Are We Cult or Christian?

blog - cultAt a Bible study a few weeks ago, one of the young adults in my congregation mentioned that someone she works with at the local hospital asked her where she went to church. She told him and he said, “Oh, I think that’s where so-and-so goes to church too” referring to another young adult who is a member at our church. Her co-worker followed that up with the comment, “Doesn’t that church belong to a denomination that’s sort of like a cult…but not really a cult?”

We all sort of shared a laugh at our small group Bible study, but there was a part of me, as a pastor, who thinks, “Ugh. That’s the general perception.”

Of course, I have no right to be upset about the perception if the perception is indeed accurate. So, it’d probably be helpful for us to clarify exactly what makes a cult a cult.

What is a cult?

The idea and terminology of “cults” was introduced in America in the 1930s by American sociologist Howard Becker, piggy-backing on the work of German theologian Ernest Troeltsch. Becker defined “cult” as “a small religious group lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs.” (Stark & Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, pg. 124)

Becker, however, acknowledged a difference between a cult and a sect. A sect is generally considered a portion of a larger denominational group that often denounces the parent group’s liberal trends/heresy and encourages a return to true(r) doctrine. Put differently, “sects claim to be an authentic, refurbished version of the faith from which they split” (Stark & Bainbridge, Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18, no 2: pg. 117).

So, if anything, our church is part of a sect, not a cult. So take that!

Technically, the groups in the United States that have traditionally been referenced as “cults” are those that have something of Christian roots but which deviate from the orthodox basics of Christianity. Groups like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Universalists, and Christian Science fall into this category.

Furthering our understanding of America’s perception of what a “cult” really is, Marry Ann Sieghart wrote an article on Al-Qaida back after 9/11, helpful to this discussion, in which she suggested that this Muslim extremist group possessed the classic characteristics of a cult: “Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means.” (Sieghart, Mary Ann (October 26, 2001). “The cult figure we could do without”. The Times.)

The general idea, then, is that cults tend to manipulate, exploit, and control their members. Almost invariably there is authoritarian control over members, communal and totalistic organization, fairly aggressive proselytizing, and systematic programs of indoctrination. Members tend to dress alike, talk alike, and think alike, with very little tolerance for variation. There is a certain, fairly clear pressure of conformity and subsequent practical disconnect between the cult member and his/her surrounding society.

To the original point…in case you were concerned, if you belong to my church/church body, we’re NOT part of a cult! Probably not even a sect 🙂 Anyone who categorizes us as such is, for the most part, incorrect on a variety of different levels.

Furthermore, understand that at one point Christianity itself would have been categorized as a cult. Early members met privately in one another’s homes, practicing an illegal religion, consuming the body and blood of their leader. This was understandably and rightfully considered a deviation from normal social activity. And in an increasingly post-Christian climate in the U.S., don’t be surprised if orthodox Christian behavior once again starts being categorized as “cultish.” In fact, in many respects, I would HOPE that Christians would stand out in society. For Christians to actually be the glowing “city on a hill” (Matt.5:14) that Jesus intended, we need to be radical in our generosity, selfless in our relationships, pure in our sexuality, honest in our speech, kind towards all (esp. the socially outcasts), and, in general, prioritize Jesus in everything we do, from our time to our money to our marriage partners. If we get labeled as a cult as a result, so be it.

My point is NOT that we should acquiesce to culture in order to not be labeled as a cult. My point is that we SHOULD stand out culturally, but for the right reasons.

Okay, so what are the main things that cause us to stand out to the world?

The initial issue I proposed from the start here was that someone at a local business was under the assumption that several of my members belonged to a quasi-cult. But what gave him that impression? Is it possible that the whole “looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” thing applies to any degree here?

I certainly don’t want to overstate anything, yet I’d like to be as honest with my assessment as I can. I’ve gone through the entire WELS system from beginning to end – elementary school, preparatory high school, college, and seminary. As a (definite) generality, I would tend to say that conformity was championed significantly more than originality. My continually reaffirmed understanding was that tradition and compliance were good and innovation and uniqueness were frowned upon. I’ll get to the pros of this in a minute, but my fear is that this approach tends to stifle creativity and the ability of an individual to think for himself.

