The Smartphone and Social Media Trap for Christians

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There is no good time to post about the challenges facing the church regarding social media and digital devices. We are living in a time when social media and smartphones can be useful for civic engagement and activism, sharing the knowledge of wise leaders and instant analysis on breaking news events.

However, living in a time when the church could stand to be a place of renewal and spiritual transformation so that we can better engage with the pressing issues of our time, I have seen too many church leaders and Christian media experts who are far too willing to adopt technology without paying sufficient attention to its dark side.

As I offer updates on my research into digital devices and spirituality, I wanted to share a bit about the urgency of this kind of reflection for the church today: 

Growing up evangelical, I learned that sharing the Gospel message matters the most. Any means that I use to share the Gospel is just a “tool.”

So Billy Graham adopting radio was a necessary, if not vitally important “tool” for sharing the Gospel. Of course he should have done that, right? Thousands if not millions heard the Gospel through his radio broadcasts!

Of course there are factors to consider when sharing the Gospel in this manner:

  • What kind of message travels the best over the radio? Are there modifications being made to the message for the sake of the medium?
  • Are the radio messages appropriate for the people listening to them?
  • What becomes of the people who hear these messages on the radio?
  • Can those responding to radio sermons figure out their next steps toward discipleship and Christian community?

That isn’t to say Christians shouldn’t be on the radio. Rather, Christians have generally believed that reaching more people, more efficiently should always be pursued, regardless of the adaptations that must be made or the unintended consequences.

The medium of blogging has tended to reward those who are the most revealing, most sensational, and most combative, so I dare not throw stones from a glass house here. Each medium for sharing the message of Jesus can present particular challenges

If radio and blogging come with such a laundry list of potential concerns, then we should pay particular attention to the movement of most churches to adopt social media in one way or another. More and more denominations and congregations are asking members to bring their smartphones into the service and to USE them.

There are opportunities to tweet questions to sermons, to leave comments on Facebook posts, or to share images from worship on Instagram.

The folks in favor of these innovations use words like engagement, interaction, and community to justify this embrace of smartphones in church.

If we dare to speak about the outreach opportunities on social media, then the barriers between social media marketing executives and church outreach teams start to blur really, really fast.

Social media is where people are spending their time. So, regardless of whether this is good for them, Christians have reasoned that this is the place to have a presence, sharing the Gospel, sending invitations to church, and inviting the “unchurched” to “engage” in the big questions of life.

Once again, writing from my glass house, I share my own writing about Christianity on social media because that is where people are spending their time, whether or not it’s good for them. I am part of the hyperlink game, trying to “capture” the attention of readers with the hope that they may even buy one of my books on Christian topics or sign up for my newsletter.

The only way I can even begin to justify going about the whole social media game like this is whether I can offer a respite, a bit of a refuge in my blog posts, newsletters, and books:

Can I empower people to take more initiative in their daily searches for God?

Can I give them greater awareness of the game being played to suck in their attention?

We’re all compromised to one degree or another, but perhaps we can begin to live with more intention and healthier boundaries by understanding how conflicted the goals of Christianity can be when stacked up against social media and digital devices, such as smartphones.

A smartphone can be useful. It can be a tool. Heck, it even has a flashlight built into it!

But a smartphone exists and the apps on that smartphone exist to collect data about you. The more data they collect, the more profitable they will become.

Yes, Google will help you figure out where to go, but Google is also collecting data.

Yes, YouTube will help you complete a household project, but it also wants you to watch more videos and will continue to suggest another video, then another video, and then another video. The data and ads begin to flow, and it doesn’t really matter what’s good for you as long as the data and ads flow.

Yes, Instagram can be a fun way to share your life with friends and family who are far away, but at a certain point, does it not become a carefully curated presentation of a self and a life that aren’t real? Is this the kind of “curation” we want to invite into church when it’s already challenging enough for folks to be their authentic selves?

I use all of these tools, but having examined the ways they function and the goals behind their designers, I’m not sure about them being neutral tools anymore. They are all designed with an agenda that does not have your well-being or my well-being in mind. Whether or not they “can” be beneficial is beside the point.

The benefits of smartphones and social media are the bait set up in an attractive trap that is designed to maximize user attention and, that word Christians love to use, engagement.

While I don’t think we should necessarily give up on smartphones or social media altogether, we should use them with our eyes wide open. We should know when the goals of these “tools” run counter to the deeper goals of the Gospel to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s love and to love our neighbors more completely.

