On Cimena and One-on-Ones

The other day I was sitting shotgun while a good friend of mine and I were taking someone home from the airport. A conversation started that revolved around the movie God’s Not Dead. I only said one or two things about it; how my friends who saw it thought it handled the philosophical aspects of theology with kid-gloves, and how it was obviously made for a Christian audience instead of a non-Christian one. The other people in the vehicle talked about how it blatantly showed stereotypes like the Muslim family and the atheistic classmates, and how it only presented canned answers to easy questions.

[Side note: apparently they showed the movie at one of the local universities here and right from the beginning one of the Muslim students up and walked out on it (because it was one of ‘those’ movies: Christians and their families are good; everyone else and their families are bad).]

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I have never seen the movie myself, so I can’t offer a meaningful critique outside of what others are saying. But, I have been noticing a trend among Christian media that is a bit disheartening to say the least.

Some who know me already know that I am not a big fan of ‘Christian’ films. This is mostly because I’m not particularly fond of the typical plot development they build off of: person has an imperfect home life > person rejects advice from Christian friend/relative > major life crisis happens > person fails at fixing situation themselves > ‘coming to Jesus’ moment > person struggles > another life crisis > everything gets fixed, and all conflicts are resolved > the end. Quite frankly, I wish that Christian movie producers and writers would wrestle with deep issues and not have every ending be ‘happily ever after.’ I’d even love to see someone develop a movie with a similar development and story as Requiem for a Dream. Let’s be honest with each other, just because you have a relationship with God does not mean that all your problems get fixed.

But that’s not really the biggest reason I’m not a fan of Christian films. I think my biggest reservation is that we tend to become dependent on them to start conversations with non-Christians, and we tend to rely on them to do the evangelizing. Barring the fact that most non-Christians would never see a Christian film (I mean, c’mon, how many Christians would willingly go see a film with an overtly atheist/Muslim/agnostic message?), we should realize something very important…

Some years ago I was spending Thanksgiving with my extended family and several of us were bemoaning the fact that stores had stopped displaying the message “Merry Christmas” and had opted to only use the phrase “Happy Holidays” on their banners, commercials, and wherever else stores display things. After a bit of discussion, my uncle spoke up and said, “Well, it’s not their responsibility to share the Christmas message; that’s our responsibility.”

I feel the same truth applies to Christian media in some way. Although I am glad Christians have stepped into the movie-making business and are producing some good quality films (in terms of production quality, not necessarily screenplay), and that they are using their talents to glorify God (even though I feel you can glorify God without telling an overtly salvific message), music and movies only go so far. In the end, true disciples are made through relationships, and you can’t develop a relationship with a movie that tells one story in almost two hours.

Christian films should not be used for evangelism. They can be tools in evangelism, but at the end of the day they serve mostly to support Christians’ pre-conceived notions and thus far have not truly wrestled with things that a non-Christian would wrestle with. At best, the message being sent through the screen is this: “Oh, you don’t believe in God? Well, you should! Why should you believe in God? Because something good happened to the person in this story for doing so, and his life was fixed. If you don’t believe in God, then your life will be a mess; but if you do then you won’t have to struggle with losing your daughter or having your spouse divorce you. You say the real world doesn’t work like that? …This movie says different, so don’t focus on reality; just watch the movie and have someone pray for you.” Not a very welcoming message.

Evangelism and discipleship are responsibilities we have been given. Perhaps someday ‘Christian’ media will be at the place where non-Christians will actually want to watch them, but the true heart of the Church’s mission still lies within each of us. And so it is up to us to not depend on televisions to do our work. If we are disappointed with how movies with Christian messages are received by non-Christians, then we ought to reevaluate what exactly we’re doing – we could be causing more harm than good.

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On Disconnect and Player 1

I was working on a long blog post, but my thoughts got all jumbled and I had to start over. This happens from time to time.

Anyways, I had an interesting interaction earlier this week between a couple students and myself after one of my Formation groups got out. After group was dismissed, two of my students came up to me and we talked for a good hour or so. We talked about some interesting stuff; the practice of prophecy in the Old Testament, the nature of God throughout the Bible, different genres of music, and one thing that really caught me off-guard. One of my students is an avid Zelda fan! I was pretty psyched to share my favorite childhood experience with a like-minded individual. It was a unique experience that made my week. It also led to a conversation with a good friend of mine this morning.

