Monday, March 28, 2011

Doin' Church With An Atheist

I just finished reading Jim & Casper Go To Church by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper *. It’s a fabulous book that really should be read by every church leader and Christ follower out there.

I wonder, are you brave enough to look at yourself and your church through the eyes of an unbeliever?

Long-time Christian, Jim Henderson noted that most Christians have been immersed in The Church culture for so long, that we have no idea how non-Christians perceive us and the ritual we call “doing church”. So, Jim hired an atheist named Matt Casper to travel with him to 12 diverse churches and then give his honest assessment and opinions about what he saw and heard. The book details their adventure.

Matt Casper, like most atheists I know, is kind, caring, and uber smart. He asks a question we should all be asking ourselves; “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?”

Jim and Casper visit the big and bold (Willow Creek, Saddleback, and Lakewood), and some small and scrappy churches like, a house church in San Diego and “The Bridge” in Portland, Oregon. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the mega-churches and their mall-like campuses are a bit of a turn-off to guys like Casper.

Casper makes some worthy observations. On music: (The Saddleback band) “The music is too contrived, too slick, too professional, really. I see the entertainment value, but when it comes to music, I like it pure. Too much polish and you lose the heartfelt power, you lose the soul of the music, and you’re not gonna move anyone.”

On visual effects: (The Dream Center in Los Angeles, CA) “Is that what Jesus told you guys to do? Put on a Christian rock show that’s visually and sonically indistinguishable from a non-Christian rock show, change the words, and call it church? Is that pulled from the Bible?”

Joel Osteen is big on the “name it and claim it” religious philosophy, and his vague style of preaching did not appeal to Casper at all. When Osteen’s wife, Victoria cried during the offering call (and a camera close-up revealed her make-up didn’t run), Casper was livid. Victoria manipulatively nudged troubled parishioners to give when she said, “God, through your faithfulness to him, will turn things around.” This implies that if bad things happen to us, it’s our fault for not giving enough to God.

Listen, Matt Casper isn’t the only one that gets ticked off about that brand of overt manipulation. It seems to me that the very public fall of money-hungry, power-thirsty preachers like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart would keep leaders from using scare tactics to get people to give their hard-earned monies.

My favorite part of the book is the question and answer section at the end in which we Christians reveal how very defensive we can be about how we do church. Both Henderson and Casper address the concerns and questions with grace and understanding.

I walked away from this read with a hunger to “do”. You see, Jesus didn’t just teach us what to believe, but how to act out our faith by serving others—feeding the poor, helping the helpless, and caring for the lost. No, our salvation is not determined by our work, but the assurance of our salvation should inspire us to act.

I encourage you to expand your circle of friends and influences to include people from many and varied faiths and beliefs. Listen—really listen to their thoughts, views, and opinions about God, the world, church, and Christianity. You will be encouraged, inspired, and motivated to get off the pew and put work boots on your faith. Break out of your comfort zone and get off the pew!

* (Copyright 2007 by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Oscar Thanks

Why hadn't I noticed it before? Among the beautiful gowns, the awkward hosts, the swearing, the political grand-standing, and the tiny slips of paper tucked neatly in the palms of sweating hands, I'd missed it until now. And such a glaring omission too.

I don't think a single honoree at the recent Academy Awards ceremony said thank you to God.

I've become accustomed to hearing the rappers, country legends, and rock music relics give thanks to God as they tearfully clutch their paper-weight/award. The words "Thank you to God" are as common a sound at the Grammy and country music award shows as the orchestral play-off. Not so at the Oscar bash.

When I was a child the church taught me it was a sin to go to movies. My parents took us to drive-in theaters, however. Perhaps there'd be less chance of getting caught there. By the way, I really miss the days when one could carry a butter-soaked brown bag of popcorn from home to the movies. But I digress.

Is God truly not invited into moviedom, or is the Hollywood community just more honest about the absence of God than are music artists? I wonder, is "Thank you God" just something musicians say because it's expected, or is the Holy Spirit more welcome in Nashville, Austin, and Branson than in Beverly Hills, Burbank, and Los Angeles?

I don't know the answers to those questions, but I do know that the smallest flicker of light can permeate any darkness. If the Holy Spirit is really absent in movie star circles, it's not because He doesn't want to be there, it's because He hasn't been invited.

I know there's a vibrant community of believers in Hollywood. They get hushed a lot. I'm sure they'd appreciate our prayers for them as they are real Daniels in what can be a real lion's den.

Look around. Much of the world's population moves through their routines everyday with nary a whispering of God's name. The "mission field" is not on another continent in another hemisphere. The mission field is right under your nose--in your own home, workplace, grocery store, and church pew.

Where there is light there cannot be darkness. God is alive and well--even in Hollywood. Now get off the pew and invite the light into the darkness. Keep today's "Daniels" in your prayers--the ones in faraway places, and the ones next door and around the corner.