Is the Term “Evangelical” One We Should Embrace or Avoid?

man wearing black crew neck shirt reading book

In a recent post, I reviewed Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossiblein which he takes aim at “biblicism,” which he claims is particularly prevalent amongst evangelical Christians.

This brings up an important question: What exactly is an “evangelical”?

Popular Usage

Recently a friend from church approached me before service one Sunday morning. He pointed out an article in the New York Times about evangelicalism in America, and asked what exactly an evangelical is, and whether our church was evangelical.

Another friend recently posted online about two Christian leaders who had written a book about their support for a particular political issue, and my friend’s comment was that the divide between evangelicals and Jesus is widening all the time.

Obviously my friend is speaking of evangelicals as if they are a single, united group of people, who for the most part do not only hold certain religious beliefs, but also certain political and social positions.

Again, it begs the question: what exactly is an “evangelical”?

Origin of the Term

The word “evangelical” means “of the gospel” or “about the gospel.” It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means a proclamation of good news.

See also: The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The gospel, which is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and what He has done in order to save us, redeem us, and reconcile us to God, is the core message of Christianity. Thus, an “evangelical Christian” simply means: a Christian who is about the gospel, or a gospel Christian.

Co-Opting of the Term

Since the gospel is the core message of Christianity, one would assume that all Christians would be people who are about the gospel! Unfortunately, some political groups have attempted to co-opt the term evangelical to give the impression that theologically conservative Christians all agree with particular political, social, and economic positions and support certain political parties.

This has led some Christians to feel that they should abandon the term evangelical, as they feel it is no longer helpful in identifying them because the term may be associated in some people’s minds with certain political positions, thus creating an unnecessary barrier for some in approaching Christianity.

So what is an evangelical?

Defining Evangelicalism

Theologian and historian Mark Noll says: “the groups and individuals making up the postwar evangelical movement unite on little except profession of a high view of scripture and the need for divine assistance in salvation.” [1]

Another definition states that evangelicalism is “a transdenominational movement that has sought to transcend its differences in order to work together toward certain common activities and goals, particularly evangelism, world missions, and ministries of mercy and justice.” [2]

Nathan Hatch explains that evangelicals cannot be spoken of as if they are one united group of people who all share the same core beliefs, nor is there one leader who represents or speaks on behalf of evangelicals as a whole. He states, “In truth, there is no such thing as one evangelicalism. [It is made up of] extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders.” [3]

Thus, for my friend to say that “evangelicals are moving farther away from Jesus every day” is to suppose that certain leaders speak on behalf of a movement which is united in both their theological and political views, which is absolutely not true. Nevertheless, many people obviously hold this opinion, partly because of “self-appointed” leaders who act as if they do speak on behalf of evangelicals as a whole, which is the reason why many Christians are considering whether it would be best to distance themselves from this descriptor.

Not an American Movement

One of the problems with associating the term evangelical with Christians who hold certain political positions is that it fails to recognize that evangelicalism is a worldwide movement, not an American one, and evangelicals around the world hold a wide variety of positions on social and economic issues. Even in the United States, evangelicals are not united in their political views or affiliations.

Should We Embrace It or Avoid It?

Words are only helpful until they are not. Furthermore, the helpfulness of words depends on context, because in different contexts, the same words can be associated with different things. If a word carries a lot of baggage in a particular context, it might be better to find a different word.

For example, in Hungary, where I pastored for several years, the word evangéliumi (literally: of the gospel) was a helpful and positive term which gave people a sense of who we were and what we were about. In England, where I have done my theological education, the term evangelical does not carry heavy political connotations, and is therefore helpful in describing a certain kind of Christian who is active in their faith, takes the Bible seriously, and is engaged socially. John Stott, an Anglican, is remembered in England as the face of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of churches that works together beyond denominational lines to further the gospel.

In the United States some Christians, including myself, have opted for using alternative monikers, such as “Gospel-Centered,” which retains the idea of being focused on the gospel, while not using a term which has come to be associated with many things other than the gospel in American society. As I often say: as a Christian, the only controversy I want to be known for is the controversy of the gospel.

Rhode Island & Walden Pond: How They Shaped the Way Americans Think About Church

person sitting on bench under tree

It has been said that there are two men who did more to shape the American psyche and culture than anyone else:

#1: Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island

Roger Williams moved from England to Boston in the 1600’s to be part of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts

The Puritans’ goal was to create a pure church, free from politics, corruption, and compromise.

