Thursday, March 25, 2010

Amtrak Ignition

Last night in our final evening study of "churches in America," we got into a discussion on the final state of affairs on the American religious landscape. We live in a "buffet religion" society, where people pick and choose what they want to belief, often combining a host of various religions/denominations/philosophies. Ironically, for all the variety involved, studies have also shown that people end up believing very colorful versions of the same thing, and it's not Christianity. One scholar and author who has studied American religious youth culture has called it "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism."

I also mentioned last night a very bizarre conversation I had several years ago on an Amtrak training speeding across the midwest after spending Christmas with my family in Missouri. The piece has never been published, although I submitted it to several periodicals. After the curiosity last night, I thought I might pass it on for your benefit.


Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, honor Christ, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you, with gentleness, and respect. ~1 Peter 3:14-16 excerpts

“I worship the God and Goddess,” said the Celtic pagan. (He was Irish by descent.)

He set down his cane and slumped into the booth across from us as the train hurtled through some part of late night Ohio. He was thirty one, on his way home from visiting his six year-old daughter in Chicago. Nice guy.

“And all my tattoos are symbols of my heritage. They express fertility, life, success.” He smiled through his punk rock glasses.

“Right on,” I said in the affirming cliché of my generation. It’s hard for people my age to invalidate other's views, and, usually when you’ve just met a person, it’s not all that bad an idea. To be sure, running through my mind were thoughts of how this well-intentioned chap had a one-way ticket to some place a whole lot warmer than Akron in January. But it was also easy enough to see by his smile that he’d heard all that before, and was slightly daring me to say it again. Clearly, the thought didn’t bother him much. Why should it? He was convinced the Scriptures of the Christian faith are foolish. So, I didn’t lambast my new friend the Irish heathen. Instead, I showed a little interest. I mean, it’s not everyday that people from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod meet Celtic pagans.

“So, exactly what kind of paganism is it?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you mean like Wicca or something? No. It’s not like that.”

“No,” I said. I had figured as much. Anyone practicing modern pop-witchcraft would have said as much the same way junior high girls boast about the boy bands they listen to. “I mean, well…I’m not familiar with Celtic lore. Is it related to the druids?”

“No,” he smiled. “Not druids. Just Celtic. I guess the closest thing to it would be Norse paganism. We were influenced by it.”

“Crazy,” I said, which means something more like, “far out,” to us under forty-somethings. Shaking my head, I laughed a little. What else you going to do? “So,” I hesitated, eyeing the others at the table, who had broken impromtu world religions dialog to make room for the new participant, “how do you find other people to practice with? I mean, are you in the phone book?”

Now he laughed. “Oh, no. But there are lots of us around. Just use the internet, and you’ll find someone.”

Google knows, I thought.

The conversation had been rather unexpected to begin with, even before this point, between the nineteen year-old, ex-Presbyterian now new-age-baby-neo-hippy (more than ready to confess herself “one” with the cosmos,) to the ex-Bible-Church-Christian-DCE turned homosexual and free-though relativist, (who kept getting frustrated with me for insisting that facts mean something,) to the ex-Roman Catholic, humanist-philosophical-secular-materialist (who was in the middle of his post-teen-angst-life-crisis as he tried to decide how he might possibly pursue a life of pure hedonism without driving himself into the despair that philosophy had already already taught him his worldview demanded he eventually create,) to the front-man of a Seattle grunge band (who looked to the eye a curious blend of Marilyn Manson and Tom Petty, and whose music produced a similar effect.) There was little doubt that I was immersed in a fantastic thunderstorm of ideas and conversation in the midst of the demographic most evangelism programs are simply incapable of reaching as they go door-to-door in the suburbs on Sunday afternoon.

It had all started when I heard the hippy and the philosopher embroiled in a conversation over how she was kicked out of her Christian congregation for asking too many questions. Myself being ordained clergy but who, for all his thirty years, still looks just over eighteen, I couldn’t refrain from chiming in and offering to answer some of her unanswered “taboo” questions. Before long, we weren’t alone. The evident animation of our conversation had soon become an all-inclusive cattle-call for the lounge car, drawing each of the seven residents straight into a good-natured battle of worldviews (except the passed-out drunk, fifty-year-old lesbian biker with the vocabulary of Calamity Jane – she was...well...passed out).

