Romans 1:20-21; 3:23; 10:9-10; 12:9 NLT
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused… For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard… But if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved… Now, don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good.
This semester, we’re exploring the perceptions of young outsiders, those 18-29 years old, and what they think of when they hear the word “Christian” or see one in action. As we learned last week, the six top perceptions of Christians are all negative. In case you missed it, here they are again: anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), insincere (78%), too political (75%), and sheltered (72%). This is how outsiders perceive Christians; of those young adults in the church, they list the same perceptions and know something is wrong. 40% of this age group is not connected to a church, compared with 27% in your parent’s generation and 22% in your grandparent’s generation.
Last week, we discussed the perception that all Christians are hypocrites. It is interesting that young adults don’t find hypocrisy the problem, because we all have it to some degree; they simply wished Christians would be honest about it. Yes I have standards as a follower of Jesus but I don’t get it right all the time. They want real, honest and authentic relationships with Christians. We explored Jesus’ take on the religious leaders of his day and found that he was harshest on the religious people of his day, not on the group we usually call “sinners.” The challenge for us is to be truthful and to be real with others.
Today, we are exploring the idea that Christians only want to make converts, other Christians, and not have real relationships with folks. We Christians only want folks to get saved; that is why we befriend those who do not say they follow Jesus. That’s the perception; is that the reality? Take a look at this.
[SAVED! – “Bible in the Face”]
Vicky and I lived in Kentucky while I did my master’s work and to say it was Baptist central is an understatement. There was every variety of Baptist church with just 1 United Methodist Church, just one Lutheran church, and just one Catholic Church. It is an interesting flip as opposed to Mitchell where we have a very large Lutheran and Catholic presence as well. Even though most Baptist churches are heavily focused on folks getting saved, choosing to accept Christ as their Savior, there was one who took it to a whole new level.
This Baptist church had a wall of gold bricks in one part of their building. Whenever anyone made the choice to follow Jesus, to cross the line as it were, their name was placed on the gold brick. There was an incentive in the congregation for those already in the church to fill up the brick wall as much as possible. Now, as a person who has come out of an evangelical background, a background that does focus on conversion but much more than that, this did not sit with me right at all. To me, it makes people a number, a goal, a project and does not foster real, authentic relationship and connection.
Another pastor I knew in Kentucky kept a treasure chest in his office and whenever someone chose to follow Jesus, he put their name on a gold-like stone and placed it in the treasure chest. Again, this doesn’t sit right with me; yes we want new people to follow Jesus but what does this look like to people on the outside to put names on a wall or on stones in a treasure chest? Does mean the entirety of the Christian life focuses only on a moment of conversion? What if you don’t have a moment of conversion? Many, many people find themselves gradually coming to follow the carpenter from Nazareth. Do they still need a moment?
Our Scripture today is a selection of the book of Romans. If you were to ask my wife what her favorite book of Scripture is, my guess would be this one. It is the closest thing we have to a systematic, theological, God-centered document in the Bible on how Christians view the world and God’s relationship to us. As a side note, my most favorite book of Scripture is Luke. As a person who loves history, who is scientifically-oriented and detail-focused, I resonate with Luke’s writing style, his content, and his attention to detail.
We have a selection of passages that does indeed talk about the need for a person to confess Christ as Savior, to get saved in more modern day lingo. But did you also notice Paul, the author, talks about much more in 13 chapters than just a moment when somebody chooses to follow Christ? Paul gives the full story of Christianity, not just the half story that only focuses upon one part of what it means to follow Jesus in this world.
Here is an image of what this full-story gospel looks like. We begin with creation, as Paul does in Romans, that God created everything. And in Genesis we find it creation was good. Did you catch that? Everything God made was good. But it doesn’t stay that way. The fall happens; humans chose to disobey God’s will and we are now in a broken relationship with God. That is what Paul is referencing when he says all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
But God makes the move to restore the relationship and sends Christ to repair it. That is what we call redemption, we are redeemed out of the sinful, broken state it right relationship with God. But that is just the beginning. Now we are active participants in God’s work in restoring the world, reconciling the world back to what it was originally in the beginning, the good Creation that God made.