Furthermore, I also think this mentality tends to make breaking into our church body unnecessarily difficult. For instance, a church body that does not allow for any recognition of individuality is probably not going to attract many from the African-American community, where virtually every sociology textbook will tell you that “stylistic self-expression” is merely a part of the culture.

Now, if you’re WELS, look around. You see A LOT of people who look like you on Sunday, don’t you? This fact is not a secret to anyone who is WELS, but the cause, I’m afraid, remains a mystery to many.

Longstanding conformity in church culture might be comfortable to those on the inside, but is it biblical?

I don’t know about you, but I’m actually pretty tired of playing the old “six degrees of WELS separation” parlor game, except that in our church body its sometimes like two degrees. I’m exhausted of hearing, “It’s a small world in the WELS.” And it’s not that I think it’s bad to have a familiar connecting point. It’s that I just don’t want this to be a small world. I think we have a remarkably pure proclamation of the gospel we’re holding onto and I hate the thought of anything standing in the way of sharing it. I don’t want students at synod schools concerned about marrying their cousins (I wish I was making this up). If we can recognize the unnatural nature of this amongst the Amish, we probably should be sensitive to it (or the perception of it) for ourselves.

We also probably want to be careful about the way we use the word “Synod.” I was first alerted to this when I started dating my (now) wife, who was not WELS originally. Attending seminary at the time, apparently I’d gotten into the habit of referring to this nebulous, higher power known as the “Synod.” As a result, when I was talking to her about some decision I was making, she’d occasionally jokingly prod, “Hmmm…what does the Synod have to say about that?” She’s funny like that. But I learned my lesson. I was speaking as though I belonged to a cult. At least that was the perception.

Now, to be fair, I recognize the concerns about individuality. A MAJOR part of Christian conversion is the recognition that my life is not about me, it’s about Jesus (Matt. 16:25).  Additionally, the reason I’m here in this church body is the high regard for Scriptural integrity, which does not allow for wiggle room on countless clear doctrines. When it comes to Scripture as authoritative, one of the biggest weaknesses of American Christians is the refusal to leave personal bias, feelings, and interpretations at home. Our church body does a VERY commendable job of keeping our doctrine on track.

I’m simply suggesting that this all does not/should not come at the expense of stripping anyone of his uniqueness as God’s child, nor of promoting the perception that we are a “cult that’s not really a cult.”

I think Christian churches need to ask themselves what exactly they’re asking people to convert to? Am I converting to faith in Jesus or to a more conservative haircut? Both? It’s got to be clear.

As additional evidence, Harvard professor Lamin Sanneh wrote in Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West that one of the aspects of Christianity that led to its spread being successful in Africa in the 20th century is that while other religions required Africans to relinquish their culture, Christianity redeemed their culture (i.e. added additional meaning and value). Yes, it was a shift in beliefs, but Africans were still allowed to express those beliefs through their own native cultural forms.

It’s a beautiful thing for the name of Jesus to be praised in unique languages, through unique cultures, by unique people.

A Broad Color Palette is Part of the Beauty of Christianity

The Bible is very clear about establishing unity in Christ Jesus, but diversity within that same body of Christ.

1 Cor. 12:7,11 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good….All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Our uniqueness, given by the Spirit, is intentional.

Gal. 3:26-69 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Our uniqueness as individuals boldly contrasts, and therefore actually shines a spotlight on, our uniformity of faith in Jesus.

Rev. 7:9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

Our uniqueness, in the end, will demonstrate the gathering power of the gospel call.

Conclusion

Am I being too harsh on us? I hope not. Actually, I sort of wish I was just delusional and this was all in my head.

But I’m asking you to see this from the perspective of a pastor whose church has had the mildly embarrassing charge of “cult that’s not really a cult” lobbied against it. And since so many of our churches are nearly identical, I’m guessing my church is not the only one. But that’s sort of the point.

I fight day-in and day-out to try to convince young adults that “church” is not some obsolete institution they’ve inherited from their grandparents, but a necessity for all Christians of all time. Cult comparisons don’t help.

If I’m way off base, let me know.

Otherwise, I’m going to try my best to love you for our unity in Jesus AND for the individual he’s made you.

