Tag Archives: Evangelicals

Now everyone is talking about ‘The Nones’

A couple of years ago when I first wrote my book proposal for my spiritual memoir No Religion, Too, I cited a Pew Report that said the fastest growing religious group in America is people who don’t claim a certain religious identity. Dubbed “The Nones,” they had about 16-20 million among their disparate grouping that includes atheists, agnostics, 12-steppers, eclectic spiritualists and anyone who felt stifled by a certain label.

Whenever I spoke about the trend, I had to spell out what I meant when I said, “The Nones.” Everyone thought I meant the esteemed female servants of the Catholic Church dressed in a black habit.

No longer.

Earlier this month the Pew Report updated its figures. There are now 59 million who fall into the classification of The Nones. Now, people are talking about it to me.

What is this huge shift? Christians were quick to clarify that only “nominal” Christians have shifted into these groups, but committed Christian numbers haven’t fallen off. A story in The Washington Post calls it “The End of Casual Christianity,” which, according to many of “committed” Christians I’ve been reading, may not be such a bad thing. Evangelicals have been quick to point out they are holding steady. It’s the major denominations that are leaking people like the San Francisco 49ers bandwagon of late. Besides, the “casual” Christians have long muddied the waters of belief anyway.

If only it were that easy, for both the so-called “committed” and the “casual.” If only we didn’t strive so hard to label and divide people in the first place.

Let’s have a reality check:

The Brand of Christianity is in trouble, not that Jesus himself would likely be too troubled. I’m not sure he’s been all that thrilled with the brand anyway. But if the best Evangelicals can do (the very name is defined by increasing numbers) is holding steady, then The Nones not just a concern for the Catholics and Presbyterians.

If more “committed” Christians actually talked with other people, they’d hear the crescendo of antipathy that has risen. The Brand of Christianity is too closely aligned with conservative politics and anti-positions (gay marriage, abortion, environment, social justice). I know many incredible, devoted, authentic Christians. It pains me how out of touch or unconcerned they are about how non-religious or other-religious people view them.  But they aren’t being viewed. The brand is.

Until authentic Christianity separates itself from the dogma of the brand the people of Christ are failing to live the calling of discipleship and community that Christ himself initiated in John 13.

But, The None’s got a problem too. Namely 59 million people with 59 million concepts of God (or the lack thereof) isn’t a compelling message for those seeking truth. If we all can simply invent our God, then we haven’t moved that far from the first conflict of the scriptures, where man, woman and a snake all tried to be God themselves. Talk to The Nones and soon God sounds like a Genie in the Bottle, a nicely crafted hodge-podge of various faiths and ideas and personal tastes that is supposed to come through when we need Him/Her/It to do its Godly duties.

That isn’t a deity. It’s a Mr. Potato God with a weird nose and a silly hat and some crazy looking fingers that don’t make sense to anyone but its creator.

What good is a God we create anyway?

Conservative social commentator David Brooks has talked about how a Gallup poll found that 12 percent of people in 1950 said they were a “very important person.” Now 80 percent feel that way. It’s Generation Narcisist, according to Brooks.

Well, why the hell not? If you get to define God then you really are damn important.

Only you don’t (not if God is more real than Santa Claus) and most of us are not. Sooner or later reality comes home and for The Nones it could be a real problem. And where do they turn? To the churches that have already failed them once?

Atheists win the day here because if they are convinced there is no God, then they are the only ones who don’t have to worry about the aforementioned problems. Everyone else, would do well to the heed the advice Native American wisdom literature that says, “We need to dream this all again.”

Bent against the wind: seize the moment of love

This world is a difficult place. A constant complaint against God, the prosecutorial argument made, is “how can a benevolent God allow _____ to occur.” The list that fills the blank is long and gruesome and sad. We can’t dismiss the suffering. We can’t dismiss the winds of hate, violence, intolerance and cruelty (often done in the name of our various gods) that bends us inward set against the world in a grim lifelong slog.