Engagement and attention on social media or smartphones doesn’t require virtue, love, or community. These industry goals can defy human well-being, let alone flourishing.

If our goal is to draw near to God and to truly become present in love for our neighbors, we should remember that the makers of the smartphones in our pockets (or hands) won’t benefit if we are sitting in silence before God or embracing our neighbors.

Simple Advice for Christians: Trust Your Instincts

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If a leader is too combative and controlling, there’s a reason for that.

If a spiritual teacher keeps giving you tasks and obligations, you’re not learning spirituality or how to abide in Christ.

If a theology system makes God sound like a monster, then you’re not learning about the God who is love.

If you are fearful of God, then your teachers and guides are in error.

You aren’t crazy. Trust your instincts.

Christianity shouldn’t be a series of inconsistencies and shocking incongruities to be accepted at face value.

There should be mystery and uncertainty when encountering the divine, but if you’re repeatedly running into one red flag after another, you can stop explaining away the obvious problems or treating them as inevitable.

You can stop listening to the leaders who demand the acceptance of inconsistencies.

If a system of theology appears to be controlling, oppressive, and harmful, then trust your instincts.

Ask questions, seek the wisdom of trustworthy women and men with more experience, and explore other traditions and perspectives within the faith. What you find may surprise you.

There’s a good chance that other people have already asked the same questions and raised the same concerns.

My faith has evolved from assenting to a doctrinal checklist to consenting to the loving presence of God without any expectations or demands.

My hands are no longer clutching lists of things to do or inconsistent doctrinal statements that require defending.

When all is well, my hands are open, ready to receive from God.

I’m still angry some days at the Christian machine with its demands, obligations, and hoops to jump through. I forget that God is present, views me as a beloved child, and desires that I share this love with others.

At the very least, I can approach each day with the relief that I’m not crazy, that so many of my instincts about Christianity have led me toward a more loving and generous spiritual practice.

I don’t have to run from questions, doubts, uncertainties, and incongruities. There is a lot that I’m still sorting out and recovering from, but the survival of my faith no longer rests in defending insufficient answers to eternally complex questions.

I can rest in the mysterious presence of God with open hands and a mind that is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

 

The Compromise White Evangelicals Don’t Want to Talk About

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Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I frequently heard about the dangers of compromise. Oftentimes this type of compromise related to sexual immorality or false doctrine.

There was one type of compromise we never talked about in my circles: Racism.

The election of Donald Trump has made the gravity of this compromise particularly apparent, even if some evangelicals remain determined to deny it. If our tolerance, if not outright embrace, of racism isn’t the most serious compromise of the American evangelical movement, it most certainly is the easiest to spot, provided you’re willing to objectively look for it.

The reality of the evangelical movement today is that many white evangelicals have tolerated racism provided that politicians and leaders can deliver on other priorities, such as tax protections for churches, “freedom of religion” concerns, and anti-abortion policies. Abortion, of course, is the main issue that is used to justify the neglect of racial justice, conveniently forgetting that activists could advocate for the rights of the unborn AND racial minorities at the same time.

Instead, evangelicals have overlooked racist elements in our society, including housing, policing, incarceration, execution, and education policies. In the case of immigration policies, outright racism is cloaked by cries for law and order and national security, forgetting that immigrant crime tends to be negligible and that many come to America to flee the security threats in their own nations.

For many white evangelicals, racism and white supremacy have become an ingrained part of our identity and heritage. Admitting the depths of racism in our own lives, in our ancestors, and in the society where we enjoy many benefits and advantages isn’t just disruptive—it casts many of our assumptions about the past into doubt. The future becomes uncertain without our narrative in place.

It has been much easier for white evangelicals to ignore racism or to pick up the “what-about” tactics that are readily provided by the racist, white supremacist elements in the Trump administration. For those subjected to conservative media every day, it is preferable to throw out barbs about Hillary and Obama or black on black crime rather than confront the demons of racism in our churches and society.

We need a season of retreat and surrender so that we can allow God’s Spirit to probe our hearts, to confess our failures, and to stop serving the illusions of white supremacy that have been integral to our false selves. We need to be prepared to listen to those who are suffering under our current system, surrendering the lie that racism can be tolerated, provided that other issues are addressed by politicians.