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Christians Gettin’ Naked – Social Media, Transparency, and the Christian Opportunity

blog - Social Media & Transparency

The Impact of Social Media

Whether you love it or hate it, social media has changed the world. And if you do hate it and have dug your heels in about not getting involved, you at least have to come to grips with the fact that it’s not going anywhere.

Believe it or not, we’re nearing the 10-year anniversary of Facebook (founded in 2004) and approaching Twitter’s as well (2006). These, as well as other top networking sites have become an integral part of daily life in the 21st century. Make no mistake, social media has become every bit as life-altering as the inventions of the car, the radio, the television set, and the personal computer/internet. You’ll notice, too, that each of those innovations had their own way of shrinking the world – making us more interconnected. They increased our capacity for face-to-face interaction despite distance, learning despite distance, or being entertained despite distance. And now, social media has increased our capacity to maintain relationships despite time and space separating us.

The online transparency, vulnerability, and invasiveness will only increase. In a TED Talk from a few years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, the visionary often credited with being the mastermind behind the invention of the internet, predicted that social networking sites will themselves all soon be interconnected and that eventually, people will not just post bits of info or upload documents and files online, but that nearly ALL data will be stored online, accessible to everyone.

For some, this will sound like a scary incarnation of George Orwell’s 1984. For almost everyone though, this seems like a fairly terrifying amount of transparency.

But for Christians, should such access into our private lives be that frightening? After all, what do we have to hide? That’s a BIG question?

I think we all know the answer too – we all have A LOT that we’d like to hide. However, though that may be our first inclination, should that be our final action? Let me explain….

Covering Our Sin for the Illusion/Delusion of Righteousness

In recent years I’ve come to a very different understanding of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount than what I’d previously held. I was reminded of this last week when talking to my wife, Adrian. She’d mentioned that she’d been going through this portion of Scripture (Matt. 5-7) in her devotional reading.  I asked her what she thought of it and she said, “I just felt pretty lousy after reading it.” I responded that I actually think that’s probably a better way to read the sermon rather than how many people read it – viewing it as a challenge for increased morality.

It’s fairly easy to see how many who do a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mount see it primarily as an exhortation to faithful living. That’s how I viewed it for much of my life. After all, Jesus does say, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)

But look at the context. Jesus is preaching to a group of Jews who, from what we can surmise, believe they are significantly more moral and righteous than they actually are. This is why, for instance, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-22) And again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) Without a doubt, those originally listening to this sermon would have walked away feeling worse about their deeds.  

Now think carefully. Does it honestly make sense that Jesus would tell a group of self-righteous people that they’re not as righteous as they think, all in hopes that they’ll work harder at becoming more righteous? Put another way, a lot of people read the Sermon on the Mount and think – “Man, I’ve really got to get my act together and get more righteous.” Unfortunately, I think many feel that way, in part, because that’s what they’ve been taught. So tell me…..how much more righteous do you need to become before you can earn God’s favor? Or….is it possible that under the direction of the Spirit, Paul, the psalmists, and the author of Ecclesiastes actually knew what they were talking about when they said, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12; see also Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Ecc. 7:20)

What if Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is NOT primarily encouraging us to produce greater righteousness but is actually having us despair of our own righteousness?

Jesus didn’t murder, but he also didn’t hate. Jesus didn’t commit adultery, but he also never had one lustful thought. Is it possible that the demands of righteousness we hear in the Sermon on the Mount are not simply intended to get us to act more righteously, but to repent, and find shelter in the ONE righteous person – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You see, “your light” and “your good deeds” are really NOT your own doing. Jesus alone is the “light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5)

Now, what does this have to do with social media? A lot. Ironically, while Americans have desperately pursued greater privacy for years, we’re actually living in an era where there is an unprecedented level of access into someone’s life. The window has become a glass house. Every day, new pictures. Every day, status updates and intimate thoughts. Every day, transparency.

So, as a Christian, what are you going to show to the world?

A Christian has to realize that “my light” and “my good deeds” are wrapped up entirely in Jesus. He’s the one I boast about. In many ways, as Christians, our lives are just as messy, our impulses just as wicked, our thoughts just as worldly as everyone else. Let’s be honest about that. Social media (and this era in general) has provided heightened transparency. What that means is that Christians have been given an opportunity, NOT to brag about myself or my deeds. The pagan world does such things. Rather, Christians openly repent and boast about the grace of God shown to us.