But we also can’t dismiss the sun that peaks in and warms us, the random acts of kindness, the way the love of another fills our hearts with the power of possibility and hope.

I have no idea why suffering is part of our experience (a necessary part, according to most religious traditions) because God’s means exceed my human limitations. I only know I’ve seen the love of God in the most unlikely places to know that amid the suffering, God is there too.

That’s the point. God with us. Not a genie in the bottle who makes the world perfect, but a God with us, expressing love amid the hate and peace amid the storm.

If I have two complaints against the Evangelicalism of our day (and I do… more than two, without a doubt) they are these: Evangelicals turn the process of spiritual awakening into an event that can be quantified and counted that often results in an us-against-them ugliness; after that event, the focus often comes down to a set of beliefs that too often leads to self-absortion over selfless love. Like the song from the play If/Then, I hear so much “I, I, I, me, me, me” in Evangelical Christianity I wonder what happened to a suffering Christ who calls us come die to our self right along with him.

We come to God not for what we can get but because we have no choice but to respond to the love She shows us.

Christian writer Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking said two things about faith in God that would be well to remembered. He said when we act in love, we are seeing what God can do. He also said knowing God is “a process, not an event.”

You can make yourself moral. You can make yourself religious. But you can’t make yourself love.

“We love,” John says, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Who knows how the awareness of God’s love first hits people. We all have our own tales to tell, including those of us who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid us. Some moment happens in your life that you say yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. Laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. Waking up to the first snow. Being in bed with somebody you love.

Whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and bless it, it may save your soul.

How about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment—one of those soreheads and slobs of the world, the ones the world has hopelessly crippled? Maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.

It is a process, not an event.

We aren’t supposed to pass the test on the first day. We are supposed to grow in love. “We love because we are loved.” But what if we don’t love?

As people of faith we open ourselves up to our whole human condition and allow a space for God to enter there. Rather than narrow down to a set of beliefs, we are supposed to open up to a vast expression of love, so vast that our thinking changes, our priorities change, our compassion grows, and whole host of other things occur from within that flows out in… love.

When we see that love, wherever it can be found, rather than scrutinize it, can we just applaud it? When we see love expressed, as the Apostle John said, we see God.

A spiritual person is one who doesn’t just unlock the door, but rips the whole thing off the hinges with the biggest welcome mat that can be found set out. Come in out of the wind, we say.

The winds of this life are cruel and those that blame God get no guff from me. I can’t explain it. But, having been loved by God I can do my level best to love in return. Beyond that, I can only say, “I do not know,” confident that the process continues.

My spiritual doppelgänger is (sigh) evangelical

I’m not a resident of Facebook, which means I miss out on 93.72 percent (I did a study and the math… well, no I didn’t. That’s a lie) of everything that is going on with my family and friends. Happily I might add. Note my T-shirt:


From afar I hear so much drama, strife and angst of Facebook insult and intrigue I remain blissfully unaware of all but 6.28 percent.

But one degree of separation — in that 6.28 percent — I saw an article that I can’t help but think might have been just a little teensy bit intended for me. My brother, a true champ of a brother and genuine friend, couldn’t help but sense the connection when he posted this story about his colleague on Facebook. (Well, in actuality it may have just been because in his job as a Veep at Fuller Seminary he posts everything in the magazine and he never gave me a thought, but I like to believe big brother was thinking of me. I’ll stick with that.)

The point? Is there one now 172 words into this blog? Simply this: I never knew it but my spiritual doppelgänger is an evangelical. She’s also a woman, and she’s also pretty cool in my brief reading of her story, and she’s also a whole lot of other things that frankly remind me of … me (yes, I am one of the cool kids, at least in my own mind). Aside from apparently missing out on my scandals, alcoholism, rehab and general bottoming out, Erin DuFault-Hunter is, like me, a liberal-Catholic-turned Anabapist. She even had an older brother who helped her see the life-changing nature of a relationship with Christ.

