Home Archive for category "Church Life"

The Mainline Boogieman

One of the hardest things about not identifying as evangelical anymore is getting over the “mainline boogieman.”  I have a lot more experience with mainline Christianity than many former evangelicals.  I went to a PCUSA church for several years in elementary school and since I graduated from college, my mom returned to a PCUSA congregation.  I realize this is not the strongest connection, but for an evangelical it’s not bad.  Still, mainline Christianity feels foreign.  I feel like an outsider at best, and some days I think I’m still heresy-hunting.

Having been a part of churches and schools of many denominations, I have always been an advocate for ecumenism.  I remember realizing for the first time while attending a fundamentalist Baptist middle school that there were some conservative Protestants who did not believe Catholics were “real Christians.”  This was bizarre and offensive to me, as I had previously attended a Catholic school and had Catholic friends.  In college, I think a lot of my evangelical friends were proud that they understood “some” Catholics could be Christian.  (Maybe even most?  How progressive!)  Mainliners, on the other hand, were often completely written off.

While I was in InterVarsity, we had a pastor from an SBC/Acts 29 church speak nearly every semester, but it was extremely rare to have a mainline pastor.  There were rumors that the [mainline] churches on Franklin St. were all mean to us and wouldn’t let us use their facilities, save the Episcopal Church, where we did hold a 24/7 prayer event one year.  We did all know evangelicals who attended more moderate mainline churches, but they were seen as the faithful minority within denominations which were dying both spiritually and numerically.  Perhaps the most telling evidence of this was that there were two separate campus ministers’ associations.  I’ve heard that prior to conservative SBCers’ taking control of the Baptist campus ministry, it was the one organization which maintained membership in both groups.  Everyone else picked sides.  I’m sure some of it was due to the time commitment, but I could never quite wrap my mind around how dangerous it would be to build friendships and a cooperative spirit with those who were a bit more liberal.  It made me frustrated and sad.

And yet…

Even though I’ve never thought it was appropriate to write-off mainliners’ Christianity, I feel nervous to be left with mainline Protestantism as an ex-evangelical.  And I think that has less to do with the mainline church itself and more to do with evangelicals’ portray of it as barely Christian.  To be sure, there are some extreme liberal edges to the mainline church, but from how some evangelicals talk, you’d think a typical Sunday school class at a mainline church involves an orgy or that a typical mainline service includes prayers to Krishna or that a typical mainline pastor is an actually a closet atheist.  In reality, some (and truly not all…) mainline churches might be a bit more accepting of gay people or a bit more lenient toward sex before marriage, might be a little more inclusive in their understanding of salvation and a bit more open about the role of doubt in spirituality.  Yes, this is different from what you might be used to, but for goodness sakes, the level of demonization perpetuated by evangelicals is just ridiculous.

Still, I’ve been conditioned to expect the outlandish.  And I have trouble giving up that expectation because WHAT IF.  WHAT IF they’re right?  WHAT IF those other people aren’t Christians at all?  Then what?  How do I be Christian if I can’t live with the evangelical version of Christianity but mainline “Christianity” does not deserve the label?  I don’t truly believe this is the case.  I think mainline Christianity is diverse has members both more conservative and more liberal than I am.  But that doesn’t extinguish the fears evangelicalism breeds in its young.

Some days I’m not afraid at all about theology, but some of those days I’m still afraid about fitting in.  I know many mainliners have attended a few churches in the same denomination their entire lives. They often identify more as “Lutheran” or “Methodist,” whereas many evangelicals identify as “evangelical” first and foremost.  More like the latter, I do not have lifelong denominational ties, and if I end up anything in particular, it will be by choice, not birth.  I’m not sure, but I think a lot of former evangelicals are in the same boat, and it makes it harder to find a new home.  I wonder to myself, is this why I know more evangelicals who ceased to be Christian than who decided to be mainline Christians?  I don’t know.

