My Church: The Beginning of the End

 

 

I suspected that something had gone seriously wrong when I saw the publicity for a “Christian concert” at First Baptist Church. They were selling tickets! It signaled a new and great divide between those preachers and musicians of my youth who would practically pay people to listen to them and present-day preachers and musicians who require payment before allowing anyone to hear them. As Evangelical Christians, we were called to evangelize. That meant bringing people in to hear the Gospel Message, free of charge. The more hospitable, but arguably less profitable, old-fashioned system for hosting guest speakers and musicians went something like this: before inviting a guest, the church would comb through the budget to find funds for the guest’s transportation, and, if necessary they would take a special offering. Some families would volunteer bedrooms and breakfast. Other families would have the guests in for other meals. During the special event, a love offering would be collected, and that was the guest’s payment for his or her services.

Then someone realized the limitations of love offerings and the profit potential of organized “ministry,” and foundations were set up to churn out books, audio and visual material with superfluous costly “teaching guides.” These ministries promoted authors, motivational speakers, musicians, standup comedians, and even exercise gurus to the status of Christian celebrities, charging hefty fees for guest appearances, and paying them generous stipends. This tax-exempt enterprise also required well-paid administrative staff to keep the machines running and the cash flowing. In churches, pastors with entrepreneurial visions and marketing skills replaced the servant shepherds of older times, although the catch-phrase “servant leader” was thrown around as a euphemism for “CEO pastor.”

Free coffee stations to comfort believers and welcome seekers morphed into profit-generating Starbucks-type coffee shops with bar stools, free wifi, and background music–soft rock in the Christian flavor. Book-and-pamphlet stands were turned into bookstores with overpriced books, Bible-themed toys, and all kinds of cheap imported kitsch with a tacky Christian veneer. Places of prayer and worship were replaced with giant theaters or stadiums, venues for ever-more spectacular events proffered by the mushrooming “ministries.”

It was the beginning of the end for the church of my youth and childhood.

 

 

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Am I a Christian?

“What prevents you from saying, ‘I am a Christian?'” asks a Facebook Friend.

I used to be happy to say, “I am a Christian.” I had claimed redemption offered by the grace of God, and I was being transformed from someone on the path of whatevercaughtmyfancy to someone who wanted to do what was good and right. In old-style fundamentalist or evangelical communities , “Are you a Christian?” is a short way of asking, “Have you had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of repenting of your sins, accepting and receiving Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, and being immersed in baptismal waters?” Outside those communities, the question, “Are you a Christian?” would likely receive a “yes” answer from all kinds of people who did not meet the fundamentalist criteria for saved and bound for Heaven: Catholics, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Northern Baptists.

I accepted that one-time offer at the age of eleven. Among the sins that I confessed for repentance was the sin of having faked it and been baptized at the age of seven because I wanted to be a full-fledged church member like my parents and my best friend Billie Ann. I was baptized a second time at the age of fourteen, with a better understanding of what it meant. I faithfully attended Sunday School, Training Union, both Sunday worship services, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Girls’ Auxiliary activities, all seasonal revival services, a Billy Graham campaign, summer camps, and quite a lot of “socials,” designed to keep us from the evils of dancing and drinking.

It was not an unhappy way to grow up. I had friends and fun-loving acquaintances at all those meetings. I loved church and church activities, and even though Presbyterians were way cooler at school than Southern Baptists, I was not ashamed to identify myself as a real Christian. (It was rumored that Presbyterians sprinkled babies and did not require baptism-by-immersion, thus falling into the category of not-real Christians in my fundamentalist mind. It was also rumored that they allowed social dancing in the church basement.) So what if I was not on top in the social hierarchy of Wichita Falls High School? I belonged to Jesus and walked with His people, kindhearted folks who brought casseroles and fresh-baked cakes and pies to houses where someone was sick or dead.

I’ve read some books, met some people and done some thinking since those times of childish faith. I used to think that years of living and study would provide answers to big questions, but they have only raised more and bigger questions. There are the usual ones: Why do good people and innocent children suffer? Why does God’s grace require a blood sacrifice? Where is the line between superstition and faith? Where did God come from? I understand God by picturing Him as a white-bearded Man in the Sky who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus in a night shirt, but I know that God is much more than the Person I imagine. God is not even a “He” in any human sense. God is the Great Unanswered Question.

I cannot understand God any more than the tiny insect I just flipped off my page, casting it into outer darkness, can understand me, but God, in Earth’s historical time, took on the form and feelings of a biological person that, in my language, I call Jesus. I study the stories told by Him and about Him. He never wrote a book or led an army or presided over a nation. He didn’t own land or have much money. He had no access to wi-fi, and he left no descendants. He died in a cruel and shameful manner, leaving behind a handful of disheartened followers. Nevertheless, He was called Emmanuel, God With Us, and His spark of divinity ignited a movement of people who have taken Him at His Word. It is a movement, no matter what you call it or how it is misunderstood and misused, that at its heart changes lives for the better. In the early days of the movement, there was no Bible. The Hebrew people (all of the early followers were Hebrew people) had the Torah, but there was no New Testament, no gilt-edged book bound in Moroccan leather. There were only word-of-mouth stories and visibly changed lives that led people to become followers of The Way of Jesus, the Christ, Emmanuel. That leather-bound Bible tells me that Christian was a name first applied, possibly in a mocking way, in Antioch.

This sounds a little weird, even to me: that Great Unanswered Question interacts with me. No, I’ve never heard a disembodied voice or seen a bush burning with fire that doesn’t consume. At the moment it was happening, I’ve never even been certain beyond a reasonable doubt that what I experienced was the voice of God, but in retrospect I see things, when considered all together, that I can only say were Divine Interventions. I don’t mean the near-misses that happen to believers and unbelievers alike,  though I can’t discount the possibility of a divine hand that kept me from harm in a rollover the day after my sixteenth birthday. On a larger but less remarkable scale, I don’t discount the possibility of angelic guidance in millions of ways that I never perceived: the tornado that didn’t hit my school, the plane I didn’t take, the spilled milk that kept me from the street corner where I might have been hit by a car. I don’t discount those possibilities, but dwelling on them or even talking much about them carries the risk of superstition, a poor substitute for faith. I prefer to see life as a miracle in which I, like the little-bitty thing skittering across my paper, have been given a tiny amount of energy, control, and freedom, and a small amount of time in which to experience them.

Unlike the tiny creature, whose existence is of very little interest to me, I apparently am of much interest to the Great Unanswered Question who interacts with me. I didn’t create the tiny creature, but my Great Unanswered Question did, and “He” (for lack of a better pronoun) created me. He has not answered all of my questions. Not even close. But He does answer a few.

So, what prevents me from saying, “I am a Christian?” I was once proud to say it, but I once had many more answers than questions. Maybe I can’t identify with those who have all the answers and no questions. Maybe I will just do my best to understand and follow the teachings and examples of the Unanswered-Question-As-Person, Jesus, Yeshua, the Christ, Emmanuel, and hope that someday, somewhere, like the first-century disciples at Antioch, I will be recognized as a Follower and named accordingly.