Sunday, August 19, 2007

Are You Religious or Spiritual?

Recently, I saw an interesting news story on Fox News with a reporter asking people on the street whether they considered themselves to be religious or spiritual. Each of the people she asked indicated, some more readily than others, that they were one or the other. But then she pressed them further: "What makes you [religious or spiritual]?" Few could answer that question.

Then back in the studio with the other anchors, she explained her understanding of the difference. She dubbed "spiritual" as the more nondescript, personal, inner-relationship between an individual and a higher power. Then she said that religion, on the other hand, is the structured, humanly defined system of relating to God. To rephrase what she said, religion is both a system of orthodoxy (what we believe) and orthopraxy (what we practice).

So according to her paradigm of spirituality vs. religion, a person who believes in God but doesn't adhere to a faith system like Islam, Judaism, or Christianity would be spiritual. While a person who does actively participate in a faith system-- say, someone like me who is a "church-going Christian"-- is religious.

It's all an interesting concept, but I'm not sure I fully buy into it.

For one thing, I've always chafed at the current usage and inferences behind the word religion. Religion or religious, while it's used to name a faith system, is usually an outsider's word. In other words, it's used by people who don't adhere to a particular faith system to describe those who do. "She's a religious person, but I'm not." Or, "I don't really practice a religion." In this context, religion has a negative tinge to it. It's "the other person's thing", but not my own.

Religion is also used negatively to dub those humanly devised beliefs and practice which we find to be corrupt or no longer useful. For example, a Lokata Sioux pastor I know would often say, "You need to get rid of your religion and hold on to Jesus." He was trying to encourage people to let go of the human stuff we believe and do that doesn't coincide with the essence of Jesus.

Meanwhile, a good number of people would have no problem describing themselves as spiritual. Spirituality seems to have a purer connotation to it. It's personal and reflective. It's more relational and connective. It's not rules and system-bound, but free and expressive.

I don't know... I have a hard time fitting myself into either of these categories. I cringe at calling myself "religious" for all the rightfully negative inferences behind that word. But to simply call myself a spiritual person is too loosey-goosey. There's no accountability; I'm free to believe and do as I wish. I can't believe God would have no standard for who God wants me to be and what God wills for me to do.

As a Christian, I call myself neither a religious person or a spiritual person, but a disciple of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. As a disciple, I'm not bound to a system of beliefs and practices (religion) or to a personal inner-landscape of feelings and notions about God (spirituality), but to a person whose life I am emulating as my own.

At times, that means I'm both spiritual and religious, or perhaps neither.

The teachings of Jesus and my trust in him as Lord and Savior place me most comfortably in the religion of Christianity. I accept the theology and doctrine of orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. And I'm a United Methodist. But at times my life in Jesus calls me to question what might be a normative, commonly accepted notion or practice in Christianity or in Methodism.

My life in Jesus is a spiritual one, too. It's filled with prayer, meditation, and the deep contemplation of life's deepest mysteries and longings. But Jesus provides a definite compass and way of understanding both life and truth. I'm not left to my own, but am bound to the Way of Jesus Christ as his disciple.

Religious or spiritual? That's a tough question to answer as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It all depends on the Master's will at any given moment. It would be easy to be one or the other, but I don't believe Jesus would have it that way. I do not belong to a religion or to my own spiritual wanderings, but to Christ.

So my question is, which are you? Are you spiritual, religious, both, or none of the above? And how do you know? I'd love to see your thoughts on this!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Getting Beyond our Churchianity

Have you ever picked up and read a book that radically redefined the way you look at things? It's like putting on a new pair of glasses or changing the light in your room from a 40 to a 75-W bulb.

That happened to me recently as I have been reading through Reggie McNeal's The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003). My bishop had this on his reading list several years ago, and I have to say, for a bishop of a mainline, traditional church, this is pretty radical reading! I commend Bishop Schol for passing it along... (Although, he may regret that he did!)

McNeal's central precept is that the church of North America is in serious trouble and is in danger of collapse in the next several decades unless it can identity six realities about itself, ask itself some tough questions and in so doing, redefine its identity, relationship with Jesus, and mission.

The first reality is the collapse of the current church culture. This culture represents a bygone era of the church's heyday in which the church found itself in the center of society. People came to it, it thrived, and served as a haven-like religious club in which people could find spiritual nurture and community.

However, as the culture of the world has changed over the last forty and fifty years, the church has done a poor job recognizing those changes and reaching out to the people who make up that change of culture. The church has stayed the same, doing what it's always done, maintaining the same churchy image, and expecting that if we can only "do church better" people will come to us. McNeal aptly points out that this is simply wrong, as evident in our shrinking church rolls, especially among people between the ages of 18 and 35.

Prime example: this past week, I was with some friends in a body piercing and tattoo parlor. The whole time I watched and listened to the people who worked there and who were visiting to get piercings and tattoos. I spent time talking to them, getting to know them in the time I had there. They're not the bad, hideous monsters that churchy people might imagine them to be. Alternative, yes. Living in some lifestyles that are potentially dangerous, yes. Spiritual and seeking, absolutely. Visiting our churches on Sunday morning for their answers: a resounding NO!