Regardless, I think mainline churches (and Catholic and Orthodox churches, for that matter) have a unique opportunity as younger people leave evangelicalism in droves.  This is their chance to say, “You can still be Christian.  We have been doing faith differently for a long time now.  You can still have a spiritual home.  It doesn’t have to be with us, but let us help you on your journey however we can.”  I hope that slowly but surely an intentional outreach would lay the “mainline boogieman” to rest and allow ex-evangelicals to see Christianity as more than the all-or-nothing faith of fundamentalism.

Jarring Juxtapositions: The Hypocrisy of the Religious Right

The good old Religious Right, RR for short, has been getting on my nerves a lot lately. Politically, I am not a leftist in the slightest, but my politics are based on pragmatic views which I willingly allow to be subverted by the Bible. That means that I might think a given economic system works the best, but the ethical demands placed upon me by God supersede the pragmatic foundations of my economic theory. In other words, a just economic system has a higher moral value than say having the smoothest or most stable economy. This puts me in a weird place where the injustice of our current system makes me look–I believe under the guidance of Scripture–much more “liberal” than I probably really am. This half-way an outsider perspective has helped me look closely at the Religious Right/Evangelical Conservatives in a way that I feel was impossible a few years ago.  What follows is simply an unorganized list at the most galling hypocrisies that I have noticed.

 

RR on Guns: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Inanimate objects can’t cause people to do things, it is the sin in their heart.

RR on Contraception in Schools: ZOMG, the condoms and birth control will make all the children instantly break out in orgies. Save the children! Abstinence education only.

Conclusion: Inanimate objects can only make people have sex.

 

RR on women: God really wants a woman to stay home and take care of the kids. That’s her highest calling.

RR on poor women: Why should I pay anyone to sit on their butts? Those lazy whores need to get to work.

Conclusion: If white women stay home, they are doing God’s work. If black women stay home, they are lazy (and probably promiscuous).

 

RR on tiny humans: Life begins at the moment of fertilization. Every embryo is a gift from God. God loves life and demands we protect it.

RR on big humans:  Incarcerate everyone and load the system with mandatory minimums. Execute as many criminals as possible. Preserve American hegemony through armed conflict on the thinnest of pretexts.

Conclusion: God loves babies. Screw everybody else.

 

RR on regulations: The government needs to stop intruding in the lives of its citizens. It just needs to leave me alone.

RR on gay marriage: Marriage is a religious institution that the government needs to regulate to save it from all the queers.

Conclusion: Government intrusion in the lives of sinners is always acceptable

 

RR on evolution: Teach the controversy!

RR on homeschooling/private schools: Don’t teach the controversy! Evolution-free zones!

Conclusion: Darwin is the Schroedinger’s Cat of RR education policy

 

RR on Israel: God gave them that land! Those Arabs and Terrorists, but I repeat myself, need to GTFO.

RR on Tattoos/Pork/Mixed-fiber clothing: That’s OT stuff and purely ceremonial.

Conclusion: All that stuff God said about foreigners and strangers was ceremonial.

 

RR on Ford: You are covered in gay cooties and we won’t buy your cars until you’ve had a shower and said you are sorry for offending us.

RR on Chick-Fil-A: Freedom of Speech! Saint Cathy of the Chicken Sandwich has been persecuted and is being led to Fowl Golgotha!

Conclusion: Freedom of Speech means agreeing with the RR.

 

I have more, but you get the idea. These shenanigans are tiresome, and I don’t feel like holding back my mockery any longer.

 

 

 

 

 

Liturgy as Antidote to Salesperson Ministers (Pt. 2 of 2)

I’ve known for a while that I like liturgy.  I like having more consistent structure to worship (not just within one church but between churches), mostly because I think this is how we make certain important elements are included in most services.  I like having a prayer of confession, the Lord’s Prayer, a creed, communion, etc.  I also like observing the liturgical calendar’s most basic holidays and seasons, if not additional observances, and I like using a lectionary to determine the readings for the day.

