Christians are Sheltered

[Jesus prayed] I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world (John 17:14-18).

So think clearly and exercise self-control. Look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy” (1st Peter 1:13-16).

We are continuing to explore the perceptions of Christians from young adult outsiders, those 18-29 years old. As a reminder, here are the top 6 perceptions, all negative: anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), insincere (78%), too political (75%), and sheltered (72%). A very unflattering list for a group of people that say they follow after the carpenter named Jesus whose priority was comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

The first week we explored the charge that all Christians are hypocrites. Our challenge is to be honest. We all have the capacity to be hypocrites to varying degrees and young adults want us to be open and authentic about that. We need to say yes we have standards but we don’t always meet them.

Second, we explored the charge that Christians only make friends to get them saved, that all our relationships are only bait and switch tactics for our friends to come to know Christ. Our challenge is to be friends, with people, with no strings attached; yes we want people to know Jesus but we don’t limit time with them or punish them or isolate them or talk behind their back because they do not. In our particular part of the country, it seems to me that we hold our faith too close to our chest and never engage in spiritual conversations. Let’s not be afraid to share our trust and love for Jesus when it seems natural in conversation, not awkward and forced.

Today, we are exploring our third perception, the bottom of the list: Christians are sheltered. Packaged with this perception are these sentiments: Christians are boring, unintelligent, old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality. We live in a bubble and never venture into the real world with real people and real issues. That’s the perception; is that the reality?

I lived in the bubble when I went to graduate school, to seminary. I spent much of my time at the school, surrounded by Christian folks, then spent the rest of my time at the church where I worked. I was in the heart of the Christian bubble and I literally started to suffocate. We got into a better place a few years into our stay in Kentucky but it can be very easy to stay inside the Christian bubble, not just for pastors but for everybody.

On the screen, you will see a few images that you will recognize from major companies. Turn to a neighbor or two and share the first words that come to mind when you see each of these images. Go for it.

Young adults outside of the church were asked what images came to mind when they thought of Christians & the church. Here is what they shared:
The Titanic – a ship about to sink but unaware of its fate
A powerful amplifier being undermined by poor wiring and weak speakers
A pack of domesticated cats that looks like they are thinking deep thoughts but are just waiting for their next meal
An ostrich with its head in the sand
A hobby that diverts people’s attention

One of the more powerful images for me is the amplifier. People outside the church recognize that there is power here but Christians don’t access it or use it properly. We get caught up in petty struggles instead of seeking the all-powerful, loving God who wants to be close to us! We seek our own selfish wants and desire and don’t chase after God in all that we do.

We live in a culture where people are very interested in things of a spiritual nature but they believe the least spiritual place to go is the church. Did you hear that? People want spiritual stuff but the feel the church is the least spiritual place to go! In fact, most churches have been on a steep decline in worship attendance and membership for more than 40 years. What is wrong with this picture?!

It saddens me greatly that the church and Christians are not seen as the place to go, the people in the know, for spiritual matters and discussion. Spiritual discussions are happening all over the world and many Christians are not a part of it. In fact, we can be painted with the label of being boring, perhaps because we don’t answer questions people are asking. Another reason young adult outsiders find us boring is that there is no edge to us. We are not challenging our own people to grow deeper, to get their acts together, much less engaging the world in life-changing ministry in partnership with Jesus Christ!

I followed, like a few of you I would guess this late-night fiasco with Jay Leno & Conan O’Brien. Essentially, you have NBC moving Leno back to his old spot because he will (hopefully) pull in better ratings than O’Brien did. What fascinated me about the debate was what groups lined up behind each comedian. By and large, young adults lined up behind O’Brien and attacked Leno on all available media methods, actual physical protests and Facebook alike. Folks in the older generation generally like Leno more because he has less of an edge and likewise appeals to a broader TV audience.

But do you know which late-night shows are growing the most? The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Two shows among the edgiest out there, with a slant to their coverage (they don’t deny it), getting the highest ratings with young adults.

Now, it strikes me as funny that Jesus has an edge to him and would be more likeable and akin to Conan than Leno or even Stewart or Colbert. He tells people to radically love one another, comforts the sinners, those who are in pain, and really gets in the face of the religious people who are not radically loving each other and getting in the way of a person’s relationship with God.

In a culture where spirituality is up and edginess is hip, where is our edge? Jesus most certainly had one; do we? Are we challenging people to love radically like Jesus did? To find spiritual connection in other places than just what is out there in culture? Or are we getting in the way? We need to highlight our edge that we are open to spiritual conversations, explain our spiritual answers, and follow someone whose edginess lead to his death and eventually our salvation.

One of the groups that hold the most negative views of Christians are upscale outsiders: business owners, community leaders, leaders of entertainment, politics, the arts, and science. Christians that go into these arenas are sometimes rejected by their friends because they didn’t go into more “Christian” fields. And these Christians have to constantly prove themselves over and over again to folks that have negative views of Christians.