We were having our weekly breakfast time, and the topic of expectations came up. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly we were saying, but the conversation got to the point where I expressed my frustration with how I am viewed when I bring up my affinity for gaming. It has seemed, throughout my life, that when I bring up my hobby of gaming that I am viewed as immature, or at least childish in some way. It’s as if gaming is something you eventually grow out of. I believed this idea for a long time. Before I came to Olivet I sold all of my gaming devices and games except my Gameboy and N64 (you can’t toss the classics), because I believed that I was not a grown-up and would develop a more sophisticated hobby. What I have found, however, is that I had to eventually come to a defining decision, and it happened last year: I admitted that I am a gamer.

Hanin' with Navi

It’s true, I love to game! I love talking about game theory (philosophical messages of games, timelines, characterizations, themes, etc.), playing all kinds of games (FPS, RTS, Tabletop, card games, MMO, RPG, and recently I have gotten into MOBA’s), and interacting with other gamers. What I have found, once I owned up to the fact that I am a gamer for life, is that the gaming community is very disrespected by people who are outside of it. For instance, the Olivet newspaper came out with an article that talked about how there is a League of Legends team forming at Olivet and will attempt to compete with other teams in the area. When I mentioned this to my professor, he laughed at the notion that gaming could be a sport (because people who form these teams compete in E-sports tournaments). I looked at him and in all seriousness started talking about how difficult these types of games are; they require strong teamwork, quick reflexes, incredible strategizing, impeccable micromanaging and macromanaging skills, and a lot of dedication. Whenever I bring up stories about my gaming escapades, like how I started pwning the Hearthstone ladder with my constructed Druid and Paladin decks, or played some old school Pharaoh, I am usually met with sideways glances, smiles that say, “you’re kind of pathetic,” or an outright laugh. At best, gaming is seen as an inefficient use of time by most non-gamers.

What many people fail to realize is that the gaming community is an extremely close-knit group, and it is largely non-Christian. Not only is it non-Christian, but it is violently so. Go onto any gaming forum and mention anything about God, the Church, Jesus, the Bible and you will be met with an incredibly aggressive response. In internet terms, such conversations end up being “flame wars;” massive arguments that burn everyone who comes in contact with it. But, contrary to popular belief, gamers are very social… with each other. If you become a part of a gaming community, then you basically become a part of a tribe. It has its own language, social expectations, allies and enemies, and belief system (this is hard to explain if you don’t game). I know this because I grew up in it. Ever since I was a kid I have been connected with this community. It’s because of these reasons that I mentioned to my breakfast buddy that I cannot give up gaming.

I feel called to this largely unchurched community. Does this mean that I will become an internet pastor? No, it just means that my ties to gaming won’t end just because I take on a church. I grew up in this community, I know what these people are like, and I know how they think. How could I reject such a community of people who, in many cases, are socially exclusive to their gaming brothers and sisters? If people can develop sports programs in churches to reach people, then why not gaming teams? Why not start a Pathfinder society in our church, or an ESO guild, or a Final Fantasy Fan club? Granted, not many people in the churches I go to even know what an RTS is. I bring this up because I really want to do this in my church. I want to have my church serve as a place where like-minded people can gather and enjoy something together that we all love. Of all the places to gather, should the church not be the best place? What an incredible opportunity for relationship building and evangelism – you are a gamer, and that is okay. Honestly, most of the classmates I met during my time at ITT-Tech would never step foot in a church or listen to anyone who mentioned “God.” But you bring up the topic of gaming and suddenly they’re hooked in the conversation.

I think we need to stop making gaming out to be a waste of time and something that the church has no place participating in. Gaming is a hobby, like anything else. It’s an incredibly social activity. Plus, it’s freaking fun! I don’t know how many other gamers have wrestled with this idea that they are somehow less of an adult for gaming, or less of a Christian for doing so, but I would imagine that it is a good number. I do know that this is something that took me until I was 25 to accept.

To my fellow Zelda-loving student and all my closet-gamer Christians out there: enjoying video games doesn’t require being sent back to Kokiri Forest, so take the Master Sword out of the pedestal and game on!

On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

bait-and-switch

You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?

On Revelation and Assimilation

I remember the first interaction I had with my ex-fiance.  We didn’t really know each other personally, but we would engage in conversation and do some activities together. A few months and several interactions later, we began to date one another.  Still more months and interactions later we got engaged.