And I believe liturgy is the way out of the well-intentioned mess of salesperson ministers.  There is no longer a need to reinvent the wheel by picking visions and themes for every semester or year: the liturgical calendar and lectionary pick what you will focus on.  There is less of a cult of personality around ministers, as well, because there is so much less which depends on them.  The church service is going to be largely the same regardless of who is leading it.  Yes, they bring their personal touch and, of course, their preaching.  Image and presentation, however, become less, while one’s thoughtfulness, humor, and compassion—one’s genuine humanity—have a chance to shine through.  The minister is no longer the magical person who knows exactly what faux-unique sermon series or program is going to revolutionize their church, but rather is the person with the appropriate training who tries to faithfully go through the motions.

“Going through the motions” may normally be a negative turn of phrase, but it makes sense for Christian worship to be repetitive.  You lead similar (if not the same) prayers, you read the same Bible, you speak to the same universal human needs which have existed throughout history, you serve the same bread and wine with the same words.  There is only so much room for creativity within Christianity.  There will always be new venues for application, but there is a limited amount to say that has not been said before.  Thus, there is something healthier, I think, about expecting a minister to bring himself or herself but not to sell brilliant plans.  After all, how many churches have nearly identical mission statements written as if they were the first church to write it?  Currently, we spend a lot of energy on pretending to do something new and getting people excited about this supposedly unique vision.

So the things that should be common, let’s make common by using the traditions handed down to us.  Let’s allow our ministers to focus their relational skills on providing pastoral care rather than charming people from the pulpit.  Let’s allow their intellects to focus on well-researched sermons and continuing education rather than plans for pushing their churches’ brands.  Let’s allow their creativity to attend to tasks like community outreach or ecumenical and interfaith dialogue instead of deciding which passage of Scripture deserves our attention this Sunday and how to couch it under the cutesy theme for the year they picked last month.  Let’s stop evaluating our potential pastors by their extroverted smiles, snazzy clothes, and seductively arrogant dreams for our extra-special congregation.  Let us take comfort in the fact that following Jesus in our time in place is not so different from following Jesus in any other context and  everything we need to remember ourselves and everything we want to teach our children and catechumens can be found in our seasons and feast days, our assigned Scripture texts, and the rhythm of our services.

By keeping these ancient practices and serving the poor, we already have so much right as to make any additional visionary contributions of our ministers a small added bonus but little more.  The need for salesperson ministers, then, is obsolete, and many of the major problems associated with evangelicalism are solved… if evangelicals can accept the corrective of liturgy to begin with.

Liturgy as Antidote to Salesperson Ministers (Pt. 1 of 2)

I’ve also known for a long time that evangelical expectations of one’s path to and role in ministry irritate me.  I have babbled on to Jeremiah about this for a couple of years, and I’m not certain I’ve ever gotten much better at articulating my frustration.  Last night, however, a fellow blogger posted something on Facebook about feeling his personality doesn’t fit certain expectations for ministers, largely because he doesn’t possess the salesman vibe which seems highly valued by many Christians.

As I continued to ponder his brief statement on his experiences, as well as my own, I realized that “salesperson” pretty accurately describes what is expected of both those interested in ministry and those already there.  I also realized that liturgy is possibly the strongest corrective we have in our armory against the many problems brought by a sales-centric way of doing ministry.

The idea of comparing a minister to a salesperson isn’t particularly novel, especially if we’re talking about sketchy televangelists.  This goes beyond obviously disingenuous scumbags, however, to also describe the kindest and most humble of evangelical ministers—and not only in the context of evangelism.  In particular, I think sales aptly describes our obsession with “leadership,” which can often revolves around vision-casting.  Coming up with a plan (for the church generally, for a sermons series, etc.) is a very important part of many evangelical ministers’ jobs, and then, of course, to be a good leader you also have to persuade others to follow.  This, too, is essentially sales.