Roger Williams loved this idea… the only thing was: after a while he noticed some things in the church there in Boston that he didn’t really like. Things such as how baptisms were carried out, and how the church was managed.

So, do you know what he did?   He left.

Roger moved down south of Boston and established his own colony, with its own church, in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

But then, guess what happened… After a while, Roger found some things he didn’t like about this new church, and some of the people there (the very church he himself had founded!). And so, Roger Williams left that church as well, and established another church nearby.

And then he left that church too…

Every church he started, he eventually left – because he found things he didn’t like… and they never completely matched his vision for what a perfect church should be, which is particularly interesting since he was the leader of these churches.

Roger Williams ended up alone, still having faith, but completely withdrawn from Christian community.

#2: Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a writer, who famously encouraged us to “march to the beat of our own drum.”

He lived in a hut, next to Walden Pond, and would write about going for walks in the forest alone.

Thoreau expressed a very powerful theme for Americans: we take care of ourselves, we work for ourselves, we answer to ourselves — and when it comes to church, we do that for ourselves too.

Thoreau shaped American culture by putting the self at the heart of the American psyche.

His biographer put it this way:  Henry David Thoreau “stands as the most powerful example…of the American mentality of: self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”

But here’s the thing:  if you look at Thoreau’s life, you don’t find a happy person. He struggled to engage in long-term, meaningful relationships with others, and at the end of his life he had no friends.

Rugged Individualism + Personal Religion = Selling Us Short

The “rugged individualism” of Thoreau plus the “personal religion” of Roger Williams shapes American culture to this day.

Like fish in water, it is hard for us to imagine things any other way, but thankfully God’s Word gives us God’s vision for what the Body of Christ, the gathered, redeemed People of God, AKA: the Church is intended to be and called to be. And when understood, it becomes clear that our culture of rugged individualism + personal religion is selling us short. God has something better for us!

See the article: A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It 

I love this quote from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:

We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.

This Sunday at White Fields Church in Longmont, we will continue our Vision series by looking at God’s vision for the church. If you are in the area, we would love to have you join us!

For more on this, check out the book: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight

This Isn’t About Kanye

Kanye West Jesus is King

“I’m my favorite rapper.” What Kanye West lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in honesty.

Kanye’s conversion to Christianity and his release of an album which reflects that faith, titled “Jesus is King”, is big news right now.

But to look at this and only see Kanye, is to miss the bigger picture.

Christianity is Not Collapsing in America

There has been much talk recently about the decline of Christianity in the United States. However, reports of decline are overstated. I have explained why the numbers alone do not tell the whole story in these posts:

The New York Times published an article this past week about why claims about the “collapse” of Christianity in America are grossly overstated.

On his new album, Kanye is joined by Kenny G, who has also attended his Sunday Service events. Christian rapper NF was recently the best selling musician in the entire US.

Let’s put it this way: Christianity is much more widespread and influential than many would have you believe, and it is not going away any time soon.

Christianity is Thriving Amongst Minority Communities

Why are there fewer Christians were I live, near Boulder, Colorado, than there are in the American South? At least one reason is probably because of the relative homogeny of the  population in this area, compared with the number of people of color in the South.

The type of person most likely to be an atheist in America – and in the entire world – are white males. According to Pew Research Group, 78% of atheists in America are white, and 68% are men, even though white males only make up just over 30% of the US population.

According to one study, for example, at historically black universities 85.2% of students identified as Christian, and 11.2% identified as atheist, agnostic, or none. This is contrasted with a national average in all universities of 60.2% of students identifying as Christian, and 30.9% identifying as atheist, agnostic, or none.

As the major Western countries, including the United States, continue to become more ethnically diverse, it is predicted that we will see the number of atheists and agnostics decline, not increase – due to the fact that atheism and agnosticism are overrepresented by white males. For more on this topic, read: Projections for Belief & Secularization Around the World

If you look at Kanye’s Sunday Services, you will notice many people of color. Christianity is not, nor ever has been, a white, Western religion. African American communities have a rich heritage of Christianity, including Christian music, and it should come as no surprise to see African American people making music with gospel themes; it’s nothing new.

