Thursday, November 09, 2006

Branding Christianity

The outside is something of European glory
With steeples, bells and angels holy
The inside is old and barely swept
With years of tear and miles of debt
(this is a poem i wrote a few years ago. maybe it fits for the subject of this blog)

Well, I know I’m not the only one but I am completely and totally frustrated with yet another story involving a minister/quasi-political figure caught in a scandal. My frustration is not so much with Ted Haggard himself* as it is with the whole ‘system’ we currently find ourselves in. (i.e. the media, politics, preachers, etc…). I’ll just get straight to the point: I don’t like the idea that by virtue of me being a Christian I am generally lumped in with the current ‘branding’ of Christianity that is so often portrayed. This really isn’t an attempt to speak from any position of authority or to point fingers in judgment. It is an attempt to give voice to the concerns that I have and that I know many new believers have about this situation. Oh boy, buckle up… four things at least… The key players in this ‘brand’ often appear to be more concerned with:

A. Conforming to external standards rather than living an authentic life. Put another way this group is failing to “walk the talk.” And it’s embarrassing! When we value authenticity we say, “Hey, I’m messed up without Jesus as well. I don’t have all the answers either. And because of those things I’m not going to pretend that I’m better than I am… or better than you are.”

B. Legislating morality rather than pursuing inward purity. In many cases now Christians are perceived to be people who spend their time imposing rules, laws and belief structures on others. Look, legislation is not inherently bad and I hope we have good laws but c’mon, the world will not know we are Jesus-followers because of the great laws we impose. They will know we are Jesus-followers because of our love. Didn’t Jesus talk more about the internal than the external? Wasn’t that a major point of contention between himself and the religious leaders of his day? One more question: What if we took all that time, money and energy that went into passing new laws, boycotting new products and issuing statements and put it into striking up honest, humble dialogues with our neighbors? There are no amounts of laws that we can pass that will make us more moral.

C. Power rather than serving. Why do we continually fall into the trap of thinking that power comes from the rich, those in the media, those who are ‘connected’ with the politically ‘in’ crowd, etc…? To try and answer my own question a bit, I think in part we do this to influence our society. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it continually comes off as being like Jimmy Terp. (Jimmy Terp was in my grade school for several years and was a pretty nice kid except he was so smart he had to win every argument. He even tried to tell me that he knew more about snakes than I did when we were in the 2nd grade! Can you believe the audacity of the guy?) That’s what the current brand of Christianity looks like to the world – the kid who is so arrogant that he thinks he knows all the answers. And worse, he won’t stop until he wins at any costs. This is called, “winning the battle but losing the war.” When will we remember that those who are “last are first”, that “unless something dies it cannot come to life” and that it’s okay to lose an argument? (When’s the last time you heard any preacher/politician admit to that?) Yes, it’s counter-intuitive and it feels like we are being hammered to death at times but Christianity is an anvil that has worn out many hammers!

D. Belief rather than passion. Oh, boy, I feel strongly about this one. Christianity is weakened when it is defined only by its doctrines, statements and bylaws. The first believers were called “people of the way” not “people of the set of beliefs” or “people who believe this and that but not that or that”... It was “people of the way”. Put simply the way of Jesus is a better life. Please don’t misquote me here – beliefs are important and they serve a purpose. Without beliefs we’d be lost but the new brand of Christianity frequently gets ‘the cart in front of the horse’. (The old stumbled at this point also as any look at the history books will tell you.) When belief structures receive supreme billing eventually walls get built up. I think it’s safe to say that the average media-watcher around the globe is now under the perception that Christianity is about ‘wall building’. Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, says it better than anyone when he asks, “What do we do with walls…? We defend them.” He goes on to say that a better perspective may be of a trampoline. Because what do we do with trampolines? We jump and we invite others to jump on with us. Jumping on trampolines is scary and fun. You never quite know how or when you are going to land. It’s much more difficult than building walls. As believers the great majority of our time shouldn’t be going toward defining and defending who we are… a great majority of our time should be saying, “Hey, come on and jump with me. Let’s learn together.”

In summary, if you are reading this blog and you are not a Christian… you’re probably smart enough to know this already but don’t get caught up in the current branding going on in the media… If you want some direction, purpose or freedom… or if you just want to dialogue… find someone who subscribes to some of the aforementioned points, who is humble, who is willing to admit that a relationship with Jesus is the focus and not a religion about Him.


*Officially, and unofficially for that matter, I will say that I am deeply saddened for the Rev Haggard and for his wife, family and church. It’s amazing how someone in so much of a public spotlight could take such a fall but the truth is between the lust for power and the deceptiveness of sin nothing really shocks me anymore.

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jtc said...

Great entry! Its not easy being branded as a Christian not only because of the actions of other Christians but also because of the club policies. I myself have been feeling a little alienated lately. Mainly because (and I'll be honest) some of my thoughts, and opinions don’t fit traditionally with the faith based community of republicans (go ahead and gasp) but I'm also definitely am not comfortable on the left hand side of things either... so where do I fit??? I realized that by looking at the differences that I have with people or 'groups' rather than the similarities than I end up in a lonely demographic and I think that is often the problem. As people we divide ourselves with differences rather than unite under similarities probably out of a desire for power (or insecurity) and really at the end of it all what do we really control anyways?... I want to fit into a community or demographic of people who want to put Jesus (who lives in us and through us) on display to a broken and hurting world. I feel like as people we live with a fog between us. I feel like the dream of the planet is a dream of hell, a dream of fear ruled by the victim and the judge that we all have inside of us. I want to dream a different dream. God has refused to give up on us even through all our unfaithfulness to him so we should not give up on others. With that being said though there is a definite accountability and responsibility that people have to live up to and not only those that are in power but those that are in families, churches and communities so when another story breaks like Ted Haggard my judge and victim comes right to the foreground ... is it surprising? no. should it be? probably ... and that’s a problem.

(sorry this is so long)

jonathan foster said...

thank you. you write well. i especially like the "i want to dream a different dream..." part. i think many, many younger christians also want to dream a different dream. hmmm... well, i guess we better start dreamin' then... some of your feedback helps me do that.

jtc said...

Thanks... Though after sitting with my initial response I feel I need to add how incredibly grateful I am to be a Christian and what a beautiful life changing gift it is. That although the label or branding can carry baggage at times the positives far out weigh the negatives... I mean big time ... like a weigh in between me and a sumo wrestler ... that kind of difference.

Plus I remind myself that God will judge us all individually anyways. Right?

jonathan foster said...

i agree... tbe weight difference between the two of you is huge.

Anonymous said...

I have read your blog several times, but never left a comment before. I'm encouraged and challenged by your passion. There are so many opportunities around us to SHOW people the love of Jesus, which I am learning how to do, but I struggle with having the boldness and courage to TELL people about Jesus. One reason is because of the branding aspect, you write about. It seems that as soon as someone finds out you are a Christian, they lump you into that big group that is portrayed by media, etc. I want to make a difference in the world I live, a difference in my neighborhood, a difference in the lives of people I come in contact with, but I want them to see JESUS in me, not American Christianity.

jonathan foster said...

thanks for the comment. i 'feel your pain'. so, we're definately in a new day and age regarding all this. i look at it as a challenge... a challenge to creatively serve people and act in ways that are christian but not have to tell them until they ask. and then, when they do be forthright for sure but just a bit understated. some people would probably disagree with that but given the current brand of christianity i dont think we have much of a choice. go for it!

jonathan foster said...

by the way it should read "cart in front of the horse." i always seem to mess that one up.