Is Church Too Easy?

In the beginning, how difficult must it have been for folks to say Yes to Jesus? In a world where opposition came from both sides (religious and secular), crossing the line of faith would have meant leaving behind a lot, while also embracing a brand new way of life.

For example, imagine you’re a woman in first century Corinth. This itinerant preacher, a guy named Paul, comes to town and begins telling people about this Messenger from God named Jesus. He calls him Lord — a bold statement in an empire where only Caesar claimed that title. But the Jesus he talks about is unlike any lord or master or god you’ve ever encountered, and you join a fledgling group of folks in Corinth who choose to claim Jesus as your only Lord.

You go home to your husband and family, and immediately you’ve got a decision to make. What are you going to do about the household gods you formerly have worshiped? In your home, your husband is the pater familias. What he says, goes. He rules the home, which includes you, your children, their spouses and kids, and the 2 slaves who work in your family. And up til Paul came to town, you paid homage to the household deities your husband had set up. You did it without thinking. And you treated the slaves like, well, the slaves they are.

But now everything is different. You now follow Jesus. He is Lord, and everything, and everyone else, comes into a different focus because of your newfound allegiance. Which means: other gods are no gods, and you’ll no longer pay them any deference.

And what of the slaves? When one of them also becomes a disciple of Jesus, her primary identity is no longer as an indentured member of your household. She is now, first and foremost, your sister in Christ. And the other slave? He is now someone you are called to love, and treat with respect and dignity — and in so doing, show him that Jesus loves and values him, and is calling him to find his first identity as a child of God.

So, when this imaginary woman makes her decision for Christ, it immediately impacts her life and relationships. When she is baptized into Jesus, she truly understands that this surrender involves everything. So, her first decision, to follow Jesus, is a GIANT step. Each step after that, flows naturally from her first decision.

But I can’t help but wonder: Is it exactly the opposite today in America? Is it easier to make the first decision (for baptism, or church membership), but then harder for us to make all the subsequent decisions that flow from our first commitment?

Here’s what I mean: it’s fairly easy to get baptized, or stand up in front of a couple of hundred people to say: I want to belong to this church. (Sure, I understand: for some folks, standing in front of a bunch of people is difficult. I fully get that. But the big picture is that we make it as painless as possible.)

The decisions that follow are then much more challenging. What? Jesus wants me to look at my money and my stuff differently? What? He might change my approach to my career? And are you saying that following Jesus means I don’t give up on marriage, or family, or church when it gets tough? You mean this Jesus thing affects everything?

My point is this: for the earliest followers of Jesus, they said yes with a clearer sense that walking with Jesus would change and challenge every aspect of their lives. So they weren’t as surprised when the culture, or the government, or their neighbors, or even their own family opposed them. They recognized: This is simply what faith in Jesus involves.

I can’t help but wonder: Do we more easily say yes today to following Jesus, and then find ourselves surprised when it gets difficult? Have we acted as if joining a church is no harder than, say, signing up for a Sam’s Club membership, or no different than attending a weekly event (as long as it fits into our schedule of sports and weekends at the lake)? Has the Church (broadly speaking) made it so easy to join that, when folks face challenges (whether in church or from the culture), they beg off, saying: Whoah! This isn’t what I signed up for!

The call to take up our cross hasn’t changed since Jesus issued it to his first followers. It still is at the heart of The Church, and any who would join it. Perhaps we need to make sure we are crystal clear about this message. We need to do this, not only because it’s at the heart of our faith — but also because taking up our cross; walking with Jesus on the way of death; is, ultimately, the only way to life.

The Changing Religious Landscape

The numbers are sobering. The quickly-changing American mindset is a wake-up call. And it’s taking most churches by surprise.

What numbers? The ones that say the number of Americans who reject any religious affiliation has grown from 6% in 1992, to 23% in the most recent survey. If that’s not startling enough, the number is even higher when talking with young adults – where 35% say they aren’t connected to a church or any religious community. And while the rise of these “Nones” (those who identify as atheist or agnostic, or simply say their religion is “nothing in particular”) is most dramatic among young adults, the Pew Research Center has found that this trend also is occurring across the board. All generations are showing an increasing disconnect from church life, as are a cross-section of racial and ethnic groups. The raw numbers look something like this: about 36 million Americans were unaffiliated in 2007. Just seven years later, that number is up to 55 million.

For those of us who believe that Jesus is the center of AND source of life, these numbers are a big concern. But as it turns out, this change also has a societal impact, too. In an intriguing article in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes that the increasing disconnect from church is also leading to an increasing disconnect in civil society. Beinart contends that conservative white Americans who disengage from church often experience more family breakdown – and they grow more resentful and pessimistic.

Now, the question is: do people drop out of church because their family is struggling and they are feeling more isolated, or do people drop out of church and then find that their family struggles and feels more isolated? I suspect the answer is “Yes.” It’s probably not a one-way street, but a cycle. Leaving is easier when you’re struggling; leaving makes it harder to thrive and stay connected.

But leaving church also has the impact of making conservatives less trusting and less open to people who are different from them. Even though most churches are largely segregated along racial lines, most churches understand that this is not what God intends for the Church. As the New Testament letter to the Ephesians makes abundantly clear, Jesus breaks down any and all barriers that divide us. So, even though a church may be 95% white, there is a clear sense that Jesus didn’t die to establish a church that is separate, but equal.

But it’s not just conservative white Americans who are affected. Beinart points out that something similar is happening among liberals, where 73% seldom or never attend a worship service. In other words, 3 out of 4 Americans who self-identify as liberal are disconnected from any meaningful religious community. Again, it’s probably a two-way street. No doubt, folks who identify as liberal are less likely to attend worship. But it certainly must also be true that disconnecting from church life leads one to have less core, “traditional” beliefs (beyond the core cultural value of tolerance, which often extends toleration only as long as you see things the way I do).