Speaking of the gospel and gospel music, I loved this episode of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden and Kanye West – both what Kanye said, and the music the choir sang:

Of course one of the big topics of discussion has been whether Kanye’s conversion is for real. I really appreciated Greg Laurie’s comments on this:

Furthermore, Kellen Criswell wrote a great article for Calvarychapel.com: Eight Things I Would Say to Kanye If I Could

For what it’s worth, here is my favorite song from “Jesus is King”:

To echo Greg Laurie’s words: I am glad for any person who makes a movement toward God, and I think it’s great that he is using his platform to get people talking about Jesus.

This isn’t about Kanye, but I’m glad Kanye is making it about Jesus.

 

Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

Image result for chinese christianity

In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

image.pngimage.png

Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

Halloween, Christians, and What I’ll Be Doing Tonight

45158377_10155894340260893_9149706089233645568_n

According to the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day (Festum Omnium Sanctorum) is celebrated on November 1, and is a day of remembrance for all those “who have obtained salvation.”

It is followed on November 2, by the Day of the Dead (Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum), which is the “day of remembrance for those who have died, but have not yet received salvation, but are currently residing in purgatory.”1

October 31 is known as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows (All Saints Day), AKA Halloween.

In the Protestant world, October 31 is Reformation Day, commemorating the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517, which is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

On further examination, this may not be exactly how it happened — see What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

How Should Christians Handle Halloween?

One of the big questions I’m often asked this time of year is how Christians should relate to Halloween.

Some common reactions:

  1. Ignore it / Protest it.
    This often manifests in things like refusing to hand out candy to kids who trick or treat, turning off the lights, leaving the house, etc.
  2. Have alternative events for people to attend, such as “Trunk or Treat” in the church parking lot, or a Harvest Festival.
    These are often billed as “safe alternatives to Halloween”, which implies that going trick or treating in your neighborhood is not safe. Whether this concern is for physical safety or spiritual safety is not always clear, but my assumption is that the latter is in mind.
    Besides the fact that teaching children to go approach strangers’ cars to get candy out of their trunk is probably not the safest idea, these events try to create a fun fall atmosphere without the dark/evil underpinnings of Halloween.
    To be clear, while many churches host fall festivals, what I have in mind here is specifically those which are held on October 31 as alternative events that compete with Halloween.
  3. Celebrate it.
    Some churches straight up celebrate Halloween by having parties, etc.

A Missional Approach to Halloween

Here are a few factors to keep in mind about Halloween:

  1. We serve a God who has defeated sin, death and the devil.
    Colossians 2:15, speaking of the forces of evil, says that He (God) disarmed the rulers and authorities (evil or demonic forces) and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Jesus).
  2. God has left us in this world and given us a mission, to reach people in His name.
    There are certain things which you can only do in this life, which you won’t be able to do in Heaven — particularly: evangelism. Jesus himself is our example in this, that he left the security and sanctity of heaven and entered into our fallen, sinful world, full of evil and darkness, in order to bring salvation to us.
  3. This is the only day of the year, when most of your neighbors are going to come knocking on your door. The only day.
    This is missional gold! How can you use the unique opportunity that this cultural moment presents?

I certainly would agree with those who say that Christian churches should not host Halloween celebrations, however, I would argue that churches ought to encourage Christians to take advantage of this unique cultural moment for the purpose of God’s mission. Hosting alternative events on October 31 that take people out of their neighborhoods, therefore, is, in my opinion, unwise and communicates the wrong message — both to Christians and their neighbors.

What We Will Be Doing This Evening

Tonight, my two year old will be dressing up as a tiger. She told us last night that her name when she wears her costume is “Adventure Tiger”. We will be going out to our neighbors houses, knocking on their doors, chatting with them, getting to know them — and, as we do every year, we will be inviting them join us at to our church.

After that, we will put our fire pit in our driveway, start a fire in it, brew a bunch of coffee, and invite our neighbors to come hang out and chat, meet each other, talk about life, etc. — and we will pray and trust that God will use those conversations and relationships as inroads for us to ultimately share with them the hope that we have in Jesus.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the TroubleFace Mom blog:

If Jesus can go straight to hell, stare death and devil in the face, win and come back alive, can’t we open our doors to the 6 year old in a Batman costume and his shivering mom?

