What’s Your Story?

The Unchurched - A True Story (Logo)

Six months ago I announced my newest film project on Facebook. Since then, a number of people have asked me what it’s about. Many of my churchgoing friends assume it’s an effort at recapturing the backsliding Christians in America; the more secular ones believe it’s my well-rehearsed rant against the institution of modern religion. So, which is it?

With tongue firmly in cheek, I have to admit: it’s both. It’s so easy for people to gravitate to the extremes in any socio-moral spectrum, and that’s exactly what has happened with modern American Christianity. You have fundamentals on one side, fighting for conservative politics and traditional church services; on the other, radical free-spirits who buck systemized spiritual organization found amongst liberals and moderates alike. But a community divided cannot stand. A balance needs finding, and I’ll beat it over people’s heads if I have to.

That said, I’m a brand-spanking new filmmaker; the umbilical cord hasn’t even been cut yet. I have no lofty dreams of uniting Christians nationwide under one banner, or even reaching a large audience. But with a camera, a computer, and a vision, I’m willing to see what might happen, on a personal level, if the subject is opened to my family, friends, and peers.

So what’s your story? Where do you stand?

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Halo 3: Outreach Opportunity or Threat to Christianity?

WARNING: This is a rant inspired by the article — “Is Halo 3 a tool for outreach or a bad influence?“. The title alone makes me chuckle, but since apparently there are churches who don’t find the topic amusing, I guess we’ll have to address this seriously.

“If you want to reach people you [must] have legitimate, authentic relationships.”

These are the words of Dudley Chancey, a professor here in Oklahoma who is challenging the concept of Halo 3 as an outreach tool. He cites the violence and the passive isolation of gamers (similar to TV viewers) as reasons why Halo is unfit for youth evangelism, arguing that “After I explain [to students] that I’m not into [videogames], the weirdest thing happens — we talk.”

Mr. Chancey makes a number of mistakes here:

  1. The violence in Halo is akin to paintball, cops and robbers, and any number of children’s pastimes. I would argue his real issue is with the aggressive nature that such violence reflects. If he does not understand why this kind of outlet is not only tolerable but imperative for young men, I strongly recommend he read “Wild at Heart” by John Eldridge.
  2. Gamers are not passive or isolated by any means, and that’s doubly true for Halo 3. Multiplayer games thrive on teamwork and camaraderie. In high school, my youth pastor hosted videogame parties both at church and at his house, and I met a number of friends through the experience. One of those friends was Jason Pferdeort, who has since become a lifelong friend whom I would trust with my life — where do you think that kind of trust started? Let’s just say he’s covered my back many times with his Halo-sanctioned sniper rifle.
  3. Can you build meaningful relationships by NOT playing videogames? Of course! That’s like saying you can build houses without using stucco — it has no bearing on whether the opposite is true.
  4. “Outreach,” by its very name, involves reaching out to people who are in a different social circle than you. You need common ground to bridge that gap. Halo 3 happens to be pretty common ground among male teenagers. So, why is it that it shouldn’t be used as a conversation starter?
  5. Lastly, Christian parents need to wake up. You can’t protect your baby boy from the world by neutering him anytime he has a taste of testosterone. He’ll either lash out in adulthood or he’ll be the “safe” quiet guy who gets manipulated his whole life. Churches need to lead the effort to reignite the Biblical picture of masculinity rather than appeasing the requests of overbearing parents spiritually unprepared to raise their children.

So, yes, Mr. Chancey, I do think Halo 3 can be used for outreach. In fact, I would argue it’s one of the best ways for youth groups to stay relevant in an increasingly “unchurched” world.

Now if someone could get me a camera and a microphone, I’ll tackle the issue of “unchurched.”

The Latent Flaw of Small Groups

It’s past 11:00 on Saturday night and I’m still up looking for a church to attend tomorrow morning; you see, I’ve just moved to a new community (details and photos to come) that has no less than 20 churches nearly within walking distance of my new apartment. As such, I’ve taken the rather modern route of Googling each one to find out more about their beliefs — specifically, their focus (or lack thereof) on small group settings and how they relate to the church as a whole.

Why small groups? In recent years I’ve begun to see cracks in the contemporary model of “church” that forms the basis of mainstream non-denominational Christianity, largely attributable to the average size of the congregation. Mega-churches just don’t make sense, on either organizational or relational levels — how can you have an integrated, loving community when most people don’t even know each other? After studying and participating in a church-planting effort in New Jersey, my heart is firm in the belief that a “church,” literally a community of Believers, needs to be small enough to build relationships with each and every person involved. Thus, small groups are the real form of church that I seek.

(Interestingly enough, this idea has roots in the secular realm as well. Malcolm Gladwell touches on the size and effectiveness of small groups in his popular book The Tipping Point.)

The concept of small “cell” groups has taken hold of many mainstream churches, yet their execution of the idea has been inherently backwards — that is, they require one to first be a part of their larger congregation before joining one of their small groups. Like many Believers planting churches across the globe, I believe it would be better to invite people to a small group setting before trying to entice them into a Sunday morning church service. For one thing, sitting down with 8-10 people in a living room discussing spirituality is more real and approachable than having your first religious experience be among 400 other people singing disturbing phrases like “His blood cleanses me” and “sacrifice my life” from a Powerpoint slide with entirely-too-peaceful backgrounds of waterfalls, doves, and crufixes.