While everyone was enjoying it, I have to confess that my seminary training was serving me very well – contrary, I must add, to the many brothers in my circuit who seemed to think I still had a lot to learn about the real world and real “ministry”. I felt like a theological Chuck Norris, staving off a torrent of Wikipedia-informed combatants with practiced martial skill, careful never to take the green-belts to the mat with a bone-crushing, one-shot blow to the head, but nonetheless countering their every attack with just enough deftness to keep them coming back for more. Reject(er)s of mega-church society as they mostly were, the last thing they needed was the pat answers they’d already heard. What they needed was to spar, to have a chance to win, to test their streetwise moves and find the value (or lack thereof) of their own disciplines.

This is where “evangelism” as a concept, I believe, so often goes so terribly wrong. Power-point bullet points and Watchtower-style scripted hot-boxing work well enough with older women staying home in the mid-afternoon, but to the post-modern/semi-emerging generation, these approaches not only don’t work so hot, to the contrary, they tend to do more damage than good. Lauding on about your personal relationship with Jesus only further convinces these “unchurched” that Christians really all are the idiots TV portrays them as. These friendly, intelligent, trendy-counter-culture, grown-up “kids” were fed up with the “will you go to heaven” sales pitch. They’d left worries about heaven and hell far behind, with the crayons they’d used to color in Happy Jesus and and his side-kick Alls-Well-as-Ends-Well Job. To them, to us – we the buste(d)rs trapped bewteen X and Millenial – to us hell only exists for people like Adolph Hitler and George W. Bush. My new friend, the nineteen year-old hippy, (a very sweet girl who was returning from having just met her long lost sister, put up for adoption twenty years prior,) was actually looking forward to death. She thought it would be cool. At last she’d be able to become nothing and everything at once, her body dying, but her soul and consciousness living on in the elements of Mother Nature, communing spiritually with flowers and animals and even other people, who would feed on her life essence.

No. These emerging adults didn’t need evangelism exploding in their faces. They didn’t need the message nearly all the denominations of Christianity have learned from Warren and Hybels and Jakes and Oprah (and they from Finney.) Their all-supernal sixth-sense of “feelings” had long ago convinced them such superficial religion couldn’t possibly be real. They wanted to find something more authentic, something completely divorced from the secularized gloom of pop-Christianity. Church growth had more than Church-depleted them. They’d been raised to seek “spirituality,” not “religion,” and it was clear that if anything is religion, (defined by legalism, anti-intellectualism and cheap-feelings) it’s American Christianity.

Most of them had had a devotional relationship with “their” Bible. They had tried “believing” in Jesus. But their contribution to the mass-exodus from American congregations was because this “faith” had proven itself a fraud. It didn’t make them feel better like it promised. They didn't experience more of God every day. And the most appealing purposes in life involved adultery and cigarettes.

What this generation hadn’t heard, what it needs to hear, what they somehow missed hearing despite their many previous connections to the “Church”, was, amazingly, something as simple as the rule of faith held by the once-universal creeds. They did not need a ritualized babbling of the ancient words as the second-most boring part of worship, but the confession of meaning-filled theology that touches mind, heart and will combined. They needed words that martyrs died to keep, whispering them to their children before going to the executioner. They needed to know the purpose, not of themselves, but of Jesus Christ. They needed not the antiquated “doctrine” of memorized lists and bodiless Bible verses, but the antiquous dogma of believing what those ancient words really mean.

Or, put it this way. If we want to find real so-called “missional” thinking for the 21st century, we need to get the heart out of the drivers’ seat where it’s been ever since the boomers enthroned it over the mind. Putting the heart in the back-seat, and letting the good brains our Lord gave us sit shot-gun, the Word of God is more than capable of driving the mission to reach the countless post-modern versions of paganism. These seven heathen didn’t need to hear me talk like Billy Graham. They didn’t need to hear me talk about a “God” or a “Jesus” or a “heaven” that they just had to believe in “because.” If they wanted mysticism, they much preferred Celtic paganism, which holds far more beauty and depth than “faith” in the platonic-buddy Jesus dressed up like a carrot in a manger.