May God help us to make much of Jesus today (and every day)!

4 Strategies for Families Divided by Politics

636070480073674241164334377_political-incivility-color

We live in a highly charged political climate, where many people see those on the opposite side of the political divide as being “what’s wrong with America.”

But what about when this touches your family? How can you have a family get-together without it deteriorating into arguments, awkwardness, alienation and hurt feelings? Is the only solution to just ignore the “elephant in the room” and not talk about politics?

This week I did an interview for the Longmont Times-Call newspaper on this subject. The article will come out on November 20. At the same time, a family I’m connected to is dealing with this exact scenario: their family is divided politically and it is straining their relationships.

Here are 4 simple strategies that can help families divided by politics:

1. Establish ground rules

In almost any mediation situation, the mediator will begin by establishing some ground rules for the discussion. This can be done in a family setting as well.

Here are some examples:

– No accusations allowed, only perception-based statements.

Rather than, “You people are ________” say something like, “This stance comes across to me as __________”.

– Discuss issues, not identities.

Rather than “Trump supporters are  ________” say, “I disagree with this policy because __________”.

– When it starts to feel negative, stop.

Take a break. Politicians come and go, and even they are willing to work together. Don’t let politics divide your family. It’s not worth it.

2. Zoom out to see the big picture

A political campaign is a marketing campaign. Each side is trying to get you to buy what they’re selling. To do this, they employ many strategies, particularly hyperbole and portraying the other side as dangerous and evil. But as soon as the campaign is over, they change their tone drastically. Why? Because they understand the nature of political campaigns. The problem is, many people don’t understand this the way politicians themselves do.

For example: In the final weeks of the campaign, President Obama said that Donald Trump was “very dangerous” and “a threat to democracy.” Trump called Obama “a disaster”, “the founder of ISIS” and “the most ignorant president in our history.” But then this week, the tone changed completely. Obama said Trump will be his president, that they were on the same team and that he was committed to helping Trump succeed. Trump said of Obama that “he is a very good man”.

It’s a game, a contest – and each side wants to win. But when it’s over, they know how to turn off the personas and work together.
It’s similar to a football game: for 60 minutes the players on each side try to crush each other. They use intimidation tactics, they hit each other as hard as they can – but when the game is over, they exchange jerseys and hug.

It’s often been noted that in congress, after heated partisan discussions, they all go eat lunch together in the cafeteria, and people from different parties who were at each other’s throats in the negotiating room, sit down and eat together.

Here’s the point: Politicians themselves understand campaigns for what they are. It would help us to do the same.

3. Affirm the noble values of the other person’s position

People who care about politics generally do so because they genuinely care about other people. They want to make things better. They’re passionate, interested and thoughtful. Most people who hold political views consider themselves to be heroic and compassionate. In other words, people all across the political spectrum believe that they are opposing evil and advocating for the good of others. In the end, we all want many of the same things, we just differ on how we believe those things can be achieved.

To take the teeth and the animosity out of a political discussion, it helps to affirm the noble values inherent to the other person’s position, and acknowledge that you hold those same values yourself.

For example: someone might say, “I support this political party because I care about the poor” or “…because I believe that all people are created equal” or “…because I consider life sacred.” Rather than take that as an insinuation that people who differ from them politically don’t care about those things, simply affirm that you do. Affirm all of the noble values that the other person cares about – and explain that you also want those same end goals. Then you can begin talking about strategies to achieve those goals, having taken many of the accusations and value judgments out of the equation and creating a less emotional, more rational discussion, because you’ve shown that you’re both interested in achieving the same ultimate goals.

4. Diffuse the tension by inviting the other person to tell you their views without argument

Love, the Bible teaches, is not a feeling, it is an action: a self-sacrifical, giving action. Because people love to talk about themselves, one of the greatest expressions of love you can give a person is to invite them to explain their views to you, and you only listen. No arguing. No interrupting. Just listening.

Maybe that would feel like a small death to you, and it may very well be an exercise in dying to yourself – but that is how God expressed His love for us: by suffering and dying for our sake.

Hebrews 12:2 tells us that it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. So, in the end, there was something in it for him, but it wasn’t a selfish motive – it was for the sake of us (him and us together) that he did it. He subjected himself to suffering for the sake of repairing our broken relationship with him — which was, by the way, our fault alone. But yet, he reached out, he offered to suffer and die for the sake of the joy of a restored relationship with us.