Here’s a quick example: This past week in several Bible studies I shared a story I was so embarrassed about that I hadn’t told anyone for 15 years. I went to a Christian high school. We had chapel services every day. Each week, we gathered offerings on Tuesday. At that time, while I knew Jesus as my Lord and Savior, my functional gods – the things on which I was trying to establish my worth and identity – were things like academics and athletics. Our basketball games were generally played on Tuesdays and Fridays. So, my sophomore year of high school, at one chapel service, I decided to multiply my weekly offering by a factor of ten. This was a big deal. I remember putting my offering in the plate and asking God to bless my basketball game that night. And guess what? I played my best game of the season. So guess what my offering in chapel was the following week? Yep, I was dropping Hamiltons once again J But here’s the catch – I didn’t play nearly as well that night. And guess how I felt? I was furious at God. You see, I was never giving that offering out of love or thankfulness for my God’s grace. I was giving the offering to leverage God to help me with my real god, i.e. athletic performance.

This stupidity and godlessness was fairly difficult for me to admit. But I’ve never had so many people come up to me and thank me for a story as after this one. The illustration obviously doesn’t make me look good. It actually exposes my weaknesses. But it ultimately highlights God’s grace. That type of transparency for 21st century Christians is a powerful and important way of sharing the goodness and mercy of God. Be honest about your lowliness. Be honest about God’s graciousness. This really isn’t all that different from what Paul himself said: “I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.” (2 Cor. 12:5)

Let me add one final point to make sure this is tied together by the gospel.

The Nakedness of Jesus

When Adam and Eve sinned, they attempted to hide their nakedness. Now, remember, prior to this point they had walked and talked with God, all while not having any clothes on, and they were perfectly fine with that. But when they sinned, they realized how vulnerable they were. They were naked! Why did they come to the realization of “nakedness” at that moment? While they hadn’t lost any fibers from their body, they’d lost the righteousness of God that had covered them.

Fast forward to Jesus. Do you know why Jesus was stripped naked prior to his crucifixion (Matt. 27:28)? This is very important. The Holy Spirit is telling us that Jesus was having his righteousness removed so that it could be placed upon us. “He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness.” (Isaiah 61:10) Furthermore, he was becoming naked and vulnerable as he was having our nakedness, our transgressions, placed upon him (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was stripped naked so that you and I could be covered.

And therefore, the Bible’s general teaching about being honest about our sinfulness – to God, to ourselves, and to the world – is this: If you try to cover yourself, you will be exposed. If you expose yourself, Jesus will cover you.

Don’t be afraid to let people know just how flawed you are. Don’t be afraid to let people know just how incredible your Savior is.

Feelings VS. Reality

blog - feeling & realityIn the past couple of generations, there has been a MAJOR shift in the way that our country’s populace generally views truth, and then specifically views organized faith groups, i.e. “church” or “organized religion.”

I’d liken it to the difference between medication and a placebo. As a general rule, we find medication helpful because it works. But only if you believe in a placebo will you find it helpful. You see, a placebo is inherently powerless to help you, but if you personally think it’s helpful, in the 21st century, no one’s going to fault you for using anything that “works” for you.

Today, many modern people look at religion as something that they won’t knock you for if you find it helpful. But they do not believe it is innately helpful, much like a placebo.

Do you see the difference? Several generations ago in our country, and really in most cultures throughout history (excluding modern Europe), people have always believed that basic notions of God and religion were true, and therefore they must be helpful. But modern people believe, for the most part, that we’ve progressed beyond the need for “God” to explain things. Consequently, if you want to be naïve enough to believe in God and religion, that’s fine, but please don’t try to share those beliefs with the rest of us and certainly don’t bring them into the social arena, because no one else should have their lives negatively impacted by your distorted belief in fairy tales. In other words, the basic current understanding of faith by most of the academic elites, the movers & shakers in the world, is that if you want to gullibly swallow the placebo of Christian faith, that’s fine, but the subtle insinuation is that you’re probably pretty weak-minded for believing something so antiquated, childish, and foolish.