We are truly both Generation Xers it seems.

“Given my strong inclination to independence and perhaps even idolatrous desire to be ‘unique’ and authentic, I am not naturally a joiner. After all, I was born in the 60s and now I live in the age of selfies,” she writes.

I can relate to Dufault-Hunter’s admission of her cringing association with some aspects of evangelicalism. I think my evangelical friends believe this is why I am no longer counted among them. It is in part. The brand is so tarnished I see it doing more harm than good.

But like Dufault-Hunter, I can readily admit less noble reasons for my shirking the evangelical label.

“I also hoped I could be hip—rather than merely another religious moralistic freak. At bottom, I often still crave affirmation and belonging more than I want an abundant life that costs me, even if that cost is merely embarrassment,” she writes.

She gets it. I haven’t met my spiritual doppelgänger, but I connect with her story. In some ways I could have been her had I better learned the staying power of discipline doused with a tad more morality. I was accepted to go to Fuller’s doctoral program in 1989, after all.

But as much as I think folks want to think the cringe factor is the obstacle between me and my past evangelicalism, all I can say is I wish it were. My neurotic fixation on feeling misunderstood flares here most. If my objections were just lifestyle things I wouldn’t have them, I’m certain. I had those same objections for years. While an evangelical I felt wholly outside the sweet spot of orthodoxy. I never put good wood on the ball.

Only later, much later, when the fall was so great and the destructive ruin of my life so apparent did I realize that I did not fail despite of my evangelicalism but in part because of it.

Evangelicalism, with all its certitude, fostered a hubris within me that left me unprepared for life’s realities. It’s like the photo on this blog, all neatly headed in one direction, with guide rails to keep you on the “narrow” road, but in the end are we so sure it doesn’t just fall off into an ocean with us all casting about?

Evangelicals don’t think so, at least not how I was taught. It helped set a false standard and helped establish a belief system of morality that proved insufficient when challenged. I don’t blame evangelicalism. Like many schools of thought, it offered a framework.The blame is all mine.

The flaw is not the belief system, but the certitude in which it is expressed. It requires loyalty in the method that I can not adhere to myself, much less pass on to others. That is the rub: to be an evangelical is to in some sense accept the need to evangelize. No thank you.

Here’s the greater rub I think: Can I both cling to a lifesaving exchange with T
he Christ of cross and then not expect everyone else to experience God in the same way?

That guided prayer changed my life because I met a living God who would love me enough to follow me into the gutters of my coming failures. What followed, my introduction into the dogma of evangelicalism is when things slowly ventured down an errant road.

My reading of Scriptures calls us to serve, not sell. When I serve, I find my best me. When I serve, I know God better and see Her interact with others in a way I couldn’t conjure up no matter who hard I’d try.

When Jesus says the wages of sin are death, he means right here, right now. Just look all around you. So my focus is on the here now– on Earth, as it is in Heaven. God seems to have heaven wired. My help is not needed there. I’ll stick to Earth.

We are called to enter into a loving relationship  with the divine. How we do this, I suspect, we will spend this lifetime — a relatively brief glimpse of the life ahead — figuring it out to the best of our humble abilities. I can’t be an evangelical because I can’t offer anything other than love. But I am confident the more I do just that, the more God will fill in the gaps.

Which is why I’m completely OK that my spiritual doppelgänger is an evangelical (albeit a reluctant one, who like it or not is one of us cool kids, I suspect). In fact, I like it. Because in the end we both may be right. Wouldn’t that be great?

Don’t ask me if I love Jesus

“Do you love Jesus?” he asked me.

I sighed, but I didn’t answer.