Even if it feels like a small death, or you suffer through listening to your family member share their views with you – one of the greatest acts of love you can give them is to listen intently without saying a word, then affirming the good values and principles in their views. You might just find that the other person is so surprised and honored that you took the time to hear them out that they are most open to listening to you in return. And rather than being toxic and divisive, your discussion can be healthy and amiable – even if you still agree to disagree on the methods and strategies.

Have you experienced a similar situation?  Do you have any other suggestions or strategies?
Leave a comment below!

The US Election and Some Reasons to be Hopeful

This past weekend I went with the elders of White Fields Church to Allenspark, where we had a marathon of meetings, but in such a beautiful spot that we could also enjoy some hiking and the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

wp-1478360242646.jpg
Sunrise on Mt. Meeker
wp-1478360321019.jpg
We happened upon this mama bear and her 2 cubs in a tree near Lyons

We had a great time together, but I was surprised how exhausted I felt at the end of it. However, I feel very encouraged about where our church is at and where we are going.

Speaking of exhaustion and encouragement: the US election is coming up in 3 days.

I’m exhausted by the campaigns, by the division it causes, I’m exhausted because both of the major party candidates have major character flaws and neither of them are someone I can be excited to vote for.

However, I am also hopeful. Yesterday I ran across an article by Carey Nieuwhof that was a breath of fresh air. True, he’s a Canadian, so he doesn’t really have any skin in the game, but then on the other hand, they have Justin Trudeau and pretty much all of the things conservative Americans are concerned about happening in the US have already happened in Canada – so maybe a Canadian is the exact person who can speak into our situation.

Here’s the article: Despairing about the US Presidential election? 5 predictions that point toward hope.

Here are the 5 predictions he gives:

  1. There will be renewed interest in the sovereignty of God
  2. The church will look to Christ more and to the state less
  3. Living out your values will become more important than ever
  4. The tone of public discourse will get worse…or better
  5. The work of the local church will be more important than ever

Carey expounds on each of these in his post – it’s worth reading, but the tone of what he is saying is something I have found curiously lacking from Christian leaders during this election season.

I, for one, cannot lose hope – because as a Christian I know that 1) God is sovereign and 2) the best is yet to come.

A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It 

loneliness

I’ve noticed something: a lot of people are lonely.

I don’t know if it’s particular to Colorado, or even to the United States. I would guess that it isn’t.

In my conversations with people, this is a recurring theme: they are lonely, they wish they had more friends, they find it difficult to connect with people.

From a quick search on the internet, it seems that this is a widespread problem. This article mentions major media coverage of this problem, and there are some interesting causes which they point to: one of them is the Internet, another is the decline in church membership and attendance in recent generations. This article from the New York Times talks about how research has shown that even in social situations where people are surrounded by others, loneliness can be contagious.

It seems clear that people long for deep, meaningful relationships, but struggle to create them.

What’s at the root of this?    Here are a few things I can see:

1. “Rugged Individualism” Leads to Loneliness

I moved to Hungary when I was 18, spent 10 years there and moved back to the US when I was 28, having spent ALL of my adult life in that cultural setting. When I moved back to the US, even though I grew up here, I had never really lived as an adult here, and so I experienced a good deal of culture shock.

The 2 characteristics of American society, particularly here in Colorado and the West, are what I call: “Rugged Individualism” and “A Pervasive Sense of Loneliness”.  These 2 go hand in hand: the rugged individualism leads to the pervasive sense of loneliness.

In the US, individualism is considered not only a virtue, but one of the supreme virtues. However, in other cultures, individualism can even be considered a vice, whereas being part of the group is considered a virtue. This comes out in our politics: perennially, there are calls for “an outsider” to come in and “shake things up”. Our culture places value on not needing or depending on anyone but yourself, and looking out for your own needs first above those of the community. It’s an every-man/woman-for-him/herself type of mentality. The result of this mentality is an undervaluing of other virtues such as loyalty and self-sacrifice for others outside of your immediate “tribe” (usually a nuclear family). When people do meet up with other people, they tend to be very careful to put their best face forward, showing their strength rather than being vulnerable. Americans tend to be very generous, which is good, but sometimes the motive behind generosity can be a way of showing strength: that “you are weak, and I am helping you, because I am strong”.

