Burned out on religion?

From 32 Cute Little Girl in Pink Dances photos set (uncropped).photo © 2010 Mike Baird | more info (via: Wylio)

"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? "

Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest.

Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. 

I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

- Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30, The Message 

What makes you tired and burned out on religion? 

What draws you back into those unforced rhythms of grace?

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Why real conversation requires risk

Transient

I will never know what it’s like to be an atheist or agnostic…(or Muslim or Jew)…living in the Bible Belt, where a minority religious status can ostracize you from just about every aspect of Southern culture. 

However, as I’ve grown more vocal about my doubts and questions concerning evangelical Christianity, I’ve come to understand some things. 

I understand how frustrating it is when your questions are not taken seriously. 

I understand what it’s like to be seen as a project. 

I understand why people are uncomfortable in church. 

I understand why people avoid conversations with Christians. 

It occurred to me yesterday (as I was skillfully avoiding an encounter with a certain someone at the grocery store) that the most frustrating thing about being seen as an “outsider” is knowing that when people talk to you about faith, they approach the conversation with the assumption that you have nothing to contribute to it. You can sense almost immediately that you have been relegated to little more than the fertile ground in which they can “plant some seeds,” a problem God has told them to fix. 

I know this is true because—as embarrassing as this is to admit— I used to approach “outsiders” in the same way.  I listened because I was “looking for an opening.” I invited them to youth group events because I wanted to “get them through the doors” of church. I initiated relationships with people in order to change them, to make them more like me. 

When it came down to it, I was talking at people, not with them.  They were the ones with something to learn, not me

Technology has made it even easier to develop a habit of this. Just a few days ago, Josh sent me a link to an article in the New York Times featuring new iPhone applications that allow both believers and skeptics to quickly access points and counterpoints should they find themselves in any impromptu debates.  Imagine looking down at your phone while a friend tries to explain why she doesn’t believe in God!

It’s kind of funny how so many Christians insist on absolute certainty when it comes to their own faith, while their evangelistic efforts rely on a level of uncertainty among others. We expect other people to be willing to change their minds when we are not.  We demand that those on the other side of the conversation take all the risks—the risk of being wrong, the risk of learning something new, the risk of being changed. 

The difference between talking at someone and talking with someone is the willingness to take those risks.

And there’s no app for that.

***

So, how do we become better conversationalists? What must we overcome to be willing to take some risks?

(Photo by bensonkua)

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Pastor Knows Best

I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying healthy, positive relationship with my pastors over the years, relationships that have left me with enormous respect for church leaders and the challenges they face daily.

Having befriended a lot of pastors’ kids, I know that pastors and their families are often held to impossibly high standards that leave them constantly striving for perfection and subjected to great scrutiny.  That kind of pressure is enough to strain marriages, hurt children, and trigger major burnout.  I am thankful for all of the men and women who have persevered to share the gospel under such circumstances.

But lately I’ve been noticing something else. While some pastors are unfairly criticized by members of their congregation, others are overly revered. In conversations with friends and family, I’ve noticed more and more people talking about their pastors or priests as if they could do no wrong, as if they speak for God Himself. I'm not sure if circumstnaces have actually changed, or if I have changed. Perhaps I'm just now noticing - a result of my "posmodern" tenency to doubt and deconstruct.

These are three red flags that I’ve been seeing:

Red Flag One - Pastor as the Only Source of Counseling

I’ve known a lot of people to benefit enormously from pastoral counseling. Dan and I did our premarital counseling with a pastor, and we’ve certainly benefited from his advice over the past six years.

That being said, I think there are some issues that pastors are simply not qualified to address on their own.

I recently heard someone say, “My pastor counsels straight from the Bible...There’s none of this Freudian crap.”

That worried me a little. Freud had some good things to say, actually, and trained psychologists/psychiatrists bring lot of experience and education to the table when someone is suffering.  Yes, reading the Psalms can be therapeutic and helpful...but so can cognitive behavioral therapy. It seems to me that Bible verses alone are not going to cut it when something more serious, like hypnosis or even medication, may be necessary.

Furthermore, I’ve known some pastors to give some bad advice...mainly because they are so close to the individuals involved. Sometimes you really need an objective third party to help you sort things out.

