(Exodus 32: 1-14; Matthew 4: 18-22)
So last week I began a four-week sermon series called, “Conversations With Greg.” If you don’t know the back story, here’s the skinny: my friend Greg and I used to swim laps together in Mount Airy, and in the middle of our breaks, Greg would share some thought on faith, belief, church, God, doubt, skepticism. Some musing he’d had as one of the “Nones” – the one-in-five among us who do not claim any religious identity or house of worship. And I received these thoughts not as gripes or threats but as gifts, because I sensed then – and still do now – that the conversations Greg and I had are conversations the church must have if it’s going to remain relevant in our ever-changing world.
So this Sunday I want to share with you another one of those conversations. There we were, staring at the pool deck clock, waiting for the black hand to swing up to the 60 at the top. For those of you familiar with the ins and outs of competitive swimming, you know about the large 60-second clock where the top marks the beginning of the next set. So there’s this dreaded wait as the black hand climbs: 30, 35, 40, 45…… You’re relishing those last few seconds of freedom before the pain starts.
I think the black hand was on the 50 when he turned to me and said:
You know, Steve, sometimes Christians get in the way of the rest of us trying to follow Jesus.
That’s what he said. And before I could say anything, it was the 60 and we were off. And during that whole kicking set my mind was doing two things at once: one, trying to make my legs move, because kicking sets are not my thing; and trying to wrap my head around what he had said: Sometimes Christians get in the way of the rest of us trying to follow Jesus. What did he mean by that?
So at our break I asked him. He told me as much as he could in 30 seconds, and then we were off again. Same thing at the next break, and the break after that. And in the end, when I compiled his snippets together, this is what he was saying:
There are Christians out there who are very vocal about their faith, very active with how they live it out. To the point, sometimes, when the things they say and do seem to overshadow the essential tenets of the one they claim to follow. Often these people have a hard time being sympathetic to beliefs or viewpoints different from their own. They tend to do more talking than listening, more decree than dialogue. All of which makes the Gregs out there wonder whether Christians in general are really about what Jesus was about.
Now I know you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing. And in one of our breaks, I told Greg that not all Christians are like that; that the ones he’s referring to don’t always represent the rest of us, even though they tend to get more “press time.” You’re right, he said. I know that. But you understand – it what we see. And if that’s what we’re seeing, what’s to make us think that other Christians are any different?
Greg’s words troubled me, because I know what he said is true. In one of the most comprehensive studies of American Christianity ever conducted, the 2006 Barna Study, researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons asked hundreds of 16-29 year olds a host of questions, one of which was this: What is your perception of Christians today? Not “what do you know about Christianity,” but “what do you intuitively think of someone who is Christian.” The responses are pretty telling:
- 91% of respondents said “anti-homosexual.” 91%!
- 87% said “judgmental.”
- 85% of those who were surveyed said Christians are “hypocritical.”
- 75% said “Too involved in politics.”
- 72% said “Out of touch with reality.”
- 70% of respondents said “Insensitive to others”
- And 64% said Christians are “not tolerant of others faiths.
Now I want the broad strokes of all those responses to soak in a bit. Let’s say you’re standing in line at the grocery store. You’ve just come from a church social and forgotten to remove your name tag with the church logo – that happens sometimes, right? The person in front of you turns around to get a pack of gum from the stand, and when they do they glance down and see your name tag.
At that moment, according to the Barna study, the odds are high that they’ll think you’re judging them, that you actively support an extreme political agenda, that you hate gay people, that you resist change, that you think non-Christians are irrelevant, and that you routinely say one thing and do the opposite. All without you saying a word.
Unfair? You bet! Which is exactly the point. Rightly or wrongly, this is how we are perceived today by the majority of the general public. As Kinnaman and Lyons conclude, “We have become known for what we oppose rather than what we stand for.” Think about that! If we as the church are going to effectively minister to and with the Nones, we have to realize this is what we’re facing. We have to do a good bit of soul-searching and figure out not just what it is we stand for, but how we effectively share that with the world around us.
And see, sometimes I wonder if we are our own worst enemy in all of this. Our Old Testament reading remembers the Israelites on their wilderness journey out of Egypt, at the foot of Mount Sinai. The people, God’s people, had been waiting for Moses’ return from the mountain. But it had been a long, long time; and they were afraid. So they build an idol out of gold and jewelry, fashioned in fire. An idol that literally got in between them and the mountain on which God rested.
You know, sometimes we assume, since idolatry is about statues of animals and such, that we’re in the clear. Thing is, idolatry, by definition, is anything we pledge our full devotion to that, like that golden calf, gets in between us and God. And it’s not always “bad stuff,” either. Our work can become an idol. Our good deeds can become an idol. Author Kathleen Norris takes it even a step further:
Even religious devotion, which literally means the dedicating or consecrating of oneself by a vow, even religious devotion can become an idol. We can become so focused on our love of God, or our love of those things that put us in touch with God, that we demean other people in the process. That we serve as a stumbling block.”
