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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Evangelical Hara-Kiri

Hara-kiri is the ritual suicide by disembowelment practiced by the Japanese samurai or formerly decreed by a court in lieu of the death penalty [Merriam-Webster online]

The term has found its way into popular culture as a reference to when someone commits social or organizational suicide. Lately, Evangelical Christians are being led to believe that holding to strict beliefs - biblical inerrancy, the biblical definition of marriage, the wrongness of abortion, to name a few - will kill off any chance we have of connecting with those seeking a higher purpose in life. Frankly, that seems to put faith into the same sphere as fast food or soft drinks or sports apparel.

Things go better with Jesus

Evangelical Christianity has become just one of dozens of religions to go that you can choose from to step up to a more spiritual plane in life. I was reading another interesting blog yesterday that discussed an article published on the CNN Belief Blog. The root of the discussion was Rachel Held Evans' piece on why millennials are leaving the church. This isn't the first time I've come across Mrs. Evans. I read an article discussing Evans' newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and have perused some of her blogs. Evans is an engaging and witty writer, but I'll admit I don't agree with her on everything, philosophically or theologically speaking.

In her CNN article, after establishing her millennial cred (aged 32, raised analog but living digital, fan of Nirvana and Pearl Jam), Evans made a number of statements which brought me up short. I don't have time to address them all but I'll note a few...

1. In her bio, Evans makes the statement, "I'm often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church." This would lead readers who did not know Mrs. Evans to infer that she is, in fact, an evangelical leader. I will leave it up to each individual to research and decide if, in fact, that is a true statement. Merriam-Webster online defines the term evangelical variously as:

- Of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels.
- Protestant (What? There are no Catholic evangelicals?)
- Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.

In the first real meat of the piece, Evans states, "Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness."

- A number of Bible verses spring to mind in which Jesus is shown as political and concerned with social justice i.e. turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple [Matthew 21:12]. That was an incredibly political act, even if He did not undertake it for political reasons. Jesus was inclusive. He famously tells the ever-present Pharisees, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick." when they confronted him about hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners [Matthew 9:12]. But what was the outcome of Jesus' relationship with these people? Did Matthew remain a Tax Collector? Did the adulteress remain an adulteress [John 8:11]?

As I sought to highlight the article's salient points, I struggled not to copy, paste, and comment on everything. Perhaps that speaks to Mrs. Evans' facility as a writer, if not her status as someone I would always agree with regarding all that is good in/for the church. About midway through she continues, "In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular. Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic."

- Unpretentious? I mean, I understand what she is saying but one of the very things that Jesus was most militant about was the pretentiousness of the Pharisees in their behavior, prayer, etc. Jesus taught early and often about believers needing to move away from the established orthodoxy of the day and instead establish a church founded on Immanuel. This new church is described in detail in Acts 2 - which details not only how to join with the new church but also what the church model needed to look like when believers were truly serving God and His people.

Acts 2 doesn't say, "Devote yourselves to the apostle's teaching in a church that makes you feel really good, where the music is just your style and everything is just right." 

I had to laugh when Mrs. Evans relates how, during one of her evangelical presentations, one Pastor will always invariably respond with, "So what you're saying is we need hipper worship bands..."

That's funny, but highlights a key division in evangelical thought lines when it comes to understanding why millennials and others are leaving the church: Do we need a different message or a different way to present the message?

If you go back to the Merriam-Webster definitions of evangelical, there are some consistent messages there that define who evangelicals are and what they believe in. In one of Mrs. Evans' first statements about herself, she says, "Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers..."

What she doesn't say is, "Looking in the Bible we can see that..."

If you take away the Bible, you take away the foundation of the Gospel message and God's guidebook for what the church should look like. 

Toward the end of her article, Evans uncovers a nugget of truth that was lacking in her previous statements: Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

What can fill the God-sized hole in our hearts?

Evans urges us at the end of her piece that in order to win millennials back to the church, we need to sit down and really talk with them about what they're looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.

I would add that for any faith community to be authentic, it needs to revolve around Jesus - just like the Acts 2 church. But that's a sometimes unpopular sentiment today. If everyone's faith has to revolve around Jesus that's not inclusive. People get mad about it when you infer that their brand of Christianity isn't a fair representation of the church that Jesus built. But who is different? Who has changed?

Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

So all you Evangelicals out there - and anyone else who might be searching for something to fill the God-sized hole in your heart - the message hasn't changed in 2,000 years. If we change our worship style or open a coffee shop in the basement, it's not because we're trying to be cool. It's because we're searching for ways to reach a generation who have been told from birth that they can have everything their way.

The only One who gets to have it all His way is Jesus. Remember John 14:6 the next time you want to massage the message.

What do you think?


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