Similarly, the same charisma that makes you a good “leader” tends to get you noticed by someone in ministry as a potential minister yourself.  If you aren’t noticed on your own, of course, you also have another option: sell yourself.  By grooming yourself into the desired mold, networking, etc. you gain recognition from your youth worker, college minister, or pastor and are from that point encouraged and empowered on your journey to practice the art of spiritual sales, perhaps also collecting a seminary degree along the way (which will likely emphasize some of the same skills).  If, of course, you can’t seem to meet expectations—because your personality is wrong (i.e., you are awful at sales) or because you feel slimey to be self-promotional—you might have trouble finding a place in ministry.

The problem with salesperson ministers is that selling things takes time and energy better spent on other needs.  And that people idolize charismatic preachers in unhealthy ways.  And that other “leadership traits” like being assertive are really more stereotypically male than particularly Christian.  And that sales is hard to do without putting up at least a bit of a facade, making it unhealthy for ministers, too…  The list could go on.  But there is no need. You get the gist.

Aside from considering how this may deter very capable people from entering into a profession which they would enjoy and could use to serve others, I think there is a very important question for us to ask here: why?  What is the reasoning behind this sales emphasis and what would be the antidote?  I’ve decided that a great deal of the rationale for preferring this sort of minister is simply that evangelicals want someone to help their churches decide what needs to be done and to do it.  This typically requires someone with a certain level of decisiveness, charisma, and other characteristics associated with “strong leadership.”  These same characteristics, of course, help one garner the support necessary to enter ministry to begin with.  But what if being a salesperson wasn’t a requirement?  How could  a church operate so as to make a salesperson minister completely unnecessary?

And then it dawned on me: Liturgy.

 

Teaching Children Without Pissing Off God

I recently posted some initial thoughts on the topic of ministry ethics: namely, that they deserve more attention.  One of the most challenging but important areas about which we must develop better ethics, I believe, is the realm of ministry to children.  This includes how we teach them on Sunday mornings, as well as at home.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers in this realm.  My only significant experience teaching children about the Bible comes from about a year and a half working with preschoolers at church when I was in high school.  Even back then, however, I noticed certain problems.  Some of these were more about philosophy of parenting or education—how much order vs. creativity, etc.  There was a very sweet woman who led one of the classes but was very old school in her approach, which I found frustrating at points but ultimately was a stylistic difference more than anything.  Another issue which frequently came up was gender roles.  Even as young as two or three, the children were policing each other about what colors they used for crafts and absorbing adult assumptions about what boys do and girls do.  I also saw some disturbing things, like when a middle-aged man essentially made fun of a four-year-old for already being nerdy.  (He was admittedly one of my favorite children, so I wrote a sad/angry email to the director of our megachurch’s preschool program complaining about the jerk.)

Despite these many issues we could discuss, two areas stick out to me as needing especially serious attention:

1) Children’s programs at church must be inclusive.

I can’t tell you how intentional we had to be about making certain our ethnic minority children had examples of themselves in the books, craft supplies, etc. we were using.  (Ex: If we had magazine clippings for a collage, we had to go out of our way, it seemed, to ensure that we had plenty of diversity in the pictures of children we found—an effort I’m sure not all teachers would make.)  And perhaps even easier to miss were the invisible minorities of our class.  I’m sure there were other categories, but some of the most neglected at our church seemed to be those children whose parents were divorced or whose parents might not even be nice people.  There was a lot of, “God loves you just like your mommy and daddy!” type talk, which didn’t automatically include our child living with her grandparents or two daddies or our children living with one parent or even ring true for children whose parents might have been emotionally abusive or otherwise bonafide jerks.

It’s not necessary, of course, to go on a long diatribe about how different some children are or how screwed up some families may be, but it is important to pay attention to those statements made in front of the whole class.  Getting to know your children’s situations and making certain nobody is going unaddressed helps them feel seen and heard.  Though they might not think too much about this at two or three, they probably notice exclusion more than we realize, and it a good habit for us to get in as teachers so that we don’t end up behaving hurtfully when they’re 8 or 18.  I believe inclusion is one of the very important ways we can help people new to the church feel good about coming back and help prevent adolescents from needlessly giving up on church.