The roots of racism and white supremacy run deep in America, and I confess that I have failed more often than I like to confront it, to learn about it, and to take steps to make things right. When I have spoken to activists about what I should do next, they have overwhelmingly told me to get educated about the nature of white supremacy and issues such as racism in the church, housing policies, incarceration policies, etc.

Evangelicals can talk about so many forms of compromise with ease, but once we bring up the compromise of racism, far too many folks become defensive. That strikes me as quite telling.

Along the way, contemplative prayer has helped me to let go of my illusions and defensiveness. By God’s grace I’ve become slower to speak and more willing to listen, but contemplation remains an essential, daily practice.

We have hard work to do. If my own ongoing process has told me anything, it’s that we won’t like what we find.

The good news is that the evangelical movement has a growing core of diverse leaders. They love the church, and they aren’t afraid to speak the truth we so badly need at this moment. Here are a few leaders you can begin to follow and then add the people they recommend:

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Christena Cleveland
Dru Hart
Kathy Khang
Marlena Graves
Lisa Sharon Harper

By the way… One of my aims in my new eBook series, Evangelicals After the Shipwreck, is to help evangelicals turn over the hardened soil of our movement by learning from the contemplative tradition of the church as we seek justice and restoration.

If there was ever a people who needed to step back and to take stock of their current situation, it’s us. If there is one reform group in the church we can learn from, it’s the desert fathers and mothers and the nuns and monks who responded to a corrupted church from the firm footing of solitude (You can download the first book for free here and the second book, Why Evangelicals Need the Wilderness, is $.99).

The Wilderness Is Where Christians Go to (Eventually) Move Forward

 

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Download my book for free.

 

Growing up as an evangelical, I learned a simple question that determined what I should believe and how I should put my faith into practice:

WHAT DID PAUL DO?

If Paul did it, believed it, or even suggested it as maybe a good idea, then it was good enough for me. To my shame, I remember telling one of my Bible professors in college that it was more important in my eyes to study the epistles than the Gospels.

He gently suggested that I should reconsider that… and I certainly have.

Prioritizing of Paul aside, it is the great fortune of American evangelicals today that Paul offers us unequivocally excellent advice for our current situation where evangelical Christianity appears to be fragmenting, if not altogether collapsing due to political and cultural compromise.

Far too many evangelicals have aligned the Kingdom of God with a single political party and a patriarchal, white supremacist culture that idolizes power and wealth.

Christians throughout America are dropping the “evangelical” label because it has either become meaningless or has taken on far too many negative associations.

Evangelicals are mocked and disparaged because of the ever-shifting values and moral “standards” of a few talking head leaders who continue to work the political system for their own gain and a sizeable evangelical group that fails to see serious issues such as overt racism and xenophobia as deal breakers in their leaders.

Thoughtful hashtags are emerging around questions of evangelical identity and an evangelical future: #stillevangelical #exevangelical. Back in the early 2000’s we used terms like “younger evangelicals” (via Robert Weber) and “post-evangelical” to describe this fragmenting. Should we drop the label “evangelical”? Abandon the movement? Fight for it?

Significant portions of the evangelical movement are corrupt, but there are many positive members and hopeful signs emerging. Regardless, I am not personally interested in preserving a movement or a label. It may be more helpful to understand where we are, what God is saying, and to sort out what to do next with a clear head.

I’d like to suggest that there is a very simple and productive next step every evangelical can take in response to the failures and chaos of our current evangelical situation, and it conveniently meshes with what Paul did. You can even call it a “biblical response” for bonus points. Here is the plan, ready?

Retreat.

Not forever, but for a while. You could say that many of us evangelicals need to take a retreat of sorts from whatever we’ve been doing. We need to surrender for a season instead of constantly forging ahead, trying to make an overhaul on the fly.

I suggest this because many evangelicals are discouraged, confused, and uncertain about the future. We could stay in the chaos of our movement and try to sort out a next step, or we could retreat, wait on the Lord, and then move forward when we gain a bit of clarity.

Throughout the Bible and the history of the church, there is a pattern of reform emerging from prophets and communities in the wilderness or in solitude. From Elijah to John the Baptist to the desert fathers and mothers, to the many nuns and monks who reformed the church from the solitude of their cloisters, reform and prophetic direction has come from those who retreated in order to seek God before spreading their ideas more widely.

There’s a principle for prayer taught by Henrí Nouwen that we first need to let go of what we’re holding before we can receive something from God. A time of surrender and retreat before God can help us let go of the negative influences on our lives.