Ordinarily I’d simply let such a question go as graciously as I could and move on. But the person asking is the closest friend I’ve had for the last 35 years. I wanted him to understand the damage of such words. A healthy debate ensued. Nothing, as is almost often the case in such things, came as a result. It was simply a massive 30-minute clusterfuck of ideas that changed neither of us. It was, as Ecclesiastes states about much of our best intentions: vanity.

But this question, and many, many others just like it (“Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and savior?” “Do you have God in your hear?”) drill deep into the depths of why the “brand” of Jesus so confounds and confuses those who might benefit the most from the personhood of Jesus.

Asking someone if they love Jesus is like offering a secret society handshake. If you say, yes, then you are in. If you hesitate even the slightest bit, not only are you not in, but you are in need: in need of “truth,” in need of Salvation, in need of Jesus. The person asking you will likely do his or her level best to give you all of the above so you can get in, while internally feeling sadden by your “lost” state. It’s a given: Those asking if I love Jesus are right and unless I give a gushy, enthusiastic, hearty “yes!” before time’s up, I’m wrong.

If only life and faith and God and love were so easy.

If you say, “why, yes… I do love Jesus,” it means you belong in their mind, and more importantly you believe as they do, which means you’d feel perfectly comfortable and fit in here:

Which I don’t. Not that I mind. I’ve been in those things and they can be very meaningful. I’ve had some wonderful experiences with the Divine amid all the sparkly, contrived, polished performances of ardent evangelicals. I’ve had a decent time connecting with God during what my best friend calls “the happy clappy worship” that has become so … what’s the word… canned, comes to mind… but I’ll go with commonplace.

ButthankyouNO, I’m not going to answer your question. I’m not doing the secret handshake and not going to assuage your concerns for my salvation and not for a minute going to allow this “brand” of Jesus–with all its arrogance and judgement and exclusion and wealth, and greed and yes, power, things the actually living, breathing person of Jesus spoke stridently against–to signify my faith or my devotion to the God of love who defines what my life means and how it is lived.

My best friend is not by a long shot the only person who asks me so brazenly this question. I’ve often wondered what I could ask them to similarly test whether their faith is sufficient for me to accept them, but see that’s the point. I’m not trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out; nor do I believe that’s my job; nor do I believe I have the gold-standard of “truth;” nor do I believe what I believe is the litmus test for knowing God; nor do I believe I’m in because I said four “spiritual laws.” (BTW, two points of digression, you know how I love digressions: I did say those “laws” back in the day, so if that gets me lifetime absolution then you all are stuck with me even though I won’t say I love Jesus. I also went into the National Shrine to St. Francis of Assisi, which gives me a lifetime absolution as well, sort of a double-whammy insurance for those who keep track of such things. Point two: Jesus didn’t write these “laws” nor ever ask anyone anything of the like. Billy Graham did, which makes them a tad bit less iron-clad than Evangelicals want to admit. Golly, what did all the billions of people who lived before Billy Graham do to prove they loved Jesus, for heaven’s sake?!)

Here’s the irony. My best friend is a gay pastor. The very people that he aligns theologically are the ones who mosts likely wouldn’t give a rats ass that he loves Jesus because he also loves men. This trumps saying you love Jesus to them, because you can’t do both. No way, no how. He’d rather vehemently argue the point that they got this wrong rather than question the whole house of American-made, trademarked, ready to sell-and-go-viral “brand” that excludes so many like him regardless of whether they actually love Jesus.

There is a second question afterall, no matter how much importance they put on the first. “I love Jesus” gets me in the door, but there are bouncers everywhere. Loving men if you are a man will get you bounced.

This is why I sighed before I dived into the debate with him. I love my friend and love his faith and love his sincerity and love his passion for helping troubled people find a better life by telling them about the power of Jesus to transform their lives.

I just wish he’d be more wary of the brand Jesus he aligns with because it’s too often like taking a charcoal pencil and smearing it all over the Monet-like art that God is doing in our lives.

