Archives For Pew Survey on Religion

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

19. How Did Jesus Establish His Kingdom?

Jesus established his Kingdom by failing to establish a kingdom.

To say Jesus failed to establish a Kingdom is not to say his death should be circumscribed according to religious terms alone. If Jesus had been condemned for the crime of religious blasphemy or if his death had satisfied as a cultic atonement, then Jesus would have been stoned to death by the chief priests. That Jesus was executed not by Caiphus’ stone but by Pilate’s cross, a mode of execution reserved for sedition against Rome, confirms that the charge against him, albeit ironically intended, was true: Jesus presumed to be King.

If Jesus presumed to be King, as the first Christians professed, then Caesar was merely a pretender.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time to celebrate, with the bread and wine of the Passover, Israel’s story of liberation from Empire, he initiates a final confrontation with Rome and its sycophants. The confrontation begets a choice. Will Jesus rebel by the sword and establish his Kingdom by force, or will Jesus remain faithful to his vision of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom which he’s taught is marked by putting away the sword and renouncing force in favor of forgiveness?

By choosing faithfulness over force, Jesus chooses to be the meaning of his Kingdom rather than its founder.

Thus, Jesus becomes the son who has forsaken everything to venture out into the far country only to lose everything, he makes himself the tiniest bit of yeast from which newness might rise, he turns the other cheek all the way unto death, and he becomes the despised Samaritan who meets us on the road and lifts us up out of the ditch even though his own chosen path leads to suffering, abandonment, and death.

He fails to establish a kingdom out of faithfulness to his Kingdom.

And God vindicates his faithfulness by raising from the dead and then, forty days later, raising him up to sit at the right hand of the Father, confirming as the sought-after Son of Man to whom belongs dominion on Earth and Heaven.

The rule of his Kingdom is thus real and ever-present, but, as at his cross, it requires the optics of faith. Only in the fullness of time will what is real be revealed.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  – Ephesians 1.21-23



Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

11. Do we believe in predestination, that everything’s been fixed by God beforehand?

Do we believe in predestination? Yes.

Do we believe everything’s been fixed by God beforehand?



The word ‘predestination’ is shorthand for the plan of salvation, revealed through Christ, in the mind of God.

The mind of God is eternal.


Nothing in God exists before or after or even synchronos with anything- nothing in God can come before anything else- it all belongs to a single thing: the timeless life of God.

Thus it’s quite silly to think ‘predestination’ means that you wrecked your car, for example, because 30 or 30,000 years ago God determined that you would wreck your car on such and such a day.

Predestination, like everything else with the life of God, has no date at all.

Predestination then does not refer to God fixing the vicissitudes of our lives beforehand because the ‘beforehand’ makes no sense if you understand the word ‘God.’

Christ alone is the Predestined One.

Not you or me.

Predestination instead refers to the predestination of Christ, which is but another way of professing that the life, teaching and sacrifice of Christ are not Jesus’ doing alone but God’s; that is, the life, words and witness of the human Jesus are in fact the self-revelation of the eternal, timeless God.

Predestination professes that the story of Jesus is actually a divine drama, and, divine, it is eternal, timeless, remedying our story of sin even as our concepts of ‘before,’ ‘after’ and even ‘simultaneous’ cannot possibly relate to it or explain it in cause-effect chronological fashion.

So then:

If ‘salvation’ names our being incorporated into this divine drama, then our ‘predestination’ means not that the events and actions of our lives have been determined beforehand but that our lives of faith are a part of God’s self-revealing in Christ.

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” – Romans 8.29

Entirely anecdotal but, like stereotypes, anecdotes have something of the truth in them.

Exhibit A)

In a last minute costume grab, my son dressed like this (like me) for Halloween:


I failed to persuade him to just go with the black robe and wear black sunglasses and go as Neo from The Matrix. Not having seen the movie, he was skeptical and thought he’d get more laughs impersonating his Dad.  An hour into Halloween, he realized he could also be taken for Ethan Hunt in Mi3 (when Ethan breaks into the Vatican) so he jettisoned Dad.