Two things. One: never, ever, let anyone get on your case because you didn’t go into a “Christian” field. What the heck does that even mean! We are called to be Jesus wherever and whatever field we serve in. The Bible says we are salt and light to a world that desperately needs the Jesus seasoning and the darkness needs to be eliminated in all career fields. Second, we spent an entire semester last year exploring this bumper-sticker approach to Christianity and to summarize an entire semester of worship and of preaching: don’t use them.

When we use Christian clichés, we say to folks we have this life thing all figured out, it can be reduced to a cute phrase or slogan, and there is no discussion, debate, or mystery left. To a culture that wants to discuss and to discern what they believe, despite whether or not you’ve made a decision about it, we Christians come across as unintelligent. Especially in a culture super-satured with marketing slogans, we come off as nothing better than ads on TV. I highly recommend not using them and instead engaging in a discussion about some really deep things these discuss.

Lastly, we come to the charge that we are out of touch with reality and old-fashioned. We get painted that way because many Christian ethics look like something out of the 1950s instead of the 2010s. Take a look at some classic 50s ethical views and the 21st century ethical alternative:
Pornography – 40% of young adults each month, higher than other generation
Premarital Sex – 75% approval today vs. 30% then
Extramartial Sex – 40% today vs. 20% then
Today – higher rates of substance abuse
Today – profanity is a natural part of conversation & self-expression
Lonely – 50% today vs. 25% then
(Greed & Fame highest in this generation)

Despite all our technological advances, this generation finds itself lonelier than ever and in need of true, deep friendships. Folks, that is a place where Christian community, where the church, can step in and say, “Come be a part of our group and see if there might not be some deep friendships here.”

As you look at this list and compare it to a traditional Christian ethic, you will find that on one hand Christian ethics line up more closely with a 1950s view than 21st century. Now, I am the last person to say we need a return to 1950s ethics because that also includes with racism, sexism, and a number of other issues. So how is a Christian to respond when our ethics can be so out of step with culture?

The answer is not to adjust to the culture. Our 2nd Scripture reading this morning calls Christians to be holy, to exercise self-control, and to think clearly. We are called in some respects to be separate and to be set apart from the world. There will be times that our ethics should be different than the culture at large. We should stand out like a sore thumb of times. There is some truth that Christians are old-fashioned and out of touch with reality, depending on what you mean by those very loaded phrases. Regardless of where the winds of culture take various ethics stances, Christians stand to seek after what God wants for our lives, not what the culture deems as appropriate. We are called to a standard of holiness, purity, or in 1st Peter’s words to think clearly and to exercise self-control.

But we should be able to answer why we’ve chosen to be different than the culture at large. Our first Scripture reading shared a portion of Jesus’ prayer just before he is arrested, tried, killed and resurrected. Jesus prayers for his followers and notice that he does not pray for them to be insulated from the world, in a bubble, or to create a new sub-culture because they either don’t want to or to engage the current culture. Jesus prays this: I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one (John 17:15 NLT).

We are a people with feet in two places: a call to purity and a call to proximity. We are to stay close to the culture, to learn what people are dreaming, hoping, praying, desiring, and ultimately needing. Then we are to respond to those needs. The way I see, as I read Jesus’ call to be in and not consumed by the world, and as I see the early followers reach out to some very unique cultural situations, they did not condemn the entire culture; they find God already moving and active in it.

Paul in one story uses a cultural element to point people to God, to Jesus. He doesn’t chastise them or expect Christian behavior from people who have no idea what that means. He takes an element understood by them and points to something bigger, to the reality found in Jesus Christ. I find it very weird when we expect Christian behavior from people who have no interest in following or even know who Jesus is.

Regardless of where culture moves, towards or away from Christian ethics, we are called to the life found in Jesus that will occasionally make us seem old-fashioned and out-of-date. May we be ready and willing to explain why we make the sometimes odd choices that we do: because we follow the God who doesn’t want to be a killjoy but wants us to have a complete and full life here and now, which may mean we delay or simply don’t do activities those around us do.

A very quick way to summarize the difference between current cultural ethics and Christian one is this: cultural ethics is short-term focused, doing what is good right now in the moment regardless of the consequences, and a Christian ethic has a long-term view, invest and wait for God’s timing, plan and order for the best possible outcome.

Being old-fashioned sometimes has its rewards. During the major home foreclosure crisis in 2008, I watched a story about North Dakota’s, my home states foreclosures, in comparison to these other states that had literally thousands of homes going under. In the midst of a chaotic banking and financial system, you had a very calm ND bank president say they would have their usual number of 8 or 9. ND has a very fiscally conservative mindset and in this situation, they come out the winners. FYI, they also posted a $1 billion dollar surplus while other states had huge deficits!

By the way, the Christian ethic on money is essentially this: only buy what you can afford and only take on a loan when it makes you money in the long run, like a home or your education.

Friends, we may seem out of touch and old-fashioned at times but it is the good and lasting and freeing life that Jesus promised. May God give us the strength and courage to have purity and proximity in al that we do. Let’s pray…


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