Woman Receiving Engagement RingThis is a fairly typical story.  Two people meet, get to know each other, and then after a time they continue making deeper and deeper levels of commitment to one another.  Engagement, as well as marriage, are two moments which solidify a certain depth of commitment between two people.   It is odd for us to think that two people would meet for the first time, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately commit the rest of their lives to one another.  Even in arranged marriages there are people who  understand the individuals well enough to know if that kind of relationship will work, and there is still a ‘leading up-to’ time where the two people are at least aware of what is going on.

Why is it, then, that we tend to see evangelism as a ‘blind marriage’ occasion?  We think it’s crazy for two people to get married if they have only know each other for a few hours (or even days), and yet we impose that kind of perspective on our un-saved neighbors.  I would like to propose that we rethink our understanding of evangelism.

To be perfectly honest, I never felt comfortable inviting my friends to church with me.  While I was in youth group, we would be asked several times to bring our friends to church for special occasions or for Wednesday night Bible study or whatever.  I would always feel awkward about this.  It’s not because I didn’t think God was important or that salvation didn’t matter, but it’s because whenever I did invite my friends I would hear the messages they were hearing and it would unsettle me.

“You’re an outsider.”
“You don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t know who God is.”
“You need to dedicate your life to Jesus tonight!”

My friends were seen as outsiders, as strangers, and in order to feel truly welcomed they needed to get with the program and convert.  Then, and only then, could they be a part of the community.

Now, I know that this was not the intended message of the youth leaders or laypeople.  However, these were the messages that were communicated through what was said, how people acted, and what people said about our friends when they weren’t there.  And I am as guilty as everyone else for sending these messages.

Now I have another story to tell:

when I was about five, I remember coming home from church and climbing into the top of my bunk-bed and asking Jesus into my heart.  This is my conversion story, and it is entirely made up.

The truth is, I don’t know when I was saved.  I can’t point to a calendar and say, “here, on this day, I became a born again believer!”  I do know that at some point I did, but I don’t remember how.  I remember something about a Sunday school teacher talking with me about it, so maybe it happened then?  I don’t know.  I do know that I invented a story because people kept asking me about my conversion experience and when I came into a relationship with the Lord, so that’s where the bunk-bed conversion story came into play.

Honestly, I don’t know when Christ became my savior because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was.  I grew up hearing about him all the time.  I would pray to him before meals with my family, and I would hear about him at church.  I never had an opportunity as an infant to not know who he was.  And this is why I believe there is a big weakness in how we do evangelism.

One of the biggest assumptions we seem to build off of when talking about evangelism is that people who are not Christian do not have a relationship with Jesus.  I think this is one of the most harmful and, frankly, ignorant assumptions we have.  There is rarely anyone in the United States who does not know who Jesus is.  You can ask anyone, “Who is Jesus?” and I believe most people will give you an answer.  Everyone knows who Jesus is.  Everyone has feelings about who Jesus is.  Everyone has some sort of a relationship with Jesus, even if that relationship is simply an acquaintance.

So why do we approach evangelism as if they don’t?  Why do we talk to non-believers as if Jesus is some total stranger to them?  Why do we treat them as if they couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and George Bush?  And why do we assume that he is not already working in their lives?

The problem with not recognizing a relationship that is already there is that we then set up all kinds of persuasive arguments aimed at getting people to like Jesus. We talk about his character, what he did, what he does, and what he is doing as if Jesus were on a blind date with this person.

But what if evangelism became more declarative than persuasive?  More acknowledging that coercing?  More about revealing a God who is already there than introducing a completely foreign concept?

If we are to take this perspective seriously, then evangelism isn’t about trying to get someone to marry a complete stranger they just met.  Instead, it is about helping someone develop a relationship that is already there.  I didn’t get engaged the first moment I met my ex-fiance’.  That didn’t happen until months into our relationship.  Similarly, expecting someone to surrender their entire lives to a being whom they hardly know is expecting too much (and I would contend is ultimately damaging in the long run).

What does this say about that moment of ‘conversion,’ then?  Maybe when someone becomes a born-again believer it is not a moment when they first enter into a relationship with Christ.  Instead, it is simply the moment when Christ went from being ‘some guy I know’ to ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’  I am not trying to say that the salvation experience is not important, but we ought to consider the implications of suggesting that Christ is completely unknown to people who aren’t saved.