I suspect that we’ll look to different leaders and teachers as well as shift some of our priorities on the other side of this retreat.

Here is what Paul reported about his own retreat following his Damascus road experience when his entire world came crashing down:

“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13-17 NRSV)

We don’t exactly know what Paul did in Arabia, but whatever God revealed to him brought him in unity with the rest of the church (Galatians 2:1-2).

At a time when evangelicals are distracted, divided, and uncertain about what to do about a movement that appears destined for the rocks, there aren’t simple answers or clear next steps. Perhaps we can relate to Paul, finding out that the cause we’ve given our lives to is, at least in part, misguided, corrupt, and even, at times, opposed to the very people Jesus dearly loves.

It’s safe to say that our own wisdom got us into this mess, so it surely won’t get us out of it. If anything, it’s going to just lead us into another mess.

I believe that God has not abandoned us, but if we have any hope of hearing God’s voice, we need to create space for God to speak. It’s not a mistake that John the Baptist proclaimed his message of repentance and restoration in the wilderness—preparing the way for the Lord. Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in relatively isolated spaces as well.

If you’re a discouraged or uncertain evangelical who is dispirited by our movement, then perhaps it’s time to step back. You may even hear the whisper of God to guide you forward, but first you need to venture up to the mountain to hear it.

You can read more about the evangelical retreat by downloading my new book for free on most eBook sites or just $.99 on Amazon

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Monday Merton: Paradise Is All Around Us

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Thomas Merton converted to the Christian faith because of the possibility to find God today, not just a promise of getting into heaven one day. Experiencing the full presence of God requires overcoming the many obstacles that often appear as necessary or unavoidable once the day gets going. As people who spend so much time in motion, simply stopping may be the hardest practice to learn. Merton writes:

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off ‘one to his farm and another to his merchandise.’Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. ‘Wisdom,’ cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 128

The Monday Merton: Relieving Spiritual Baggage

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In a moment of reflection on the joyful eagerness of the novices of his abbey, Thomas Merton made the following observation:

“We get so much in our own way and try to carry so much useless baggage in the spiritual life. And how difficult it is to help them without unconsciously adding much more useless badge to the load they already carry, instead of relieving them of it (which is what I try to do).”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

What if the adding or relieving of spiritual baggage serves as the mark of authentic spiritual wisdom and guidance?

 

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When Do Christian Books Cause Too Much Damage?

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The last thing in the world that I want to do is write about that dating book—the one where the author now admits he had no actual experience in putting the book’s ideas into practice. He’s pretty sure that it’s wrong (calling it “speculative”), has been hearing people out, and even has started to formally collect feedback.

With no personal malice toward that author, I would very much like the rest of my life to pass without hearing about him or his dating book again. His book caused so much shame, judgment, and confusion in my own relationships that I’d like to assign it to the dust bin of history and move on. I’m just one of many Christians who grew up with this book and have spent significant time trying to work through the fall out. Even if you weren’t negatively impacted by the book, take a look at a small sample of the damage it has done:

What I Learned from Joshua Harris

Christian Boy Meets Christian Girl

I Kissed Shame Goodbye

Recovering from I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Storify of I Kissed Shame Goodbye Tweets

There are clearly better things to do than discuss books written by self-admittedly unqualified authors that have wounded us, the people we love and care for, or our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Here is my problem: That dating book is still for sale, and the simple fact that this book is for sale hints to me that everything we have feared about the Christian publishing industry may be true. Putting the most positive spin on this I can manage, the publisher of this book is at the very least unwittingly acting in a way that proves our worst fears

If I put my worst fears into stark language, they would be something like this: If you’re not a gay, drunk, adulterer, or heretic, you can write just about whatever you damn well please as a Christian author, provided that it makes money.

A lack of craft can be compensated with a ghost writer and a lack of substance can be excused provided the book makes money. If the book makes money but hurts people, the people who complain are just whiners, divisive Christians, or just collateral damage because the book didn’t harm everyone who read it.

Publishers have some limits, just not consistent limits.

Perry Noble? His latest book release was suspended because he was “too drunk.” Sorry, Perry. We can’t have alcohol abuse sullying the reputation of CHRISTIAN authors and publishers.

However, a pastor in Seattle could spiritually abuse people in his congregation, and he wrote a book on marriage—REAL marriage to boot.

