The Offensive Gospel

warbBy Joe LaGuardia

In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians.  Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.

Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.

Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere.  Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”

The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all.  Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.

The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty.  We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.

That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point.  It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.

Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.

It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11).  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness  to those who are perishing” (1:18).

Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?

A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution.   St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.

Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved.  Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.

This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.

Paul was not a rogue in this mission.  He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.

Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God.  Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.

In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution.  Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.

Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.

Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.