What’s interesting to me about this common argument against biblical truth is that, while it’s backed by more Ph.D.’s, it’s really the same basic argument as a young teenager for why she believes what she believes – she feels that way. The academic might be able to cite some research, which has value, but do NOT let academics convince you that their beliefs are entirely evidence-based. They’re not. Every assessment we make stems from presuppositions we have. No interpretation is unbiased.

So, for instance, you might ask a 14-year-old girl why she likes one of the boys from One Direction and she’ll tell you “because I LOVE him!” Okaaaay. Got it. She has a strong feeling about him, so she believes it MUST be true. You ask a 30-year-old journalist why she thinks same-sex marriage should be legalized and she’ll maybe tell you that it’s because the majority of people today deem it “right.” You explain to her that 150 years ago the majority of people in our country believed that slavery was “right” and ask if she thinks that makes it right. She’ll tell you “It’s complicated.” But, you see, her opinion really wasn’t ever based on evidence; it was based on her own personal feeling about who we should be able to love. You ask a 50-year-old biology professor what a child in a pregnant woman’s stomach is and she’ll tell you it’s a “fetus” or an “embryo” or a “zygote” or whatever term-of-the-day language we’re calling unborn children these days, but if we discovered just a fraction of that fetus’ cells on planet Mars, that exact same biologist would tell you, “We’ve found life on Mars!” Uhhhhhhh. Her declaration of an unborn child as a “fetus” and not simply a “human” is not based on evidence; it’s based on presuppositions, feelings, about what the most convenient way to define something is. Had doctors been saying “We’re going to kill your child now” for the past 50 years, I feel that the abortion number would probably be about half of what it’s been.

I don’t think I’m overreacting when I suggest that the postmodern transition from reality dictating feelings to feelings dictating reality is something of an epidemic. I see it ALL the time from a theological standpoint. People say things like, “I don’t think a loving God would allow..” or “I don’t think God would be so exclusive about….” or “I don’t think miracles make sense because…..” But it isn’t really higher logic that drives people to those conclusions. It’s their feelings. There is absolutely nothing illogical about a loving God punishing sin or a wise God holding to exclusive truth or a supernatural God possessing the ability to intervene in his own created laws. Those individuals don’t hold those opinions because they’ve just carefully thought them through. They hold those positions because they feel that way – their gut reaction, their sinful hearts, have actually clouded their judgment at that point.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that modern people are the first people to project their feelings upon objective truth, reality, and God himself. What I’m suggesting is that we are probably the first culture in history that reasons that our own personal feelings are a good barometer of making claims about truth and how God should/does operate.

You might also notice that I used women in all of the examples above. That was intentional. For starters, and I mean this as a complement to women – they tend, on average, to feel more than men. Again, in general terms, the Bible suggests that they were designed by God as more relationally aware, emotionally intuitive creatures than men. In many ways, that’s an advantage and tremendous blessing. As a human race, we NEED that. But human strengths can also become weaknesses when we trust them too much. Additionally, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve simply encountered more women than men who will tell me how God should/would operate and base it on nothing from Scripture but on what they personally feel to be right.

But what if reality alone dictated our feelings? What if something was helpful simply because it was true, not true because we found it helpful? Christians should take this one step further – what if we actually let God’s promises in the Bible dictate the way we felt about everything and everyone?

Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) If I believed the reality, I would never feel alone. After talking about how wonderfully he provides for the sparrows, Jesus said, “So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:31) If I believed the reality, I would never feel worthless. Jesus said, “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.” (Matt. 5:5 NLT) If I believed the reality, I wouldn’t ever feel superior to others. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44-45) If I believed reality, any anger I have towards people who mistreat me would turn into compassion towards those who God intends to be my family. Jesus said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matt. 6:14) If I believed the reality, I’d stop beating myself up for mistakes I’ve made that God himself has already pardoned.

What kind of people would we be if we allowed the reality that the Bible teaches to shape our feelings, instead of letting feelings that are generated by sinful hearts shape our reality?

On a bigger scale, what if everyone in the world let the reality of Scripture, the truth of Jesus Christ, dictate humanity’s existence? I feel like it would be a little slice of heaven.