experience of “change” that the characters are having is uncannily like the experience of change that so many churches are going through today. In fact, there are moments in the show that feel so much like my day to day life in ministry, as those around me have the same deep sense of the “changing” world of our time. The image of our contemporary church that Downton presents is not lost on me for a second.

As these once great aristocratic families wander about this great house, this great mostly empty Abbey (or church), bemoaning the change going on about them; they have no idea how they got to where they are, they do not know how to react or what to prepare for. As it becomes clearer that their traditions and social standing are no longer relevant or guaranteed by society itself, the upper class holds on tighter and tighter to what they once had and long for a return to earlier times.

Just to make sure there is nothing missed, the completion of the mirror image comes in the grief the upper class carries for their loss of privilege.

No, the image that Downton presents of present day Christianity, especially mainline Christianity, is not lost on me at all.

Downton Abbey should become required watching for churches today.

It would serve us well to see just how blind we are to our entrenched societal privilege. It would serve us well to see how our traditions are viewed by those forced to attend to them rather than benefit from them. It would serve us well to see how our privilege is not going to last forever, in fact, it will probably not even last the decade.

As our privileged position of being the state and social religion, of being the dominant culture and moral system, of being able to discriminate for “religious reasons” is coming to an end, it can only be a good thing for us.

This is where the gospel part of Downton Abbey comes in. The privileged class sees only the loss of their position and power in the world, but the under class starts to see the beginning of something new. They see hope for a different world.

As a millennial, I only have the foggiest or vicarious memory of the glory days of Christian privilege. As a pastor, I don’t remember being a well respected authority figure in the larger community. I don’t remember churches having much, if any, influence over society around us. But like the young aristocrats of Downton Abbey who are far more comfortable with this new world, and who are far more comfortable interacting with the lower classes, I am ready to be – and to lead – the Church into this new world.

It is very tempting to lament our loss of privilege, we could just wander about our big empty churches wondering how we got to where we are, but the Good News of Downton Abbey is that our privilege is being stripped from us. It is Good News because the barriers that prevented the under-privileged from integrating with us are falling down. It is Good News because we can now begin to play on a level playing field, a democratized playing field where people can choose us, rather than be forced to adhere to us. It is Good News because, like the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, it is time for the world to stop serving us and for us to start serving the world.

Besides, I think serving the world was kind of big deal for that guy we like to follow… Jeeves was it? Or Juan?

Oh right… Jesus.

So are you a fan of Downton Abbey? Experienced the Church’s struggle with change? Share in the comments, on Twitter: @ParkerErik, or on Facebook

More posts about change:

Why Christians have lost the argument for faith before it started

Old and New: Thanks about the World Differently

Nothing Surprises me Anymore

hellfireSo this morning I got back to the office to catch the tail end of a funeral that was happening at our church because we have a larger space than the funeral home. Even though I thought it would be long over before I returned to the church from a meeting, I caught the last 10 minutes of the hour and 45 minute long affair.

Now before going further, I will say that I grew up in Lutheran church that ran the gamut from high church Norwegian Lutherans (our family), to low church pietist types, to fundamentalist missionary types, to charismatic speaking in tongues types, to social justice advocates, to not-too-sure-if-Jesus-was-a-rea- guy-types. We all managed to get along (most of the time), in a way that showed, to some degree, the diversity of the Kingdom of God. Growing up I heard some flakey stuff about giving your heart to Jesus, choosing to have faith, and even some pretty wonky spiritual warfare ideas. Along side was traditional Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone Gospel. The kind of stoic yet firmly Lutheran saw that “we are saved by grace and not by works” (and not by choosing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour).

Jesus chooses us. That was always clear to me.

And yes, I know that there are Hellfire and Brimstone preachers our there. I know that you can find lots of “Turn or burn” stuff on the internet or on TV.

But to walk into MY church (it isn’t really mine, but I can pretend) and hear someone in my pulpit (again not really mine) telling people that if “You don’t choose the right path, there is a lake of fire waiting for you” was surreal to say the least. I have never actually heard some one say those words from a pulpit, and especially not my pulpit. I mean absolutely never ever. Not. In. My. Pulpit.

It sucks that you can’t be ready for these moments. God doesn’t email a memo ahead of time. And it super sucks to have too much integrity (or cowardice) to make the scene that this kind of stuff deserves.

So there I was, in jeans, sketchers and black clergy shirt — no tab in, and all I could muster was my best death stare from the back doors of the sanctuary, and the most imperceptible of head shakes as I listened to some guy tell 200 people that they better choose Jesus or get punted into the inferno. If the preacher/eulogizer/random guy talking at a funeral saw me, he probably didn’t know why the under dressed young adult was squinting at him from the back of the church.

The worst part was that every inch of my being wanted to liturgically body check the guy out of the chancel and apologize for this kind of nonsense being preached in MY Church and MY pulpit.

The worst part was that I felt ashamed that all the people were present wear being subjected to BAD NEWS in the midst of their grief while in the place where I had been called to the public job of preaching GOOD NEWS.

The worst part was having the clearest admission we can muster as a society, present in the building with us — a dead body — and there was no one to boldly declare, that in the face of death, God is making all of us alive, even this person who is dead, right here in front of us. Like really alive. Not just spiritually or in memory. To actually say that there is real, tangible, unimaginable Life. And God is doing it.

That was the worst part. Having a funeral in MY house (yes I know it is God’s house), the greatest opportunity to preach the resurrection as pastor (even better than Easter), and witnessing someone turn that opportunity into a shameful and bullying attempt at evangelism. That was the worst.

I still don’t know what to make of what happened, and I still have no idea what to do next time. But I do know that the longer I am a pastor, the less surprised I am by what I see.