2) Children’s programs and parents must both do a better job teaching about the complexity of the Bible.

I recently read Pete Enns’ book Telling God’s Story: A Guide for Parents, which is part of his larger Telling God’s Story curriculum series.  Enns recognizes the complexity of the biblical narrative and the theological issues it raises and thus encourages a three-part division of emphasis in teaching which corresponds with increasing maturity.  He thinks elementary kids should focus on Jesus, middle schoolers should get the rest of the story, and high schoolers should continue to deepen their understanding by being learning about the cultural context of the Bible in greater detail and able to ask tough questions about tricky passages and our theology.

I certainly understand the merits of this approach, but I think it might also be possible to talk about certain more complex issues with younger children.  In any case, the most important thing—whether or not we wait to discuss certain topics—is to avoid teaching children things they must unlearn later.  We shouldn’t teach children things only to have to correct them later.  Of course, there are some things that are never being corrected in most of our churches that might only be corrected in seminary, and there are unfortunately many seminaries which could use some correcting, too.  The question is less whether the children will later be told something else (they may or may not) and more whether they should be told something else because the first thing they were told misunderstands, oversimplifies, or perhaps even lies about the Christian journey or the Bible or God.

If we think lament is important, let’s emphasize that from the beginning instead of only when our children are in college and sick of saccharine praise songs.  If we want them to one day understand the way Genesis 1 draws from other Ancient Near Eastern literature, let’s expose them to this concept as soon as they are old enough to begin to grasp it.  If we want them to be able to deal with Pauline epistles which may not have Paul as their historic author, we shouldn’t insist Paul wrote them when they are young.  If we want them to accept multiple atonement theories as legitimate, we should not pound penal substitutionary atonement into their heads with a hard mallet.  In order to teach with integrity we must teach accurately.  More importantly, perhaps, we must teach proactively so that the Bart Ehrman Boogie Man and other frightening characters can become (to both children and their parents) merely academics writing books about things they’ve already heard of and generally accepted.  There is no good reason to be afraid of the majority conclusions of academia unless one has been bred to fear them and see them as incompatible with faith.  Let’s not set our children up to lose their minds to keep their faith or vice versa.

Ironic Quote of the Day: Dinesh D’Souza

The following quotation comes from D’Souza’s website in response to an article in World magazine which has revealed sexual impropriety on the part of D’Souza.

 Ultimately this is not just about Olasky or even World magazine. It is also about how we Christians are supposed to behave with one another. And the secular world is watching. Is this how we love and treat fellow believers? If my conduct was improper, wouldn’t it be the decent and charitable thing to approach me about it? Instead, here is a clear attempt to destroy my career and my ministry. This is viciousness masquerading as righteousness. And this is the behavior that is truly worthy of Christian condemnation.

It is incredible that a depraved propagandist would whine about not being treated with brotherly love. I doubt D’Souza agonized over his decision to make things up about his brother in Christ Barack Obama. “Viciousness masquerading as righteousness” is an apt description of D’Souza’s whole “ministry.”

Tenuous Tenure: My thoughts on the Rollston debacle

A lot has already been said about the ongoing drama at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, but given the recent article in Inside Higher Ed (which I was directed to by Dr. Cargill) I thought it might be appropriate both to lend my support to Dr. Rollston and to add a few brief comments. The part of the article that has energized the discussion is this particular passage quoting the president of the seminary:

“At a time when Emmanuel is under severe financial stress, we have some potentially significant donors (one of whom is capable of regular gifts in the six-figure range) who refuse to support Emmanuel because they regard your influence as detrimental to students,” Sweeney wrote.

