We’re continuing the conversation about Jesus and religion. I said last week I don’t think Jesus hated it, but to be sure he was wary of some aspects of it and we should be also. I’m also hoping that you will use the YouTube I featured last week as a springboard for teaching your own children and grandchildren to think biblically and speak honestly about these issues.
I was sitting with a group of Christian high school students in Panera a few weeks ago and I asked this question, “What bothers you most about religion?”
Young adults will often describe a church where the congregation sang with gusto, “I surrender all…”, but obviously didn’t. “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold”, but they did. From the looks of the cars in the parking lot, they withheld millions of mites. Their parents would greet people with a hug, or handshake, but gossip about them behind their back. Their parents would be screaming at each other in the car on the way to church, but all smiles and love when they walked through the doors of the church.
“They claim to follow Jesus, whatever that means, but I think they just talk like that, because everyone else at church talks like that. Don’t get me wrong, I have good parents. They believe they’re good Christians and I know some wonderful Christians but something is seriously wrong with Christianity!”
Guilty as charged.
I usually just listen and let them vent. I’ve learned to take a punch. The men and women I know, who are successfully connecting with younger adults are not going on the defensive over every outrageous or offensive statement. They know they need to bite their tongue on the minor issues, to win the right to be heard on the most important issues. Besides, how can you argue with the inconsistencies they just voiced? They’re right! And your own children will admire you more if you begin by admitting that many of their observations are true and then begin dialoguing from there.
“You know, I’ve noticed the same things in my church” I said. “I also noticed I was the one doing them, along with everyone else. “So years ago I began to ask myself what God honestly thought of my worship and it was a humbling experience. So I decided rather than trying to change everyone else, I needed to change.” “Like how?” they asked.
“When I actually paid attention to the words I mindlessly sung week after week, I was ashamed. I imagined God sick over my hypocrisy. As a result, “I no longer sing words to songs, I don’t really mean, unless I passionately want them to be true in my life. Because when I sing, “I surrender all” and I have absolutely no intention of surrendering all, I think it makes God angry. I now change those words and tell him that I want to surrender “more”, or surrender a certain area of my life, which I know he wants surrendered and I’ve been reluctant to do.
“But beyond changing what I sing, I began to examine my life and ask, ‘What has to change in me for those words to become true in my life?’ That’s where the 10 second rule has been helpful to keep me moving forward as a follower of Jesus and not just cranking it out week after week because that’s what Christians are supposed to do. I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to be religious that be truly obedient.
And another thing. I also found that my mind was wandering during pastoral prayers, so I began praying along with the pastor, changing his words to my own like a UN translator. That helps me stay focused on God because now I was actually praying with the pastor instead of letting him pray for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a clean slate on hypocrisy, but I’m far more sensitive than I used to be, to what God thinks of what I’m saying, or doing in worship and in my life than I used to be. I can’t change the whole church, but I can change me. And, honestly so can you.” (By the way if you like any of these worship ideas you may want to try them yourself for a few weeks so you can speak from your own experience.)
The good news.
It’s rare that I meet with anyone who has actually rejected Jesus. What they’ve often rejected is the church and Christianity, the religion. They want a Christianity that works. Sadly, many young people don’t care if their church is doctrinally correct, or not. Regardless of what they say, most of the young adults I’ve met with are really not hung up on evolution vs. creation, or some philosophical objections to God. What they want to know is this: if the Bible and the gospel message of Jesus is really true, why doesn’t it produce better people? That’s the issue. Why doesn’t the church champion justice and care for the poor more?
I’ve observed two things in young adults which really encouraged me. They hate hypocrisy and they want to change the world. And they’re still idealistic enough to think they can. They read of wars, famine, poverty, injustice – children dying for a lack of clean water, or a $10.00 vaccination. Then they walk in church and see prosperous, well groom, overfed people, who claim to follow Jesus, who appear to be deaf to these needs and it drives them crazy – and away.
The conversation continues.
So, to that issue I said this to these students, “You’re absolutely right. The church could do more but let’s look behind the curtain. What you don’t always see is the tens of thousands of hours that many faithful church members volunteer to care for the poor right in your own city. You rarely think about the tens of billions of dollars, given annually by U.S. Christians for missions and relief work. World Vision alone provides over two billion dollars each year to alleviate poverty, in Christ’s name. Christians and churches were some of the first to respond to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans – and many still haven’t left. They were there before the hurricane in Haiti and will be there long after that disaster passes from the public’s fascination. Could churches and Christians do better? Absolutely.