Anyway, as my son traipsed through the neighborhood not 1 mile from my church not less than 5 different candy-distributing adults thought he’d dressed up not as a priest, pastor, parson, reverend, or clergyman but as….Harry Potter.

Seriously, Harry Potter.

Not only people not know the story of Jesus anymore they can’t recognize those who steward that story for a living.

Exhibit B)

Dropped my car off at the dealership for an oil change. Service guy sees the bible on my front seat. Asks if I’m a Christian.

I reply ‘No, I’m a pastor.’

He squints, unknowing. The sarcasm lost in what is his second language.

‘A priest’ I correct.

He smiles and smacks my back. Then he proceeds to tell me (in excruciating detail, mind you) how he grew up in Bangladesh, how he’s Muslim but was educated K-college by in Catholic schools.

Then, I kid you not, he started talking to me about Duns Scotus, contingency and causality.

Look it up.

Where the Halloween families a stone’s throw from my sanctuary would most certainly identify themselves as Christian for a census-taker but could not ID a clergy costume, a Muslim mechanic from Bangladesh was equipped to talk the finer points of ancient Christian metaphysics.

Strange times and proof, I think, that the challenge for Christians is greater than we imagine.

closed-churchThis is from Thom Rainer.

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the rela- tively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did
not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudg- ingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were diffi- cult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expres- sion, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy.

Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transi- tion toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower- class residents.

  2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I want- ed to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.

  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other plac- es where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.

  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.

  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.

  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meet- ings became more acrimo- nious.

  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi- vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.

  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship ser- vice. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.

  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.

  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.

  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.




chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLTI’ve tamed my tongue. I’ve holstered my rhetorical fire and ire. I’ve kept my thoughts to myself. But I can’t see another ‘Chuck Knows Church’ video ‘liked’ on Facebook without venting my own deep-in-the-bowels dislike of Chuck and the things he likes about the Church.

Up until now, Church Knows Church has been akin to Farmville or people’s personal Spotify playlists: something slightly annoying for which you could care less but your social media peers persist in posting with evangelistic fervor.

But like Farmville, if not Spotify, Chuck Knows Church is a cloying annoyance that ultimately warrants a smackdown.

In case you don’t already know, Chuck Knows Church is a PR campaign produced by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. It’s a series of online, informational videos ‘about stuff in the church.’

The ‘stuff in the church’ is explained to us by ‘Chuck,’ the host with a floppy head of hair and the harmless, vacant expression of Huey Lewis.

Some of the urgent ‘stuff’ in the church Chuck feels the need to explain includes: the symbols on paraments, candles, collects, stoles, robes, doxologies and (prepare for to vomit in your mouth) ushers.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of things Chuck knows about the Church, it is representative. So my question is a fair one:

Notice anything missing in that list above?


Or maybe…God.

In this respect, Chuck Knows Church is similar to the multimillion dollar ad campaign the United Methodist Church pushed a few years ago: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.’ In addition to being a campaign that verged on false advertising (I can think of plenty of friends who don’t think we’re that open-minded and my church has all but door #3 locked), it spent millions pushing the institution of the church without ever making mention of Jesus and his movement.

Providing further evidence that mainline Christians never met a cultural trend they weren’t safely and inoffensively behind, Chuck Knows Church begins with an opening montage that hearkens back to the lead credits and theme song of Friends (albeit with hints of Chopped).

The viewer is then greeted by Chuck, who, despite looking like a naif, appears to know quite a lot about things in Church that don’t matter.

In truth, it’s not Chuck’s fault.

He’s assigned his topics and fed his lines by the people behind the camera.

This Charles isn’t really in charge; he’s just a professional actor.

You read that right.

More false advertising.

Though we’re led to believe Chuck is real life preacher man, he’s really a (apparently down on his luck) thespian. So the stuff Chuck knows about Church that doesn’t matter is chosen by other real life pastors and church professionals who don’t know what matters about Church: Jesus.