And a very young conference speaker can totally handle writing a book about dating before he actually put any of it into practice. Never mind that the book has caused heartbreak and shame for many of our fellow Christians. It didn’t devastate everyone, so why not keep making money from it?

Where do we draw the line for a destructive book in Christian publishing?

We have piles and piles of stories from people who have experienced shame, intimacy problems, and unhealthy relationships because of this uninformed dating book. Sure, it may have helped some readers become a little more restrained, or at least confirmed their decision because a good looking author agreed with them. But shouldn’t the piles of stories AND the author’s admissions about the book’s speculative content prompt the publisher to pull this book from sale?

People can still buy this uninformed dating book after the author has gone on a national tour saying that he was wrong and has repeatedly apologized for it on Twitter. How is this possible?

I’ve been biding my time, waiting through one interview after another as the author goes on his anti-publicity tour where he admits he managed to publish a Christian book on dating that was deeply flawed and hoping that the publisher will pull the book. And so he says he’s sorry, people applaud his bravery, and then the next day people are still buying his bullshit dating book so that he can apologize to them in 10-15 years for their crippling shame and intimacy issues.

For all of the evangelical talk about preserving marriages, shouldn’t we be concerned that the “go to” dating book of a whole generation has been exposed by its own author as speculative? Doesn’t relying on a speculative dating book for advice sound like a “not strong” and “not healthy” way to start a marriage? Would we use a speculative book for advice on raising children? Shouldn’t we take all of the stories of hurt and heartbreak seriously and demand that the publisher pull I Kissed Dating Goodbye from all stores?

Well, the skeptics say, there were PLENTY of people who didn’t suffer shame and heartbreak, so what’ the big deal?

These are the people that the Christian publisher is no doubt listening to—the people who weren’t harmed by the book that is making them money. The bar has been set embarrassingly low.

Perhaps the people in charge at this publisher don’t see things this way. Perhaps they believe they are somehow doing great good in the world by keeping this book readily available. If they are living in this fantasy, I can only hope that spelling this out may help the light of reality start to shine in.

Looking at the publisher from the outside, there is no logical reason why this book should still be on sale. Period. A publisher somehow found the courage to suspend a book by a drunk pastor, but somehow a publisher is OK with a book by the author who is a well-meaning speaker who just did his honest best to help teens not have sex and made up a bunch of stuff along the way. If this is really a reflection of Christian publishing today, then we have a real credibility problem.

I write all of this as a Christian author who cares about the Christian publishing industry. I believe in many of the authors and editors I’ve worked with. We dare not lump everyone into the same boat here. There are many, many editors who would roll their eyes at the mere mention of this dating book. They know what we all know, but the opinions of individuals are quite different from the actions of organizations.

I know many, many Christian authors who invest years and years into their research and craft. They don’t speculate on anything. They seek out expert help, they go to workshops to get critical feedback, they read voraciously, and then they write really, really wonderful books that help make the body of Christ stronger. Readers may disagree with them on some points, but there aren’t entire movements of people sharing stories of shame, fear, anxiety, and heartbreak in response to their books.

I have also worked with Christian publishers who have extremely high standards. One editor at a favorite publisher of mine wrote in response to my 2006 book proposal that he frankly didn’t think I was qualified enough to write the book I had proposed. He was 100% right, and I had to work harder at my research and put my book ideas into practice in order to further refine them. When a publisher finally accepted my first book proposal, I had spent countless hours working with theology professors, pastors, small groups, and trusted friends. I had piles of research notes, and only a small percentage of them actually made it into my book. When I submitted my first draft, my editor pushed me to make it better, to do even more research, and to turn it into the best book I could produce. The book wasn’t a bestseller, but many college professors started to use my book for their classes, and I largely credit the people in the publishing industry for pushing me to make it a better book.

All of my first hand experiences in Christian publishing combined with my negative experiences with this dating book make this whole story extremely galling for me. I know that Christian publishing regularly does better than this. I know that there are excellent authors out there working with world class editors to give us books that don’t receive half of the attention of this dating book.

As much as I want to go my separate way from the author of this dating book and personally never hear from him again, I am grateful for the steps he has taken. I hope that he can move from remorse to actual repentance for his actions by also publicly calling for the removal of this book. I hope and pray that he can find his way again as a pastor, author, husband, and father. I just hope to God he doesn’t write another dating book.