Here’s another think you may be missing; your pastor is as frustrated as you about why his people aren’t more serious about living like Jesus. But here’s the answer – not everyone sitting in the pews of your church are followers of Jesus. All followers of Jesus are Christians, but not all Christians are truly born again and fully committed to living out the purposes and plans of God in their life. Learn from the faithful few and please don’t throw the baby out with the bath – just leave it to God to sort that out.”
True religion is man’s best attempt to faithfully love and obey God as prescribed by God. False religion, even “Christian” religion, is man’s attempt to love and obey God as prescribed by humans and the traditions of men.
“You, the Facebook generation, have four choices, as I see it. Obviously, you can walk away or stay away from Jesus, but then what? Like the dog, who finally catches the car, what do you do with it? What comfort is unbelief, other than a certain smug satisfaction you and your friends have, that you’re smarter, or less hypocritical than the rest of us? Both may be true, but that won’t bring true meaning and purpose to your life. And, is that what you’re going to tell Jesus someday when you’re standing in front of him, “well at least I wasn’t a hypocrite”?
You could also choose to opt out of church and try to be a follower on your own. Many have tried it, but few successfully. We need our spiritual family around us to cheer us on, and they need you. I’ve not seen a Christian yet who grew spiritually, completely on their own. It’s just not the way God meant it to work. When we become part of the family of God, it’s in our nature to want to spend time with the rest of the family (or should be) and if not, something’s seriously wrong.
The third option is you could take the path of least resistance and stay in church and join the ranks of folks just warming pews. That’s what I call doing hard time spiritually. But you’ll get used to it and in a few years you’ll think this is what Christianity is all about too.
The last option is to make the decision that whatever the other people in church do, you’re going to passionately give your life to following Jesus and challenge those around you to do the same. You’re going to be part of the solution, not just whine about it. And here’s where you start, pray for God to give you the name of the most serious follower of Jesus you know, call them and ask them to mentor you in this incredible adventure of apprenticing yourself to Jesus – take the road less traveled and you’ll never regret it!”
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matt. 7:13,14
Here are some questions you may want to ask to start a discussion with your child or grandchild:
1. Is there anything that bothers you about Christianity?
2. What hypocritical behavior have you observed in people who claim to be Christians?
3. If you could change a few things about the church, or just our church, what would you do?
4. Is there someone you really admire as a serious follower of Jesus that you’d like to spend more time with to help you better figure out the life of a Christian?
If they can’t think of anything immediately, give them some time by sharing your own struggles with religion growing up. You’ll find that the more transparent you are, they will become also. Perhaps you’ll find you have some common issues you can work on together.
My personal goal when meeting with a young person is that they trust me enough to want to meet with me again and that should be yours as well. Just stay in their life, dialoguing and be a safe place for them to verbalize anything. Now, pray for incredible wisdom and just do the next thing you’re reasonably certain Jesus wants you to do.
Questions: Let’s learn from one another. What ways have you used to dialogue with your own children or grandchildren about these issues, or what issues have they raised that bother them about Christianity?
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“Mr. De Graaf, do you think Jesus hates religion?”
I’d just spoken at a local Christian high school chapel and was now meeting at Panera with 16 kids who had questions about my talk, when this question was asked. In case you’ve been in a coma for the last month or so, there’s a YouTube video by a young rapper Jefferson Bethke entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”, that has been viewed by over 19,000,000 people!
If you have kids or grandchildren the chances are they’ve watched it too, and if not I’d suggest watching it with them and then discussing it. This is what is called a “teachable moment” – an amazing opportunity to help shape their Christian worldview.
So, here’s what I told them.
Is Bethke right?
I don’t think Jesus hated religion. But he was wary of some aspects of it and we should be also.
I told the students at Panera this story. Two years ago I got a call from a sixty year old guy calling from the hospital. I’d met with him every four or five years for almost twenty five years trying to talk to him about Jesus. But he just wasn’t buying it – too busy to bother with God. Now he was dying – cancer – maybe three to six months – could we talk?
An hour later I was sitting with him and his wife. “We’re not really religious people”, his wife said, a little sheepishly. “Good”, I said, “then we won’t have to fix that problem”. “But, I thought you were religious that’s why we called you,” “Well, I am religious but I’m trying not to be.” I went on to explain to them that I’d really like to talk to them about Jesus, not religion or church.
What religion was Jesus?