As an admitted cynic, I am in no way surprised to discover that money was yet again the root of an evil. That is not to say that I am not sympathetic to the situation ECS is in. Keeping a seminary running probably takes an almost soul-crushing level of pragmatism, and choosing your battles is probably an important part of keeping the cogs turning. When I was at Fuller, I was bothered to learn that the seminary had received substantial donations from a business mogul who had an unsavory reputation as a budget clothier. The backbone of his early business model was the exploitation of poor immigrant workers in the greater LA area. Did the fact that he had cleaned up his act recently make up for the fact that he built his empire on the raw hands and bowed backs of the poor? It is easy to reflect on the bitter irony of leaving my fantastic class on Luke where I learned that in the third Gospel losers become winners and God is on the side of the poor to go home to an apartment complex named for abusers of the poor.  It was in many ways disappointing, but I understand that without those donations there would not have been an affordable place for me to live. Perhaps in such situations a consequentialist approach is permissible and we might hold our noses and carry on.

In the case of Rollston though, much more is at stake than a slight whiff of hypocrisy. Here, the very soul of ECS is at stake. This is where an organization with integrity digs in its heels and decides to ride out the consequences. The point of any educational institution worth its salt is to provide a quality education, but how can such a mission be accomplished without academic integrity? If even the curriculum is for sale to the highest bidder, then ECS has fundamentally betrayed itself. Why? Because tenure is a promise. The whole point of tenure is to protect intellectual exploration from the ravages of political concerns. If ECS tosses aside Rollston, it has tossed aside its promise to provide a quality education. The wealthy already festoon their names upon the buildings, rooms, and benches (pretty much any surface you can attach a plaque to) of our seminaries and colleges, but in a way Sweeney is considering letting the wealthy place their stamp on the curriculum itself. The courses would not be titled “Wealthy Donor’s Introduction to the Old Testament” or “Hebrew Poetry presented by Wealthy Donor.” No, their mark would be invisible, but the situation would be no less insidious or real for it being done in secret.

If the wider academic world comes to believe that ECS is an institution that doesn’t respect its promises and is for sale to any “orthodox” donor with a big enough checkbeck, then ECS will have bigger problems than low enrollment. If Rollston is actually dismissed, I suggest that a formal complaint be filed with the ATS on his behalf. Because of the nature of ATS’s complaint policies (quoted below), it would be necessary for Rollston or a colleague to file the complaint.

The Commission has an obligation to the various publics it serves to give responsible consideration to complaints that may be made against any accredited school. The Board of Commissioners maintains policies and procedures for reviewing and responding to complaints. The complaint must be filed in writing, together with substantial documentation, as appropriate for the circumstance. The Board of Commissioners will determine if the complaint has standing with reference to any membership criterion or accreditation standard of the Commission. If the complaint has standing, the Board of Commissioners will conduct an investigation.

I do not make this suggestion out of malice, rather I see accreditation as the next line of defense for academic integrity. If the system of tenure has failed, then perhaps a revocation of accreditation is necessary.

Whatever happens in the case of Dr. Rollston, I think we can all agree that we have a larger problem. The heresy hunters have always railed against academia, but now the economy sucks and they wield six-figure clubs. We have seen a string of high-profile cases in the last couple of years. We have scratched our heads at the treatment of folks like Pete Enns and Anthony LeDonne who are, after all, clearly people who care about being faithful believers. Though we scratch until we are bald, I am starting to believe the causes are rather simple. The ugly foundations of inerrancy and associated outmoded readings of scripture are crumbling, and the conservatives are circling the wagons. Their insular orthodoxy must be protected, and if that means dismissing a competent academic then so be it. Exclusion and separation are ever the tools of the weak minded, and the sad truth of it all seems to be that the conservative evangelical reading of scripture is so weak it can’t stand up to scrutiny. Rather than protecting their community from the heretical incursions of “theological liberals,” they demonstrate the sad fact that a tenuous tenure is a sure sign of a tenuous orthodoxy.

Jesus is not a leadership guru.

A friend recently asked me about my views on child discipline in light of the Bible.  She already had some opinions based on her background in marriage and family therapy, but she wanted to know what to make of a few particular verses.  My response: The Bible isn’t a child discipline handbook, so it doesn’t really matter very much.  Its point isn’t to teach us what God thinks about spanking, so we shouldn’t treat the Bible as if it has much to say on the matter.  Instead we should let psychological research, basic Christian theology, and Christian ethical perspectives guide the discussion.