These grown-ups in sketchers actually wanted to hear – couldn’t get enough of hearing – about Christianity spoken of objectively. Historically. They wanted a chance to believe that Christianity really is as stable as Celtic paganism, grounded in a God who shows up in places other than my heart, and trustworthy for more reasons than that the Bible (which fell out of heaven) “says so.” Hearing about a God who once broke into the world physically, tangibly and unavoidably, shattered their defenses against all the “God-things” and “Divine-moments” they’d been told about before, all the more so because, beyond believability, they’d never actually heard of it! They had never heard that the Christianity isn’t about the Ten Commandments being posted in schools or homosexuality being banned from marriage or earth being only six-thousand years old. They had never heard that the reason to be a Christian is actually because there was this man named Jesus, who was real, and who really died on a cross under the Roman Empire, and after three real days, really rose from the dead.

“Dude. That’s gnarly.”

Through all the critical moments that these children of fading Christendom had encountered over a lifetime of expensive measures and props for conversion, they had never been given the real answers of discipleship: they had never heard that “There was this guy in history who beat death….And, oh, by the way, he said a few things that are pretty challenging to hear.” That was why the young Irishman was now a Celtic moon-worshiper and not a Roman Catholic: Celtic pagans have doctrine, and they believe it. That is why the recent ex-Roman philosopher hadn’t bothered to read the New Testament since the eighth grade, but was now looking to Aristotle and Kant for the answers to the world’s questions: Aristotle and Kant never bothered to dumb it down for him. They challenged him to find the answers in well-thought arguments and turns of phrase. That is why the homosexual post-DCE was content to let all truths be true: Woodstock Jesus, who just wanted him to be happy, had no good reasons for preventing him from having sodomy with whomever he desired. If the “Church” had forgotten the real message of Woodstock Jesus, about love and freedom to pursue pleasure, too bad for them.

Every single one of them had been-there/done-that a long, long time ago. And they’d learned from it. They’d learned they're various forms of anti-Christianity from Christians. We had taught them “Jesus makes me happy,” and they had realized we had taught them lies.

So how did it all end on that night train through Ohio, my wife asleep with my two kids in coach and me sitting up “partying” until three am? We covered the gambit, from “why should I believe what the Bible says,” (Answer: because Jesus is risen from the dead, so what he says is probably right,) to “why is abortion wrong?” (Answer: because Jesus is risen from the dead, and he likes babies to stay alive,) to “how is the morality of Christianity any better than the moral teachings of Islam or Buddhism?” (Answer: it isn’t so much, but Jesus is risen from the dead, and that means something far more important than moralism!) And for all the times they’d been told to believe in Jesus so they could be saved, through all the Sunday school and VBS and youth group parties, with all the pressure tactics and emotional manipulation of charismatic worship, amidst the history-channel/Dan-Brown misinformation of the age, not one of them had ever been forced to reckon with the all important claim that the reason to be a Christian is because history is on the side of the empty tomb, and it is that fact alone which creates faith in the one True God.

Justification? Atonement? Salvation? These things came up, to be sure. But these meanings which explain the deeper “whys” of the history danced in and out of the conversation only to support the main point: creation is dying and the new creation has already been born in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He changed the rules, and he did it in a way which inevitably leaves the honest critic and historian either completely stumped or converted. Everything else has become a moot point. Being the only man in history to die and not stay dead, Jesus of Nazareth now more or less owns the trump card on what’s true and what’s false. Proving his own claim to the Sonship of God, the impending issue ceases to be whether or not you bother to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. Instead, the issue is suddenly whether or not he accepts you as one of his sheep.

On the flip side, if Jesus didn’t walk out of that tomb, the game is over. Christianity just can’t win. Karl Barth once tried to fight that losing battle by separating the Christ of history from the Christ of faith, only to create a new Christianity, one which served only to support your preferred personal assumptions – not much of a discipline for spiritual enlightenment. But that is exactly where those seven people on that train had gone! Children of the spirituality of Barth, they had never even heard of the Christ of history from Christians. So what? Their faith was simply not about real things. It was all mythology after all, like Celtic paganism, or nature-love, or mammon. For them the “faith in faith” in which they still believed, was the end goal of all religions after all. Wasn’t it?