In James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword, he tells of his Catholic seminary professor who routinely asked his incoming students this question, “What religion was Jesus?”
Some were convinced that Jesus was Jewish and of course, being a descendant of Abraham, that’s true. But, the professor would point out that Jesus disobeyed many of the Sabbath traditions, ate with gentiles and sinners, touched unclean people and caused disturbances at the temple. In fact, his righteous indignation at the hypocrisy of the “traditions of men” or religion, as observed by the religious leaders was open and obvious. Ultimately, he was killed for being such an irreligious Jew and claiming he was God. Still other students would argue that Jesus was Christian. Others thought Jesus was Catholic, the first Catholic.
The professor came to the conclusion that Jesus really wasn’t religious, and I agree – at least not religious as we think of it. He left us with two supreme commands. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” Luke 10:27
I believe any religious practice which truly leads us to loving God and our neighbors more, we ought to fully embrace and observe. When and if it becomes routine, repetitious and legalistic, we ought to stop doing it or change it, with these caveats: There are certain practices Jesus specifically commanded us to do, such as communion, baptism, prayer, giving, obeying God, fasting, etc. which are not optional. We must do them. But, even in those areas, there may be different ways they can be expressed, observed or obeyed, that will inspire us to love God more and care for others better.
I remember a few years back the elders in my church decided to change how we served communion, from passing the bread and juice in trays to having people come forward and receive the elements directly from the elder or pastor. Judging from some people’s reaction you’d have thought we’d just stomped on the Bible. However, for many others this change in our routine jolted them out of their lethargy and the fact that they were given the elements directly by a person rather than simply taking them out of a tray made the sacrament of communion far more personal to them.
There may be other very good religious practices which have developed into religious habits, numbing us to true worship. Jesus himself in Matthew 6 warned us of three very good religious practices, prayer, fasting and giving, that if our motives were wrong could actually be a sin.
Why do we do this?
Most of us “do” Christianity and church like we’ve seen it done and we just go on automatic without ever asking, “Why am I, or are we doing this? What does God think of this? Is this even in the Bible, or have we just drifted into certain practices and behaviors, because that’s how we were raised, or that’s what Christians we observed were doing when we came to faith?”
We need to ask a lot more questions like that and actually encourage our children to do the same. Christianity today has developed many “traditions of men” such as rules for Sunday behavior, worship forms and music, the idea that church attendance, encouraging giving to institutions, rather than taking personal responsibility for the poor.
Some of these traditions have taken on, “thus saith the Lord” status and are unthinkingly assumed by a church or Christian culture, that this is what God wants and this is how good Christians ought to behave and it’s a sin, or sacrilege if we don’t. Jesus himself warned the religious leaders when he said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Mark 7:8
I’m willing to concede that most of our own religious practices, or preferences probably began with the best of intentions and may still be good and beneficial to us. If they lead us to loving God and others more, then we should fully embrace them. If not, we should either reform, or reject them. Christ never asked us to be religious, but only to be his followers, or imitators.
Kevin De Young in his January 13 blog does a great job of addressing what Jesus thought of religion, as well as some religious practices Jesus observed. You ought to read it at: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/?s=jefferson+bethke However, theologically correct answers don’t satisfy young people today. That drives us older Christians nuts but we can either spit into the wind and possibly lose our young people over some non-essentials, or begin where they are.
So, ask your children, “Are there things we do in church, or are there rules Christians have that are confusing or appear hypocritical to you? Is there anything you’ve observed that might cause you to not be a fully committed follower of Jesus?” Then either explain to them why you or other Christians have adopted that practice or admit there could be a problem.
That day in Panera there were nods of agreement and plenty of issues they wanted help with understanding. I had simply put words to what they intuitively felt. It always helps if we can concede the obvious to win the right to be heard on the larger issues. Now I could move on to discuss how they ought to embrace some spiritual practices without trashing religion. Next week, in Part II of this blog, I’ll jump right into it.
How about you?
In preparation for next week, I’d like you to think about this question: Are there some very good religious practices that you’ve elevated to “thus saith the Lord” status in your family or church? (I’ve found it’s easier to get kids talking if you can first relate some practices you’ve thoughtlessly been doing that you may have to reconsider.)Send This Post to a Friend
“Do you think Jesus would have played hockey?”
That’s one of the questions I posed to a young money manager as we were driving to another state. Tom had played hockey at a Christian college and is one of the kindest men I know. But, he had been telling me about his son’s team and his coach, who didn’t discourage the boys from “getting physical”. So that began a long discussion on the nature of competition and the true source of our competitive spirit.