At the very least, the publisher of this dating book owes us an explanation for why the book is still for sale. If the many stories about the damage of the book or the author’s admitted flaws about its content aren’t enough to prompt the suspending of this book, then we need to know what in the world the people at this publisher are thinking. Until they take action or offer an explanation, it sure looks like this dating book is only in print because it’s still making money, not because it makes the body of Christ stronger.

Evangelicals Need to Sit in a Room and Say Nothing for a Long Time

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I solve most of the world’s problems right before I go to bed. It’s true. Ask my wife. I have so many amazing ideas, and she gets to hear all of them right before she falls asleep.

I recently solved the central problem with my evangelical tribe.

You know us, we’re the people who claim to have the “good news” and then we basically spend a lot of time worrying about being damned to hell, praying enough, proving ourselves worthy of God, proving we hold “sound” doctrines, defending those sound doctrines from atheists and “liberals,” fearing the fiery destruction of the world, and jumping into the political fray as if the death of America is the same thing as the death of God.

Evangelicals are anxious. We are anxious people who need to sit in a room and say nothing for a long time.

We fill concert venues with blaring worship music and shout, “Come Lord, Come! Come! COME!!!!”

We study, study, study the Bible.

We serve and minister and volunteer.

And then? The crash. So many of us crash and burn with our anxious, hard-working faith. I gave myself to all of this. I’m an evangelical who studied, served, worked, and defended, and all I got was a lousy crisis of faith. Almost every evangelical I know has had a crisis of faith in their 20’s or 30’s. Those who haven’t had a crisis of faith yet are the ones who could really use it the most.

Sure, we trust that Jesus has saved us by faith and grace, not by our own merits. But then we expend SO MUCH energy working and worrying in order to prove that profession is true. We struggle with holy living. We wonder if the defenses for the Bible will be enough to shore up faltering faith. And most importantly, we lose our ever-loving minds because God feels so distant and silent.

So we study harder, we worship with even more passion than the trademarked PASSION events, and we plead and beg with God: “Please show up. Please tell me that you’re real. Please tell me that the years of guilt, shame, repression, and fear were worth something.” Something has to give.

Some snap out of that phase, and realize that the game is over. God isn’t real. How could he be? What God would want people to live with such fear, misery, and uncertainty?

Others harbor those doubts, fears, and illusions, but they stick with the practice of their religion. Jesus matters so much to them. They want the story to be true. They want to believe that God is somehow involved in the world, but they simply can’t figure out how to find that God. They settle for mystery, but end up living without any search for or experience of God.

There’s another option that takes the beliefs and, don’t miss this word, practices of historic Christianity seriously. In fact, the problem that plagues evangelicals today may best be described as a selective amnesia. We have fought tooth and nail to uphold the scriptures and doctrines that the early church passed on to us, but we couldn’t give a flying fig (that’s an evangelical swear word) about the practices of the early church.

There is a stream of Christianity that takes the foundational teachings of our faith seriously—so seriously that they are viewed as givens—without devoting our entire lives to defending them from skeptics. This is the contemplative stream that pre-dates the canon of scripture. This stream has been practiced in quiet and solitude, as well as in cities and small towns. It has driven some to serve actively and it has driven others deeper into the desert. Ironically, those who traveled the furthest into the desert were eagerly sought out by many from the cities. These desert contemplatives exercised tremendous influence and their words remain powerful, relevant, and formative until this day.

The contemplative stream of Christianity tells us to sit in a room by ourselves and to be quiet for a long time. It challenges evangelicals to consider how much we’ve become like the ecstatic prophets of Baal who shout and dance and make a tremendous scene before an unseen god while Elijah watches with quiet confidence.

Evangelicals, we have a lot of good things going for us, but underneath all of our media empires that promise to defend us from the big bad world, our universities that continue edging toward sheltered fundamentalism, our large churches packed with programs and offices (not with prayer chapels), and our deeply flawed hero-worship and business-influenced leadership culture, there is a deep need for the loving search for God. By and large, we are not known as people who love.

I know that “love” is my deepest struggle. How do we generate love for God? How do we love people?

If Jesus’ two most important commands are to love God and to love my neighbors, if Paul said everything he does is “shit” (that’s only a translation of a Greek swear word, so we’re cool) without love, and if the apostle John used love as the only measure that matters, then our disconnect from love has to be addressed.

