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Living a Public Faith

We live in a culture where “personal” faith is synonymous with “private” faith. As long as you keep your religion to yourself, you’ll be just fine, or so people tell us. As long as churches keep their activities confined within the four walls of their buildings, life can go on in peace. But what if Jesus, the One in whom many claim to believe, doesn’t call us to have a private faith? A personal faith means we personally believe in the Person who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, including our own (John 1:29). A private faith means there is no place for what I believe to enter the public arena. It appears this is the faith preached by the clergy of our culture.

In the book, The Day America Told the Truth, authors Patterson and Kim surveyed Americans on the relevance of their religious belief. In a chapter entitled, “Who Really Believes in God Today,” they wrote:

What is going on in congregations, parishes, and synagogues across America? The news is good—and bad. God is alive and very well. But right now in America, fewer people are listening to what God has to say than ever before.

Ninety percent of the people we questioned said that they truly believe in God. It would be the logical conclusion then to think that God is a meaningful factor in today’s America. But we reached a different conclusion when we dug deeper with our questions.

In every single region of the country, when we asked how people make up their minds on issues of right and wrong, we found that they simply do not turn to God or religion to help them decide about the seminal or moral issues of the day.

For most people, religion plays virtually no role in shaping their opinions on a long list of important public questions. This is true even for questions that seem closely related to religion: birth control, abortion, even teaching creationism and the role of women in the clergy.

On not one of those questions did a majority of people seek the guidance of religion in finding answers. Most people do not even know their church’s position on the important issues….

Only one American in five ever consults a minister, a priest or a rabbi on everyday issues. Half of us haven’t been to a religious service for a minimum of three months. One in three haven’t been to a religious service for more than a year. More than half of us (58%) went to services regularly while growing up, but less than half of those (27%) do so today.

Yes, indeed, many claim to believe in God, but few draw the connection between faith and how we view and live within the world. Is it any wonder, then, how this privatization of faith has impacted our churches today? Charles Colson described this when he wrote:

People flit about in search of what suits their taste at the moment. It’s what some have called the “McChurch” mentality. Today it might be McDonald’s for a Big Mac; tomorrow it’s Wendy’s salad bar; or perhaps the wonderful chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A…. Spiritual consumers are interested not in what the church stands for but in the fulfillment it can deliver…. The result is an age of mix’em, match’em, salad bar spirituality (The Body, 42-43).

It’s time for those of us who profess personal faith in Jesus Christ to live that faith in the public arena. According to surveys, the number one reason given by young adults who have left church after high school is not because of the preaching, programming or even the music. The number one reason young adults leave the church after high school is because they didn’t see that believing in Jesus made any difference in their parents’ lives. Do you have a personal faith in Jesus? Maybe it’s time to take your personal faith and go public (James 2:15-17).

The World Cup and the Church - Reprised

Eight years ago I wrote an article about the World Cup and the Church called, "Why America Will Never Win the World Cup and Why This Matters to the Church."  After watching the U.S. go head to head with Portugal last night, I thought I might pull out that old essay and see if it holds any relevance today.  The interest in "futbol" has grown quite considerably in the U.S. over the past eight years, as you will see from my now antiquated observations.  But the application of these muses still resonates with the American Church.  Let's see if you agree.

July, 2006

By the time you read this, the World Cup will have come and gone. This global event that occurs every four years may have passed without even a hint of awareness on your part. Before this year’s World Cup (which is all about soccer, by the way) I considered this event about as important as my need to pull the weeds behind my shed once a year. I am a sports-minded individual. Not a fanatic, but a fan nonetheless. So why has it been so difficult for me to get into this sport that has such a global fan base?

As I have contemplated this deep theological issue, it dawned on me that this is a picture of the church. So much has changed all around us. In the world of sports, American fans are still caught up in the national pastimes of football, baseball, and basketball. And I’m one of them. But to many younger generations and fans around the world, soccer rules the roost along with “extreme” sports such as BMX, skateboarding, snowboarding, and the like.