So, I asked another question, “Do you think angels compete with one another?”
Do angels compete?
“I doubt it,” said Tom. “Why is that?” I asked. “I can’t imagine angels jockeying for positions to get noticed more by God or to get ahead of each other just to see who’s best.” “Why can’t you imagine that,” I asked. “Because there’s no sin in heaven.” Bingo!
Now before all you red meat loving sports fans, decide to egg my house or post a comment immediately about the benefits of competitive sports or competition in general, please hear me out. There are plenty of wonderful examples like Tebow, sports evangelists and successful business executives who have used their achievements to great advantage for the kingdom. And competition does make companies and economies grow and prosper. My concern is not for the macro good, but for the potential for sin that I believe is at the heart of our drive as individuals to compete with others.
Observation #1 – If there was no sin, there would be no competition to be better than others.
Because we are sinners, we are constantly, consciously and unconsciously evaluating ourselves against others. Tell me this isn’t true in your life: We feel superior to others when we do well and we feel less good about ourselves when others do better than us. True? I’m not talking about simply admiring someone for their skill, which isn’t a sin. But, it becomes sin when admiration crosses over to the dark side and becomes envy and we want that admiration for ourselves and end up working or playing hard to get it.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Philippians 2:3
Observation #2 – Our motives for excellence are rarely for the glory of God.
Why did you practice anything hard when you were a child – piano, gymnastics, basketball, math, anything? Of course it’s possible that you simply wanted to be good at that skill, whether anyone else noticed or not and that – excellence is a worthy and laudable goal.
However, if you’re really honest, that’s probably not what really motivated you. You hoped others would notice and secretly you really wanted to be better than others at that skill. That drove you, or your parents to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours pursuing your skill as well as thousands of dollars spent on lessons. Was all that time and money spent to glorify God or glorify you? Even if your motives were pure, were your parent’s?
“For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.” I John 2:16
Observation #3 – The need to do better or be better than others tempts us to do things we would not otherwise do.
For instance, to get an edge on the other person in business, do you find yourself working way more hours than is good for your family to provide a standard of living you really don’t need, but you’ve always dreamed of having? Do you find yourself occasionally cutting corners ethically to get ahead? Do you find yourself presenting your company’s products or services as better than they really are, or bad mouthing the competition to make your product or service more attractive?
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Matthew 5:8
Observation #4 – The culture of competition is often antithetical to a Christian worldview.
Does the sports team your child is on, celebrate team work and playing to do their best? Does their coach make the team feel like winners, even if they lose? (I know of a sports program at a local Christian high school where every player knows, winning is everything!) Does their coach openly exhibit the character qualities you want in your child? Is your child being encouraged to violent or rough behavior, by teammates and coaches?
What effect does losing have on your child after the game? When you’re not able to attend a game and call or text your child, is one of your first questions, “What was the score?” What does that question tell them about what’s important to you?
Think of your own experiences growing up. How much damage has been done to men and women who spent their childhoods driven by parents or constantly being compared to other kids, by their parents?
Please don’t get me wrong. There are many great reasons for our children to participate in sports – teamwork, exercise, the love of the game and the discipline of practice. But, the question we always have to ask is this, “Is this activity helping my child (or me) to be more loving, thoughtful, kind – more like Jesus. That is the goal!
I just can’t think of a single teaching of Jesus urging us to compete with anyone for anything, but the glory of God or for the good of others. On the other hand, I can think of many teachings of Jesus calling us a revolutionary and completely counter-intuitive way of living, such as: “the first shall be last” and “serve one another”.
Observation #5 – We are influenced more negatively by culture than we realize.
I’ve made a decision to never watch the TV show Survivor. Why? Because I’m told that the driving characteristic for the winning participant is that they will do whatever it takes to weed out weaker ones and put together coalitions that ultimately will leave them on top. I don’t watch these kinds of shows because they don’t encourage any of the characteristics of a true follower of Jesus. I can’t image watching these shows and not being subtly affected by them and I don’t want my children and grandchildren to think that I value that kind of competition.
“Look not to your own interests but each of you ought to look out for the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:4
Observation #6 – Improving one’s self isn’t a sin.
I have friends who run in races for health reasons and all they care about is improving their own time. Other friends lift weights and their only measure is their own personal strengthening. If you can play a sport and when you’re done, win or lose you’ve had a good time, you probably don’t have a problem, so relax and enjoy yourself.