Another crucial difference in the implementation of small groups is the idea that each community actually functions like a typical community — they live near each other, send their kids to the same school, get involved locally and generally spend a lot of time “doing life together.” The goal is not to have a weekly Bible study (good as that is), but rather to form and maintain genuine relationships with other Believers that can support and encourage you daily. By definition this goes against the modern American ideal of independent security and passionate self-worth, because you are opening your life for others to witness and (inevitably) judge. Your weaknesses won’t be hidden for long, but neither will your redemptions.

Does that sound at all like the contemporary Christian movement in America today?

Tomorrow (or later today, rather) I will begin hunting for a community of Believers that recognizes a holy God in our secular world, that understands the importance of fellowship, and that fosters genuine relationships with Christians and non-Christians alike. If these ideals truly align with God’s own, then I believe there’s a “Hello, my name is…” sticker somewhere out there waiting for me.

Kids With Cameras

There are thousands of charities worldwide that are an important part of God’s calling to help one another through life. Some organizations may play larger roles or touch your heart more than others, and I believe it’s an important part of our faith that we participate in whatever ways we can. For my part, I would like to introduce one of the more creative and personally touching outreaches that I wish to see grow.

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Observations on Christianity

Psychologists say it’s easier to find fault in others than in oneself, and I agree. As a Christian, I can’t help but notice some of the odd, annoying, and downright aggravating quirks of my fellow believers. This post began as a rant about those issues, but I realized while writing it that I’m only furthering the cause of those who claim religion has no place in the modern world. As such, I present just a small part of the things I hate–and love–about American Christian culture.

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Prayer and the Previous Generation

I think human nature is partly defined by complicating things that should be simple.  The day after Christmas my family had our "official" holiday feast, and my grandfather, ages old and wise, gave the blessing.  It struck me how down-to-earth, humble, and authentic his prayer was; no overblown religious lingo, no tired rehearsal, just the simple everyday reality that we are blessed, for which we are thankful.

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The Tattoo on Their Back

And this is the sound of the underground
The whisper of history in the making
Foundations shaking
Revolutionaries dreaming once again
Mystery is scheming in whispers
Conspiracy is breathing…
This is the sound of the underground

And the army is discipl(in)ed.

Young people who beat their bodies into submission.

Every soldier would take a bullet for his comrade at arms.
The tattoo on their back boasts “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”.

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Great American Clean-Out

As children, my siblings and I would periodically get so overloaded with random collections (coins, stamps, erasers, legos, et. al) that we had to get rid of other things. We usually had a big event entitled the “Great American Clean-Out” during which we’d display all the junk we didn’t want and either trade each other or simply chuck the stuff. Sometimes I got a really good deal, like a bag of marbles for a windup car or some such nonsense, but often we just ended up getting rid of a lot of unnecessary baggage.

Recently a friend of mine pointed out how Rich Mullins lived his life so simply, without a lot of material possessions regardless of his income. Inspired by that model, I’m thinking of reinstating the Great American Clean-Out, with a few new rules: something unnecessary must get tossed every week, and anytime I get something new, two old things must get tossed.

If I stick with it, eventually my material possessions will be limited to only personal needs and special mementos, with few current unnecessaries taking up time in my life. Also, I’ll be making back some of the money I originally spent and saving money I normally would spend, to be used for more important expenses like college, travel, and ministry.

Looking over my room tonight, I feel quilty for how easy this plan is going to be for the next, oh, year or so.

Christianity and the Consumer

Having only worked in retail for a mere 5 months, I am amazed at the lack of courtesy and respect customers show the store — Christian customers. The very fact that they express their faith in words or purchases, but not in professional actions, is hypocrisy. Perhaps the idea of shopping is so self or goal-focused that they forget just how many people are watching their actions.
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Where’s the Love?

Over this past weekend I helped chaperone a youth retreat, which is always an experience. Like mission trips, God can often teach you as much or more than the people to whom you’re ministering. Though I believe the students who came heard and understood the message behind the retreat, I think that it really hit home in my heart like never before. The message, simply enough, was about loving God.

Too often in Christianity we strive to be used by God, to do great things that really are glorifying to Him, but our emphasis is quite literally on doing those things. We pray and sing “use me, oh Lord…” as if to remind Him that we have talents and abilities with which to execute His plan. The thing is, that focus is not what Jesus taught — His words were

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37)

Our focus should not be the acts that God might do through us, but the love that we have for Him — through which He acts without us ever realizing it. The devotional book, My Upmost For His Highest, even says (emphasis mine):

“…keep your relationship right with Him, then regardless of your circumstances or whoever you encounter each day, He will continue to pour “rivers of living water” through you ( John 7:38 ). And it is actually by His mercy that He does not let you know it.”

We would otherwise take pride in being used. That’s pretty humbling, for one who has always wanted to win an Oscar for Christ…