I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That United Methodist pastors are collectively such poor communicators a professional actor is required for 3 minute online films is all the indictment the Church needs.

I mean…a video explaining everything we need to know about stoles? This when 2/3 of the nation know not Jesus?

A video about ushers?

Usher isn’t even a religious category. The Kennedy Center and Nationals Park have ushers.

It’s a matter of function not faith.

And maybe that’s the most revealing thing about Chuck Knows Church and what irritates me so. It’s concerned with the function of church but not its faith.

Chuck Knows Church majors in the minors precisely at a time in the life of the Universal Church when millions are choosing other majors.

Chuck Knows Church works to explain why people should be interested in our institution and its habits rather than exhibiting any evidence of having reflected on what we can do (different) to interest people in Jesus.

As scores of business experts have written, once an institution needs to explain and justify its practices (rather than offer the product) to customers, the institution is already in the throes of irreversible decline.

And as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, once you need to translate a language into modern terms (doxology, collect) its a sure sign the language you’re speaking is a dead one.

Chuck may know Church but, so far at least, not many people seem to know Chuck. The only people I see ‘liking’ him are pastors and church nerds. People who already know everything Chuck knows and most likely are excited by the unchurched getting to know Chuck.

But I don’t think that’s happening.

And I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

spiritual-no-religious-2Here, from Eric Hyde, is a terrifically spot-on and appropriately snarky reflection on that most empty of cliches ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’

I wish I had a back massage for every time I’ve heard this line. What gets me most is the presupposition it stems from, that “spiritual” is the assumed equivalent of “good” and “religious” is the assumed equivalent of “evil.” Who made up this language game?

Honestly, who decided that “spiritual” was a term that would be used to contradict religion and as evidence of personal enlightenment, without further ado. And does anyone using the phrase ever stop to think what they actually mean by it? I think what is usually meant is that religion is man-made tradition whereas spiritual is a phenomenon that happens on a personal level, free from all “man-madeness” and tradition, and thus… true?

My experience has been exactly opposite. I spent the first 20 years of my journey in Christianity believing that I was spiritual and not religious and have come to realize I had been imposing a false dichotomy on my faith. The main reason I pitted spirituality against religion was because of a profound ignorance of historic Christianity. I say “profound” because I spent nearly 10 of those 20 years in formal training in Biblical and theological studies. Somehow in that time period I was never made aware of the real story of Christianity. That’s like studying capitalism and never running across Adam Smith. I just assumed that my little universe of self-taught Evangelicalism was true and anything falling outside of its parameters was just religious, i.e. cold, calculated ritual void of any emotional or heartfelt concern for relationship with God. But what I encountered with the historic Church was a religion that was far more advanced spiritually than I ever dreamed of being as a Christian solo artist.

I don’t like the broad and confused stroke with which this phrase paints religion. Religion need not have anything to do with cold, calculated ritual. Indeed, it can become that, but spirituality can just as easily morph into flighty emotionalism with no core. If one is taking Scripture as their guide, religion can either be pure or false. “Pure religion,” writes St. James, is to “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).” And tradition can either be tradition of men or Apostolic Tradition. The New Testament is replete with admonition to cling to the Apostolic Tradition.

I have found the phrase, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and its redheaded stepchild, “I follow Jesus, not tradition,” to be manifestations of spiritual pride, not spiritual enlightenment. These phrases are almost always accompanied by a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of “personal revelation.” It is a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual “popes” abound, but the Church is nonexistent; it’s essentially a personal religious-potpourri not unlike New Age adherence, with slightly different language.

To claim to be spiritual and not religious is like claiming to have taken a swim without getting wet. Anyone who embarks on anything spiritual will either receive the religious tradition from which it comes, or create their own religious tradition in the attempt to understand and practice it. The next time you hear the phrase, or, God forbid, say the phrase, remember that it has no meaning whatsoever. It is perhaps one of the emptiest phrases ever developed in the English language.