2. Isolation is one of the results of “the Fall”

The Book of Genesis begins by presenting the “ideal”:  God and humankind, in relationship with each other, in a world where death and sickness, malice and sin do not exist. However, when humans decided to rebel against God, not only was the natural harmony ruined, but the results were: shame, fear and isolation.

The results of “the Fall” were: shame, fear and isolation.

This isolation was not only isolation from God, but it also involves isolation from each other. People fear intimacy, often in large part because they are afraid to really be known, lest their shame be revealed or discovered. Isolation and the breakdown of community is one of the results and repurcussions of sin in the world.

 

3. A Culture of Fear and an Obsession with Privacy

One thing that stuck out to me when I moved back from Europe, was the degree to which people here in the US are concerned about their privacy. People tend to be very cautious with who they give their address or phone number to, who knows where they live, how much they let people know about themselves. For a people who pride ourselves on being “free” – we are particularly captive to fear in many areas of our lives, and quite obsessed with privacy.

My take on it personally, is: if someone is watching my every move, 1) they are going to be very bored, and 2) they are going to see me live a Christian life, and hopefully hear a lot about Jesus.  I always think of the Proverb: the righteous is as bold as a young lion, but the unrighteous runs even when no one is pursuing (Proverbs 28:1)

Being obsessed with privacy leads to being afraid of intimacy in relationships – which hinders friendships from developing. People are afraid of sharing too much about themselves, afraid of inviting others into their homes, etc.

Okay…but now what?

Here are a few thoughts on how to combat this pervasive sense of loneliness:

Begin with the Assumption, that Everyone Else is Lonely Too

…because the great majority are. Most people I talk to are lonely, yet they assume that everyone else has tons of friends, and that their loneliness is unique to them. It’s not. Reach out to others, because most of them are lonely too.

Embrace the Gospel

Many people believe that they can be either fully known or fully loved, but not both – because if someone was ever to really know everything about them, they could not possibly love them. The message of the gospel though, is that God knows you better than you even know yourself, and yet, he loves you more than you can even imagine; so much so that he was willing to suffer and even die for you.

That love, perfect love, the Bible says, casts out fear (1 John 4:18). If you know that you are fully loved and fully accepted, and that you have nothing to fear, neither in life nor in death, then you are truly free. With a God who is both sovereign and wholly committed to our good, Christians should be the most bold, fearless people in the world, as they allow the gospel to address each and every fear that they have.

Live Out Redeemed Community Life

Furthermore, Jesus told us that the real life that we desire is found not in seeking our own fulfillment, but in laying down our lives – as he did – for the sake of something greater than ourselves: e.g. God’s mission, and the good of other people.  In other words: what most of us are looking for is something which can only be found indirectly: it is not in seeking friends that we find friends, but in serving others. I’ve found that when you pour our your lives for others, you find yourself surrounded by people, and paradoxically, it is in pouring yourself out that you become full, rather than empty.

When you embrace the gospel, you become a changed person. And as changed people, we are to live out the principles of God’s Kingdom together as a new community, that doesn’t function on the same basic principles of community at large.

 

How about you? Do you feel this “pervasive sense of loneliness”?  What causes do you see – and what solutions?  Feel free to share your thoughts below.

 

 

Charitable Giving Habits of Americans

Living abroad for many years, one of the things which I came to realize and be impressed with, is how much American citizens give to charitable causes.

I was living in Hungary when the monster earthquake hit Haiti, and Hungarians were blown away to hear that average people in the United States were giving generously to help provide aid and relief for people they had never met in some faraway country. They were used to governments giving aid to regions with humanitarian crises, but for regular people to do such a thing was surprising to them.

It could be because people in the United States have more expendable income than people in most parts of the world, and that our currency is strong and goes further than other currencies. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is a culture here in the United States of using what we have to do good for other people.

Perhaps it comes from our history: having been a nation of immigrants, whose ancestors moved here to seek a better life or to escape poverty, and so it is built into our collective psyche, to use what we have to help others, knowing that we have experienced divine providential fortune to live in this country.

