Friday, October 16, 2009

Suburban Christianity Leads to Spiritual Death

I came across an article on today called, Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs? The article points to movies like Revolutionary Road that paint the suburbs as places of "spiritual and mental death." They are also stigmatized "materialism, lack of imagination, and conformity."

I am largely a suburban kid. I went to high school in Edmond, OK, suburb of Oklahoma City. I ministered in Liberty, Missouri, suburb of Kansas City. And now I'm back in McKinney, suburb of North Dallas.

It is no coincidence that I have stayed in suburbia. I am comfortable there. It feels like home. I know the homes, the schools, the chain stores--Home Depot, Target, Chili's. And of course, there is always a mall close by.

Chain restaurants are like suburbia itself--safe, predictable, comforting, and rather unimagitative and boring. I remember Chuck Monan, my preaching buddy, taking me around to a lot of "holes in the wall" in OKC. It was some of the best food around. But I never would have gone to these places on my own. You see, that's what suburban folk do--they stick to the comfortable and the familiar.

So guess what suburban Christians are looking for? A safe, comfortable, predictable Christian experience. Are the playgrounds safe and fun for my kids? Do they sing the 20 most popular Christian songs that are on Christian radio? Are they going through Max Lucado's latest book? (We are going through Fearless right now.)

All of this is fine in one sense, but let to itself, it leads to spiritual malaise if not spiritual death. My friend and missional leader Alan Hirsch, author of The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways, says that there is something about middle class, suburban Christianity that is antithetical to following Jesus. A similiar point is made in the book, Death By Suburb. One of my favorite stories in this book is of parents working on their child's 6th grade science project while their son is off playing videos games. When the child get's his grade, the parents proudly say, "We got an A." The point it that the parents are finding their identity in their child's accomplishments, which is a type of narcissism.

Here are some of the problems with suburban Christianity:
  1. Materialistic Christianity -- This results not only in personal materialism, but it in picking a church because they have the shiniest building.

  2. Consumeristic Christianity - Members come to worship, assemblies, events, etc. to be fed, never to give. They go to the church that offers the most goods and services.

  3. Crossless Christianity - I know that a certain preacher in Houston in one of the biggest churches ever seen has inspired millions of people. I am grateful for this. But I have never heard a call to sacrifice from him. This message, of course, would be counter to suburbia, which never advertises, "Come live in the Woodlands. You will have to sacrifice for others and your kids may not be safe. But if you'll deny yourself, you'll love it here."

  4. Christless Christianity - There is a whole book on this subject which I am eager to read. But Christ just doesn't fit in suburbia very well. Can you see Jesus riding around in his SUV, dropping off kids at soccer practice or church? No, I'm afraid Jesus is far too radical and dangerous for today's suburban Christianity.

The evidence is in, however. Typical suburban Christianity does not produce disciples of Christ. It produces consumers who hop from church to church looking for the best deal for their tithe--or rather, their 2.5% giving. And if the children's or youth program or the preaching or the worship or the carpeting isn't cutting it, their try the store--I mean the church--down the street. Rarely does a family say, where can I be best used? Where does God need me the most?

Calls to go feed the homeless? Far too unpredictable. And messy. Calls to go on mission trips? Too dangerous. And disruptive to one's schedule. Calls to devote money and resources to reaching lost people? Hey, don't you know that I'm the customer? Meanwhile, members take this consumer mentality back to their marriages and their other personal relationships, and we wonder why Christians are divorcing and have few real friends, just like everyone else.

Becki and I are not immune to this malaise. We both would enjoy living in the hubub of the new urban living. We enjoy meeting people and having lots to do. It would be a great place to do ministry. The reason we have ruled it out right now? Our kids. It's not safe or predictable enough.

That is the problem with suburban Christianity. It prevents us from taking any chances or putting us into situations where we would have to grow and depend upon God and each other. And by our actions and inactions, we teach our children that this is what the Christian faith is all about. And our kids drop out in droves.

Have you experienced the spiritual death of suburban Christianity? What is the solution?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Should Christians observe Ramadan?

Author Brian McLaren has joined with some of his Christian friends in observing Ramadan. McLaren says:

"Ramadan is the Muslim holy month of fasting for spiritual renewal and purification. It commemorates the month during which Muslims believe Mohammed received the Quran through divine revelation, and it calls Muslims to self-control, sacrificial generosity and solidarity with the poor, diligent reading of the Quran, and intensified prayer.

This year, I, along with a few Christian friends (and perhaps others currently unknown to us will want to join in) will be joining Muslim friends in the fast which begins August 21. We are not doing so in order to become Muslims: we are deeply committed Christians. But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them. Just as Jesus, a devout Jew, overcame religious prejudice and learned from a Syrophonecian woman and was inspired by her faith two thousand years ago (Matthew 15:21 ff, Mark 7:24 ff), we seek to learn from our Muslim sisters and brothers today."

Some have commended McLaren for reaching out to Muslims, while others, such as Mark Driscoll, have condemned him. So is this a good or bad thing?

The tension that any true missionary faces is the tension between a) being incarnational and translating the gospel into a language that people can understand; and b) syncretisim, or the mixing of religions and faith systems.

Frankly, those who are not on mission do not understand this tension at all. When you are sitting in the safety of a church building or Christian circle, it is easy to rail against any "translation" of the gospel as being a violation of Christian faith or practice.
So what about observing Ramadan?

Can one fast or pray (prayer always goes with fasting) with someone who has a different understanding of God? To this I would respond:

1. None of us has the exact same view of God, though of course there are some understandings (such as the Trinity, God's goodness, power, etc.) that would seem to be essential to a biblical understanding of God.

2. Yes, Muslims deny that Jesus and the Spirit are God. But so do Jews. And Paul continued to worship at Jewish synagogues after his conversion. He did so on mission, going to where people were both physically and spiritually.

3. Jesus taught the disciples to pray--and they did not have a good understanding of who he was. He took them where they were, and they came to a fuller understanding later.

4. God apparently adopted the Canaanite's name for God--El--and reshaped it, calling himself El Shaddai, among other forms of El.

5. Paul took the altar to the Unknown God in Acts 17 and said that this God that they worshipped unknowingly was the true God of heaven.

6. Cornelius' prayers went up before God as a sweet aroma, though he was a God-fearer and not a Jew or a Christian. Would it have been wrong for Peter to pray with him prior to his baptism? Would this cause the sweet aromas which existed with Cornelius to turn sour when a Christian prayed with him?

7. When I pray with my children, do they fully understand God? No, but the act of praying together helps shape their understanding of God.

If I were praying with a non-Christian (or fasting, though it is hard to fast "with someone," since fasting seeks to abstain!), I would want them to know where possible and appropriate that I pray in Jesus' name. I do want to share Christ with them! In fact, however, I pray with people prior to their baptism all the time in Bible studies. We probably think nothing of this because we have lived in a nation with a generally Christian worldview. We have never contemplated praying with someone who has a different worldview, so fasting or praying with a Muslim sounds jolting to us.
Obviously, our intent should always be to reach people for Christ, never to give up our faith. If the intent were to say that there was no difference between Christianity and Islam, this would be wrong. But when we show respect for people, this can open doors for dialogue and faith sharing. And who do you think will have more opportunities for faith sharing--the one who fasts or prays with a Muslim, or those who do not do so?
These are the initial thoughts that I have, but I am open to other ideas and discussion. If you can interact with the passages I have brought up and point towards other relevant passages, this would be great.
What are you thoughts?