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Thoughts too long for a Facebook status message.

Church of the Dimpled Chad

Remember the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election?  A poorly designed paper ballot had election officials struggling to determine what most accurately represented the will of the voter: A hanging chad, a dimpled chad, a partially detached chad or a two-cornered chad.  Many argued that a dimpled chad showed intent and thus should be counted as a vote.  Others argued that the vote shouldn’t be counted unless the voter showed enough commitment to their vote to actually dislodge the chad.

The church in America could be called the Church of the Dimpled Chad because we’re eager to accept anyone who shows the slightest interest in joining us.  We may ask a few questions to find out more about their intent (and some do ask some relatively difficult questions) but few churches will risk turning away a new member.

And there’s good reason for that.  If you believe in a literal Hell, a place of eternal torment where those who are not reconciled to God before they die, a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” what kind of heartless person wouldn’t eagerly welcome anyone into the lifeboat?

Reading the stories of Jesus, though, he often responded in a much different way.

The Jesus Way

Discourage

I remember listening to Consider the Cost by Steve Camp in college and thinking I totally didn’t understand it.  I mean, it sounded like he was actually discouraging people from becoming Christians.  That couldn’t be right…right?  The words he used were words Luke attributed to Jesus, though:

And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. “But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!'”

Disturb

At times, he went much further — intentionally saying difficult, offensive things to drive off all but the truly committed:

So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. I live because of the living Father who sent me; in the same way, anyone who feeds on me will live because of me. I am the true bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will not die as your ancestors did (even though they ate the manna) but will live forever.”

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.

Demand Everything

What does Jesus require of the people who want to follow him?  Everything:

As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.'”

“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”

Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Strength of the Church?

Proponents of organic/house/simple church advocate for what they say is a more effective, biblical model of church.  They point out (rightly) that two of the greatest periods of growth in the Christian church have been in the first 300 years A.D. and in the modern-day Chinese underground church — both textbook models of a decentralized, simple church model.

The more I’ve read and thought today, though, the more I’ve begun to wonder if the model isn’t actually one degree away from the true reason for the growth during those times.

The reason this model was so prevalent in those periods is because no other model would work.  It wasn’t because they chose that model; the model chose them.  When you’re relentlessly persecuted for being a Christian, gathering centrally in large groups simply isn’t an option.

When the first Christian church formed in Jerusalem, it followed a centralized model for a few years until Stephen was stoned to death and the believers fled the city under a wave of severe persecution.  For several hundred years afterward, being a Christian meant certain hardship and often death — sometimes brutally so.  Spectators regularly gathered in the Coliseum to watch Christians be devoured by wild animals, and Nero even had them dipped in tar and burned as torches at his parties.

In both the early years of the Christian church and in China today, choosing to be a follower of Jesus is a very difficult choice.  The circumstances naturally conspire to make it as “hard to enter the Kingdom of God” as Jesus made it in his time.  No one has to discourage, disturb or demand that they give up everything to follow him — the world they live in does that naturally.

The result is a church that is much smaller but one that is filled with completely committed followers of Jesus.  The model is indeed extremely effective, but is it the cause of the strength of the church?  Or is the church so strong because it requires such an extreme level of commitment?

Should We Change?

What do you think?  Is there a reason we’ve lowered the bar so much of what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  Are things that much different here and now that we need to take a completely different approach than Jesus did?

I’m honestly asking, because I genuinely don’t know.  I’ll be the first to admit that I speak with a certain level of ignorance and an exceptional degree of idealism.  I’m interested to hear what others think.

Filed under Spirituality

4 Comments

  1. Jim

    Fabulous insight, Shane. I had never thought to read those words of Jesus as not simply prescriptive but descriptive…i.e. this is how it’s going to be for you so you should embrace it.

    I would suggest that the world today is not all that different from the world of Jesus’ day and that, even in our own context, we will surely face similar rejection. The world, is the world, is the world. Just because you put a red, white and blue tie on it does not make it less so.

    I wonder whether part of the reason that we do not feel this is that, in addition to the freedoms offered us (which are significant), we have co-evolved a way of being and doing church that fits nicely with our ways of being and doing our American middle class thing.

    Not that we have a corner on that. Bonhoeffer wrote about the dumbing down of discipleship in mid-20th century Europe and castigated the church for offering: ‘cheap grace.”

    “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the grace, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus.”

    Or as Flannery O’Connor parodied that form of church in her novella, Wise Blood. “The Church of Christ without Christ where the blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear, and them that’s dead stay that way.”

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