Friday, October 06, 2006

London Or Bust...

As I take a moment during my lunch hour to reflect, after an early-morning meeting with Tory Baucum, who'll be leading us on our excursion to London next week, it hit me:

I'm going to London!

The extent of my international travel, to date, has been Haiti (with a brief visit - enough time to re-fuel - to the Bahamas) and Canada (which is like the US, only embarrassed about it). It's generally on these kinds of experiences that people learn a lot about themselves.

Like the time Uncle Dennis went hunting up in Idaho and ended up having to unexpectedly camp out in the wilderness (I won't say it was because he was lost, cause he owns guns and knows how to use them... I just think he was unexpectedly detained). With only a small pack of stuff he had brought with him, he didn't panic, made due, survived the night, and tromped back to the lodge before the search parties got rolling. When you find yourself out of your element, you find out what survival skills you've really acquired over the years. Sometimes those skills are really useful (like making a meal without food) and sometimes they aren't (in Dennis' case, for example, how to use a remote control to watch his beloved Utah Jazz). It isn't until you really need them, though, that you become acutely aware of how necessary or potentially destructive the habits you have developed to deal with life, really are.

London is about as "post-Christian" as you can get. About 5% of the population attends church, and of that 5%, a great many of those people can remember bombs falling on the city during World War II. When a pastor leads a church in London, he's not waiting for someone to move into the community to transfer in from another church or for the children who were raised in a church to return to it when they have children. Those churches are at least two or three or more generations removed from a world where it could be assumed that the vast majority of the population is sympathetic to, and has a history in, a church. There, to keep the doors open, you gotta go reach new people with the message of Gospel, or throw out the model of "church" as we know it, in order to be pastors to somebody.

What's more, the English are generally well-educated, and have largely been educated at school and at home to believe that the whole Jesus thing is played out. Most are atheists or agnostics... and they are not the kind of atheists who focus their energy on getting God's name removed from a dollar bill. They are people who genuinely, intellectually, don't believe in a god, or at least, not in an exclusivist god with an exclusivist history and an exclusivist belief about what that god wants .

Whether it's the belief that killing yourself while killing others will get you 72 virgins in Heaven, or that God promised your people a city in Israel for all eternity, or that you can be reincarnated as a cow, or that you and your wife will become gods in your own world after you die, or that your savior's mom was a virgin when she gave birth to him, because none of these beliefs can be proven or substantiated scientifically, the mindset is that we ought to be grown up enough to let them go. And in their place, I'm guessing some sort of moral secular humanist approach to living is taught so that people won't start taking advantage of one another.

In preparation to understand this mindset, I've been spending a little time reading and listening to Sam Harris (an atheist), who wrote the provocative book, "The End of Faith", and has just released "Letter to a Christian Nation" ( Harris' point is that even people who practice religion quietly are as much to blame, if not more so, for the hatred that its generally more fundamentalist practitioners bring on the heads of people in the world, because in a climate of political correctness, they have made debate or discussion on people's personal beliefs a taboo. Thus, beliefs that can't really be substantiated in the scientific world but are codified in religious texts that are said to have a supernatural origin, are often rejected by religious moderates who end up becoming ignorant of their own faith because they ignore those religious texts they disagree with (how many Christians in the room know much about Leviticus? the minor prophets? the carryings on of Judah, son of Jacob? the number of people David or Samson or another Israelite king killed in battle?). The fundamentalists, being fundamentalists, know the whole book, can recite it, and thus intimidate the moderates because they can't answer back out of any knowledge-base.

Kind of reminds me of the time that a member of Campus Crusade for Christ showed up at my dorm room the first week of my freshman year. By end of the conversation, he had me pretty much turned in circles because he knew more about what was in the Bible than I did, which resulted in my asking him to leave, but still feeling confused. Then three weeks later, I watched him get eviscerated by an athiest grad student in a Religion class who knew the Bible, once again, far better than he did. A lack of knowledge usually promotes doubt and a call for tolerance so that largely, the more ignorant person doesn't get tested. Interestingly enough, you'll hear committed evangelical and liberal Christian scholars say the exact same thing... ignorance on the part of the majority robs it of its authority, and jeopardizes its future.