This reminded me of a similar matter I’ve been feeling soapboxy about lately: using the Bible as a leadership handbook.

Jesus is not a leadership guru.  I repeat:  Jesus is not a leadership guru.

We often treat leaders from the Bible—Moses, Joshua, Peter, Paul, sometimes even Deborah or Esther—as examples to follow.  And at the very least, we consider Jesus to be the “ultimately example” of a great leader.  We often take leadership principles (whether or not they really originated in Scripture) and try to teach them to others through books, seminars, and Sunday morning lessons using Bible stories, especially stories about Jesus.

There are a number of reasons why I think this is foolish:

1) There is no reason why discussing leadership principles of secular origin should be off-limits.  Yes, there are some evil, ruthless leaders out there, but there are also really gracious leaders whose styles (and visions) fit very well within a Christian framework.  We should feel free to borrow from these sources.

2) There is no reason to think that the leadership techniques of Jesus apply to your situation.  This is because part of being a leader is being sensitive to the task at hand, the people you’re trying to lead, etc.  What works in one scenario might not be the best approach in another.  Plus, what worked in Jesus’s time and culture might be completely counterintuitive and ineffectual in ours.  Of course, sometimes it might work well.  But sometimes it won’t.

3) There is no reason to think the stories of Jesus even give us relevant (or accurate) information about his leadership style.  Because let’s face it:   Teaching us about Jesus’s leadership style is not the point of the Gospels.  We’re probably lacking a comprehensive picture of how Jesus led.  Some of the information we do have about his “leadership style” might even just reflect the theological and literary aims of the Gospel writers more than anything.  Communicating information about Jesus’s teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection is the focus of the Gospels, not teaching us “how to be leaders.”

4) “Leadership,” as popularly understood is ultimately not the point of Christianity, anyway.  Yes, most Christians think they should be spreading Christian teachings, and yes, this means that “leadership” of people and organizations can be useful. However, “leadership” is often just shorthand for “charisma” or “getting people to do what you say.”

God can use charisma, but charisma is not part of Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit.”  There are plenty of Christians throughout history who have served God in wonderful ways but lacked charm.  Not everyone has a magnetic personality, and that’s ok.  Particularly because the most “charismatic” people are typically extroverts, and it would be ridiculous to pretend there is no place for introverts in the church!

Similarly, getting people to do what you say is a ho-hum goal.  I don’t think our faithfulness can be measured in terms of how many people respond the way we want.  Plenty of people use emotional manipulation to “encourage” conversion or lifestyle changes or greater generosity towards the church or whatever else their aims may be.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage any of these things, but it’s quite possible that when we are patient with others, reliant on the Holy Spirit to work in the world around us (and therefore not trying to do the Spirit’s job ourselves), and sensitive to the ethical issues surrounding ministry, we may see rather undramatic results.

“Leadership” is often about enthusiasm and numbers.  It may be well-intentioned, but it’s not necessarily the most Christian way of approaching ministry.  And since the Bible seems to set other goals much higher than “being an effective leader,” even if we take an interest in leadership, it should not surpass those other values we hold, such as love of God and neighbor.

5) Leadership style is probably one of those things we project onto Jesus more than we learn from him, anyway.   Eisegesis anyone?  I think we are all prone to seeing our personalities and leadership styles in Jesus.  As Harnack says, “There is something touching in the anxiety which everyone shows to rediscover himself, together with his own point of view and his own circle of interest, in this Jesus Christ, or at least to get a share in him.”  As it is true of the historical Jesus movement, so is it true of Christian leadership books.  Everyone wants to make Jesus into a leadership guru in his or her own image, which is really just a little sad and amusing.

Why I’m not just a “follower of Jesus”

It’s a pet peeve: those people on Facebook (and real life) who call themselves “followers of Jesus.”  Yes, I’m glad they’re followers of Jesus.  I just wish they wouldn’t say it that way.