In the community of faith called the church we are still caught up in our “worship wars,” dress styles, and other personal preferences. Meanwhile, people in our communities have moved on and do not even realize that these issues, which seem so important to us, even exist.

I remember one Sunday about six months after we planted Journey Christian Church in New Orleans, one of our church leaders said, “Isn’t it wonderful? Not one person has made an issue about what people wear or the type of music we sing.” That changed, of course, as more churched people began to attend. But the beauty of reaching a predominantly unchurched culture is that you don’t have time to worry about preferences. You’re too busy helping people get off of drugs, off the streets, or out of the meaningless existence of just trying to make more money.

So why is it America will never win the World Cup and why does this matter to us in the church?

1. Game vs. Lifestyle

For America, soccer is a game. For other countries, it is a lifestyle. The same can be said concerning our faith in Jesus Christ. For some it is merely a routine experience of knowing (1) we are “saved,” (2) we are supposed to “go to church,” and (3) we should be “good people.” In order for our churches to grow spiritually and numerically, however, Christianity must become a way of life (Colossians 3:17).

2. Subculture vs. Mainstream

Soccer in America hasn’t quite become mainstream. It does not receive the media exposure given to the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Soccer is more of a subculture, still in the ranks of snowboarding and BMX. In other cultures, soccer is THE THING. It is mainstream, and the fan base shows it.

Although Christianity may never be (and possibly shouldn’t be) mainstream (Matthew 7:13,14), we shouldn’t grow content with our faith becoming marginalized and merely tolerated as one of many options in the religious and neo-pagan landscape of America. This is not about power but being salt and light to penetrate our culture and reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).

3. Short-term vs. Long-term

Four years ago the American soccer team made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup only to lose to Germany (I looked it up, And you know how we Americans can be. We win a few games and the next thing we expect is to become world champions.

So this year was supposed to be “our year.” Expectations were high only to be shattered by a quick exit. Soccer did not become a “national pastime” in Brazil, Portugal, and other countries overnight, and it will not happen that way in America either. It may be two or three more generations before our country gets on the bandwagon of men (and women) kicking a white ball into nets.

Likewise, in our culture of “bigger is better,” we in the church are often tempted to view ministry through short-term expectations rather than long-term cultural change. The rippling effects of lives radically committed to Christ, loving one another, serving our communities, ministering to the poor, and being faithful in personal ethics will grow gradually from generation to generation. This is why intergenerational ministry is so important as we learn from the wisdom of our elders and take risks in reaching the youth of our culture (Titus 2:1-8).

4. Status Quo vs. Sacrifice

If soccer is to become a top-tier sport on our airwaves and in the hearts of our people, then schools, parents, coaches, and kids need to move to greater levels of sacrifice instead of maintaining the status quo. Higher expectations require higher sacrifice. Training, resources, commitment, diligence—all of these need to take place. In France, Germany, Brazil, Spain, and Portugal people take soccer seriously, and out of that demeanor comes sacrifice.

Similarly, churches can very easily fall into a status quo mentality where things are “good enough” for our congregations rather than ramping up through sacrifice for whatever God may have for us on the horizon. This is not just about reaching more people for Christ but helping people become better disciples of Christ (2 Peter 1:5-11).

When someone is baptized into Jesus Christ, what do our churches do to disciple these new converts? How can we strengthen marriages? How can we equip people more effectively to use their gifts in meaningful ministry? How can we take seriously that what we do on Sunday mornings is eternally significant because we are worshiping the living and mighty God of the universe?

Perhaps one day the U.S. will win the World Cup. To be honest with you, even if it does I probably won’t be painting my face red, white, and blue and singing “God Bless the U.S.A.”

What excites me, however, is seeing our churches continue to learn these World Cup lessons and become even more effective at reaching our world for Jesus Christ.

It is time for us to train diligently and sacrificially, because we do not have another four years before the next big event. Our real-life matches happen every day, whether we are ready or not. So let us “compete in the games (with) strict training” not to receive a crown that will perish but “to gain a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

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