My point isn’t to pick on folks who are left or right, but to recognize that belonging matters. Belonging to Jesus changes my heart and my mind. It gives me a new perspective, and leads me to love those who are different from me. This is because belonging to Jesus cannot be separated from belonging to each other. And what does it say when a secular cultural commentator like Beinart begins to notice that the rising disconnect from church is having a negative effect?

Even so, I don’t believe that the statistics should be cause for despair, anger, or withdrawal. Recognizing that Church is increasingly seen as irrelevant should not make us try to assert our relevance by yelling louder. Instead, I believe that we are called to see the challenges clearly, but then recommit ourselves to walk in step with our Master, follow him with each other (for His Spirit unites us in our differences), and reach out to those who think they are past Church – or that it has nothing to provide.

We live in tough times. We live in a post-Christian society. I think it’s vital that we recognize that. But then, having seen that, we should remember that, throughout history, it’s been during the most challenging times that the Church has gotten a clearer perspective on its identity, its calling, and its mission. For the human hunger, the human need for meaning and purpose will not go away. And, through the grace of Jesus, we have a place to point people; we have a person to point people toward.

For no matter what that numbers say, our calling remains the same: To live and love like Jesus – together, as the Family of Jesus, knowing how desperately we need him. As does our world.

What’s saving you?

What’s saving you right now?

I remember reading that quote a few years back, and it’s stuck with me since.

To me, the quote isn’t saying we need something new to save us. It doesn’t mean that there is salvation anywhere but in Jesus, the one who embodied salvation. Instead, it’s a reference to the fact that each day, each of us needs something to call us to the life we’ve been given – to remind us of the power and purpose of the life that we’ve been given by Jesus.

In fact, that’s what salvation is. It’s not some distant idea, some out-of-this-world cosmic hope. Instead, salvation is receiving life now – and living it. So, when I think about what’s saving me now – I think about what is helping me hold onto, and live, the salvation I’ve been given.

So, what’s saving me now? A lot of things, but one that stands out is music.

I’ve never been particularly musical, though I did play tuba in my high school band. And I sang in a freshman choir in college. And I did once sing a duet as a part of a high school church musical program.

But I am also the guy who was a part of a college camp team, working on getting ready for the summer, when the camp director came in. He heard us sing, and then said: We’re going to make you guys a drama group.

So, while I’ve often sang and played, it doesn’t mean I always should have.

Even so, I love music. I love the power and passion that it provides – filling me with a sense of transcendence as it speaks to something deep within me. So, when my daughter gave me a subscription to spotify – a music streaming service – I have enjoyed discovering, and re-discovering, music that speaks to my soul.

So, I thought I’d share some of the music that has been saving me. Maybe it will speak to you, too.

First, Over the Rhine. Lead singer Karin Bergquist’s deep and evocative singing grabs you and won’t let go. And it reminds me that I’m not the only one in need of grace. A church in Knoxville took one of OTR’s best songs, from what I think is their best album, and brought it to life:

And there are these lyrics, from their song “Jesus in New Orleans”:

But when I least expect it
Here and there I see my Savior’s face
He’s still my favorite loser
Falling for the entire human race

Yesterday, I was on the treadmill, and the following song came on, by a group simply called “The Choir.” I was doing my best to lip sync to is, so as not to disturb my fellow exercisers – and so as not to embarrass myself. I think I did okay on the first one, but probably not on the 2nd. Anyway, even though this song doesn’t describe what I was literally experiencing yesterday, it gave me permission to wrestle with other goodbyes.

And then there is this other song from The Choir, which speaks the black and white truth.

And then there are these lyrics, from the deliciously-named T Bone Burnett:

Are we supposed to take all this greed and fear and hatred
seriously? it’s like watching dust settle it never changes
it’s too consistent

mercy is not consistent it’s like the wind
it goes where it will. Mercy is comic, and its the only
thing worth taking seriously
(The Wild Truth)

Or this song.

But I’ve got to end with my all-time favorite musician, Terry Scott Taylor. Just about everything he writes strikes a chord with me. I have no idea why he doesn’t have a wider audience. Well, actually I do. It’s because most people like their music fluffy, and their lyrics even fluffier. Taylor strips that out, getting to the essence of music, life, and faith. And he does that through at least 3 bands (The Lost Dogs, Daniel Amos, The Swirling Eddies), along with some solo work and other musical ventures. I am confident Taylor is going to get his share of airtime – and his due – on the other side of eternity.

For a few years, some fellow Taylor-ite would bring The Lost Dogs to the Louisville area, and have them do a backyard concert. Somehow, I found about it, and I would join this guy and his small church group for a summer concert by Terry Taylor, Mike Roe, Derri Daugherty, and Steve Hindalong. It wasn’t exactly the Yum Center, but I sure ate it up.

Anyway, I don’t think I could count the times that Terry and his crew have come alongside of my life and given voice to my hunger and thirst. I’m just thankful he’s still making music: like this, and this, and this. Oh, and I can’t overlook this great album, written while The Lost Dogs drove Route 66.

Ok, I worked enough on this blog. Time to move on. But alas, I didn’t even get into The Call (and this lifeline of a song), or The 77s, or Steve Taylor and his many iterations. And lest you think I only go for obscure artists, I love Dave Brubeck and his jazz artistry (especially in his most-famous song, a partnership with Paul Desmond), or Nickel Creek and their smooth bluegrass sound. I’ve even liked U2 for years.

In the end, I’m grateful for music that keeps me sane. And whole. So, I’m gonna keep on singing. If you don’t like it, you might want to cover your ears…