It also can’t be ignored, that a great number of Americans identify as ‘religious’. Part of the Judeo-Christian ethic is that, like Abraham, if we have been blessed, it is so we might be a blessing to others – that God wants to bless other people through us (Genesis 12:2).

The Sacramento Bee published an article last month, showing the Adjusted Gross Income of every county in the US compared to how much was given in that county to charitable causes, non-profits and churches.

Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it was the poorer counties which gave more per capita than the richer ones. One of the major factors in how much people in a given county gave to charity seems to be religious affiliation; places with more people who attend religious services saw higher rates of charitable giving.

The idea that people who have less tend to give more may not be surprising to everyone. Jesus drew the attention of his disciples to a woman in the temple who gave her last 2 mites – all that she had, whereas other people who had more gave less of what they had. Preachers have long cited statistics which show the same thing: ironically, the more one accrues, the more miserly they tend to become with it.

How about Boulder County, Colorado, where yours truly is located? 2.6% of income was given to charity. That’s pretty low, and pretty ironic, because people in Boulder County, in my experience, talk a lot about being “locally minded and globally conscious” and caring about the well-being of other people, even if most of them are not Christian or attend religious services of any kind.

Neighboring Weld County was not much better at 2.7%, Larimer County came in at 3.2% (there are quite a few more church-going folks up there).

Here is the map with each county’s income versus charitable giving:

http://public.tableau.com/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js

Dashboard 1

 
Do you give charitably? The Bible recommends 10% of one’s income. The only places that came close to that number were the heavily Mormon populated counties of Utah.

Where do you direct your giving towards?

 

Church: Love It or Leave It?

I recently read a statistic that 80% of people in the United States believe you can be a good Christian and have no connection with a church community.

That means: follow Christ, know Christ, relate to Christ.

80% of Americans polled said that it is possible to do these things without being related to any church.

Jesus would disagree.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, as Jesus is praying to the Father the night before he is crucified – he looks at his disciples, and he looks forward to the church, which he is going to create by what he’s about to do, and he says:

Father, for their sake I consecrate myself, so that they may be sanctified. (John 17:19)

That word “consecrate” means: “I set myself apart for them!  I am dedicated to them! I live for them!”

Jesus lives for the church. He died for the church. He is wholly committed to the church.

That means that there is never a time when Jesus says to himself, “The church… that little organization I left behind down there… I haven’t thought about them in a while; I wonder how they’re doing… ”  

No! Rather, he lives for the church, he died for the church, and he is wholly committed to the church.

 

The church is God’s masterpiece, which he gave his life to create – and which he promised to protect forever, never allowing it to be overcome by evil.

In Ephesians chapter 1, it says that Jesus rules all things for the church.

The church is God’s expression of Himself in the world.

The church is God’s chosen and designed vehicle for the carrying out of his mission in the world.

In the Book of Acts, we see God bringing the church into existence, then adding to the church, then multiplying the church – and then sending out missionaries to start more churches.

In the Book of Revelation, where do we see Jesus? He is walking amongst the lampstands, which represent the churches.

God loves the church! It is his masterpiece. Jesus lived and died to create it, and he actively sustains it. He is fully committed to it – and you should be too.

And not just in the sense of the invisible worldwide communion of all who follow Christ – but the local church in particular. It’s easy to say, “Oh, of course I love “the church” in the sense of all the followers of Jesus out there – you know, as long as I don’t have to actually see them or interact with them or have any responsibility towards them…”

The idea that Christianity is a purely private, personal matter and that the church is optional and unnecessary – or even as the leader of a parachurch organization put it to me once: a “necessary evil” – is the product of our individualistic culture rather than the heart of God.

It has been said that the church is like a work of art, a masterpiece which mediocre and even bad artists have been painting over for centuries.

This happens sometimes: a great artist created a masterpiece, but over the years other artists – mediocre or even bad artists – tried to touch it up, and they painted over the top of it, and the challenge is to get underneath, back to the original masterpiece. That requires slow, hard work of scraping away and removing layers.

There is much about the church which turns people off, but there is no way you can say, like 80% of Americans that you can be a good Christian and write off the church and have no commitment to it.

The answer is not to write it off or dismiss it, but to return to the original masterpiece.

If Jesus loves the church, if Jesus is committed to it and lives for it and gave his life for it – then to love Jesus and follow Jesus means to love his church and be committed to it as well.