Red Flag Two - Pastor as the Only Source of Theology/ Biblical Interpretation

Recently I’ve been corresponding with several different pastors from a variety of denominations. This has been a fantastic experience, as I love talking theology with people who have really studied it! What has surprised me the most about these conversations is the wide range of responses I get when I pose questions or challenges.  Most pastors talk to me like a peer, as if my thoughts are valid and reasonable and worth engaging. But a few have a tendency to get defensive or treat me like a child. They avoid answering my questions directly and instead turn the tables, posing litmus-test-type questions and then telling me whether I got them right or wrong.

I think perhaps some are just so accustomed to assuming the role of leader and teacher that  they aren’t sure how to respond to someone who has done her fair share of research on a topic.  They seemed a little surprised that I didn’t just accept their interpretation of Scripture as the only interpretation of Scripture.

I’ve never been the type of person to just believe whatever a pastor or teacher tells me to believe. For better or for worse, if something doesn’t make sense, I question it.  I look into it. Some pastors seem to be used to this; others seem caught off guard.

I would be wary of any congregation in which the pastor is revered too much to be questioned (though questions should obviously be posed in the right way, through the right channels, and with the right timing).

Red Flag Three - Pastor as the Only Example of How to Live

This happens when a pastor’s lifestyle choices are hailed as “the only right way to do things.” I’m thinking of spending habits, marriage relationships, gender roles, political persuasion, entertainment choices, etc.  When everyone in a church eats, drinks, and talks like its pastor, something’s not okay.

What red flags would you add?

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Bush and the "decline of Christian America"

The recent Newsweek cover story, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” has generated a lot of interest (and some controversy) over the Easter holidays. If you haven’t had a chance to read the story, check it out. It’s well worth it.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading Jon Meacham’s stuff. An editor, commentator, and best-selling author, he’s a great storyteller with fantastic insight into faith and religion in America.  A practicing Episcopalian, he’s originally from the Chattanooga area, so there’s a local connection. I find him consistently engaging and fair.

Some have misunderstood the article to be about the decline of Christianity. But even a quick scan of the piece shows that Meacham actually focuses on the decline of “Christian America,” by which he means an approach to public life that is governed solely by Christian principles.

Writes Meacham:

While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago.  I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called ‘the garden of the church’ from ‘the wilderness of the world.’

Meacham cites the recent American Religious Identification Survey, which found that the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, rising from 8 to 15 percent. According to Meacham, “while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.”

What Meacham observes instead is dwindling fervor for the notion that the U.S. should be governed by certain interpretations of the Bible or by Christian theology, an approach common among evangelicals.

“American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two,” he writes. “History suggests that trouble tends to come when one of these forces grows too powerful in proportion to the other...Worldly success tends to mark the beginning of the end for the overtly religious in politics. Prohibition was initially seen as a great moral victory, but its failure and ultimate repeal show that a movement should always be careful what it wishes for in America."

This reminded me of some interesting statistics we uncovered in reading the unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, by David  Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The book focused on young people’s perceptions of Christianity, based on studies conducted by The Barna Group. These studies showed that while 85 percent of non-believers had a favorable opinion of Christianity’s role in society in 1996, those numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, to the point that 38 percent of young adults have a negative impression of present-day Christianity. Interestingly, this survey showed that when asked to identify society’s best-known Christians by name, young people identified the Pope, George W. Bush, and Billy Graham most often. Three-quarters of young adults without Christian affiliations described Christianity as “too involved in politics.” Nearly two-thirds said they perceive “the political efforts of conservative Christians” to be a problem facing America.

I wonder if perhaps the failures/unpopularity of the Bush administration actually affected the country’s perception of and identification with Christianity. Perhaps evangelicalism in particular has become so tied up with politics that the decline of Republicanism signals, to many, the decline of Christianity in public life.

Perhaps evangelicals should be careful what they wish for.

What do you think? Is the “decline of Christian America” a good thing or a bad thing?

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Finish the Sentence Friday: Confession

So Bob Jones University issued an official apology this week for its racist policies. Believe it or not, Bob Jones refused to admit black students until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000. A statement on their Web site said that these rules were shaped “by culture instead of the Bible.”

Lest we get too proud and look down our noses at the “fundies,” let’s remember that all Christians carry the burdened of a troubled history.

I’m reminded of the chapter in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz in which he and his friends set up a confession booth at Reed College. They used it to apologize to their classmates on behalf of the Christian community for everything from the Crusades to Columbus to televangelists.

So, in that spirit, finish the following sentence: 

As a follower of Christ, I am sorry for...

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