So far as I can tell, I have found love so difficult because I have been cut off from the source of love. This brings us back to our quiet room where evangelicals need to sit and say nothing for a long time.

The contemplative stream echoes the Psalms that tell us to wait on the Lord, to wait in silence.

For being people who love the Bible, cherish the Bible, defend the Bible, and who attack people who don’t love, cherish, or defend the Bible as much as us, evangelicals do a pretty terrible job of actually believing what the Bible says about God’s love.

I know this first hand because the foundational teachings of contemplative prayer are two things that are both very true in the Bible and very hard for evangelicals to believe:

  1. God is here.
  2. God loves you.

Evangelicals could spend years digging up scripture verses to disprove the very two things that we have longed to know all of our lives. This is why we need to sit in a room all by ourselves and say nothing for a long time.

We need to make a space to become aware of God and of God’s love. This isn’t necessarily a space for epiphanies or visions or amazing spiritual encounters. In fact, the contemplatives warn us that desiring spiritual encounters or amazing visions could become quite dangerous, as they can be self-serving and manipulative toward God. We begin to crave validation and experience over choosing to rest in the truths that God is here and God loves us.

This is a far cry from the anxious, hard-working evangelical subculture. Evangelicals don’t have language for a dark night of the soul. We can only think of ways to shine “light” into a dark night of the soul. When we are given the option of silence before God, we are quick to quote scripture and to begin another freestyle, “Lord we just…” prayer.

We desperately need silence. We need to learn what it means to abide. We need to learn what it feels like to finally be still before God for a long time.

This is the path we walk by faith. This will take all of the faith that we can muster.

I have taken a long, winding path into contemplative practices. They were the only things I could hold onto when my evangelical faith crashed and burned. I spent years worrying that they didn’t work, that God wasn’t real, or that I had somehow alienated myself from God. I freaked out because nothing was happening. I have since learned that this is by and large the point.

People who abide and live by faith don’t need God to constantly poke them in order to prove that he’s real. It took years of learning to search for God before realizing that I’d already been found. I couldn’t make God any more present. I couldn’t plead with God to be with me more than he already is. I couldn’t say anything to make God love me more. I couldn’t add any spiritual practices that would change the way God loves me.

I am loved and you are loved right now. This is the deep, abiding mystery of our faith. This is a truth that can revolutionize our lives.

This love of God is so deep and unfathomably wonderful that the only appropriate response is to sit in a room and say nothing for a long, long time until we accept that God is here and God loves us.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

 

When the Truth Doesn’t Help and God Is Hard to Find

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My pastor once asked during a sermon: “Who would you turn to when your life hits rock bottom, the theological know-it-all or the person who embodies the love and compassion of Jesus?”

Some may say that one need not choose between the two, suggesting that an unrelenting, uncompromising dedication to the truth is the most loving thing you can do. My pastor was aiming at something entirely different.

If you get the truth that Jesus and his contemporaries were communicating, you’ll start to embody his love and compassion. In fact, transformation becomes far more important than indoctrination.

I won’t say I’ve hit rock bottom, but our family is in a challenging, isolating season. It has felt like ALL HANDS ON DECK for months now, and we have no guarantee that it’s going to end soon. In the midst of it, someone said to me, “Remember, we have a great God.”

I’m not sure that “remembering” theological statements in this season has been that helpful. I have been far more in need of God’s presence and empathy rather than intellectual guarantees. It’s a similar principle to the story of Job: when difficulty strikes, theologizing should never come before empathy and presence.

I’m not shutting down the “thinking” part of my faith, tossing out my theology books, or leaving my Bible unread. The big picture of my life doesn’t boil matters down to an either/or proposition between theology and love/empathy. Perhaps I’m reacting against a proposition-based, theologically-driven form of the Christian faith that mightily feared not having an answer for a particular situation.

When life becomes difficult, this fragile form of the faith grasps for answers and throws around truth as if the people in a difficult situation could pose a threat to the stability of Christianity. What if someone’s trouble demands an answer that a proposition-based faith can’t deliver?

More than propositions, Jesus came to give us God’s presence. The assumption is that seeking first his Kingdom and his righteousness will ensure that things work out in the end. If anything, Jesus disrupted the answers of theological systems without necessarily tossing out theology all-together.

Jesus pointed us to the place where we can find God’s presence and experience union with God. I have grown suspicious of anyone who wants to debate that point or inserts caveats.