Well, it was, at least, until this upstart young pastor walked into their philosophosizing and made the audacious claim that Christianity isn’t about believing in Jesus “so that” you can get into heaven. It’s about Jesus dying on a cross and rising from the grave because creation sucks and he refuses to leave it mired that way.

Christianity is not about “faith.” It’s about Jesus. It’s about what he said about himself. It’s about what he did by himself. And it’s about the reasons and effects of what he said and did: to give you no other choice but to believe that what he said and did is the cornerstone of human history, without which there is no real reason to be alive at all. Or, if you must, to self-admittedly live in a world of ignorance, chance, empty answers and eventual defeat.

If only this solitary fact could be understood by all the strategists and leaders of today’s “missional” congregations! If only the people who are yet in the Christian sub-culture might themselves be forced to wrestle with it. If only how we live, how we worship, and how we evangelize could stop missing the point. Our children tell the story of the results. They’re not abandoning our parishes in droves because the liturgies are out of date or because we’ve spoken too much true doctrine, or because creedal Christianity doesn’t have real answers to real questions. They’re abandoning the ship because they’ve listened to and watched very carefully all that we’ve been saying and doing. And, as if we’d planned it, we’ve convinced them that we either don’t believe what we’re saying ourselves, or we don’t know one wit what we’re actually talking about.

A recent professional poll has shown that most born to Christian families can’t recite the Ten Commandments, much less try to live by them. We can’t recite the Creed without droning, much less explain its significance for the mission field. And if we say the “Our Father” in worship, it’s more often than not the only time in the week that we pray with our families at all, much less pray for food that we don’t already have, for doctrine to be pure among us, or for the end of the world to come as quickly as possible.

It was a small crusade that night on a train from Chicago to Philadelphia, me and that underrepresented under-thirty crowd, all of them more or less committed to abandoning Christianity because of its self-righteous-sounding, heaven-peddling, historically ignorant evangelism – not to mention the mammon-corrupted promotional bureaucracies manipulating the strings for the sake of profit – yes, these kids new the Church is simply “incorporated”. The good news of it? We talked about the resurrection of Jesus Christ so much that eventually the philosopher began being the one to say to the others, “To understand his point about homosexuality or Islam, you have to remember that it’s based on the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead.”

Mission accomplished.

The bad news? Well, there was no mass conversion. To begin with, most of them were baptized once or twice already. That wasn’t going to happen anyway. And at three a.m., when the Irishman got off in Akron, I’m pretty convinced that he was still cheerily undeterred by anything that I’d said.

Then again, anyone who thinks that one night on a train is going to undo two and a half decades of cultural indoctrination, evangelistic blow-back-antagonism and straight up embittered unbelief, she’s got another thing coming.

The good news again? The Great Commission wants us Christians to go and make disciples, not by any means possible, but by teaching the reality of the Gospels. If and when the emerging pagans hear the story, are confronted by the real message, and reject it for the time being, that is the Holy Spirit’s prerogative. We can confess our faith well enough to get an atheist to admit that the historic claim is that Jesus is risen from the dead. But we will never argue him into believing it. The point of this article is that if we don’t learn again how to speak it, the rest of the next neo-normal generation will never even hear it.

All seven of those young busters left that train with the choice to either decide that this kid-pastor was certifiably insane (and my sanity was a part of the discussion at one point!) or, to wrestle with the fact that every thing they had ever thought about “God” before needed to be questioned again, because, apparently, he was bigger and more challenging then they’d ever imagined.

More than likely, they walked away with a little of both. Like I said, mission accomplished.

You can read it at the St. John Website by clicking this link.


Rev Ross said...

Great Post! I can just picture you on the train having this conversation, wish I could've been there to hear it all first hand! Sounds to me like you have the concept of evangelism down just fine!

Anonymous said...

A situation oft encountered myself within my own godless school.


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