I sense that our views of others, and creation as a whole, could benefit greatly is we seriously begin to open our eyes to the work that God is already doing in our world and in the lives of those around us.   Maybe we would begin shedding ourselves of an ‘us/them’ mentality and simply see ourselves as being on a different stage in this journey. No one is a stranger to God, and who are we to take people on blind dates with a ring in our pocket?

On Facebook and Obama

About a year ago I was approached by a middle-aged woman after one of my sermons.  A very unexpected conversation took place:

Woman: “So, did I hear you right in your sermon when you said you were gay?”

Me: [confused look on my face] “Uhh.. I don’t believe I said that, ma’am.”

Woman: “You mentioned in your sermon that you live with your boyfriend.”

Me: “Oh!  No, I was referencing a paper one of my students had written.”

Woman: “I see.  Are you married, then?”

Me: “No ma’am, I’m single.”

Woman: “Okay.  I looked over during the service and saw that a nicely-dressed young man was visiting and I thought, ‘well, he’s either married or he’s gay.”

Me: “Well, I can honestly say that I’m not gay even though I’m not married.”

I’ve found a profound truth through my time at Olivet:  problems don’t occur because of what you say; problems occur because of what people hear.  In this instance, even though I was trying to be clear in my message, the woman heard something completely different than what I was saying.

During the last few weeks I’ve begun to pay more attention to what we, as Christians, say, and I’ve noticed that there is often a large gap between what we are saying and what others are actually hearing.  In our attempts to promote Christian ideas, including the Gospel, we inadvertently push people away and draw lines in the sand.  Where social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube could serve as effective vessels to communicate God’s love to others, we have used them as battle trenches from which to launch our missiles toward our opponents – as if doing so will force them to surrender, and walk – defeated and humiliated – to our side.

It should not take long to notice what I am talking about.  Posts about popular topics such as Duck Dynasty, Obama’s policies, same-sex marriage, and gun laws are rarely inviting.  Typically, you can fill in the blanks with such posts:  “____ is/are being fools!  Why are they doing _____?  _____ is going to ruin our country! We need to stop _____ because _____  is going directly against scripture!”  While some of these statements may be true in some cases, I can’t help but think of what people are hearing when they read such posts:  “They think I’m being a fool?  They don’t know why I support ___?  They think I’m going to ruin the country?  They want to stop people like me, and say I am going directly against scripture?”  – We should not be surprised when people stop attending our churches when they hear such messages.

(picture taken from

I understand that the reason we tend to be so strong and direct in our words is because of our passion.  I do get that.  But we gather on Sundays to talk about how much God loves people. and yet we regularly go out of our way to find creative ways of telling people how much we despise them.  We try to beat down others for thinking differently than we do as we drag them kicking and screaming to the altar, hoping to secure yet another prisoner for Christ.  At least, I’m assuming that’s what our purpose is by treating others the way we do; it’s either some perverted form of evangelism or we’re trying to hold people underwater as we drown them in Hell, instead of extending a loving hand.

I am perplexed by all this, to say the least.  Do we really think we have it all together, that we are so pure, that we can claim to have the power to not just judge others, but to abuse them for not being on the same side of some arbitrary man-made line in the sand as we are?  Or maybe we like to stick to our version of the Great Commission: “Go, and make disciples of all nations… bashing their heads in with traditional American values instead of scriptural truths, and show them how wrong they are so that they feel that I don’t like them.  After all, I only died for the good Christian republican/democrat people.  I didn’t die for all humanity.”  –  That’s what Jesus was getting at, right?

Not only am I perplexed, but I am disappointed.  It makes me feel disappointed to see Christians I once looked up to lobbing grenades at ‘those liberals,’ ‘those homosexuals,’ ‘those God-haters,’ ‘those religious fanatics,’ ‘those baby-killers,’ ‘those bigots,’ ‘those sexists.’ Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should engage in conversations about current topics.  But, can we not approach such topics with even a little grace?  Does not the world already draw enough lines as it is – why should we be trying to draw even more?  Do we even listen to those who disagree with us, or do we stay barricaded within our trenches looking at the opposition through rifle scopes and satellites?

Sometimes the greatest method of evangelism is offering our ears.  It’s a dangerous thing to get out of the trenches to walk to the other side and get to know ‘those people.’  Once you enter that ‘no man’s land’ you’re likely to get shot by your own side, if not the ‘opposition’.  But how else are we going to know what our listeners hear?

We ought to take seriously the words we say, and the impact they have on others, because what we are trying to say may not be what they are hearing.