What's more, as we enter into a post-modern era, where people have become disillusioned with where science and technology have ultimately taken us, Harris (once again, just like a lot of evangelical and liberal Christian scholars) is alarmed that without any kind of controls on religious discourse or practice, that people are engaging in even riskier religious behavior as a means to finding personal meaning, which he believes will lead ultimately to more evil being done in the name of somebody. Harris (unlike most, but not all, Christian scholars) would rather create new rules around religious discourse where things that can't be proven scientifically and aren't in accord with a secular moral humanist perspective aren't given the same (or any) weight in rational discussion, and ultimately, religious extremists are excluded (eliminated?) from the discussion

And, where do you think Harris got turned onto this kind of thinking? Well, he's working on a doctorate (at Stanford) on using magnetic imagining on the brain to find out if the brain processes religious beliefs different than other beliefs. Also, he's spent time in places like Denmark where 88% of the population put no stake in any religious belief but are now dealing with Islamic fundamentalists who want to blow up their country because of a cartoon.

NOTE: Right now, some of you are upset that I've spent energy on detailing an atheist's position, and then gave you a link to do more investigation on your own. I get the sense that his argument will become more the norm as time goes by, and it won't go away just because a person of faith doesn't think it's right or appropriate. You wouldn't want the Buckeyes to go into a game against Michigan without having watched any film or studying their tendencies would you? Well, this is kind of the same thing I'm doing for you, so chill.

So, in London, I'm wondering what survival skills I've developed as a pastor would sustain me in that culture? Would a motorcycle blessing turn out a big crowd of motorcycle enthusiasts for a worship service? Would incorporating a praise band to play snappy, upbeat music attract a crowd for worship? If I concentrated on youth or children's ministry, hiring leaders and building an amazing facility geared toward kids doing stuff they like to do, would that make a church grow? What if I taught a bible study that lasted over two hours a week for 38 weeks or fixed up my church to not look like a church? Would acts of sacrificial service give the church the necessary weight to be heard in the culture? Or will a totally new (or maybe, really old) form of evangelism be necessary to gain the ear of a public waiting to hear something that makes more sense than faithless rational secularism?

The answer to these questions, and others, are the reason we are going to London.

It's amazing really, but its hard to understand how much an overall perception that most people "generally appreciate the Christian church even if they don't go" shapes what we do. I've a sense that motorcycle blessings, snappy praise music, new buildings, and smart hip youth pastors work mostly in this country because other Christians have become dissatisfied or disconnected to another Christian institution. It's not that these things aren't effective or appropriate.. they are. But their effectiveness is predicated on the belief that these are things people are already looking for "what the church ought to be doing anyway".

As the movement of these disaffected (or maybe they weren't disaffected but willing to try something new) people start heading to your church, there's a perception that something good is happening there, and thus maybe some unbelieving souls come out of curiosity, or with a friend, but the foundation always starts with disaffected (or "open-to-something-new") Christians. Usually the last thing we normally do is try, either through education and relational modeling, to help people understand the dynamics of Jesus re-shaping their view of themselves, others, the world, and the hereafter.

I'm not sure that in London the kind of approach we take here toward making our church better, or bigger, would work all that well... especially if the culture is made up of "Sam Harrises", who think, at best, that the ideology we're preaching is irrelevant and outdated, or at worst, that it needs to die so that humanity can move forward.

I wonder if I could survive a Christian minister in a place where 95% of the people were either indifferent or antagonistic toward the church? And the bigger question.... Are the number of Sam Harris-types multiplying in this country at a fast enough rate, that London's present is our future?

Well, I'm going to London to find out. It's London, or bust!

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