Why?  Because it’s a substitute for the word “Christian.”

“Followers of Jesus” want to distinguish themselves from nominal Christians, from mean Christians, and from Christians who focus on “religion” instead of “relationship.”  It’s great that they care about orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy.  It’s great that they see faith as a journey.  And, of course, it’s great that they like Jesus so much.

But I still hate the term.

From my perspective, many “followers of Jesus” focus on their individual relationship with God.  They would be comfortable joining a group of followers, usually, but they’d prefer a more decentralized band of Jesus-following friends.  That’s not to say they don’t go to church—typically they do.  However, they want to think of themselves as somehow more akin to a New Testament disciple than a captive of the institutional church.

Christian, on the other hand, denotes connections to people of different perspectives and eras, to Rome and Constantinople, to Reformers and Anabaptist martyrs, to tacky pop music and exquisite icons, to Westboro Baptist and Metropolitan Community, to Gnostics and Arians and the creeds which ousted them, to Jewish roots, to a liturgical calendar, to Mother Teresa and the Crusades and World Vision and the Nazis.

“Christian” has baggage in many people’s eyes.  It is claimed by people way more conservative than we are or far more liberal than we are.  It links us with revolutionaries who have gone “too far” or traditions we see as dead and cold.  It forces in our face the historic Christian creeds, but also means we ironically share a label of self-identification with many heretics, a label some of them still claimed—rightly or wrongly—after (formal or informal) excommunication.  We are confronted with the sins of the past and present, and we don’t always have a chance to explain we aren’t like “those” Christians.

Being “Christian” forces us to have a history.  It forces us to be humble.  It forces us to be creedal.  It forces us to be ecumenical.

In some sense, it forces all of us to aspire to the balance of Vatican II, recognizing a pure stream of Christianity while also accepting how broadly God extends his grace.  While I may not be ready to call Rome home, I really appreciate this way of looking at things.  We will all always think that our way is the “right” way, and it’s good to recognize and attempt to preserve the approach to Christianity that we think is best.  However, when someone who disagrees with us—and perhaps we think is barely Christian—still insists on identifying that way, we should be gracious towards them and look for common ground.

Similarly, we should not be so foolish as to think we can divorce ourselves from history by avoiding the people from which our denomination separated, forgetting the wars fought in Jesus’ name, safely distancing ourselves from the sexual abuse committed by clergy, or magically returning to the New Testament church before bishops and councils.

Like it or not, we are connected to those who use and misuse the word Christian.  We are connected with institutions of waxing and waning power.  We are connected to millions of people both like and unlike us, a great communion of not-always-very-saintly-seeming saints.

We may wish that some people who have gone off the deep end theologically would admit they’re not Christian anymore.  We may think our denomination has it right.  We may wish people would stop behaving in very unChristian ways, and especially that they would stop using the Bible to support what they’re doing.  It’s somewhat inevitable, and in some ways it’s good—because “Christian” should mean something and the misuse of it should offend us.

But we should not stop using the term, as if we are the only true “followers of Jesus,” unlike all of those other so-called Christians, as if we are simply “following Jesus” without cultural baggage and ecclesial traditions of our own, as if we “follow Jesus” unlike those judgmental hypocrites over there, as if because we “follow Jesus” and we just need to pray and read the Bible and can neglect to educate ourselves about church history (particularly between the New Testament and the Reformation), as if we have no lasting—and certainly no involuntary—association with people or structures.

We have a history, beautiful and marred.  We have standards of orthodoxy and insiders who try to get away with breaking them.  We have divisions.  We have unnecessary committees.  We have practices which originated centuries after Jesus.  We have terrible, terrible bookstores filled with hideous T-shirts and embarrassing bumper stickers.  We have weirdos and idiots and fuddy-duddies.  And we all know some people using our name who we really think shouldn’t be (and probably really shouldn’t).

And we need to acknowledge that.

Which is why I’m happy to call myself, “Christian.”

The Aluminum Scroll 10 – Atheist Machine

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012