Friday, January 24, 2014

Be Strange and Offensive

Early last year, the Southern Baptist Convention installed a man named Russell Moore as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Convention's public policy arm. It's not because I grew up Southern Baptist that this means anything to me. In fact, it meant nothing to me until I read a magazine article about Moore yesterday.

There were a few things that struck me in this article. One was Moore's belief that his job is twofold: "keeping Christians out of jail, and making sure Christians go to jail for the right reasons if they do." It sounds to me like he is implying that times are coming when Christians will be put in jail for doing the right thing, for following their convictions -- a situation I have predicted is on its way to America. (I may be reading my own perspective into that statement, however.)

Another is his take on the kind of church I grew up in:

The "Mayberry church" -- which Moore also calls an "almost-gospel church" -- is dying in the Bible Belt, he says, and is taking with it a nominal Christianity that wouldn't survive anyway. People who see the church as a spiritual version of the Lions Club will lose any social motivation for attending -- and Moore is fine with that . . .

Wow. I don't know whether to say "Ouch" or "Amen" to that. I say both . . . but the "Amen" is stronger.

An "almost-gospel" church.  Yes, that is an appropriate description of so many churches in America. We know the gospel. We give good lip service to the gospel. But we don't actually live our lives based on the gospel.  We do the hybrid thing: the gospel and church involvement. The gospel and community service.  The gospel and clean living. The gospel and the American dream. As simple as the gospel is, it's unfortunately not easy to stand on alone when we come carrying the baggage of our preconceived notions that we earn our own way through being good enough.

Moore also says that mature believers need to be "training up a new generation of children to know what it is like to live among a people who will see Christianity as very strange." And there is the missing link, I think, in much of the American church's work these days. Whether or not the U.S. has ever been a "Christian nation", the fact is that Christianity has been the default experience for the vast majority of Americans for most of the nation's existence. It is not so anymore, and we don't realize that. We who grew up immersed in this stuff can't step outside of our experience and see that to so much of the country, this is counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, and quite strange.

And as Moore also says, we need to embrace that strangeness, because "the strangeness of Christianity is what saves." It's not about finding the common ground with every other religion in the world and all the other "good" people of the world . . . once we step on common ground, I fear we have stepped off of holy ground. The thing that makes us very different -- and very odd, and even perhaps very offensive -- is the very thing that saves.

The New Testament (and Jesus himself) speaks frequently of "the offense of the cross". I fear that in our efforts to not offend, we have lost what makes us Christians.

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