The danger of ‘branding’ lurks for emerging church

I don’t follow religious trends much. But I admit, I must have been in a cave when the Emerging Church movement gained prominence. When I first began to explore it, it felt a bit like liking a “new” band while listening to its greatest hits album. By the time I started reading about it, it was already so yesterday.

But that’s the problem. When a “thing” becomes well established enough to qualify as such, it is often quickly on its way to becoming something far different than the thing in the first place. The more I read about this Emerging Church, the more I know I belong and don’t want to belong all at the same time.

Such is the problem with spiritual branding. What is it about us that has to define, label, legalize and organize everything that has to do with a God that transcends our best efforts to define, label or legalize?

Let’s take a step back for other cave dwellers like me that may not be up on this Emerging Church Thing. In short, it’s Christianity for those burned out, hurt, excommunicated, reviled or simply anti, modern Christianity, which basically means it most anyone.

Some in the Emerging Church don’t even want to be labeled Christian at all, often because of all the bad baggage that caused them to be either burned out, hurt, excommunicated, reviled or simply anti- modern American Christianity in the first place.

The Emerging Church is built on a decided lack of definition, which is the reason the idea attracted so many people in the first place.

It’s not exactly this, but… it is, and that’s part of its charm. In fact, the above photo is probably a why I first first listened to my greatest hits collection in the first place.

The Emerging Church isn’t anti-Biblical or anti-God or heretical to most people except those who pretty much dominate conversation by acting as judge and jury over what is anti-Biblical or anti-God or heretical. And frankly, who cares what the hell they have to say anyway. They were the logs and the gasoline for the fire that is the Emerging Church, so disapproval from them is like a badge of honor.

The problem is not that the Emerging Church lacks definition, it’s that it seems to be trying to gain one. People want to define it, then debate it, then agree or vilify it. Why not ignore all of the above and just live it?

For a spiritual tide of inclusion, of freedom, of seeking not answering, of opening the door of faith rather than closing it off like a members-only lodge, the push to brand is dangerous. We can’t anymore define a movement of God than we can define God herself. By definition God defies definition because simply if we fallible and finite and limited humans could completely confine and define a being beyond us, that being would lose its ability to be divine. God must transcend.

The Emerging Church transcended without the brand, in opposition of the modern “brand” of what Christianity became. But as the Emerging Church tent grows, it seems the focus on the “brand” — i.e., what is it and who is it and why you should buy it — threatens to make it far less of what the purpose was in the first place.

If Christianity Today is writing about your rebellious breakout Christianity, as it did in 2007, then you have just jumped the shark into mainstream. Turn in your rebel card no matter how many tats you have and how many times you can lump F-bombs and God in a sentence.

Instead of branding it, maybe we should all just go back to living it and leave it at that. Maybe, just maybe, that’s truly the greatest hit that God was humming all along.


Snake-handling TV preacher dies of viper’s bite

A snake-handling TV preacher died on Saturday of a snake bite.

Pastor Jamie Coots, the star of “Snake Salvation,” was bitten on the right hand at his Kentucky church, Middlesborough police said.

The Pentecostal holy man refused to go to the hospital or accept any medical treatment, police said.

Coots, whose show appeared on National Geographic’s television channel, believed snake handling was a commandment from God and a viper’s bite was God’s will.

“When I first started church I said if I ever went to a hospital or a doctor over a snake bite I would quit church,” Coots said in one episode.

via Pastor Jamie Coots, snake-handling TV preacher, dies of viper’s bite   – Daily News.

When you read this, what do you feel? I wondered what God felt. My mind took off for a little while on this thought. I finally pictured this well-intended (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt) goofball showing up in heaven and God saying,

“You big dummy.”

And the good news is the nasty finger he let decay off him the last time he was bitten by one of snakes was healed. Because God is like that. She just shakes her head and puts us back together. For some, thank God, the process takes place on this side of heaven. For Jamie Coots, I like to think it’s taking place on the other side.

I just know God loves all us dummies too much not to do it, here or there.