As life feels uncertain, and challenges pile up, I have longed for God’s presence more than ever. The people I’ve turned to for prayer aren’t the ones with all of the answers. I’m taking my weakness and fear to the people who will pray with compassion and love. These are the people who know the Father’s heart and can intercede on my behalf as fellow beloved children of God. These are the people who happen to have a sound theology, so far as I can tell, but that is only  because they have drawn near to the loving presence of God.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

 

Deliver Us from the Idolatry of Big Things

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If it wasn’t for the television ministry of a relatively affluent pastor of a long standing megachurch, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have become a Christian.

My dad got saved because he happened upon Charles Stanley preaching about the prodigal son on television one night. My dad prayed to receive Christ that very evening and things haven’t been the same for us ever since.

I won’t paint catastrophic, apocalyptic pictures of two paths for my life. As if my life without Christ ends with me in a prison cell doing arm curls with a massive dumbbell, just living for the moment I can get a smoke in the yard. No, it’s a bit more mundane, but still sobering. I know that I would be largely at the mercy of my desires, anger, and anxiety because I battled them for years on my own and only found deliverance through God’s presence and intervention. That’s enough to make me eternally grateful for Charles Stanley’s massive church (we visited it, and the size of it is bananas) and their television ministry.

The younger Stanley, Andy, recently let his guard down a bit during a sermon and said that people who go to small churches are selfish and aren’t looking out for the best things for their kids. He said that big churches provide big pools of kids in their youth groups so that they’ll have lots of friends.

The lesson? Go to a big church if you don’t want to be a selfish person.

I watched the video with my jaw down. Did he just say that? Oh, he did. Andy later apologized on Twitter. But I think he let his cards show a bit during the sermon, don’t you think? More to the point, I think Andy’s little rant about big churches goes beyond an overreaction against people who criticize the size of his church. Sure, he has every right to be annoyed at the haters who can’t appreciate the value of his church, and we most certainly need churches of every size—we really do. Remember, Paul praised God for the simple fact that the Gospel is going out regardless of the preacher’s motives.

Let’s give Andy some grace for a moment and remember that we’re all tempted to treat big things as the best or ideal. Like Andy, we all have our own anecdotes about big things working and we imagine that’s really the only way to go. Most importantly, we face the temptation of measuring our faithfulness with numbers, and bigger is always better.

How many Christian ministers, writers, nonprofit leaders, and creators in all manner of professions automatically assume they’ve failed if they can’t build a large enough audience or reach a certain goal? In addition, how many spend time longing to imitate the size and success of those with larger audiences? How many of us have gone to conferences in order to guarantee audacious goals are crushed for the all things?

The temptation to compare is constant. I share about the danger of envy for Christian writers in Write without Crushing Your Soul, and the truth is that low sales numbers may mean it’s time to try something different, but they don’t necessarily validate or invalidate God’s calling on your life or the value of your work.

Bigger numbers don’t always indicate God’s blessing or calling.

Where do we turn if bigger isn’t always better?

This is where I show my charismatic Christian cards.

The times that I have sensed God’s presence and peace have been the times when I knew I was on the right track. Letting go of something that wasn’t right eventually brought a sense of relief and peace—if not immediately, then at least in retrospect.

Growing a big ministry or audience or anything isn’t always a blessing. For many pastors and creators, a big audience can lead to suffering or a downfall. Pastors burn out from the pressure and writers struggle to produce content to keep their readers happy. Some eventually break down and leave it all behind. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

I don’t pray for big things. I pray for faithfulness. I pray that I can remove the clutter from my day long enough to hear God’s still small voice and that I’ll have the courage to obey it.

The results may be small. I may need to make some changes. That’s fine with me. I’ve seen big things and small things work.

After my dad got saved while listening to Charles Stanley, we started attending a small church of about 150 people in rural New Jersey. I made some great friends. Yes, our middle school group was small, but our church was a family. People genuinely loved each other and loved to share the Bible with others. While the particulars of fundamentalist Christianity introduced some negative elements at times, I never doubted that I was loved and accepted in our tiny church.

I never felt like I was missing out from the big church stuff. We had something precious and valuable in our little country church, and I wish folks like Andy Stanley could take a Sunday off to visit a church like that to see what I mean about that.

Our culture’s obsession with big stuff is an American-Made idol that we can all make the mistake of worshipping. Perhaps we can only find salvation if we sometimes intentionally seek God in the small things and quiet moments.