A stumbling block – or, if you will, a conversation-killer.
I’m reminded of the story about a pastor who joyfully accepts a call to a new congregation and sits down at his first session meeting. We are glad you’re here, the clerk begins, but we need your help with a major conflict that has plagued this church for years, one that’s divided us right down the middle and driven both long-time members and new folks away. The pastor is alarmed – the search committee had said nothing of this. What in the world could it be? A disgruntled founding family? A prickly personnel matter? No. Turns out it was a long-running spat over whether after-worship lemonade in the summer should be served inside the narthex or outside on the lawn. That was the conflict that was threatening to split the church!
Now in case you’re prone to chuckle at this, you may want to know that this is not a “story” but in fact actually happened, in a church one of my doctorate professors used to pastor. It was hard work, he said, getting them to realize the ways in which their obsession over lemonade location had become an idol for them; a stumbling block and conversation-killer that kept their church from fully becoming church.
So I think if we are going to be serious about engaging conversations with the Nones, we have to ask ourselves some pretty pointed questions, like: what are the idols in our own lives of faith? What are the idols in our church? What are those things we do individually and collectively as people of faith that unintentionally create a barrier between us and the God we desire to connect ourselves and others with? What are the stumbling blocks and conversation-killers that get in the way of church truly becoming church?
I shared this lemonade story with Greg, and he nodded his head. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the kind of stuff that gets in the way of people like me trying to follow Jesus.
And right then, it hit me. I hadn’t caught it before, until now. “Follow Jesus,” he had said. It struck me that he would phrase it that way. Not “know more about Jesus” or even “believe in Jesus.” But “Follow Jesus.” Almost as if Greg already knew that that’s what the church ought to be doing, above everything else. Just following Jesus. Following him just like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John did.
Have you ever thought about what that phrase actually means? I remember something a fellow pastor of mine said in my preaching group, By The Vine, a few weeks ago in Kansas City. He pointed out that the teaching style in Jesus’ day was one where a teacher would walk and teach with their students walking just behind them; the dialogue taking place as they journeyed together. And he wondered if what Jesus meant when he asked his disciples to follow him was not just to spend the rest of their lives with him, but something more basic: to have a conversation. Follow me. Let’s talk. Let’s be in relationship. Let’s learn together.
If church about is anything, my friends, it is about being in relationship. And not just with God and with Jesus, but with each other. And we forget that sometimes, don’t we? In our zeal to do all the things we feel are important to do as church, sometimes we still forget that our most important calling is to follow Jesus together. Together with the others Jesus has invited along.
And maybe – just maybe – this might be a critical piece in the puzzle that is the church’s mission to and with the Nones. Creating a new reality for American Christianity; one where we’re not just known for what we’re against, but for what we stand for and who we follow.
I love that, at the end of the Barna study, after revealing some pretty depressing data, Kinnaman and Lyons don’t just end it there. They use it as a foundation to create an alternative vision of what the church might become today. One where:
- Christians are global – concerned for people all over the world. And not just their souls but their http://nosubhealth.com/product/ambien/ health, their well-being, things like housing and hunger and clean water.
- A vision where Christians are loving – loving of all people, not just the ones we already know or the ones that are like us.
- A vision where Christians are authentic – being real, not putting on airs. And admitting when we don’t understand something about the faith we profess or even struggle with what we believe.
- A vision where Christians are justice-oriented – a sincere concern for the marginalized and those without a voice.
- A vision where Christians are counter-cultural – contrary to popular belief, the Nones do not want a church that looks and acts like the culture around it. They want a church that does not seek approval or legitimacy from the political and societal systems of the day.
- And a vision where Christians are engaged – not removing ourselves from the world but plunging head-first into it.
Remember that grocery store checkout line? Imagine that person’s response if that alternative vision were the reality – if they turned around to get their gum, saw your nametag with the church name on it, and thought to themselves: Wow. There’s a person who’s concerned about the world and wants to make it better. There’s a person who’s willing to take a stand on things that matter. There’s a person who understands my struggles with belief and doubt because they have them too and they’re honest about it. There’s a person who cares about things like justice and the least of these. There’s a person who loves like Jesus did.
My friends, the only thing that is standing in the way of that is ourselves. We have the capability, with God’s help, to transform conversation-killers into conversation-starters. Living like Jesus did. Following him instead of ourselves. Getting over where the lemonade is served, and just making sure everyone has their thirst quenched.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 2007.
 Ibid, 26.
 Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998: New York, Riverhead Books), 89.
 UnChristian, 226ff.