When we only focus on the middle part of the story, Christianity begins to take a hit. One theologian, Dallas Willard, says that for the first 1900 years of Christianity we told the whole story. In this way, Christianity is a way to see the world, it is holistic, all-encompassing, and for 1900 years it gained cultural influence and Christians worked to influence their culture. Now, I actually think Christianity lost cultural influence before 1900 but I’ll tell you what Willard thinks.
After that point, we focused on the middle part of the story. Christianity becomes just another faith system and no longer shapes all that we do and are. We lose cultural influence and even begin to create a Christian subculture. You know what I mean: you’ve seen the Christian t-shirts, Christian radio, Christian movies, Christian music, Christian cars, Christian fast food chains, you name it. Now, I’ve seen and purchased some of that stuff and I think I agree with those folks that say it was one of the worse things we’ve done for Christianity.
Instead of having Christian influence popular music, popular movies, popular radio, we create our own, sometimes second-rate stuff. Have you seen Christian movies? Most are awful! Awful writing, awful acting, and a message that hits you over the head with a 2×4. We have disconnected from the world that God has made and disconnected from the restoration work that God wants us to do in it!
Now, the response to the perception that Christians are only focused on getting converts does not mean we stop talking about our faith, about our experience with Jesus but we don’t stop having relationships with folks because they haven’t gotten saved yet. We cultivate relationships with people because we like them, we share similar interests, and we truly want to get to know them. Are you comfortable being friends with folks even if they never chose to follow Jesus? I have a couple of friends that I can see going that route.
Interestingly enough, most Americans in this country have already had the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to get saved. With all of the media that we are exposed to each and every day, that should not be a surprise. Many outsiders have explored Christianity, have gone to churches, and found them sorely lacking relevance, meaning and purpose to their own lives and the world. They have found Christians superficial and a poor copy of the real deal. Ouch.
I think the solution to this problem is very similar, on one level to last week’s. We need to be real. We had to have honest relationships with folks that may never choose to become Christians. We need to be honest that we would love them to chose to follow Jesus but our care, our love, our time with them will not be limited or cutoff just because they have not chosen to say yes to Jesus yet. Remember what Paul said? Now, don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good (Romans 12:9).
Second, it is time we work at growing deeper, work at spiritual formation, to become more like Jesus in all that we do. We need a Christianity that is more than skin deep, that forces us to make hard choices to look more like Jesus wants us to live. Have we wrestled serious with the Bible says about relationships? About how we spend our money? About caring for the poor? About how we treat each other every day?
I heard a pastor once say our life is filled with all kinds of conversions. There is a conversion when we follow Jesus, gradual or instant, but also in our relationships, our money, caring for the poor, and how we treat each other. When was the last time you took to heart one of these issues and were converted? Perhaps this is the year for you to seek one of these conversions to be more like Christ. Take advantage of the opportunities right outside your door and in the town to join a small group and grow deeper in this new decade.
As I think about the upper Midwest, the northern plains, I think most of us are not guilty of having convert-focused relationships with people; we are guilty of not ever telling folks about our spiritual thoughts, longings or questions. We argue faith is a private matter and never tell folks we even go to church, much less about what Jesus means to us. We are on the other end of the spectrum and need to become more open about where faith and Jesus are truly placed in our lives. We so do not want to be like those crazy Christians on TV we can go too far on the other end of the extreme.
When I was in college I remember a fellow student asking me why I was so happy all of the time. Reflecting back, she noticed a peace, a joy, a calm I had and that would have been a very natural, perfect place to talk about Jesus’ place in my life. Instead I make up some lame story about how I don’t know, I just am, just my personality and the day continues as normal. I as well being a fellow northern plainer, need to have my spiritual sensors turned up so I am ready to interject and to tell the truth about the joy and the peace and the adventure I’ve found in Christ.
May we be a people that live the full story and seek honest and real relationship with all. Let’s pray together…