My Conclusion: A Christian’s goal should be excellence – not competition. Excellence says that I want to use all the gifts given by me to make God look good and life better for others. Competition tempts us to make ourselves look better, often at the expense of others.
In one sense, a Christian does compete against selfishness, greed, evil, injustice, laziness and mediocrity. And it’s true; we’re to wrestle against Satan, his demons and all forms of evil. To that kind of battle, we’ve been called. Eric Liddell, in Chariots of Fire said it well, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure”. If the primary reason you or your children compete is the pleasure of God, bless you. But, then you’re a better man than I am. If I’m totally honest, it’s rare that my competitive spirit is that selfless. That’s why I have to remind myself constantly of this:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:1-2
Questions: So do you believe Jesus would play competitive sports? If he did, how would he do it differently than most of us do, and do you think that would hurt his “win” record?Send This Post to a Friend
“Alright Clare, I have a very important and potentially tough meeting today. Exactly what does it mean to be led by the Holy Spirit in that meeting?”
That’s the question a CEO of a major company posed to me a few years ago over breakfast. He didn’t want the theologically correct answer; he wanted advice in a way he could understand and use. Today! So, here’s what I told him.
“John, you’re an amazingly gifted man. You have an MBA from one of the best schools in the country. You’re athletic, aggressive, intelligent and have wonderful communication skills – a natural born leader. You’re also a serious follower of Jesus, which means you’ve been given unique spiritual gifts as well.
And today, when you go into that meeting I know you’ll use every skill and gift you have to charm and persuade everyone to agree to your proposal. I’d like you to think of all these wonderful skills, even your spiritual gifts as white arrows. White arrows are simply all your natural and spiritual gifts, your life experiences and all the knowledge and virtuous skills you’ve acquired.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9
John, I’ve seen you use your white arrows in business and ministry settings before and you’re amazing!
But, John there’s also another side of you – a dark side. You didn’t get where you are today only by using white arrows. I’m confident you’ve also used what I call, dark arrows. Dark arrows are skills we’ve learned because we’re sinners – lying, intimidation, telling half-truths, withholding information that don’t help our arguments, perhaps even anger or hurtful remarks to silence any opposition. Whatever it takes to win or to be in control.
John, I’ve not seen you do any of these things, but I know I’ve personally used these dark arrows myself at times, so I’m guessing you have plenty of dark arrows in your quiver also.
Being led by the Spirit.
“So, here’s one way to be led by the Spirit today. Before you go into your meeting I want you to pray, asking the Holy Spirit for the courage to use only your white arrows today. Because here’s what will likely happen in your meeting, if you don’t.
I’m confident you’ll start out using all your charm and gifts of persuasion and logic – you’ll use every white arrow in your quiver. However, if you see that you’re not winning them over, you’re going to be tempted to reach over your shoulder and begin taking out your dark arrows. You’ll use the arrows that have worked in the past when charisma and logic didn’t. My guess is you’ve also done the same thing at times with Lisa, your wife. You know the dark arrows that hurt, humiliate and silence her, don’t you?
To be led by the Spirit means that you will trust God by unilaterally agreeing to disarm yourself of all dark arrows, even if your opponents don’t and leave the results up to God.”
John became very thoughtful and quiet. I just waited for him to speak, but I knew what was flying through his mind at that moment. Then he asked the question I was waiting for: “But, what if that causes me to lose?”
“John, the truth is you may lose – at least in the short run. That could be the will of God for you. But here’s the real question, Do you really think God’s will can be accomplished by using methods that he has said Christians should never use? Trusting in God doesn’t mean you just wishfully hope or pray God will cause things to turn out the way you want. To trust in God means trusting in his methods only, and leaving the results up to him. Will you do that today? If you will, you’ll be led by the Spirit. If you won’t, you’re being led by John, not God.”
“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” Romans 8:5, 9
Did it work?
John didn’t “win” the proposal that day and yet when he called me later in the afternoon, he said he had the strangest sense of peace that he had done what God wanted. (He still hated losing – he’s a man after all!)
This week I’d suggest setting aside some time to reflect on the dark arrows in your life. Some came out of my quiver last week and were used against my wife. That’s why I wrote this blog today, not just for you, but as a reminder to me to be far more intentional about being led of the Spirit of God.
Questions: Why is it we so effortlessly fall back on the dark arrows and in what situations are you most likely to use them?Send This Post to a Friend