And yet, these folks are made in the image of God and are people for whom Jesus lovingly, faithfully died! And what are church people doing about it? We're sitting comfortably in our own little worlds, carrying on as we always have, hoping that maybe if we do some catchy things they might come to us. (Although, if we're honest, we'd have no idea what to do with them, if they even came!)

What's the answer? It's not in redeveloping our church culture and mission strategies. The answer, as McNeal points out, is to "...recapture the mission of the church" (12).

McNeal goes on to say, "The correct response, then, to the collapse of the church culture is not to try to become better at doing church. This only feeds the problem and hastens the church's decline through its disconnect from the larger culture. The need is not for a methodological fix. The need is for a missional fix. The appropriate response to the emerging world is a rebooting of the mission, a radical obedience to an ancient command [the Great Commission], a loss of self rather than self-preoccupation, concern about service and sacrifice rather than concern about style" (18).

The only way those guys in that tattoo and body piercing parlor can join me in being a disciple of Jesus Christ is if I can love them enough to go to them, be in their world, develop a relationship of trust with them, and show them (not just tell!) the freedom, love, peace, joy, and truth of being in Christ. They may never step foot in my church, but they can be the Church in a whole new way.

Of course that requires a whole lot of letting go-- letting go of my ego, my agendas, my attitudes, my expectations, and my needs. But isn't that what Jesus calls us to anyway? Doesn't Jesus call us to lay down our lives for others? Didn't Paul say, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20)? Didn't Jesus selflessly die on the cross so that we could live?

If we are going to be the Church, a church who doesn't practice churchianity but true discipleship, it's going to require that we move out beyond ourselves, give our lives over to the Lord, and join him where he is most powerfully at work-- in the world seeking his lost sheep.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reforming the Church's Heart, Part 1

"To the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To those who are victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is also in the paradise of God."
Revelation 2:1-7 (TNIV)

I recently re-discovered this Scripture while doing some leadership and ministry development reading, and since then, it began to open my eyes and my heart to a grave and growing concern I have for the Church. But first, a little background:

I'm in a brand new appointment as senior pastor of First UMC in Laurel, and like any new pastor, spending my time doing a lot of watching, listening and learning. This is a multiple-staffed, growing, highly active, large congregation with a history stretching back to 1840. So not only am I learning a lot, but also realizing every day how much more there is to learn!

And I'm also beginning to think of leadership strategies I could use here. First Church brims over with ministry activities, meetings, and more. And like most churches its size, it struggles to understand where all this activity is headed. In other words, it's like a cruise ship-- all the people, staff, amenities, activities, and lots of food!-- without a sense of where the next port of call is. So, I've been reading on strategies, mission and vision definition, trying to see how I can work with First Church to discover how Christ would have us in mission with him in making new disciples of his.

Then it hit me... I mean, it really hit me hard. I found the above passage from Revelation 2. As I read and re-read that Scripture, God began to open my eyes. The mainline church, of which I'm a part, suffers from many profound problems, but this one problem lies at the heart of it all.

Any casual observer of the United Methodist Church or any other mainline church can see that we are in the throws of institutional survival and redefinition. We feel it at every level, but most acutely in everyday local congregations. Numbers are plummeting, ministries are failing at their effectiveness, churches are struggling to grow, and clergy find themselves burdened with increasing pressures and expectations.

Where has the mainline church looked for its salvation? In large part, we've turned to the business world. We've delved into the world of marketing and business development. The pastor is chief strategist and CEO, and the administrative board is now the research-product development-design team. We think that if we can properly assess the market (the world) and package the right product (God), we can increase our revenues (bring in new members.) I think there is much to learn and employ from this kind of thinking, but that alone will not save us.

There is a much deeper problem within ourselves, and it all begins with our heart. The vast volume of Scriptures that deal with the state of our heart astounds me. Before anything else, God desires our heart. It makes sense, really. Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). From the heart comes the very essence of who we are, what we think, what we say, and what we do.

All along, God has only desired two things. Jesus sums it up well. He says, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV). This love for the Lord and love for people is our driving passion as the Church. Our love is the Church's signature mark of excellence. Before any ministries or programs, our love is what makes for healthy, growing churches.

We have lost the love we had at first. Our love for God and our love for all people has been replaced with far lesser things. Love has been replaced with sentimental traditionalism. Love for lost people has been replaced with a club mentality. Genuine love for God has been replaced with God-consumerism. And the holiness of love has been replaced with harsh judgment towards lifestyles, beliefs, or ways of doing things that don't pass our self-righteous litmus tests.

What is the answer? As Jesus warned the Ephesian church, we need to repent and do the things we did at first. I think this begins with a renewed emphasis on prayer and worship. At the same time, it begins with open conversations and relationship-building with people who are outside of our churches. It's all about reconnecting with God and the creatures God lovingly made in his image.

The alternative is to continue suffering under what's happening now: the Lord Jesus removing our lampstand.

As a pastor, I've got my work cut out for me, first with myself, and then with those I serve!